Monday, September 15, 2008

Obituary: Martin K. Tytell, Psychoanalyst for Your Typewriter

The death of Martin K. Tytell signals the end of an era. The 94-year-old typewriter repairman, whose shop advertised “Psychoanalysis for Your Typewriter” died in the Bronx last week. His clients included Dorothy Parker and David Brinkley and he apparently stocked 2 million typefaces. Here's an excerpt from his obit in the New York Times describing Tytell's role in the Alger Hiss case:
In 1950, lawyers for Alger Hiss, the former State Department official who had been convicted for lying to a grand jury about passing secret information to a Communist agent, Whittaker Chambers, hired him to prove that unlike a fingerprint, a typewriter’s writing pattern is reproducible.

Hiss had been convicted largely because the government presented expert testimony maintaining that the documents passed to Chambers were written on a typewriter owned by Hiss and his wife, Priscilla. At his sentencing, Hiss famously accused Chambers of committing “forgery by typewriter.”

Afterward, to prepare for an appeal, Hiss’s lawyers hired Mr. Tytell to build a typewriter whose print pattern would be indistinguishable, flaws and all, from that of the Hisses. It took him nearly two years, but he succeeded. His work became the foundation of Hiss’s plea, ultimately unsuccessful, for a new trial and, after his release from prison in 1954, of the debate over his guilt, which goes on to this day. Hiss died in 1996.
Ian Frazer profiled Tytell in the Atlantic Monthly in 1997. Frazer, whose typewriter needed fixing, described entering Tytell's downtown Manhattan shop:
I got on the subway to Fulton Street right away and carried my typewriter up the stairs to his second-floor shop at 116 Fulton. I saw that he was indeed an old man, standing on a teetering stepladder and moving a heavy typewriter onto a high shelf while a woman's voice offstage told him to be careful and reminded him of his recent heart surgery. He climbed down and shook my hand. He was wearing a clean white lab coat over a light-blue shirt and a dark-blue bow tie. His head was almost bald on top and fringed with white professor-style side hairs that matched the white of his small moustache. His blue eyes were slitted and wary and humorous, and all his features had a sharpness produced by a lifetime of focusing concentration down to pica size. He examined the typewriter and gave me a claim check and told me I could pick it up in a few days. His shop fixed the e and completely overhauled the machine and got it running better than it ever had.
That was the first of many visits for Frazer.

Tytell had Alzheimer's. He retired in 2000. The cause of death was cancer.

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