Steve Soboroff's famous typewriter collection has many stories to tell

September 3, 2015, 1:04 PM

— -- BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Steve Soboroff still becomes awestruck when he thinks about how he got here.

As he stands in a museum surrounded by 33 typewriters that were owned by some of the world's most famous (John Lennon and Ernest Hemingway) and infamous ("Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski and "Dr. Death" Jack Kevorkian) figures, he is amazed as he looks at the machines he has purchased over the past decade.

It's a collection and a passion that can be traced back to Dodger Stadium and Soboroff's love of watching Sandy Koufax pitch and reading what Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray wrote the next day.

In 1999, Soboroff, a Los Angeles businessman and civic leader, was gearing up to run for mayor when he was at Dodger Stadium and saw that the glove Koufax wore when he threw a no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants in 1963 was for sale. Soboroff made a deal to buy it for the asking price of $30,000 -- under one condition.

"I told them, 'I'm going to buy this thing, but I don't want anybody to ever know that I have it -- at least not until the election is over,'" Soboroff said. "The average person in Los Angeles makes about $30,000 per year. People would think I'm an elitist."

Growing up in L.A., Soboroff was a regular at Dodger Stadium during Koufax's heyday, and he was on hand when his hero threw his fourth and final no-no, a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs in 1965. But in 2005, having lost his mayoral bid in 2001 and with five children either in or getting ready to start college, he decided to part with his prized piece of baseball history.

He flew to New York and put Koufax's glove in a Sotheby's auction, expecting a slight return on his investment. It ended up going for $126,500, nearly $100,000 more than he paid for it.

"It's sort of like when you're in Las Vegas, and all of a sudden you have all these chips there, and there's no clocks and no lights," Soboroff said. "You're playing with house money. You're in a different world with 130 big ones."

The next item up at the auction was a Remington Model J typewriter owned by Murray, the Pulitzer Prize-winning icon of sportswriting who died in 1998.

"I said, 'Oh my god, I love Jim Murray!'" Soboroff said. "Forget the front page. Forget the metro section. What did Murray say? It was his words. He was the best. When Koufax won his perfect game, I was there, and the next day, all I cared about was what Murray wrote."

Soboroff, who had entered the auction house with no intention of buying anything, began to bid. He soon found himself in a bidding war for the Murray memento, with two formidable opponents: the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"Drew McCourt, Frank McCourt's son, was bidding for the Dodgers, and someone else was bidding for the Times," Soboroff said. "It's not like I have the deep pockets of the Times and the Dodgers, but as the bidding went up past $10,000, they both had to make calls, and I didn't, so I overpaid, and I bought it for $18,000."

Soboroff, 67, can't explain it, but something came over him when he purchased Murray's Remington. As he sat in front of it and placed his fingers on the keys, Soboroff wondered how many of the great columns he had read while growing up came from the machine he now owned, what thoughts raced through the mind of his favorite writer as his fingers touched the very keys he was now touching. At that moment, an obsession was born.

"The amount of time these people spent on these things and their relationship with them and the idea of me thinking, 'My god, Murray, Lennon, Hemingway and all these people were working with these machines as their partners,' was the factor to me," Soboroff said.

"It was summed up to me by [best-selling author] Harold Robbins' wife, who sold me his typewriter and told me when he was on that typewriter, he would assume the identity of the character he was writing about. She would hear him talking in different tones. You know how athletes get into a zone? These people were like athletes in zones when they were at their typewriters. She said she would pour water down his back, and he didn't move. That's the relationship these people had with their typewriters. That's why they're so special."

With a growing collection and an empty nest, Soboroff started replacing the children's books in his kids' old playroom with typewriters.

"I didn't know my dad was such a nerd. It was a completely nerdy thing to do," said Jacob Soboroff, a video host and producer. "The kids are out of the house, and the typewriters became his babies. The dogs are my mom's babies, and the typewriters are my dad's babies. He literally took over space in the house that he used to let the kids have, and he let the typewriters have it. The first time I saw it, I was like, 'What the heck?' but I thought it was pretty incredible."

Soboroff, who is currently the president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, is a courtside fixture at Clippers games and made headlines during the 2014 playoffs, when Rihanna dropped and broke his cell phone while taking a selfie of the two of them. The singer made a $25,000 donation to the Los Angeles Police Foundation and signed the phone to enhance its value for a fundraising auction. It went for $66,500, which was donated to LAPD charities.

Soboroff's connection to the Los Angeles sports scene goes much deeper than that viral moment. As the senior advisor to Mayor Richard Riordan from 1995 to 1999, Soboroff was the driving force behind the development of Staples Center and the luring of the Lakers and Kings from the Forum in Inglewood. He also helped convince former Clippers owner Donald Sterling to ignore overtures from the Honda Center in Anaheim, stay in Los Angeles and become the third tenant at the downtown arena.

As the president of L.A.'s Playa Vista neighborhood in 2008, he helped the Clippers build a $50 million practice facility. In 2011, he was the vice chairman of his beloved Dodgers, albeit for barely more than two months at the end of McCourt's tumultuous ownership tenure.

"A day after I came on board, Major League Baseball took control of the team," Soboroff said. "The Guinness Book of World Records would probably have me as the highest-ranking baseball official for the shortest period of time."

Soboroff laughs as he walks around the second floor of the Paley Center for Media, the Beverly Hills museum that has been displaying his collection since December. Each typewriter has a story behind it.

He stops at the L.C. Smith & Corona Sterling owned by Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe at their Beach Street home in San Francisco in 1954. Soboroff added it to his collection five years ago at a Julien's auction in Beverly Hills for $875.

"It was cheap. It was a joke," Soboroff said. "Nobody showed up at that auction."

"When I got it, there was something rattling inside the case. So I took the bottom off, and out came this credit card that had been cut in two pieces. It was Joe DiMaggio's old credit card. I couldn't believe it. So I was meeting my kids after the auction at Nate n' Al's [delicatessen]. After we were done eating, I Scotch taped the credit card together, and I went up to the cashier, just kidding around, and I handed her the bill and the credit card. She didn't look at it. She just swiped it and said the credit is no good. I said, 'No s---. It's Joe DiMaggio's!'"

When Soboroff bought Hemingway's 1932 Royal Model P, he found what he thought were old, burned strips of bacon underneath the typewriter. He later discovered they were crumbling photo negatives. He had them restored and sent scans of the images to Sandra Spanier, a Hemingway scholar and professor at Penn State, to be identified.

"They were of Hemingway as a child at his family's cottage on Walloon Lake, Michigan," Soboroff said. "It was Hemingway, his sister, his father and mother. It's one of the oldest pictures of Hemingway."

When Soboroff is asked about his typewriters with sports connections, he is quick to point out the Hemingway machine and Bing Crosby's Corona folding portable model. Hemingway was a boxer, a fisherman and a bullfighting aficionado. Crosby was a part-owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and in 1937 hosted the first National Pro-Am Golf Championship, which is still held annually at Pebble Beach.

"The sport of bullfighting evolved because of the exposure given to it by Ernest Hemingway," Soboroff said. "Some of his books, such as 'The Sun Also Rises,' were written about bullfights, and he's legendary in that field. Bing Crosby made Pebble Beach what it is. What he did for golf was to bring the entertainment industry into the business, and people go out to watch Pro-Ams all the time now."

The most recent addition to Soboroff's collection is Maya Angelou's Adler electric, which Soboroff bought for $5,000 earlier this month at an estate sale at the late poet's home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Soboroff said picking his favorite typewriter would be like choosing among one of his five children. He also isn't sure what the next addition to the collection will be. Soboroff's wife, Patti, is supportive of her husband's hobby, even though she often doesn't know when he has a new target in his sights.

"Most of the time, I don't even realize when he's pursuing another typewriter," she said. "Based on where the typewriters are -- they could be on the East Coast or in another time zone -- he could be up in the middle of the night trying to acquire another typewriter."

Soboroff usually finds out a typewriter is going on the market through auction announcements, word of mouth or families themselves. He learned of Angelou's by reading about the estate sale online.

"If I had to describe it to someone between elevator floors, I collect typewriters of people that have been on the cover of Time magazine," Soboroff said. "When I bought Maya Angelou's, they said the typewriter's cord was missing. I said, 'I don't care about the cord. I care that Maya Angelou touched it.'"

Angelou's typewriter joined a growing list of timeless machines once owned by the likes of Orson Welles, Tennessee Williams, Tom Hanks, Ray Bradbury, John Updike, Truman Capote, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford, among others.

"People are now tipping him off when typewriters come on the market," Jacob Soboroff said. "Take a look at his replies on Twitter. ... I think he likes being a part of that community."

But Soboroff hasn't forgotten the significance of the first famous typewriter he bought 10 years ago. He auctions off opportunities to type on the typewriter of the winner's choice, with the proceeds going to the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, which funds scholarships for aspiring sports journalists. Actor Pierce Brosnan paid $5,000 in 2012 to type on Lennon's typewriter, and Soboroff donated $25,000 -- most of it raised via the typing auctions -- to the scholarship fund two years ago.

"Not only did it become my cause, but because the typewriters are being used to create funds for the Jim Murray Foundation, for some people, that's the deciding factor in whether or not they will give up the typewriter," Soboroff said. "When I got [blind Italian tenor] Andrea Bocelli's Perkins Brailler, he wrote and said he was so glad this will go to future purposes to help others."

The foundation was started by Murray's widow, Linda Murray Hofmans, who said she was "so happy" when Soboroff won the bidding for her late husband's typewriter.

"I knew anything that went to the Times would likely be housed in an archive or in the newsroom and wouldn't be seen by the public," she said. "I commend Steve for what he is doing. Not only can the public see it, but he has made that typewriter available to the foundation, and so many of our Murray Scholars have sat down at that typewriter and tap-danced on those keys."

Soboroff admits his passion can sometimes get the best of him, particularly when he sets his sights on a typewriter.

"When Walter Cronkite died, I called his estate lawyer the next day," Soboroff said. "The guy thought I was a little ghoulish. I didn't get that one, so I've been laying back since."

Not many typewriters Soboroff wants, however, have escaped his grasp. After taking a look at his collection, he sits down in front of Hemingway's typewriter and rotates the platen, pointing out some of the words pressed into it by Hemingway's typing.

"I love the idea of people coming in here and relating to it for whatever reason they want to relate to it," Soboroff said. "They feel a connection to it because someone they loved or read or admired was connected to it. There's nothing like it. They're timeless."