The Typewriter ASCII Portraits of Classic Hollywood and the Obsessive Fans Who Made Them

In Depth

The charm of old movie fan magazines is their sweetness. Their pages may have hinted at all sorts of sordid behavior, but their tone matched that of their most guileless reader—and they incorporated reader perspectives in every issue, printing copious letters and even occasionally letting readers share their own homespun pictures of the stars. This portrait, for example, is from the October 1920 issue of Motion Picture Magazine and is one of the older examples of typewriter or ASCII art you’ll find.

It’s lovely, and all the more so for all the little mistakes. The magazine says nothing about Arthur Paul Jr. or why he gave them the image, but you get a hint of him in those odd Ms and Os sticking out. What was he going to do, tear the paper out and start again? Forget it, he must have thought; just keep going; it’ll have to be good enough.

Motion Picture apparently agreed, and it wasn’t alone in deploying this new art. Several other magazines tried out these keystroke portraits over the years. The medium was ideal for representing faces that were already familiar, giving the stars a new look and their artists a snatch of fame.

The artist who first introduced typewriter art to the film fan world was a 16-year-old named Kenneth Taylor. An office boy at the LA Times, he typed the pictures up when he had a free moment at work. The paper gave him a back page spread in January of 1919, and then Photoplay gave him one in that June’s issue. “Try This Over on Your Remingwood,” the headline read. Taylor shared portraits of Dorothy Gish and Bill Hart alongside the following portrait of Charlie Chaplin, which took about twenty minutes “pay-roll time, of Kenneth’s working hours”:

Photoplay explained Taylor’s method: “He draws a pencil outline first, indicating highlights and backgrounds, then places the sheet in his machine and fills in at remarkable speed. His favorite letters are W, M and X.”

Taylor, however, had versatility within his strict form. A few months later, he would abandon those keys entirely for a portrait of the Russian actress Nazimova, sent to Moving Picture World:

Just two keys that time, and his best work. But still, it was just a hobby. The Photoplay spread said Kenneth “intends to become a writer,” and in 1924 he would indeed begin a brief stint as a Hollywood reporter for the Times.

In the spring of 1933, the best-selling fan magazine of the day, New Movie, organized a typewriter art contest. They started by giving readers an idea of what they were after, presenting portraits done by a woman named Katherine H. Parsons.

I assume she had sent them unsolicited, because she had no other affiliation with the magazine—which simply noted they “were so impressed by the novelty of her treatment” that they decided to start a contest. And indeed, her work is impressive:

It’s rough compared to Taylor’s work, but that looks intentional. There’s something appealing about the unevenness here, which requires a pleasant amount of effort to take in fully, as with a photomosaic or a collage.

The magazine placed a different Garbo photo on the opposite page and encouraged reader submissions, offering $25 for the top prize, $10 for second, and ten $1 prizes for runners-up. Over the next two months, they continued offering Parsons’ work as a model. Here’s her Harold Lloyd:

Clearly, her favorite letters were V, I, and M.

And, lastly, her Norma Shearer:

Would readers be able to live up to her example? In June, the magazine ran the first winning entry, a portrait of Garbo by Harry D. Reese of Chicago:

It deserves its first place. Reese appears exclusively to have used the X key, and he does it while breaking with the principal constraint of the typewriter, layering letters in some places so thoroughly that you can’t see that they’re letters. You can’t easily pull this off on your computer, but it was an accepted technique in the developing form.

Eighteen-year-old Ray Erlenborn, who would go on to a career as a leading sound effects man, came in second with a more traditional approach:

The following month, the magazine went with an unknown actress as their subject: June Knight, likely as a favor to the studio, Universal, who had just signed her. The previous efforts hadn’t quite measured up to Parsons’ work. Would these?

I’ll say:

The winner was Dorothy Hardke of Benton Harbor, Michigan. She appears to have followed Parsons’ example of using Vs and Ms, but from there she developed entirely her own style. Look at those periods in Knight’s irises! Look at those lightly applied Ms on the nose! Look at that eyebrow work! Did Hardke take her typewriter apart? Did she use a pen here or there? Let’s not quibble with beauty.

The contest was judged by a panel that included the great Jazz Age cartoonist John Held Jr., and Hardke must have been thrilled to hear them praise her “ingenuity…in achieving shades and tones.” She was just 16. Here’s how the local News-Palladium reported it:

Note that the magazine had changed the reward mid-stream, handing out not cash but instead a Standard Royal portable typewriter to the winner—one thing she surely didn’t need.

The final contest featured an image of Claudette Colbert, and again contestants went all out. Here’s the winner:

Marguerite Kortlang, a 27-year-old nurse from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, took the top prize with her unorthodox choice to use lower-case Ms. It looks a bit like an ear is sprouting from Colbert’s cheek, and I think she cheated on the lashes, but it’s still pretty great.

The second-place winner was 25-year-old Adrienne Cadoul. Her effort is probably a little better than Kortlang’s, but before we get to it, a quick dip into her own history.

The clip to the left comes from the May 3, 1926 issue of the Bakersfield Californian. Cadoul was just 18, and the victim of the final leg of a crime spree that reads like the plot of a melodramatic film. Adrienne’s father, Adrian Cadoul, was an immigrant French hotelier who was trying to make it as a screenwriter and also get his physically handicapped daughter Adrienne an acting role. He placed an ad in a national magazine seeking help getting their careers launched and soon received a response—from nearby San Quentin Prison inmate Eleanore Rosencrantz.

The woman was there for passing bad checks, and had previously been in and out of the joint for an incredible series of grifts that would be detailed in a 2,500 word Oregonian story two years later: Rosencrantz had been blackmailing married men, tricking men into marrying her, assisting a fraudulent psychologist, giving nightly lectures in an extravagant all-white costume exposing the psychologist as a fraud, scamming money to bury her supposedly dead son, rigging a dress that could fall into tatters at the pull of a string to put a man in a tight spot.

Depending on the account, Rosencrantz either told Cadoul she was in the clink conducting research or that she was simply imprisoned for the time being but nonetheless well-connected in Hollywood. Either way, he bought it. Cadoul met with her “attorney” and gave him $1000 to get things rolling. Eventually, he handed over $6000. When nothing came of it, Cadoul alerted the police, and Rosencrantz’s prison stay was simply extended to life. But the attorney and Cadoul’s entire life savings were already gone. He chased the Hollywood dream for himself and his daughter and it broke them; the sort of scenario that would thrill onscreen had proved devastating in life.

This was the reality the fan magazines existed to screen out. They were full of sunshine, compensating for the fact that their readers’ lives could be cruel. A woman could reach out of prison to victimize a girl. A wonderful young talent like Dorothy Hardke could find herself, in later life, put in jail for stealing 67-cent dental adhesives. These lovely typewriter portraits were emblematic of the fans’ relation to the stars—wishful, figurative, beautiful pictures that are more notable for what they leave out.

For the individual artist, like Cadoul, these works were also a moment of mastery over the chaos of life. Seven years after her family’s downfall, she was happily writing to New Movie Magazine about her favorite star. A few months later, she got a nice consolation prize from them—the cash award returned for the contest’s final month. Decades after, Cadoul was working steadily as a commercial artist, able—you hope—to refashion that suffering into some greater thing of beauty.

Images from Motion Picture Magazine, Photoplay, Motion Picture World, and New Movie Magazine.

Andrew Heisel is a writer living in New Haven, CT. Follow him @andyheisel.

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