When Writing Meant Typing

I loved my Lettera. My Olivetti Lettera 32. My slim, blue 13-pound typewriter. It told the world I was a writer, even when I wasn’t. It meant adventure. Romance. It meant I was heroic and daring. (Even if I wasn’t.) But most of all, it meant I was a writer.

My Olivetti Lettera 32 was the touchstone of my ambition: to be a writer. Though, in truth, at first all I wrote home were letters.

In the fall of 1962, I slipped a thin blue air letter under the platen, spun the knob, and typed:

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,
Dear Mom & Dad.
A letter home from Africa.

For the next twenty years, my Olivetti helped me write more than just letters home. Letters from Nairobi, Kenya; Tel Aviv, Israel; Mahon, Menorca; Galway, Ireland; Beijing, China. I began to bang out — in its tiny pica type — articles, poetry, essays, travel pieces, more letters home, and eventually, a half dozen novels. Even when I was home in America, I kept typing with my Olivetti, believing in the good luck that the small machine had brought me as a writer.

It wasn’t until early in the 1980s that I gave up the typewriter and turned to the computer for word processing, buying a giant, ugly Radio Shack computer with its nine-inch disks. I slipped my blue baby back into its thin case. I had stepped — like almost every other writer — into the computer age.

The other day I found my old Lettera 32 again. I came across it in a dark back corner of the attic. There was my old blue baby, thick with dust, its zipper broken. I tapped the keyboard, surprised at the soft touch. The worn black ribbon did not leave an impression. Lifting it, I realized how heavy 13 pounds was, though in the early sixties, I had marveled at its lightness. It didn’t seem heavy to me as I strode through foreign airports, holding tightthe black plastic handle.

I touched its keys lovingly and it was again forty years ago. I was going to Africa. I was starting the great adventure of my life. Boarding the TWA jet late on a hot September night at Idlewild Airport, I carried my Lettera 32 with me. It was my only carry-on luggage.

Halfway across the Atlantic, the charter plane full of slumbering newly minted PCVs, I pulled the machine from under the seat and zipped it open, settled it on the drop-down tray, and typed the first pages of a novel that I never finished. It was an act of love.

I would carry the Lettera 32 on and off dozens of planes, from DC 3s to 747s. Once, arriving in Israel, I was greeted by the husband of an old friend. “Nira told me to look for a man carrying a typewriter,” he explained, approaching me. Others found me by the sound of rapid typing.

In Mahon, Menorca, on a still Mediterranean afternoon in a new apartment complex, there was a knock at my apartment door and a breathtakingly beautiful woman greeted me. She had been sent by friends of friends and had only the general location of my flat, not the number.

“I knew you were the writer,” she explained. “I followed the sound of your typing.”

What I loved, too, was carrying my Olivetti off planes and onto waiting airport buses, or wedging it between suitcases in crowded European train compartments. It attracted attention, as rumpled London Fog raincoats once did. Who was this mysterious stranger? Journalist? Novelist? Revolutionary?

There’s something about a portable typewriter.

Do you remember the scene in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”— Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston going off in search of gold, and carrying a black portable typewriter? Or the photo of Hemingway in Cuba, bare-chested as he peers at his portable in Finca Vigia?

Alas, not a Lettera 32.

Well, no one is perfect.


Leave a comment
  • I believe I received a letter or two from that Lettera 32 back in ’62 and it caused me to “up” in ’63 winding up in Liberia III.

    I always find it interesting when “old” but current writers never transformed to computers. I believe one such fine writer is Jim Harrison, whose 20some books are worth a read. IMHO, the best writer ever to come out of Michigan.

  • John-

    Very nice to red what you’ve written about your old Olivetti. I had a similar one that I actually picked up in Rome while in transit, and I relied on it for the next ten years.

    Charlie Ipcar

  • As John Coyne and Tom Hebert wrote on page 108 in their timeless book, This Way Out (you remember the book?), in a chapter called Worldiness you will still find this:

    TYPEWRITERS. The basic typewriter is the Olivetti Lettera 32. Its cast-aluminum frame will absorb much punishment. The Letter 32 weights only 11-1/2 pounds and is less than four inches high. It is small enough to go nicely into a suitcase without its case, saving another bag to carry. Strickly a utilitarian typewriter, it does not have the “feel” of the better machines, but is perfectly adequate for the average duffer.”

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