Typewriter Tuesday: Mae West

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.

Mae West's typewriter is now on display at the American Writers Museum in Chicago.
Mae West’s 1959 Olympia SF, on display in our Tools of the Trade exhibit.

“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.

Mae West's typewriter is now on display at the American Writers Museum in Chicago.
You can see Mae West’s typewriter and more in our Tools of the Trade exhibit, open now.

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.

Mae West's typewriter is now on display at the American Writers Museum in Chicago.
Aerial view of Mae West’s typewriter, currently on display in our Tools of the Trade exhibit.

“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.


One thought on “Typewriter Tuesday: Mae West

  1. L Novog says:

    I am a native-born New Yorker and dabble in learning as much about NYC as I have time to read.
    I stumbled on to the Typewriter Tuesday: Mae West AUGUST 13, 2019 BY AMERICAN WRITERS MUSEUM in part, while searching a list of bank owned properties, an apartment listed, for sale, mentioned in Mae West once lived in the same apartment building, 250 West 55th Street. The building had gone through a few renovations since it was built, and during the mid-1920’s it became a residence, where Texas Guinan ran a speakeasy, where Dutch Schultz bootlegger and gangster, went one evening and was spotted by rivals in the club, and exited this world without even paid for his meal and drinks, he was shot dead in the basement of the building where, . Miss West had an apartment upstairs. Mae West was buried in Cypress Hills, cemetery which lies just about on the imaginary line that divides Brooklyn aka Kings County, name for King Charles II from Queens County, named for The English Queen, Catherine of Braganza, the wife of King Charles II. The NYT ran a story about Cypress Hills, Carmelite Nuns residing there have found it is just too noisy. A murder of a lay friend and noise from speakers that break windows and make the building shake are forcing them to leave the neighborhood in search of quiet, contemplative surroundings.

    Mae West may have written this quote on the 1959 Olympia SF, “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”

    Given the way, our nation’s Supreme Court along with Republican legislators are trampling on women’s rights and truth in our text books on media, just days ago members of The Republican majority in The House of Representative drafted and passed a bill, to post all school curricula and the names, authors and subject matter of all library books on school shelves online, ‘so parents know what is being taught in classrooms’. I understand this bill will die in The US Senate. If there is any hope to get our nation back on an even keel, we all need to read and teach the historical truth. Teaching people media literacy is a hard task, especially when folks already have their minds made up. Demigods and hucksters are capturing the public’s attention. We have got too do something before our nation, goes over a precipice, as if January 6th wasn’t enough of an insurrection for the entire world to witness. Due to a political stunt, violating his oath of office by another person born in New York City he did impress a mob of voters who believe, to this day Jos Biden is not the legitimate President. After studying history, I have a sense, as a nation, we have gone through times like this before. So very glad to have read your Typewriter Tuesday blog on Mae West. Let’s hope there is wit and wisdom and creativity enough, to get our nation out of this mess. Peace and thank you for writing.

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