- - Thursday, February 6, 2020

Like many journalists of a certain generation, I never learned to type, but began hunt-n-pecking on a mechanical machine whose brand would produce more words more ubiquitously than the Encyclopaedia Britannica in all its editions. My bantam Olivetti in its canvas case came as a high school graduation present and I only learned the heroic story of its pedigree and progeny when this book appeared.

Meryle Secrest, National Humanities Medal laureate for her dozen celebrated biographies, has delivered the life story of the Olivetti company entwined with portraits of its three principal leaders, members of the eponymous clan: The founder. Camillo Olivetti; his multi-talented dynamo son, Adriano; and the merely brilliant grandson, Roberto. 

She spliced their dynastic story with her original scenario of a conspiracy theory involving the CIA in a web of corporate behemoths and international machinations. In her words, “I had opened the door upon a Cold War mystery and a major industrial spy story with the Olivetti family as its victims.” But — spoiler alert! — she does not quite run that plot to ground, so the tale of two murders and Langley-shadowed skullduggery remains speculative.

This seems a very Italian tale. Conspiracy has thrived in Italy since the Caesars, and Ms. Secrest’s book has more twists than a krater of rotini bolognese, more characters than a Verdi carnevale, more intrigues than Machiavelli himself could conjure.

A biographer at heart, Ms. Secrest weaves the tangents and tangling threads of her subjects’ lives, detailing their marriages and professional partnerships, their brushes with the law, their liaisons both amorous and political. (One proof of the Olivetti family’s genetic genius is that the company and its properties survived World War II intact with no taint of Fascist connivance.) 

At the story’s heart is the charismatic Adriano — engineer, executive patron, social visionary, industrial pioneer, renegade politician and possessor of “the look,” a penetrating glance that stopped people in their tracks. 

Inheriting the successful office-machine company his father founded in Italy’s piedmont, Adriano took the enterprise global. He developed an arsenal of calculators and typing machines, including the little workhorse Lettera 22, irreplaceable tool of countless reporters, war correspondents and peripatetic writers of every stripe (e.g., Leonard Cohen, Gunter Grass, Joan Didion).

Adriano was a prince of industrial innovation and a common-sense utopian. He masterminded Olivetti’s extraordinary expansion, developing profitable new devices and making the company a champion of modern esthetics. Its machines were celebrated for their immaculate design at the Museum of Modern Art, its ads invented graphic beauty in understatement. Its landmark Fifth Avenue store boasted a Lettera anchored on a sidewalk pedestal, thus inviting passersby to write graffiti by typewriter.  

A social pioneer, Adriano paid all employees above the norm and provided an array of amenities that seemed revolutionary. Finding time to found his own political party, he believed in grassroots governance and a communal approach that some critics thought Marxist. All this while making his family company an international powerhouse and acquiring the iconic typewriter firm Underwood in the largest takeover of an American company by a foreigner. 

Developing the first all-transistor mainframe computer, Adriano intended to develop markets in Russia and China, a goal that — in combination with his utopian ideals and leftist politics — won him a certain antipathy among American intelligence masters, e.g., Allen Dulles. Then he died days before leaving for America to remake Underwood in Olivetti’s image — died unexpectedly while traveling alone on an train, succumbing to what was presumed (senza autopsy) to be a spontaneous heart attack; Ms. Secrest suggests otherwise.

All this was going on at a time of Cold War hostility and interventionist U.S. foreign policy. Cited in Ms. Secrest’s notes, an American diplomat’s oral history recalled: “We had resources at that time, financial resources, political resources, friends, the ability to blackmail, all the things that [a] great power … traditionally has done in dealing with its friends and enemies … All of the things both of a covert and an overt nature that … the Fascists, the Communists, the Nazis, the English and the French, had done before, we were doing in Italy.” 

There is no tidy conclusion to this thesis, rather that famously indefinite finding of Scottish law: “Not Proven.”

Adriano’s heir, the less flamboyant Roberto, in turn unveiled the first desktop computer in 1965, ahead of IBM and Hewlett-Packard, though standard histories of computers omit this achievement. Then, on his watch, Olivetti foundered in the cutthroat world of international competition as a result of financial circumstances and external events, and perhaps some opaque elements as well.

Ironically, it bears mention that having immersed herself in the digital world for this book, Ms. Secrest herself still does not use a computer. True to her newspaper origins — full disclosure: Our paths crossed on a daily in hot-metal days — she wrote all about all the Olivettis on a typewriter. More power to her.

• Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press Inc. in Chevy Chase, Maryland, writes about history and culture.

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By Meryle Secrest

Knopf, $30, 304 pages

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