For today’s Typewriter Tuesday we’re taking a closer look at Mae West’s 1959 Olympia SF, on loan from the collection of Steve Soboroff. You can see this machine and more on display in our special exhibit Tools of the Trade, open now.
“I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”
Mae West, a woman of endless charisma and controversial, outspoken wit, wrote most of her own lines, and relished the trouble they brought. West, born in Brooklyn, started performing young, in vaudeville and jazz clubs and small parts in Broadway revues, but it was the plays she penned herself, under the pseudonym Jane Mast, that brought her to fame. The 1926 self-written Sex, West’s first Broadway starring role, earned her a $500 fine and 10 days in jail for public indecency — she was released two days early for good behavior. West claimed to have “climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong,” and it was exactly her brash self-assuredness that so captivated American audiences.
This typewriter dates to a much later point in West’s career, some 30 years after Sex, when she had become a full-fledged movie star and sex symbol. West actually didn’t appear in any films between 1943 and 1970, and retired from the stage in 1961, but had instead begun both a recording career and a collection of autobiographies. It is possible she used this typewriter to write 1959’s Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It, or her 1975 advice collection, Mae West on Sex, Health and ESP, moving second-wave, sexually-liberated feminism forward one click-clacking key at a time.
The Olympia SF isn’t a particularly unusual or flashy model, but it is well-made and quietly glamorous in its dainty cream-and-chrome casing. There’s something perfect about it, the ideal of what a little, everyday typewriter should be. You can see the appeal: small and portable and totally reliable, tiny and tough like its owner, always ready for whatever blazing double entendres Mae West had in store.
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”
Of West’s 13 movies — the first not released until she was 40, which seems unthinkable for old studio-era Hollywood — she ostensibly wrote (or partially rewrote) nine of them, although confusing credits have made the exact degree unclear. For all that she was the glamorous diva in nine-inch platform heels, the woman who discovered Cary Grant, an icon so beautiful that Salvador Dali created a sofa based on her lips, West was at her best when she was writing. We have this typewriter to thank for helping to share an unapologetic, singular voice with the world.
Thank you for reading Typewriter Tuesday, a series from the American Writers Museum that aims to shed light on the typewriters and other tools behind some of your favorite works of literature. Check back every Tuesday to learn more about these trusty machines and the writers who used them. Our newest special exhibit Tools of the Trade, which opened June 22, 2019, features more than a dozen typewriters, as well as other writing implements and instruments used by American writers.