Cormac McCarthy has written more than a dozen novels, several screenplays, two plays, two short stories, countless drafts, letters and more — and nearly every one of them was tapped out on a portable Olivetti manual typewriter he bought in a Knoxville, Tenn., pawnshop around 1963 for $50.
Lately this dependable machine has been showing irrevocable signs of age. So after his friend and colleague John Miller offered to buy him another, Mr. McCarthy agreed to auction off his Olivetti Lettera 32 and donate the proceeds to the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit interdisciplinary scientific research organization with which both men are affiliated.
“He found another one just like this,” a portable Olivetti that looks practically brand new, Mr. McCarthy said from his home in New Mexico. “I think he paid $11, and the shipping was about $19.95.”
MCCARTHY’S TYPEWRITER SELLS FOR $254,500
Mr. McCarthy, 76, has won a wagon-full of honors including a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and the MacArthur Foundation’s so-called genius grant. Books like “Blood Meridian,” “All the Pretty Horses” and “The Crossing” have propelled him to the top ranks of American fiction writers.
Even nonreaders are familiar with his storytelling since his two most recently published novels, “No Country for Old Men” and the 2007 Pulitzer winner “The Road,” have been made into movies. (“No Country” won best picture and three other Oscars last year.)
Christie’s, which plans to auction the machine on Friday, estimated that it would fetch between $15,000 and $20,000. Mr. McCarthy wrote an authentication letter — typed on the Olivetti, of course — that states:
“It has never been serviced or cleaned other than blowing out the dust with a service station hose. … I have typed on this typewriter every book I have written including three not published. Including all drafts and correspondence I would put this at about five million words over a period of 50 years.”
Speaking from his home in Santa Fe, Mr. McCarthy said he mistakenly thought that the typewriter was bought in 1958; it was actually a few years later. He had a Royal previously, but before he went off to Europe in the early 1960s, he said, “I tried to find the smallest, lightest typewriter I could find.”
Mr. McCarthy is known for being taciturn, particularly about his writing. He came to realize that not only his working method but even his tools are puzzling to a younger generation.
He remembers one summer when some graduate students were visiting the Santa Fe Institute. “I was in my office clacking away,” he said. “One student peered in and said: ‘Excuse me. What is that?’ ”
“I don’t have some method of working,” he said, adding that he often works on different projects simultaneously. A few years ago, when he was in Ireland, “I worked all day on four different projects,” he said. “I worked two hours on each. I got a lot done, but that’s not usual.”
Glenn Horowitz, a rare-book dealer who is handling the auction for Mr. McCarthy, said: “When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac’s typewriter. It’s as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife.”
The institute is in a rambling house built in the 1950s that sits on a hill overlooking Santa Fe. “It’s been under not-so-benign neglect,” Mr. McCarthy said.
He is working to help upgrade parts of the house, like the library. It turns out that architecture is one of the many odd jobs that Mr. McCarthy said he had had in his life.
He joined the institute at the invitation of its founder, the physicist Murray Gell-Mann, whom he met at a MacArthur Foundation meeting years ago. “It’s just a great place,” said Mr. McCarthy, whose primary responsibilities at the institute are eating lunch and taking afternoon tea.
He still has a house in Texas. If he had his druthers, he would live there now, except “they wouldn’t move the institute.”
Last Friday, Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter sold at Christie’s for a staggering $254,500 to an anonymous American collector. “I have typed on this typewriter every book I have written including three not yet published,” McCarthy wrote in his authentication letter. Of the machine—an Olivetti Lettera 32—Glenn Horowitz, a rare-book dealer who handled the auction for McCarthy, told the New York Times:
Otherworldly fiction, okay, fine. Talismanic, sure. But is it me, or does Horowitz sound genuinely unimpressed with the Olivetti Lettera 32? Because he really shouldn’t be. “He has all his metaphors right, but he doesn’t understand design,” Paola Antonelli, the Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, told me this week. “Olivetti was a great company. And actually—the Swiss Army knife is another masterpiece!”
(Left: the Lexikon; right: the Lettera 22)
Designed by Marcello Nizzoli, the Lettera 22 (and its later incarnation, the 32), was a lightweight and luxurious machine. Simple, as Horowitz said, but purposely so. “Before the Olivetti, typewriters had an old-fashioned look,” said Antonelli, “You could see the keys. There was more decoration. Nizzoli basically changed the shape of typewriters by taking a technological innovation from the auto industry—press-forming steel—and applying it to typewriters. All of a sudden, they had a monocoque look, a real smooth line.” Nizzoli’s first typewriter, created in 1948, was called the Lexikon. Encased in enameled aluminum, a light, malleable metal, the machine has a glorious curve, like an inverted Nike Swoosh. The Lettera 22, made two years later, is encased in steel, and, though boxier, is more portable. Everything, from the keys to the corners, feels as though it’s been smoothed down and rounded over. The Lettera 32 (McCarthy’s version) which was introduced in 1963, retains the same essential shape, but has square keys. Both the Lexicon and the Lettera 22 are in MoMA’s permanent collection.
Horowitz also describes the Lettera as “frail-looking.” It may look frail, but McCarthy used his machine for forty-six years and, in his letter, added: “It has never been serviced or cleaned other than blowing out the dust with a service station hose.” Most Olivettis have a longer lifespan than today’s computers.
Olivettis were cherished by many other talented writers, too. Sylvia Plath owned one; so did the playwright James Purdy; John Updike favored a nineteen-forties variety; Ann Landers typed her famous column for the Chicago Sun-Times on one; T. C. Boyle used one his mother gave him until switching to a computer; and Thomas Pynchon likes his so much he even mentions it on page fifteen of “Inherent Vice.”