By Robert Messenger
Lot 323 – “An important artifact in the history of American theatre” – sold for $US37,500 (£28,400) at Sotheby’s in New York City on June 28. The auction had typewriter aficionados around the world scratching their heads in bewilderment, but it aroused little discernible excitement among the experts in the field.
The item, a Remington Model 2 portable, was purported to be the machine Tennessee Williams used to write A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the 20th Century’s most famous plays.
The cause of confusion among noted typewriter collectors over this claim is easily explained. Let’s take as an example American Richard Polt, not just a world expert on Remington portables but also on famous writers and their typewriters. Richard says, “This man [Williams] loved to have himself photographed with his writing machines!” Indeed, few other great writers have ever been photographed so often using so many different typewriters. Richard lists some of the models Williams is said to have used, or can plainly be seen using: a 1936 Corona Junior, a Corona Sterling, a Royal KMM standard, a Hermes Baby, an Olivetti Studio 44, Remington Model 5 portable flat top, a Remington Standard M and an Olympia SM8. He might also have offered an Olivetti Lettera 32 and one of two others, including an early Underwood portable and a later electric.
What, you ask, no Remington Model 2 portable? And that is precisely the question which bothered some would-be buyers of the typewriter Sotheby’s offered for sale.
But Sotheby’s, as one might expect, offered some evidence of provenance. “This typewriter,” it said, “is accompanied by a large scrap of brown butcher's paper inscribed in red ink by Lady St Just [Maria Britneva], ‘Tennessee Williams' typewriter on which he wrote 'A Streetcar Named Desire': given to Maria Britneva, London, early 1950s.”
Now it is true that Russian-born actress Maria Britneva (1921-1994) was the executor of Williams’ literary estate. Britneva met Williams in 1948 at a party at John Gielgud's house and they became lifelong close friends. However, it seems that nowhere in the book Britneva published in 1990, Five O'Clock Angel: Letters of Tennessee Williams to Maria St Just, 1948–1982, is the gift of a typewriter - especially not one as important as this one is alleged to be in literary history - mentioned. So it was very interesting to see that at least one of the big spenders in the typewriter collecting world was satisfied with Sotheby’s claim. The auction estimate had been between $US30,000 and $US50,000.
Sotheby’s pointed out, “Williams began work on ‘Streetcar’ in the spring of 1947 and continued to revise it right up until opening night in December of same year.” It speculated that as he worked on the play in New York, Charleston, South Carolina, New Orleans and other locations … “a portable typewriter was a necessity. This typewriter was around 25 years old when Williams used it for ‘Streetcar’. It is possible he also used it for earlier plays, short stories, poems and letters. A later typewriter owned by Williams, an Olivetti Lettera 32 (1963 or later), is in the Tennessee Williams Collection at Columbia University.” Another portable supposedly used by Williams, the 1936 Corona Junior, is in the collection of American Steve Soboroff, whose claims were mentioned earlier on this blog.
Of course, in the absence of signed provenance provided by the actual author – which was the case with the Olivetti Lettera 32 sold at auction by Cormac McCarthy – there is always bound to be speculation about the typewriters used by great writers. But in the case of Tennessee Williams, such conjecture was fuelled by the sure and certain knowledge about the typewriters Williams did use (and did discuss using, such as the Olivetti Studio 44). That knowledge comes from something irrefutable – photographic evidence. After all, there is surely a limit to how many typewriters one writer can use in a lifetime – provided he is not also a typewriter collector!
Still, for all the bewilderment and cogitation about Sotheby’s Lot 323, the typewriter world will be fascinated to know whether the Remington Model 2 portable finished up in the hands of one of its known members. What’s more, now that at least buyer has accepted this particular typewriter’s provenance, Remington Model 2 portables are certain to be in even greater demand from this time on.