If These Keys Could Talk...

It was just an old typewriter, like one you might find at a teeming flea market on Saturday morning or in the dusty back corner of Grandma’s attic.
To the younger generation, it’s a curious artifact from a bygone era long before technology careened at breakneck speed into almost every facet of our lives.   
How many folks who grew up in the digital age, I wonder, have even seen such a thing, much less used it? Few, I’m guessing, unless it appeared in a black-and-white photo or on some sitcom from eons ago.  
This one — a portable, manual 1938 Royal Speed King with a fresh new ribbon, no less — isn’t any old typewriter, though.
It arrived on North Mooreland Road with a story, and that story is a good one. In its heyday, you see, it traveled the world because it was the means by which its owner, the legendary Ann Cottrell Free, Collegiate Class of 1934, produced true journalism of the highest order at a time when precious few women had the opportunity to write compelling, breaking news stories.
“She was a pioneer,” said her daughter Elissa Blake Free, who visited Collegiate this past Friday with her husband Bill Nooter to bequeath and entrust her late mother’s prized typewriter to the alma mater she so revered.
“Collegiate awakened [her] intellectually and taught [her] self-discipline,” Elissa said, referencing her mother’s admittedly undistinguished academic career elsewhere before she arrived at the Collegiate School for Girls. “The Collegiate experience was deep in her. It opened up the world to her.”
The recipient of Collegiate’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 1992, Mrs. Free, also a graduate of Barnard College, enjoyed from 1939 until her passing in 2004 a long, meaningful, productive, and illustrious career as a journalist, author, and poet.
Among her myriad endeavors, she filed well-researched pieces for Newsweek, the Chicago Sun, and the New York Herald Tribune from Washington, D.C., during World War II, wrote extensively about First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, served as a special correspondent for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in post-war China, documented efforts to rebuild post-war Europe (the Marshall Plan), and covered the transfer of power in India from the British to the Indian government.
In her later years, she focused her humanitarian and literary attention on animal rights and environmental issues and developed a friendship with Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring (1962).
No telling how much of her work she produced on the typewriter sitting before us in Collegiate’s Alumni Office this bright spring day, but just the sight of it begged the question, “If these keys could talk, what might they say?”
“I can tell just looking at it that she took it to Europe on a ship,” Elissa said, noting the partially-torn tag still pasted to the case. “She did that a couple of times. I’m thinking maybe she took it to Europe in 1948 [to report on] the Marshall Plan.”
Elissa and Bill also shared a picture of Mrs. Free sitting in her D.C. office behind a larger typewriter that one might consider overly clunky compared to the portable model and certainly today’s slim laptops.
“That picture was actually taken on the 12th floor of the National Press Building,” Elissa said. “If you looked around the bureaus where she worked, she was usually the only woman. She said that at the end of the day, all the men went upstairs to the press club to have drinks and relax, but she couldn’t go because it was men-only.”
She was hardly intimidated or deterred.
“She got along great with her male colleagues,” Elissa said, at which point Bill added, “I would say she was an assertive person.”
His comment drew laughter.
“Yeah,” Elissa said. “She didn’t take any you-know-what from anybody. There were actually other women around, but they weren’t necessarily full-time. She was the first full-time woman, but there were other women she could pal around with.”
Elissa told the story about her mother’s first, out-of-the-blue contact with Rachel Carson.
“She wrote about a lot of things, including pesticides,” she said. “When Rachel Carson was writing Silent Spring, she read one of my mother’s articles about a woman who was playing golf and fell into the grass, which had been treated with dioxin, which made her sick.
“Rachel Carson called her up and said, ‘I need to know more about dioxin.’ My mother, first of all, almost fainted when she heard, ‘Hello, this is Rachel Carson.’ Really?! They became friends and allies.”
What would your mother as an old school journalist think of the state of news gathering and reporting today? I inquired.
“Well, of course, it’s different,” Elissa said. “She would do first-hand enterprise stories. There was more of that back then. She liked to watch CNN, but I don’t know what she’d think of all those cable channels today.”
Bill added, “In her day, a reporter would never give an opinion. They reported what they found. The news now seems more about opinion.”
Mrs. Free’s vintage typewriter will reside in the Saunders Family Library as a symbol of a career of excellence and achievement and a life well lived.
“My mother would be so happy and pleased,” Elissa said, “that her beloved typewriter is back at her beloved school, Collegiate.’”