Interview with typewriter collector Steve Soboroff

In Their Own Words: Steve Soboroff

Steve Soboroff at the American Writers Museum
Steve Soboroff

Steve Soboroff is the President of the Los Angeles Police Commission and has long been known as a business leader and public servant who brings people together to get positive results. He also loves typewriters! He collects typewriters used by well-known writers and currently has more than 30 machines in his collection, some of which are currently on display in our Tools of the Trade exhibit.

On September 26, Steve will visit the AWM for our Literature’s Lineage event, where he’ll discuss his typewriter collection alongside descendants of the writers featured in the exhibit. We spoke with Steve ahead of this event about his love of typewriters, why he started his collection, and how he and Tom Hanks approach typewriters differently. Read on to learn more about the man behind the machines and RSVP to our September 26 event here.

AMERICAN WRITERS MUSEUM: Why did you decide to start a typewriter collection?

STEVE SOBOROFF: Because I was at an auction and a typewriter came up right after I had sold something and I got more than I thought so I had extra money. It was a famous sportswriter’s typewriter and I was fascinated by the idea of the relationship and what he had created on that typewriter. If someone said Picasso only used one paintbrush for 25 years, I’d be interested in that. That’s what these typewriters are to these writers – a part of their personality and who they are.

AWM: What about typewriters appeals to you?

Ernest Hemingway's typewriter on display at the American Writers Museum
Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter.

SOBOROFF: I’m very picky about whose I’m interested in. It’s only some of the greatest names of our times. You know, John Lennon, Ernest Hemingway. When you know the hours that people spent with these machines, it’s historic. In addition to that, typewriters were and are different. There’s no ‘delete,’ no ‘cut and paste.’ There’s an engraving in the paper and if you don’t like it you put an X on it. Where in life now do you find something that makes you slow down? You don’t! That’s why people love typewriters and are going back to them.

They also last so long. Andy Rooney, whose typewriter I have, wrote a piece about his typewriter. He said he had six computers, and they’re obsolete on purpose. He said, “I’ve had one typewriter and I put another ribbon in and it’s good for another 25 years.” A lot of people like them because they are unique. In 75 years, my collection will still work and people will still be able to type on them.

I did one exhibit, at Paley Media Center in New York. They said they wanted it for 7 weeks, and ended up having it for a year and a half. People came from all over because they wanted to see them. I’ve done a lot of exhibits. The stories in these typewriters are what make them so appealing. They are like pieces of history that will be around for a very long time.

AWM: As a typewriter enthusiast, do you have a certain make and/or model you particularly like?

Jerry Siegel's Royal typewriter on display at the American Writers Museum
Jerry Siegel’s typewriter.

SOBOROFF: Any make or model that Winston Churchill typed on. I had this discussion with Tom Hanks, who had the same typewriter repairman as I do, about how he collects for the type of typewriter and I collect for who used them. He sent me the typewriter the next day. I have Hugh Hefner’s typewriter, and it came with this photo of him typing with all these files in front of him. It’s the history of the sexual revolution in one photo. It’s amazing. It’s phenomenal. These people didn’t want to part with them, but  they want them to be part of an amazing collection.

Laura Siegel Larson, her father, Jerry Siegel, invented Superman with Joe Shuster. They got a check for $150 or something and it was the all-time screw job in the entertainment industry. This is the typewriter that he had. He wrote about Superman on it! And I think people really gravitate toward that, and that’s what is so cool to me.

AWM: This might be a tough one, but of the typewriters in your collection do you have a favorite?

SOBOROFF: I have 5 children, so it’s like choosing a favorite child. If you want to say which is worth the most, I could do that but that doesn’t make it my favorite.

AWM: How does it feel to have many of the typewriters in your collection on display for the first time here in Chicago, where you were born?

Christie Hefner posing with Hugh Hefner's typewriter
Christie Hefner with her father’s typewriter

SOBOROFF: I was born in Chicago, and lived in Highland Park until I was 13. I still have a lot of friends there. That’s one of the reasons I was so excited to have a prestigious place to display my typewriters. I was really happy about it. Before getting Hugh Hefner’s typewriter, I didn’t know Christie Hefner (Hugh’s daughter). She was at the auction of her father’s estate, and I had already been in contact with you all at the American Writers Museum, but she really helped make the exhibit happen. She’s been great.

AWM: If you could meet any American writer of the past, who would it be and why?

SOBOROFF: I’m gonna give an answer that will show I was a C student. I’m a populist, OK? The person I would like to talk to is still alive. I would love to talk to James Patterson. I mean, being able to write 200 best sellers or whatever is insane. I just want to know how he does it. Of my typewriters, I would love to talk to George Bernard Shaw. There are typewriters I haven’t been able to get and ones I’ve missed. There’s thousands of people I’d like to talk to.

AWM: What books are you reading now?

SOBOROFF: Again, I’m a populist. I read the New York Times bestsellers. That’s what I like to read. I don’t read police stuff, because I’m the police commissioner. I just finished one of Chelsea Handler’s books, which I thought was awesome. I always read paper books though, not Kindle. I went to Kindle in the early days, and now I’m back to being a purist. I was in a reading rut, and I started reading on the Kindle and that rekindled my love of books. They got me back hooked, but now I don’t read e-books anymore.

Pierce Brosnan types on John Lennon's typewriter, photo courtesy of Steve Soboroff
Pierce Brosnan types on John Lennon’s typewriter, photo courtesy of Steve Soboroff.

AWM: Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you? Any foundations or charity work you’d like us to help spread the word about?

SOBOROFF: I allow people to type on the typewriters if they will donate to the Jim Murray Memorial Scholarship Fund. It is a scholarship foundation for people studying journalism and it is very important to me. People have paid a lot of money to type on them. For example, someone you may know since he was James Bond – Pierce Brosnan – paid $5,000 to type on John Lennon’s typewriter.

Join us for this special event and to explore our Tools of the Trade exhibit in an intimate setting like never before. Hear from the ultimate typewriter collector as well as the people closest to some of your favorite writers — their family!


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