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Wednesday 30 January 2019

Hef 'n' Tennessee and Their Typewriters

The Hefner Underwood
Hugh Marston Hefner was photographed at typewriters almost as often as Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams III. Well, not quite, perhaps, but he was headed that way. And while one used typewriters to put together some of the finest art of the mid-20th Century, the other typed words to go around some of the sleaziest art of the same period. (No prizes for guessing which did which.)
     What else do they now have in common? The inflated value of their old typewriters, it seems. The Underwood portable Hefner used when he lived at 1303 West University Avenue, Urbana, and attended the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (he graduated in 1949), sold at auction last December 3 for $US162,500 ($A225,837). The estimated sale price had been $US2000-$4000.
     One news outlet claimed the Underwood had been used to write articles for the first issue of Playboy magazine in 1953. Hefner, who died on September 27, 2017, aged 91, was photographed at a range of models in his younger days, including Underwood and L.C. Smith standards, and a Royal standard and portable, but not an Underwood portable.
     Proceeds from the auction, conducted by Julien’s in Beverly Hills, California, have gone to the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation, which supports organisations that advocate for and defend civil rights and civil liberties. Hefner’s copy of the first Playboy, which featured nude photos of Marilyn Monroe, sold for $US31,250 ($A41,421) and his iconic smoking jacket fetched $US41,600 ($A57,794).
     Earlier in the year, yet another of Tennessee Williams'  portable typewriters sold at auction. Described as “An important artifact in the history of American theatre”, the Remington Model 2 sold for $US37,500 ($A52,113) at Sotheby’s in New York City on June 28. It was purported to be the machine Williams used to write A Streetcar Named Desire, so naturally the estimate had been between $US30,000 and $50,000. Anticipated price aside, however, other aspects of this offering should have raised some eyebrows among typewriter collectors.
The Williams Remington
As Richard Polt, not just a world expert on Remington portables but also on famous writers and their typewriters. says on his Classic Typewriter Page, “This man [Williams] loved to have himself photographed with his writing machines!” Richard lists some of the models Williams is said to have used, or can plainly be seen using: a 1936 Corona Junior,  a Corona Sterling, a Royal KMM standard, a Hermes Baby, an Olivetti Studio 44, Remington Model 5 portable flat top, a Remington Standard M and an Olympia SM8. He might also have offered an Olivetti Lettera 32 and one of two others, including an early Underwood portable and a later electric. But a Remington Model 2 portable?
Sotheby’s offered some evidence of provenance. “This typewriter,” it said, “is accompanied by a large scrap of brown butcher's paper inscribed in red ink by Lady St Just [Maria Britneva], ‘Tennessee Williams' typewriter on which he wrote 'A Streetcar Named Desire': given to Maria Britneva, London, early 1950s.”
Now it is true that Russian-born actress Maria Britneva (1921-1994) was the executor of Williams’ literary estate. Britneva met Williams in 1948 at a party at John Gielgud's house and they became lifelong close friends. However, it seems that nowhere in the book Britneva published in 1990, Five O'Clock Angel: Letters of Tennessee Williams to Maria St Just, 1948–1982, is the gift of a typewriter - especially not one as important as this one is alleged to be in literary history - mentioned. Rather, newspaper reviews of Britneva's book about her correspondence with Williams said the playwright used a Remington Model 5 portable flat top to type his earliest plays. Indeed, LIFE magazine's February 16, 1948, feature on the "newcomer" confirmed this, clearly showing him using the flat top.
Yet Sotheby’s claims for the Model 2 stated, “Williams began work on ‘Streetcar’ in the spring of 1947 and continued to revise it right up until opening night in December of same year.” It speculated that as he worked on the play in New York, Charleston, South Carolina, New Orleans and other locations … “a portable typewriter was a necessity. This typewriter was around 25 years old when Williams used it for ‘Streetcar’. It is possible he also used it for earlier plays, short stories, poems and letters.  A later typewriter owned by Williams, an Olivetti Lettera 32 (1963 or later), is in the Tennessee Williams Collection at Columbia University.”
Of course, in the absence of signed provenance provided by the actual author – which admittedly, in the case with the Olivetti Lettera 32 sold at auction by Cormac McCarthy, was very clearly incorrect - there is always bound to be speculation about the typewriters used by great writers. But in the case of Tennessee Williams, such conjecture was fuelled by the sure and certain knowledge about the typewriters Williams did use (and did discuss using, such as the Olivetti Studio 44). That knowledge comes from something irrefutable – photographic evidence. After all, there is surely a limit to how many typewriters one writer can use in a lifetime – provided he is not also a typewriter collector!

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