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Sunday 6 February 2022

Sweet Violet and the Corona Zephyr Portable Typewriter She Ditched on the Atlantic Clipper

The moment Violet Vivian Sweet Haven stepped aboard the Pan American World Airways Boeing-314 Clipper flying boat at Port Washington on Long Island Sound on Saturday, June 17, 1939, she was handed a prize “freebie”: a brand-new Corona Zephyr portable typewriter. Why? The plan was for Mrs Haven, a widely syndicated American journalist, to prove to her vast reading public that at 177mph, 8000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, she could type a story with the same surface steadiness she would have enjoyed if her feet were still planted on terra firma. What’s more, her typed words could be transmitted back to the US while she flew. She might even get the chance to talk about her Zephyr gift on broadcasts from the Clipper through one of the national radio networks taking calls from mid-Atlantic.

The Zephyr was at the time the latest, most compact and lightest typewriter model on the US market – America’s answer to the hugely successful Hermes Featherweight-Baby, developed in Switzerland in 1935 (also built in England from 1936 as an Empire). The Zephyr weighed 7lb 5oz out of its metal case, 8lb 15oz in it. The tight-fitting case measured 12 inches by 11 and was 2¾ inches deep. It was also one of the cheapest typewriters available, at $29.75. L.C. Smith & Corona Inc believed it would be the answer to every travelling American journalist’s dream.

Mrs Haven was one of 12 syndicated correspondents and four radio reporters who were taken on a “Press preview flight” on NC18604, the Atlantic Clipper, piloted by Captain Wallace Duncan Culbertson (right, 1893-1981), flying from Port Washington to Marseilles through Horta in the Azores and Lisbon, Portugal. Each of the journalists was presented with a free Zephyr typewriter by William Ignatius Van Dusen (1901-76), founder of Pan Am’s Public Relations department, as they stepped into the giant seaplane. The publicity exercise was to emphasise how smooth the trans-Atlantic journey was, more than to promote the Zephyr, which had been on the market since August 1938.

And unbeknown to Smith Corona, Mrs Haven quietly stowed away her new typewriter and took out her reliable Royal Model P, which, placed on top of its case, Mrs Haven found an even steadier surface upon which to type her in-flight articles.

The whole exercise, indeed, proved to be no PR triumph for Smith Corona. It wasn’t until November 20, 1939, that the company’s advertising department was able to take advantage of the company’s largesse with Pan Am and its flying Press Corps. Smith Corona ran a spot colour advert in LIFE magazine, saying “At 8000 feet the news flows smoothly on to paper” and that “Reporters [were] amazed by the Zephyr’s lighting fast action”. Under the ad headline “Corona Zephyr chosen for Transatlantic Clipper!”, Smith Corona in its enthusiasm made one mistake – it thought its Zephyrs had flown on the Dixie Clipper, not the Atlantic Clipper. Smith Corona was not alone: In 2000, The New York Times said it was the Yankee Clipper, which in fact had taken nine newspaper publishers on a similar trip in July 1939.

By the time Smith Corona ran its Zephyr-Clipper ad, of course, paying passengers were no longer queueing up to the take the trans-Atlantic flights, with or without a typewriter. Europe was engulfed in war. The paying passenger service had started a week after the “Press preview flight”, with just 22 passengers on the Dixie Clipper but with the hope that these trips in Pan Am’s large fleet of nine Clippers would become the new norm in commercial aviation. A seat in a Clipper, one of the largest airplanes of the time, cost $675 (about $12,390 in today’s money), and some people (such as humourist Will Rogers) had already paid up and been on a waiting list for eight years. Rogers, an advocate for the aviation industry after befriending Charles Lindbergh, died in a plane crash in Alaska in 1935, so No 1 seat on the first paying passenger flight went to a  W.J. Eck, assistant vice-president of the Southern Railway, Washington DC.

Will Rogers died before taking his Clipper flight.

As for the “Press preview flight”, journalists had plenty of time to write and file their copy while on board. It was 2397 miles to Horta, taking 17 hours. Then 1050 miles to Lisbon, taking nine hours, and 1203 miles to Marseilles, taking eight hours – 4650 miles and 34 hours flying time all up. The trip took an extra 10 hours, as there was a one-hour stop in Horta and an overnight stop in Lisbon.

To get a grasp of what was expected of the journalists on board, here is the start of Leonard H. Engel’s report wired from Marseille to the Evening Sun in Baltimore: “Maybe this press preview flight is pioneering, but if it is, find me a new frontier, for this has been the smoothest flight any correspondent ever had. Pan American Airways, operators of this huge, graceful flying boat, will put in their future file the suggestion of some of the women correspondents aboard that the next edition of the clippers have a dance floor. That’s how smooth the flight has been. While 3000 horsepower from the four giant engines hurled us through the night, the soundproofing in the Atlantic Clipper’s cabin was so good that to get ‘background’ for a radio broadcast en route, the radio men staged the show in the news room of the plane with a half dozen typewriters of correspondents clicking away. The drone of the engines was too faint to give good pickup.”

The journalists who went on the flight, apart from Haven (representing the International News Service, Washington) and Engel (Science Service, Washington), were Sherman Altick (New York Sun and Bell Syndicate), Devon Francis (Associated Press, New York), Harry W. Frantz (United Press, Washington), Jean Graffis (Newspaper Enterprise Association, New York), Alice Rogers Hager (North American Newspaper Alliance, McLean, Virginia), Inez Robb (“America's ‘First lady of the Press’”, King Features Syndicate, New York), Marjorie Shuler (Christian Science Monitor, New York), Wayne Thomas (Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate, Western Springs, Illinois), Leland Stowe (New York Herald Tribune Syndicate, New York) and John C.A. Watkins (The Sun, Baltimore and Associated Press Feature Service, Baltimore). The radio men were George Hicks (NBC, New York), Clyde Houldson (CBS, New York), Bob Trout (CBS, New York) and Don Wittemore (NBC, Yonkers NY). Representing Pan Am were assistant vice-president Anne Archibald and William I. Van Dusen. Watkins (1912-2000) later became the longest-serving publisher of The Providence Journal and was a decorated World War II fighter pilot. He inherited a love of aviation from his father, a military pilot.

Violet Sweet Haven, above, had previous form on such flights, having flown 11,000 miles on Clippers to the Far East on the China Clipper, Hong Kong Clipper and Hawaii Clipper and taking in Guam and Manila in April-May 1937. During this she wrote 50,000 words on her Royal. After a nine-hour bout on the typewriter, while flying back to Almeda, California, she went looking for new angles and held a vox pop among passengers about what improvements could be made on the Pan Am service. To a man they answered, “Build a sound-proof booth for people who insist upon using a typewriter during the trip.”

Violet Vivian Sweet was born Seattle, Washington, on February 26, 1908. Her family moved to Idaho when she was a small child and she attended high school in Lewiston (above). She returned to Washington and graduated from the Washington State College at Pullman in 1928 with a bachelor of arts. Violet became a school teacher at Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast of the island of Hawaiʻi. At Naka-Ku, Yokohama, in Japan in 1931 she married Dwight Eastman Haven, editor of the Yokohama News. Later that year she was society editor for The Japan Times and was a correspondent for Associated Press. She interviewed Anne Lindbergh in Tokyo. In 1932 Violet returned to the US and began studying for a Master’s degree at Columbia University. She then became press advisor for US Attorney General Homer Stille Cumming in Washington DC, during which time she became close to Eleanor Roosevelt. She became the only female journalist working in Hong Kong and in 1939 published Hong Kong for the Week-end! and in 1940, while society editor of the Hong Kong Telegraph, part of the South China Morning Post group, she wrote Many Ports of Call. In 1944, when she published Gentlemen of Japan: A Study in Rapist Diplomacy, Violet married a second time, to Lamar Butler. Her third marriage, in 1958, was to Glen Willard McFarland. She died at Sun City, Riverside, California, on January 5, 2001, just short of her 93rd birthday.

In 1961 Violet moved after 15 years in Long Beach and bought “Aimee’s Castle”, the 12-room, 5000-square-foot Lake Elsinore Moorish theme home built in 1926 by evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson near
Lakeshore Drive and Riverside Drive. Violet lived there for the rest of her life.

Violet in 1995.


HBlaine said...

Robert, you always find some of the most fascinating and charming bits of history. (With the great typewriter tie in, as always.). And, as an aside, who wouldn’t love to be able to travel in that style? As long as someone else was paying for it, of course…

Craig said...

What an interesting post! I thought the subtitle "A Study in Rapist Diplomacy" must be a typo, but other sources confirm it. I may have to read that one just to find out how the subtitle is justified.

Craig said...

Having now read a bit more about Ms. Haven's book, I find that it apparently accused the Japanese-American population of Hawaii of having advance knowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack. That's pretty vile.