The slimline beauty that has produced great literary works

By Robert Messenger

The Hermes Baby portable typewriter was the weapon of choice for many great female authors and journalists, Françoise Sagan, Shelagh Delaney, Gwen Dew and Marguerite Higgins notable among them. Another was the Italian writer Wanda Bontà, an orphan who turned into one of her country’s most cherished authors.

Bontà, who was born in Milan on June 25, 1902, was raised in Catholic orphanages and worked as a private tutor in the city’s poorer suburbs. At the age of 17, she taught herself shorthand typing. These skills enabled her to begin writing fiction in her spare time. She struggled to find someone prepared to publish her early works, but persevered until, in 1927, the Libreria Editrice Milanese published her novel, La fatica di vivere (“The Effort to Live”).

This was an immediate critical and commercial success. Bontà had merged a rich literary fantasy with her suffering through her early life and painful work experiences. The book’s reception enabled Bontà to devote herself to fiction and journalism for women's magazines.

In 1938 Bontà’s most famous novel, Signorinette, was published and sold 50,000 copies in its first year. In 1942 it was adapted to a film directed by Luigi Zampa with a screenplay by Luciana Peverelli and Gherardo Gherardi. The story is considered an Italian version of Little Women. Until her death in 1986, Bontà remained one of Italy’s most prolific authors, especially among a female audience. She also wrote children’s stories, such as A Ride to Paradise, Paglietta and The Little Dogs of Perlarosa.

Gwen Dew was another who started writing at an early age, but her career didn’t really take off until 1935, when she decided to travel around the world and send articles back to the United States which had been typed on her Hermes Baby, which she called “Tappy”. Setting out with a mere $50 in savings, she travelled 60,000 miles in 18 months, reaching Honolulu, Yokohama, Beijing, Singapore, Hong Kong, Nepal, Java, Borneo, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Bali, India, Egypt and finally Paris.
Later she returned to the East and in 1946 became the first female reporter allowed into post-World War II Japan. She had already been the only correspondent to cover the surrender of Hong Kong in 1941, and was subsequently imprisoned by the Japanese. She started one story, “I was hunting for war. I found it. I wanted to know what war looked like through a woman's eyes. Now I know. Horror, destruction, torture, hunger, death.”

All the while, however, Dew had her Hermes Baby “Tappy” to comfort her.