On the day after the 91-year-old co-defendant of the Rosenbergs finally admitted that he was, like them, a spy, comes word of the death of the 94-year-old typewriter expert who was dragooned into service for the appeal lodged by Alger Hiss’ defense team.
Hiss’ appeal finally boiled down to what amounted to a “who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes” defense. The secret documents he was accused of stealing had been retyped before being passed on to a Soviet courier on a Woodstock typewriter — the typeface of which was identical to one owned and used by Alger and Priscilla Hiss during the period in question.
Everyone knew that typewriters were like fingerprints — each unique and uniquely identifiable. So, with the dramatic discovery of the Hiss’ old Woodstock, the case seemed to have been solved and closed.
And that’s where Mr. Tytell came in. Hiss’ attorneys tasked him with recreating in his workshop a typewriter whose characteristic product would be identical —right down to the tiniest indented Rockwell serif— to that of the damning Hiss machine.
Martin Tytell was apparently able, after two years working on it, to do what he was asked. All his work went for naught when the the appeal requesting a new trial was unsuccessful.
Mr. Tytell’s obituarist, Bruce Weber, notes that, in addition to providing the basis for the abortive appeal, Mr. Tytell’s recreated machine became, after Hiss’ release from prison in 1954, “the foundation of…the debate over his guilt, which goes on to this day.” I don’t know anything about the circles in which Mr. Weber moves (presumably the ones in which Morton Sobell’s innocence is still an article of faith), but they must be pretty rarefied if that debate is still current among them.
I’m sure that at least some TNN readers are old enough to remember (and remember fondly) the typewriter technology of the mid-to-late twentieth century. They will, like me, still revel remembering the sight and sound and feel of a stately solid old office Underwood (the kind PN would have used when she taught typing at Whittier High School, with the bell to warn you of the approaching margin, and the satisfying heft of the carriage return); or the sleek sensual thrill of boarding a plane carrying a bright new Olivetti portable (designed by Ettore Sottsass who, alas, died in Milan last January at the age of 90); or the no-nonsense authority of the IBM Executive (the only machine on which Rose Mary Woods would type RN’s White House documents); or the IBM Selectric’s “end of history” technology (with its easily interchangeable tying elements and its automatically spooling correction tape that made errors obsolete).
For those of us, there will be great charm —and not a little nostalgia— in the more professional details of Mr. Tytell’s obituary:
Mr. Tytell worked on typewriters that could reproduce dozens of different alphabets appropriate for as many as 145 different languages and dialects — including Farsi and Serbo-Croatian, Thai and Korean, Coptic and Sanskrit, and ancient and modern Greek. He often said that he kept 2 million typefaces in stock.
He made a hieroglyphics typewriter for a museum curator, and typewriters with musical notes for musicians. He adapted keyboards for amputees and other wounded veterans. He invented a reverse-carriage device that enabled him to work in right-to-left languages like Arabic and Hebrew. An error he made on a Burmese typewriter, inserting a character upside down, became a standard, even in Burma.
Martin Kenneth Tytell was born on Dec. 20, 1913, the next-to-last of 10 children whose Russian Jewish immigrant parents lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Eventually, going to school mostly at night, he earned a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University, and an M.B.A. from New York University.
But as a boy he worked in a hardware store, carrying a screwdriver everywhere, and one day in school he got himself excused from gym class by volunteering to answer the telephone in a nearby office. Sitting on a desk was an Underwood typewriter, which he took apart. The man who came to fix it gave him his first lesson in typewriter repair. Before he was out of high school he had the typewriter-maintenance account for Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital.
In 1943, a contraband shipment that included 100 Siamese typewriters was seized by the federal government, and with typewriters needed by overseas forces and typewriter producers having largely converted to other wartime manufacturing, Mr. Tytell, then in the Army, was asked to convert the Siamese typewriters for the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. His machines, capable of reproducing 17 different languages, were airdropped to O.S.S. headquarters at various war fronts.
Mr. Tytell wore a white lab coat and a bow tie while waiting on customers who included writers and journalists such as Dorothy Parker, Richard Condon, David Brinkley, and Harrison Salisbury. Both Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower were among his clients. He was sufficiently established to have letters addressed to “Mr. Typewriter, New York,” delivered to his premises at 116 Fulton Street in lower Manhattan.
It is one of my firmly held (and, I realize, not entirely orthodox) beliefs that God, Who recognizes eternal excellence, continues to use His old Remington. So perhaps Mr. Tytell is still wearing his lab coat and bow tie and simply pursuing his honorable old trade in a new and better place.
Illustrations (top to bottom): Woodstock, Olivetti, IBM Executive, IBM Selectric, Underwood.