How Leonard Cohen Writes His First Book And Best Work
My Old Flame
An olive green Olivetti 22 portable typewriter, with black keys and white letters. I bought it in London for forty pounds in 1959. It’s the same typewriter I used for my first book and my best works.1
How Leonard Cohen Types
Biggest Influences on My Typing
Liturgical, country, and folk music. I type very slow at first and work up a head of steam. I type the way I write, one word at a time.2
How Leonard Cohen Types Underwater
When I Write
I like the room clean, the floors to be washed, my bed to be made, the table to be tidy. I once had drawn a bath and I put pine oil in it and I noticed the pine oil stained the water the same color as my Olivetti. I was in a mood of some extravagance and I put the typewriter in the bathtub and tried to type under water. Then I threw my manuscript for Flowers for Hitler in the bath and tried to scrub it with a nail brush. This was during a particularly tense period one winter in Montreal. Then I took the typewriter out of the bathtub and in a rage over some imagined injustices a woman had done to me, flung it across the room. (It was a small room in a small house I had rented on Pine Avenue.) The Olivetti cracked. I thought it was finished and I just stowed it in a corner of the house. About a year later I went to the Olivetti factory on Nun’s Island and brought the thing to the front desk. The man there just looked at it and said “not a chance.” Then — I don’t know why — when the fellow’s back was turned I walked in the factory proper, toward a workbench where an elderly man was working on some typewriters. I approached him and I said I really needed this typewriter. He told me to come back in a few weeks, and when I did he had repaired it meticulously.3
— Leonard Cohen, quoted by Scott Cohen in his book, Yakety Yak, 1994
An article covering much of the same material in the August 1985 edition of Spin (where Scott Cohen was an editor) explains that Cohen “has removed part of the case of his [typewriter] so he can see the keys inside” and goes on to note that after paying the repairman a few dollars, Cohen
… went on to type all his famous songs – “Suzanne,” “So Long Marianne,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Sisters Of Mercy”; his best selling novel Beautiful Losers; and his other masterpieces.
… After he wrote “Beautiful Losers,” Leonard Cohen took his Olivetti to Greece, where he had bought a house for $1,500.
In Greece, Leonard Cohen was not the only person to use that Olivetti.
The Olivetti Lettera 22 Typewriter
The Olivetti Lettera 22 is itself a significant machine, as indicated by this excerpt from My Typewriter:
Designed by Marcello Nizzoli, one of the most influential Italian designers from the 1930s to 1950s, the Lettera 22 was embraced internationally as a portable typewriter, especially by journalists. Nizzoli first worked for the family firm of Olivetti as a graphic designer, and then became its chief product designer, producing landmark designs including the Lexikon 80 and Lettera 22 (and the Mirella sewing machine for Necchi). The Lettera 22 is typical of his work: functional, muted, yet with clear sculptured lines-punctuated by the single red tab key. In 1954, it won the inaugural Compasso d’Oro Award, the pre-eminent Italian design award. The Lettera 22 has all-important big typewriter features. With its award wining good looks, rugged dependability, it was original sold for $88 (later reduced to $68). The most common color was blue but also available in green and gray at the time.
The blue Lettera 22 with a sample of the type is shown below in a photo from We Made This.
The accompanying notes point out that “the lower case L doubles up for the 1, and the non-lining numerals are great, particularly the 5.”
Wikipedia adds that
… in 1959, the Illinois Institute of Technology chose the Lettera 22 as the best design product of the last 100 years.
The typewriter is sized about 27x37x8 cm (with the carriage return lever adding about 1-2 more centimeters in height), making it quite portable at least for the time’s standards, even though its 4 kg weight may limit portability somewhat.
The Lettera 22 is an oblique frontstroke typebar typewriter. The typebars strike a red/black inked ribbon, which is positioned between the typebar and the paper by a lever whenever a key is pressed; a small switch located near the upper right side of the keyboard can be used to control the strike position of the ribbon, in order to print with black, red, or no ink (for mimeograph stencils).
Ribbon movement, which also occurs at every keypress, automatically reverses direction when there is no ribbon left on the feed reel; two mechanical sensors, situated next to each wheel, move when the ribbon is put under tension (indicating ribbon end), attaching the appropriate wheel to the ribbon transport mechanism and detaching the other.
The Lettera 22 uses a basket shift or segment shift (that is, the unit including the typebars moves up and down when shifting, as opposed to the carriage shift system). The Lettera 22 is quite compact compared to other 1950s portable typewriters using a basket shift, such as the Smith Corona Sterling or Remington-Rand Quiet-Riter.
The Lettera 22 also features a tabulator setting and clearing system that is controlled from the keyboard, and an innovative margin release that does double duty as a paragraph indentation key (it indents a paragraph when it is held down as the carriage is returned).
For the Italian market the keyboard is in the QZERTY layout, as with most Italian machines (excluding modern computer keyboards). Aside from the typing keys, the keyboard includes a Space bar, two Shift keys, one Caps lock key, a Backspace key and a margin release key ; of these, only the Backspace key bears a mark on it (an arrow pointing right), while the other five mentioned are left anonymous.
The character set conspicuously lacks the number 1, which is supposed to be substituted by the lowercase L. Although this may seem like a strange absence today, this was actually common on older typewriters.
Also lacking are the keys for uppercase accented vowels, some of which are present in Italian; however, these characters usually are not found on modern keyboards, either.
Leonard Cohen – From Olivetti To Mac
Leonard Cohen is now (or, at least, was) a Mac man. In addition to his Apple computer, he also used, a 1991 interviewer admiringly noted, such electronic gear as a fax machine, a digital synthesizer, and a (separately listed) modem.4
Credit Due Department: The photo atop this post was found at the MOMA Collection._____________________