CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Alicja, Love, Ligature
The entwined history of typography, love, and madness is well-documented: The reader will perhaps recall several typefaces named after the objects of obsessive love (such as Gills’s daughter Joanna, or, of course, Helvetica, named after that timeless beloved, Switzerland herself); reports of unrequited love and its death pact with type are universally observed in the literature, but we will not recount these well-worn anecdotes,1 proceeding instead to examine the more esoteric history of Alicja—a typeface designed by the Berthold Brothers & Sieffert Type Foundry in Chicago, in the year 1921—which, in spite of its perfection, but for reasons we will evince, remains (alas) almost perfectly disused; it is our goal to shed new light on (or, as it were, outline with new darkness) the typeface Alicja, the truncated engagement that inspired it, and the delusion that nearly struck it out.
II. Oz Black
Black’s life was less career than brief epic. That Saint John the Evangelist (patron saint of scribes) speak through us, we humbly should ask, as we sing the travails of Osbourne Black, too-seeing man. When his membership to the Chicago Typographical Union was challenged—“too young to vote”—who could ignore his argument?
Brothers and comrades, hear me out: Read the polling records from Big Bill Thompson’s election to mayor: Eight times on the rolls you’ll find my name; if voting is any mark of age, then I am elder to you all, and due your deference.2In fact, Black was barely fourteen years of age at the time he gave the speech, in May 1917. After hearing from a carnival fortune teller that he would find, in a great city, an indestructible love, he abandoned his boyhood home of Hudson, Ohio, to stow himself away, first on trains to Muskegon, Michigan, and then on the pleasure cruiser USS Althea to the Great Lakes, until the ship was sunk by ice. The sole survivor, Black was stranded on an island in Lake Michigan for over a month before being rescued by a yacht crew and making his way under sail to Chicago, having traversed over 350 miles (for him, the universe).
Once in Chicago, he went to work at a small press, adding his name to the long catalog of great men who began their careers as printer’s devils (bitter Ambrose Bierce, poor Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson the borrower, Walt Whitman the depressive, star-crossed Samuel Clemens). The job required him to reach the high shelves stacked with type. Black (still immature in stature) wore six-inch risers on his shoes; under his long-cuffed trousers, his foreman once spied them out; Oz would have been discovered if divine intervention hadn’t filled the warehouse with furnace smoke and whisked him to safety.
Black embodied the Prohibition-era virtues—secrecy and bravado. After hours of mixing tubs of ink, Black’s adolescent muscles burned; he would tell his coworkers that he was ducking out to a speakeasy for a gin, then sneak across the street to the butcher’s shop (the skin up to his elbows stained as black as a Model T) to massage his forearms with ice from the butcher’s new GE freezer.3 He made this “gin run” so often that his workmates began to worry for his young liver. His duties even required a sort of descent into the underworld, a workaday katabasis: One of Black’s duties as a printer’s devil was to gather worn or broken type in a bin, known as a “hellbox,” and carry it down the dark basement stairs to a furnace for melting and recasting; a tireless autodidact, Black would hide stacks of books (which he borrowed from the Chicago Public Library), burying them in the heaps of broken type; then, when he was alone, he would sit by the hellbox and read in the light of the furnace. After Oz had been working for the printer for over a year, his supervisor found occasion to go sifting through the hellbox for a spare ampersand. When he found a copy of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, the foreman knew he had an imposter on his hands. This led quickly to the discovery of Oz’s true age by his employer, and would have been fatal for his printing career were it not for America’s entry into World War I—when all the work-aged boys were called up for the Army, printers metamorphosed into privates, lead type into bullets, and stains of ink into stains of blood. But that metamorphosis belongs, sadly, to another epic.
If Oz Black’s career as a typesetter is epic, then his career as a type designer is fairy tale. By the time Black had hair on his chest, he was the head typesetter at Werner Printing and Engraving in Chicago. Poker games took place in the shop after the end of work each day, but the owner, who knew Oz was young and something of a bumpkin, had strictly forbidden him from gambling; yet in the summer of 1919, when the owner left on a cruise for Argentina, Oz played every hand—that is, until he was too deeply in debt to his unscrupulous underlings (it took some six days). Black stopped eating and kept gambling. One of the players, feeling bad for the green Black, offered to return his share of Black’s losses, on the condition that Black find the designer of a certain typeface,4 which the shop was using on their then-current project—and shake the designer’s hand. Black felt little fear and no small amount of hunger, and so began his search for the face’s creator at once.
Black’s breadcrumb trail was brief: He soon learned that Berthold Brothers & Sieffert, the type foundry that created the typeface, was there in Chicago, and at their Elston Street offices the next day, after a long shift, Black appeared, asking to speak to the man who had designed the typeface. He was shown to the offices of Franz Wiebking, then lead designer at BB&S. Wiebking was (being at heart a kind of adman) always happy to meet a customer; but (being at gut a kind of neat freak) Wiebking took a rain check on the handshake when he saw Oz’s ink-stained arms. To the same office, once per day, for the next two days, and to similar effect, returned Oz. On the fourth day, after being denied a handshake once more, Oz told Wiebking, “I intend to return until you shake my hand, and my hands will be stained with ink so long as I remain a typesetter. So unless you wish for me to hound you forever, you must either shake my soiled hands or provide them with other work.” Wiebking made Black an assistant type designer on the spot and, a week later, they shook on it.5
III. (Re)birth of Alicja
The typeface Oz Black eventually designed was and remains something of a paradox. Vladik Essl, in his typographical history Cipher and Civilization, describes it (as the reader will no doubt recall) thus:
Alicja was designed in response to a brief for a modern-face Didone type, and appears at first glance to fulfill that request; but closer examination reveals flawless imperfections. Like all Didone typefaces, Alicja has hairline serifs. But while they seem straight, they are actually ever-so-subtly tapered, like the filament-fine point of a wasp’s stinger—which is to say that unlike all Didone typefaces, Alicja does not have hairline serifs. And while a Didone face should have a vertical orientation to its weight axes (and what axes!), Alicja’s thicknesses bear a subtle diagonality, giving it a hint of italic decadence. Someone will perhaps say that Alicja is a modern typeface nonetheless; to which I can only reply that, in spite of its modernity, Alicja yet hints darkly back to the medieval world: It is the body text for an industrial Inquisition.So far Essl. But to understand Alicja properly, we must proceed backwards from the finished product he describes to its origins in Oz Black’s inner life.
In July of 1921, around the time Babe Ruth broke Roger Connor’s all-time home-run record, Oz Black had completed, as we now have it, the Alicja typeface. Through its completion, the project had consumed the young designer, and by assuming both a new residence (viz., his studio) and a new state of being (viz., absolute secrecy), he had been able to produce his new design almost on schedule. Sadly, though the creation of the Alicja typeface flowed from a spring of grief, the grief’s spring flowed on, undiminished by his creation.
About a month earlier, the sun had passed its solstice, the Black Sox Scandal had gone to trial, and Oz Black had begun the initial drawings for this new typeface. Before this, he retrieved what became the model for the design from the Chicago Police Department, a suicide note, after realizing that he had lacked a useable handwriting sample for the design’s inspiration (his recently deceased fiancée).6 In his notebooks, Black explains his motive:
Just as a ground defines a figure, I now believe that death defines life. I thought I knew Alicja, but now I realize that, like the upraised face on a piece of type, she was visible to me only vaguely. In death I can finally see her clearly: The type has been pressed, the letters distinguished, and far from ending our love, this impression has only begun it.Why had Black, the inexperienced young designer, been thus tasked with such a rushed typographical imperative? A fire at the BB&S offices earlier in that year, whose causes remain controversial,7 had destroyed the hand-drawn designs of Franz Wiebking’s last typeface (a design for Sears, Roebuck, and Co., already well past-due). Wiebking could not recreate these designs: He had retired, in late 1920, from a long career. So the task fell to Black. We must also note that, at the time he was assigned this job, Black was still very much in love. In the weeks and months preceding the design of the typeface, his skin had became even paler than usual, and his already gaunt limbs had narrowed to hairlines. It is this grief, and Black’s struggle with it, which formed the true punch and matrix of the Alicja typeface.
IV. Emergent Penumbrae
Soon after the new typeset went into production, Oz Black withdrew into his private office. (The typesetters who set to work on the samples for the typeface were at first enthusiastic about the new design, remarking on the seemingly coastal fractality of the curves in the type, which traced inky archipelagos into seas of white.) The new type designer seemed to have reached a state of dangerous nervous obsession: Workers who glimpsed him through the windows of his office said that he looked like the living dead. (By the time of the year’s first snowfall, typesetters in BB&S’s in-house print shop were already complaining of irregularities in the new projects.) In his notebooks from this time, Black records spending hours staring at his few souvenirs from Lesniewski’s life: first, the negative of a portrait photograph, which rendered her hair blonde, her eyes gray, and her hair a deep tan—“the closest she would ever come to looking like a movie star,” Black notes—and, second, the handwritten second half of her suicide note.8 (Alicja print runs often omitted whole lines of type.) It appears that after creating the typeface, Black was even more haunted than before by his deceased lover. (Instances of inverted text were occurring at a disturbing rate.) It seems that his solitary research was in search of an explanation of this deepening grief. (Such errors were usually blamed on apprentice workers.) Shortly after completing the designs, he began to notice an unexpected pattern in the newly created typeface: The letters themselves had begun to withdraw from his vision, and, out of the white voids between them, new and unsuspected ciphers began to appear. (But it soon became clear that these printing problems were unique to Alicja.) Black became obsessed with decoding these emergent glyphs, an obsession which arose from a kind of retroactive epiphany on Black’s part. (One typesetter was fired for drinking on the job; another for being albino, and hence bad luck; but the mysterious errors continued.) Black explains this epiphany in his notebooks:
Of course, when I think of Alicja (always), it is of her brightness: when we ate dinner together at the Valois Cafeteria in Hyde Park, and she spilled her tomato soup on a priest; when we swam in the lagoon at Flint Lake Park and Alicja climbed the dyke, stood on the edge, and dove into Devil’s Lake; when we saw the Cubs play the Robins at Cubs Park, and she chose our seats, saying we would catch a fly ball, and when we did, she didn’t even act surprised; so much brightness. But rather than darkening this brightness, her despair and death have only cast that shining in a sharper outline. It is the black, not the white, which proves to be the background.Thus it happened that, in his mind, Oz Black had begun to bring Alicja back to life (while, in the shop, the workers were beginning to agitate for her reinterment).
V. Accidents and Enigmas
In the absence of Black’s assistance, problems in the print shop mounted. We can say that affairs at the BB&S Foundry reached their limits after three events: a mishap, a cold snap, and a bad swap. The cold snap is easiest to explain. During a period of record low temperatures in November 1921, BB&S had to reformulate pigments after ink froze on the press and refused to transfer. Hence was heaped, upon the already-harried workforce, an added anxiety. Harder to explain, perhaps, is the bad swap: The mostly Polish Catholic typesetters at the press finally called in an exorcist when a print run of the the Gospel of John set in Alicja shipped with every instance of the word “Jesus” replaced with “Judas.”9
But Black was too wrapped up in his world of negative objects to prove any help. In notes scrawled in blue pencil on the broadsheet samples he stockpiled in his office, he attempted to taxonomize these unsettling entities. At first, the images between the letters seemed like teeth. Black spent whole days identifying their morphology, labeling U’s and V’s as molars and incisors in the wide, narrow black mouth of ink. Then, they became chthonic figures: A snake coiled around the beehive of an “S,” or the ligature of an “æ” became a vulva-chinned Baubo fellating a winged phallus.
Then there was the mishap. Around this time, one of the typesetters found an old small platen press on the workshop floor that had been mysteriously set with Alicja type. He later reported that he had decided to remove the type from the obsolete machine before moving the press out of the way; but the hinge on the heavy cast iron platen wouldn’t budge, so he reached beneath the platen with his head and torso to remove the pieces of type. The heavy platen came fearfully free. His face was flattened on one side, his skin imprinted indelibly with the copy set in the press; a union representative later noted that his visage sported the text of a Chicago World article from November 9, 1921.10
VI. A Secret Script
What were the various parties to do to resolve their differences and despairs? For Black, the solution was a final hypothesis, reached only after revisiting the suicide note. The occasion for his epiphany seems to have been the initial typed portion of that document, set in the font of the Drake Hotel front-desk typewriter.11 After studying the message in connection with the typeface he had created, Black finally came to the belief that the negative shapes between the letterforms were a separate set of glyphs, belonging to an unrecognizable script; he set to work decoding that alphabet.
For the Sears Roebuck Company, the solution was brusque: The foundry received a complaint from Sears suing the foundry for, inter alia, delivery of the typeface. The complaint lists as a remedy the seizure of the completed Alicja type. For the workers, the solution was no less blunt. Following a meeting of the local Typographical Union, wherein was discussed the disfiguring small-press accident, the typesetters at the BB&S foundry went on strike, occupying the shop.
But Black’s new solution unearthed further problems. After weeks of wrestling with the ciphers between the ciphers of his typeface (during which time he was known neither to emerge from his office nor to take food nor drink), the disturbed typographer reached a fatal interpretation. Hidden in the ligatures, Black began to discover messages from Alicja; no matter how random the sample text, new apparent missives emerged. They took the form of strange promises: She would meet him on the platform at Union Station; they would make love on the Lincoln Park Bridge; they would be married under Lake Michigan.
In his notebook entry for December 16, Black vowed to destroy his typeface at all costs. It was their anniversary.
On December 17, 1921, the BB&S warehouse was mercifully all but empty. Adriano Dinapoli, a press operator working late on the last few pages of a print sample, recounted his near fate to a reporter from the Chicago Evening Post. Not only did the fire seem to have engulfed the furnace, where broken and worn type was melted and recast, but also to have quickly spread to the rest of the foundry, where Dinapoli had to make his way down smoke-filled corridors, dodging not only spills of boiling ink from the upended mixing tubs, but also showers of molten lead from collapsing shelves of type; he was then able not only to climb on top of a steam-powered rotary printing press (which still spewed reams of flaming paper into the air) but also to reach a high window to escape.
Firefighting crews were late to respond to the blaze, due to a traffic jam surrounding the new Chicago Theatre’s grand opening. After drowning the flames and clearing debris from the collapsed roof, the firemen recovered the body of Oz Black, lying limp beside a spilled hellbox which held the only surviving pieces of Alicja. According to the coroner’s report, a fallen steel I-beam had punched its cross-sectional shape into Black’s chest, which was dark with blood; the photograph of his wound resembles, on the one hand, a white double doorway of flesh that opens onto darkness, and also, on the other hand, recalls heavy paper, indented under type and pooling with ink.
1. Such as that of the Brooklyn typesetter Anatole Kozlov who, in 1909, set his cruel love’s name in type, then, in an ingenious but futile attempt at fleeing life, swallowed the type.
2. Annals of the Chicago Typographical Union, June 1917.
3. This is likely the first time Black met his young future fiancée: The printer was across the street from Lesniewski’s Butcher Shop, operated by Alicja’s uncle Cezary. Alicja helped out with the family business; Black later recalled Alicja’s blood-soaked hands as they hacked off chunks of ice with a meat cleaver. She never charged him for the ice.
4. The typeface is named, confusingly for our purposes, Wiebking Black.
5. To complete the fabular formula, it seems that Black became engaged to his princess around the time of his hiring on with BB&S. His notebook from the time contains a seeming allusion: “A. was giddy tonight in an evening frock she had made herself, modeled on an illustration in L’Officiel, a new monthly magazine from Paris. When I asked how she could afford the fabric, she pouted; then, she ate nothing at the diner, and when I told her about my new position, she screamed at me in Polish and stomped off in the rain alone … I know now that she will marry me.”
6. The young woman, Alicja Lesniewski, had an unfortunate story. From the testimony in the police report of various eyewitnesses comes what little we know of her demise. We know that she was a manic-depressive: In his notebooks, Black describes her moods as “ … alternately bright and extinguished, like the lines of lightbulbs in the 63rd Street theater marquees.” We know that, while working a shift at her job as a laundry girl at the recently opened Drake Hotel, a bar manager caught Lesniewski dressed in the fur coat of visiting Hollywood star Mabel Normand. We know that Lesniewski had removed the coat from the laundry room and impersonated the actress at the hotel bar, running up a tab of $378.25. We know that when her manager informed her that he intended to deduct the amount from her meagre paycheck, she became despondent. We know that she first planned to leap from the newly finished south tower of the Wrigley Building. And we know that, when she found it still closed for construction, she instead mounted the rail platform at nearby Slate and Grand Avenue, and leapt fatally in front of the “L” train en route for Englewood. Everything else is open to speculation.
7. It is the opinion of this author that the cause was almost certainly arson. See the 1921 foundry fire, infra.
8. “My request: [illegible]. Your very zapped ex-fiancée bids farewell. Hugs and kisses—Alicja”
9. Superstitions of this sort were nothing new in the world of printing. Printers commonly believed, since the advent of the press, in a special devil that haunted every print shop, a mechanical version of Titivillus (the patron demon of scribes). In fact, early printing was often associated with witchcraft. Legend has it that John Fust, an associate of Gutenberg, sold a number of his printed bibles to members of Louis XI’s court, claiming they were hand-lettered; when identical letterforms were discovered, he was accused of being in league with the devil, and of using the blood of children for red ink.
10. The article, “First Radio-Telephone Station in the West Opens in Chicago,” announced the virgin broadcast from KYW Chicago (the Chicago Grand Opera Company performing an aria from Madama Butterfly, transmitted from the Commonwealth Edison Building). But if this is true, the date on the accident report (November 9) must be incorrect: The newspaper edition in which the article appeared went to print November 11, the day of the historic broadcast.
11. “It ooks 1ke I’ll ever be foriven bt mybe I’l hve a seond rn aroud the bses. [sic].” It’s unclear whether the garbled spelling is due to Lesniewski’s absence of amanuensical training or some irregularity in the hotel’s Underwood.
Byron Landry’s stories have appeared on the Tin House blog, as well as in Bat City Review, Spork, and elsewhere. He is currently an MFA candidate at Johns Hopkins University.