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Typewriter fan Steve Soboroff loves the click-clack of carriages

Steve Soboroff, an L.A. civic leader, has acquired typewriters once owned by the famous and infamous. In an era of iPads and text-spouting phones, the ancient, clunky machines have become unlikely objects of desire.

April 18, 2012|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times
  • Steve Soboroff owns machines once used by notables such as John Lennon, Joe DiMaggio, George Bernard Shaw and Ernest Hemingway.
Steve Soboroff owns machines once used by notables such as John Lennon,… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

When Steve Soboroff gets one of them in his sights, he goes into what he calls "emergency overdrive."

He has been known to bug estate lawyers, hoping to move in and make an acquisition before someone else has the same idea.

Sometimes, his enthusiasm gets the better of him. That's what happened when Walter Cronkite died in 2009 and Soboroff got a little too pushy too soon.

PHOTOS: Typewriters click with history

"Let the body cool off," huffed a lawyer for the famed TV anchor before hanging up.

That one got away, but Soboroff, a Los Angeles real estate investor and civic leader, has bagged 15 others.

The object of his fascination? Typewriters.

There's the 1932 Royal Model P that Ernest Hemingway used to write letters during his time in Cuba. There's a tiny Imperial Good Companion Model T on which John Lennon banged out song lyrics years before the Beatles invaded America.

There's the 1936 Corona Junior on which budding playwright Tennessee Williams composed his antiwar farce "Me, Vashya" for a student competition at Washington University in St. Louis. (He lost!)

"I love people who are the best at what they do," Soboroff said. "The idea that geniuses sat there and accomplished what they accomplished on these typewriters … it gives me chills."

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In an era of iPads and text-spouting telephones, the ancient, clunky typewriter has become an improbable object of desire. Analog aficionados of all ages are collecting, admiring, fussing over and rhapsodizing about the noisy instruments.

Actor Tom Hanks owns an assortment of more than 200 old machines. An unidentified American collector paid $254,500 in 2009 for the weathered Olivetti manual owned by novelist Cormac McCarthy.

At a recent "type-in," millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers gathered in a Phoenix coffeehouse to compose snippets of poetry and prose on Royals and Remingtons. At similar events throughout the country, participants swap or sell machines. Typewriter fans around the world chat in online forums.

"It's an interesting paradox that, in this century, a typewriter has become something very personal," said Richard Polt, a philosophy professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati who collects typewriters and edits ETCetera, a quarterly magazine about historic writing machines.

"The durability means you can develop a personal connection to your typewriter more than you can to, say, your laptop," he said. "It can be with you your whole life."

Soboroff covets typewriters once owned by famous, or infamous, people.

His collection includes two Montgomery Ward Signature Portables. One belonged to Jack Kevorkian, the advocate for assisted suicide known to many as "Dr. Death." The other was found in the remote Montana cabin of Theodore Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber.

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Soboroff, 63, who lives in Pacific Palisades, has been a prominent figure in L.A. business and politics. He was chief executive of Playa Vista, helping to steer the controversial development in its early stages. An advisor to former Mayor Richard Riordan, he served as president of the L.A. Recreation and Parks Commission and ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2001.

Soboroff discovered his passion for typewriters almost by accident.

In 1997, he paid $30,000 at a Dodger Stadium auction for the glove that Sandy Koufax wore while pitching a no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants in 1963. Seven years later, he sold the glove for $126,500 at auction atSotheby's in New York.

Also on the block atSotheby'sthat day was a typewriter used by the late Jim Murray, thePulitzer Prize-winningsports columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

Soboroff was seized by an urge to own the machine. "I loved Jim Murray!" he explained.

He prevailed in a bidding war with The Times, paying $18,000 for the Remington Model J.

An obsession was born.

Soboroff surfs the Web and works his sources in the world of typewriter connoisseurs, looking for vintage machines with storied histories. Landing a particularly desirable model can require ingenuity and chutzpah.

Last month, Polt learned that an Underwood owned by Andy Rooney, the curmudgeonly "60 Minutes" commentator who died in November at age 92, was up for grabs.

Polt alerted Soboroff to an estate sale under way at Rooney's house in Norwalk, Conn.

Soboroff scoured the Internet for the names of businesspeople who lived in the vicinity. Figuring that real estate types like him "sleep with their phones," he made a cold call to real estate broker Chris Buswell. It was 11:30 p.m.

Buswell was in bed.

"I listened to what he had to say, but I was suspicious," Buswell recalled.

Then he figured Soboroff had to be for real. Who would make up such a story?

"I told him he lucked out," Buswell said. "I live three doors down from Andy Rooney."

The next morning, Buswell bypassed the throng in front of the Rooney home and went in the back door, where he spoke with the husband of the auction organizer.

By phone, Soboroff offered $3,000 and his credit card number.

Sold!

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