You never know what you might find in a famous person’s typewriter. Joe DiMaggio’s old machine contained the cut fragments of his expired credit card. Steve Soboroff, who purchased the typewriter from the Yankees Hall of Fame in 2011, found the small pieces under the keys while cleaning it.
Mr. Soboroff also unearthed childhood photos of Ernest Hemingway in the writer’s 1926 Underwood Standard Portable. But Mr. Soboroff’s greatest discovery with these machines — and others, including typewriters owned by Maya Angelou, Tennessee Williams, John Lennon and Shirley Temple — was a historic connection to wonderful people.
“It’s really hard for me to give up,” Mr. Soboroff said in a video call last week.
After 20 years of amassing what may be the world’s largest collection of typewriters, Mr. Soboroff is putting his 33 beloved machines up for auction. Owning them has been a privilege, he said, and each has a unique story that helped fuel Mr. Soboroff’s passion.
Like when Mr. Soboroff backed out of a deal with actress Angelina Jolie, refusing to part with Hemingway’s typewriter after she agreed to pay $250,000 to acquire it. While reports at the time indicated that it was Ms. Jolie who walked away, Mr. Soboroff said he canceled the transaction when he learned she intended to give the machine to her husband, Brad Pitt, for let him use it. Mr. Soboroff might have allowed Mr. Pitt to type on Harold Robbins’s or Mae West’s machines, he said, but Hemingway’s typewriter was sacred.
“At that point, I could have used that money,” Mr. Soboroff said. “But no one touches it. Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter? No chance.”
Now someone else will have the chance to own it, because after two decades of taking on the responsibility of protecting, insuring, displaying and shipping typewriters across the country to promote their legacy, Mr. Soboroff, 75, no longer has the energy for that. . And he could still use that money.
A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, which honors the former Los Angeles Times sports columnist by providing scholarships to journalism students. Mr. Soboroff is a longtime Los Angeles Dodgers fan and reveres Mr. Murray’s writings. It was the first typewriter Mr. Soboroff purchased at auction in 2005. From then on, collecting them became a devotion.
A Los Angeles-based entrepreneur and former commissioner of the Los Angeles Police Department, Mr. Soboroff purchased most of the typewriters at auction, although a few were acquired directly from family members or former owner.
Tom Hanks, himself a renowned collector, gave Mr. Soboroff his own Hermes 3000 after the two men met and discussed their shared love of typewriters. And in 2012, shortly after the death of journalist Andy Rooney, Mr. Soboroff hired a Connecticut real estate agent to go to the family yard sale at Mr. Rooney’s former home and offer $5,000 for the Mr. Rooney’s beloved 1929 Underwood Model 5.
The man hired by Mr. Soboroff turned out to be a retired CIA agent and, despite waiting in a three-hour line to get to the sale, he slipped inside and secured the machine. Mr. Soboroff said that a few hours later he received an offer of $125,000 from CBS, Mr. Rooney’s former employer. He refused.
Typewriters are imperfect little engraving machines, Mr. Soboroff likes to say, that require more physical interaction than today’s laptops. Some exude a personality, a mechanical soul, like a vintage car or a maestro’s violin. The connection to their original owners adds to the mystery.
“They’re really hard to find because some heirs don’t want to give them up,” Mr. Soboroff said. “They will sell the clothes, the photos. They won’t sell the typewriter.
It is not yet known what the total value of the collection is. Heritage Auctions is handling the sale, which will take place Dec. 15 in Dallas, and items will be sold separately. Last year, Mr. Soboroff donated six of his typewriters to the Smithsonian. They had been owned by John Lennon, Elia Kazan, Jerry Siegel (co-creator of Superman), Orson Welles, DiMaggio and Angelou and were valued on average at around $250,000 each.
“I shouldn’t own Maya Angelou’s typewriter,” Mr. Soboroff said. “This is for the American people. I shouldn’t own John Lennon’s typewriter.
However, he allowed Pierce Brosnan, the actor, to tap Lennon’s machine in exchange for a $5,000 donation to the Murray Foundation. And he loaned Siegel to comic book conventions, where people would line up for hours to write short notes on the same typewriter used to create Superman’s dialogue.
By making his permanent gift, Mr. Soboroff allowed the Smithsonian to choose from his collection. He passed on the typewriters owned by Greta Garbo, John Updike, Philip Roth, Jack London and Gore Vidal, as well as the braille machine owned by Andrea Bocelli. She declined the Hemingway model because she already had one. Whoever buys this Hemingway will also receive the photo negatives, prints and original envelopes hidden inside the case.
When Mr. Soboroff first spotted the negatives, he mistook them for old strips of bacon. The first one he touched turned to dust, so he scooped up the rest with a spatula and took them to a restaurant owner, where the shots were revealed.
Sandra Spanier, a professor of English at Penn State University and editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, called the photographs “a pretty extraordinary find.”
“Finding negatives from the early 20th century, when Hemingway was a small child at his family cottage, inside a typewriter, is a pretty strong connection to Hemingway,” she said.
Mr. Soboroff said experts at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, which houses a vast collection of Hemingway archives, compared the font to confirm it was the typewriter of the author. He said the forensic investigation showed evidence of desperate words written in the scroll. He believes these may be some of the last thoughts Hemingway wrote, before his suicide in 1961.
One typewriter Mr. Soboroff probably won’t miss is the 1968 Montgomery Ward Signature Portable 440T owned by Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. He may have used it to write part of his manifesto before being captured and sentenced to four life sentences.
Mr. Soboroff purchased the machine from the U.S. government, in part because the profits went to the victims and their families. He then wrote a letter to Mr Kaczynski in prison on the same typewriter, asking him three questions about it. One concerned the whereabouts of the carrying case, which Mr. Soboroff knew Mr. Kaczynski had used to make a bomb. Mr. Kaczynski responded — “in this scary handwriting,” Mr. Soboroff recalled — that he would answer questions only after verifying Mr. Soboroff’s identity.
Two months later, Mr. Soboroff received another card that read: “You are not who I thought you were. Bad luck.”
“I’m sitting at the Palm in Beverly Hills,” Mr. Soboroff said. “He’s serving 665 years in a maximum security prison and he says to me, ‘No luck? I decided I didn’t want any more pen pals in prison.
Signed correspondence is part of the sale. (Mr. Soboroff actually purchased two Unabomber typewriters, but happily traded one for Ray Bradbury’s 1947 Royal KMM.) Also included in the sale is the 1962 Royal Empress owned by Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner . This typewriter is featured in an iconic photo of Hefner with folders on topics such as “Birth Control,” “Sex” and “Divorce.”
Mr. Soboroff, who was once duped into purchasing a fake Babe Ruth baseball card, said he now requires three methods of verification before purchasing an item. Sometimes forensic matches can be made from the print, such as fingerprints. Sometimes there are corroborating photographs or films, such as a from George Bernard Shaw in 1946 with his 1934 Remington Noiseless 7X, which Mr. Soboroff purchased in 2008.
Mr. Soboroff has made most of the collection available for display at museums, universities and at special events and is asking buyers to also show the typewriters to the public. He typed the written requests – including typos – on his own 1937 Monarch 101.
The machine does not have delete or copy and paste buttons. Just the click-clack of the story.
“It’s emotional for me,” he said. “I hope that will be the case for the people who buy them as well.”