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Marler American History – Smithsonian Donation

There is a term for going “all out” to impress your dying father, although I don’t know it, just felt it. It was naturally directing. When my mother and I drove up to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 2014 for the International Typewriter Collectors Convention, that was what I was doing. Well partly, it was also to give Mom a break from the care-taking and losing her life-love and partner. They say hearing is the last sense to go, and I believe he somehow understood what I told him about the weekend convention. “We are going to represent at the collectors convention. I’m going to find out if those guys really do have way more important machines that you do.” Dad listened with his eyes now. He had come to a point where “yes, no and I love you” were his only utterances. The best salesman we ever knew was tongue tied. It was a safe getaway toward the all- too- familiar topic of typewriters. We lived and breathed typewriters in the Marler family. There was no separation of family and business. That was as much an oxymoron as separation of church and state.

I was the second daughter of a son-less man. A man how fancied himself a man’s man. Really he was not one. However he made it clear that it was a man’s world. I was not only a brother-less girl in a man’s world, I was left handed. Willful, with that came defiance.

There Mom and I were at the Milwaukee Museum of Natural History engaging with strangers on a topic we knew simply as typist, fixers and salespeople, compared to the mostly men who had turned it into a scientific phenom. “We are Marlers from St. Louis, Missouri and have been collecting manual typewriters as trade-ins for 3 generations.” “Oh the most rare machine I have was from St. Louis. Would love to see what you have there,” warmly inquired Tony from New York. “And I sell ribbons on Etsy.”  “Here are photos of the shop from the 1980s.” These guys know all about rare brands and unique keyboards and nuances of typestyles. They come to talk for hours abut parts…  What we took for granted as antiquated tradespeople, they hunted internationally as connoisseurs.  

Through the desire to be taken seriously, I politely tried to learn something about the machines and group. Martin could not believe I sat through the Fix Your Own Platen hour. He was the kind and well-known Canadian who had bought some of my Tshirts. Mom could never be bothered by such matters. Discreetly reading with her book in her lap and head slightly tilted down, she giggled softly, a bit excessively, about her novel. It always made me feel like I was missing something. I wanted to know what was so funny and would ask her. Mom would just say, “It tickled me.” She would not describe the passage. As a voracious reader, she had always done this. Even in the middle of work day chaos of dulling brothers and competitive children, mom was unscathed and reading. It was her Pope Mobile. At this moment, it was better than sobbing and telling everyone our boss was just there, paused by a stroke.

I wanted to do something creative with typewriters, like ahh, yeah, write. Not sure what yet I was getting really good grades in school for it…

Diane Sawyer was my first idol, after Margaret Thatcher. It was not because of her politics, but her roll in a powerful position. Diane Sawyer was the first female on “60 Minutes,” the most respectable journalism reporting across all media, still. Female leaders were not common. Regardless they were sought by a girl like me.

Oh no, turned and put on the straight and narrow path of business school, only my soul – the immaterial part of me that could escape the boundaries – wrote and published poetry, occasionally. Published in 1981 and 1985. Years went by and snap to Los Angeles and Apple Computer saving this soul (in a young woman’s body). Graphic design became my course of commercial creativity that carefully used an old rangefinder camera for artful compositions. And the digital camera once again opened my heaven’s gate… making beauty of available objects, in a digital but, good old folk art way. It all came back to typewriters, my muse.

Lawrence Arel Marler, Jr., the loving husband and well meaning, good providing dad, did not even want to go in the convalescent home when Grandmother was living there. It was a unacceptable fate for it to now be his address. He had said, “I want to go home.” And he did. Then Mom couldn’t pick him up. She had a flu and strained her back, home in disarray and no appetite. That was it.

After all that dancing around the pretty edge, as the typewriter artist in a group of serious international antique typewriter collectors, we returned to his dreaded home. “You make typewriter art?” Yes I do and brought some to the show and tell area… Nice to meet you Mr. Blickenderfer. I turned your sexy little portable into a Lickensurfer No. 9! What do you think your inventor unless would think of that?” Ha. Not really. I don’t think he noticed or would get it.

(Insert the Margaret and Peter “You are my type.” – first gift in new romance – story.

I told Dad about it and,  “We are going be OK. It is OK for you to let go. It will be better for you and I will take care of Mom.” Where did that come from? Where am I going with that?  I laid my head on his heart and listened hard and long. Realizing the shift and my new role, and that we would probably not see one another again, I came home to LA.

Something about losing my Dad made me want to find permanence for his life’s work.   It was always everything to him. I had an idea that had stuck in the weeks after the convention.  Echoing a floating notion to my typewriter safe-house friend, Erica, I said it out loud for the first time. “I wish the Smithsonian would have a Typewriter exhibit.” In her quick and definitive manner, she said, “Vin’s on the Board of Directors… he’s going to Washington for the Board meeting this week.  I’ll type the proposal and make sure it’s under his arm when he gets on the plane tomorrow.” “Really? Terrific.” Wow, what just happened? I had no idea…

Erica said, “he loved the typo and my hand correction. It was after mid-night and I just could not retype it. So I gave it to Vin anyway. And theSI Director called to say, “I love it.” “Fantastic Erica, goddess of hope. Now what is next?”

“Mom you are not going to believe this… The Smithsonian is interested. Tell dad.” “Here, you tell dad.” “Dad, the Smithsonian is interested in the Typewriter Exhibit.” “Yeah.” “Can you hear me.” “Yeah.” “Isn’t that great?” “Yeah.” “Put mom back on the phone.” “Mom this is so much bigger than me. None of these people need me. They are huge and their egos are mighty. Despite it being my idea, I could get cut right out of this conversation and I have no way to doing anything.”

It didn’t happen fast (my speed especially when dad was going), though. Convos and emails and drafts and CCs and conferencing and waiting. Wondering about a place I have never even been yet. The ideas, that I mined and shared with Erica and the institution’s committee. After brainstorming events, bouncing notes and lists, other matters, editing, and proofreading, we gave them a list of typewriter afficianados, with Tom Hanks’ name at the top. (She and I knew his mechanic, the retired, sexy Italian. That is a whole other story). We added more names like Steve Soboroff, a local collector. Famous authors. Still, there were the long pauses. The probably nots. The monthly bills of life came, with the fretting of a working artist on a non-paying project! The grief, loyalty and faithful persistence endured.

Then the Tom Hanks clamor. Rang, shang-a-lang like a big ship. Oh yes, he was an immediate green light for them. Doors fly open. Erica swiftly put her paper through the roller into her electric typewriter to do one of the things she does best– type witty, poignant letters. And she does. She does so reliably and lovingly and successfully, that it is awesome. Awesome not in a surfer way, but in a classic Californian way – true to her personal self-expression, with great impact. Like a real friend, she kept my name on all that correspondence – the letters, emails. God blesses Erica.

As I plunked along in my work-a-day, always giving-it-away, when is it going to happen way, a letter arrived from Tom Hanks to Erica and Louise consenting to donate a typewriter to the Smithsonian. His letter opened with, “Aren’t we all typewriter fans?” “Yes we are. What a funny reversal from the man who garners the most fans,” I thought. Hooray. It is good to be Tom Hanks with a Soo assistant. She made it easy, facilitating this restrained convo.

Of course, Steve Soboroff with his “famous authors and actors” typewriter collection was obviously next. His donation was quick too. His people checked it right off the list. Great. We love our typewriters and country.

Finally the “But, what about me?” had to assert itself. The Work and Industry section of the Museum, has needs too. So they surveyed the SI Collection and let me know they needed colorful 1950s machines. Now that was something we could relate to and contribute. Called Laura, my sister, to see what we had. The light green Quiet De Lux, Royal, is so cute that it was hard to give up, even for the greater good of America. Laura quizzed me in her typical big, not big but older, sister, bean counter way, “ Who is if for? I am not paying shipping!”

Tempered eternal instinct (not one of a breeder but a more public style) combined with intensity of a thorough and complete story, ensued. Fortunately my sister is the eldest of our generation and kept the Office Machine Business open, until father died, and she retained the last two generations’ worth of family photos. So my task of putting almost a century of a visual history in chronological order from 1920s to 2015 and photographing all materials was like one of the many publishing projects I have produced. Laura was asking, “Where are those photos? I want them back.” She was always the third parent.

The Smithsonian Institution wanted multiple pieces of our family business history too. It started with Lawrence Sr. when he as in the Army,.  He learned typewriter repair which was really important for reports from battlefields and letters home. His letter, on Royal Typewriter Company letterhead (where he went to work) to Estelle Koviak, July 4th, 1927 declared his move into sales, that he would be making more money and was longing for her kisses. “Dear Estelle,” he ironically hand wrote regularly, “I have been swimming again. How about you?” My dear unknown grandfather, signed the letter, “Your Sweet Daddy, Lawrence.” A working man’s love story became a photo of husband and wife and four white collar kids on a couch.

Highlights of Dad and his brother’s all working, raising families, glory years in the late 60s, throughout the 70s, includes ambitious correspondence with manufacturers with all sorts of tech advances. And SI wanted prized Small Business Administration certificate signed by President Carter for Dad’s model and advocacy of small businesses in the 1980s. Erin’s photo of her dad’s shop in Redondo Beach and Mary’s career story of becoming our tech star.

My important inclusions carried through all the way to the “You are my type.” limited edition fine art that I created. Just like Dad not understanding the innate path of an artist daughter, the relevance of my typewriter art was questioned. I’m a pragmatist despite being a left-handed and Californian. “What does that mean?” “I am an out-of-the-box problem solver. These are not disparate parts.” These linear thinkers having been trying to block me since I was born!

There is no doubt that my artwork is an extension of the family typewriter business. So it was deliberately shipped with the other items, forever more. The Marler inclusion in the National Museum of American History is not just a Work & Industry story, it’s also our love story and my story of a fight for creative liberty.