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Miss Teen Wordpower 

The story of forgotten Chicago vaudevillian and superfast typist Birdie Reeve

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click to enlarge Birdie Reeve in May 1924 - NATIONAL PHOTO COMPANY COLLECTION (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
  • Birdie Reeve in May 1924
  • National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)

From 1935 until her death in 1996, Birdie Reeve Kay ran a secretarial service in the Hyde Park Bank Building. She answered phones, transcribed tapes, and typed papers for University of Chicago students. It was no secret Birdie was once a vaudeville star. Billed as the world's fastest typist, she wowed audiences with her effortless speed and her photographic memory. Birdie once played 20 men at chess simultaneously, beating them blindfolded. But just as Birdie was no ordinary stenographer, she was also no run-of-the-mill survivor of show business.

Bertha "Birdie" Reeve was born in 1907, the middle daughter of Thomas and Jennie Reeve, both Jewish immigrants from England. In 1912, Thomas shot and nearly killed his children's doctor outside his Albany Park office. "Dr. Kelly broke up my home," he told the police. Jennie admitted she had fallen in love but had never acted on her desire. At trial, the real estate broker claimed he shot Kelly with the physician's own revolver in a struggle. The defense also banked on the fear a conviction would leave his children parentless, as a court would likely decide Jennie was an unfit adulteress and remove the children from her custody. Although the prosecution accused Thomas of hiding behind his wife's skirts, the jury acquitted him.

Using evidence from his trial, Thomas divorced Jennie and won custody of his three girls. After authorities discovered the Reeves were living in a hut Thomas built on a beach in Uptown, the girls were temporarily placed with relatives. In October 1914, Thomas was convicted of fraud involving an imaginary apartment project called Spoony Island Flats. He emerged from jail the following year as the inventor of "Universcript," a system of stenography promising mastery of communication.

Taking over a shuttered college in Rochester, Indiana, Reeve proved a fanatical promoter of his new Universcript school. "Reeve can teach us how to write, how to talk, how to build, how to travel, how to print, how to obtain power at insignificant cost and how to harness nature's resources," claimed one ad. After Reeve began distributing expensive but bizarrely decorated Universcript chess boards to army training camps, the War Department opened an investigation. The feds struggled to figure out how Universcript worked. Reeve, one investigator concluded, "had a subject which was deep indeed, or he was crazy."

While Reeve initially won over the local press for his moxie, he became unhinged as his school failed. One ad asked potential investors whether they stood with the "Supporters of Merit," who represent "everything noble and right," or with the "Throttlers of Merit," a group comprised of "'Christ-Killers' and everything derogatory in life."

In 1920, Birdie and her sister Rose were briefly committed to the Jewish Home for the Friendless in Chicago. Thomas had refused to send them to school, asserting they had each developed under his tutelage a vocabulary of 60,000 words. Relocating to London, Ontario, Thomas told the provincial census his religion was "Universcript."

Thomas took to the road with Birdie in 1922, presenting her to local newspapers as a champion speed typist and master of the English language—a product of his instructions. Sponsored by typewriter manufacturers, Birdie gave presentations in department stores, fraternal organizations, and high schools. She then hit the vaudeville circuit.

Incredibly, Birdie typed with only her index and middle fingers. "A typewriter is not a piano," she once told a reporter. "Why, just think how it would hamper a horse to have to run on ten legs." Birdie's act, one columnist marveled, "is more remarkable than anything done by prize fighters or marathon runners. That the brain should divide those words instantaneously into letters and write them down 20 a second is a real athletic marvel."

Video courtesy University of South Carolina, Movie Image Research Collections

Whatever her father's history of grifting, Birdie had talent. Newsreel footage shows Birdie joyfully typing with shocking speed. Asking theater audiences to call out the names of prominent individuals, Birdie could then effortlessly recite one of their speeches while speed-typing an entirely different speech. She then passed her pages to stunned theatergoers to proofread. Fielding audience questions at one concert, she rattled the contents of the periodic table of elements and words rhyming with "cupidity" off the top of her head. In addition to her amazing agility and recall, theater critics praised Birdie for her comedic chops.

Wherever she toured, Thomas used Birdie to promote his incomprehensible stenographic lessons. In 1927, Thomas fired Birdie's booking agency, which replied that Thomas should "find some work and not depend upon your daughter to support you." Perhaps with a different manager, one whose sole focus was Birdie, she might have thrived as a performer. The Depression turned the teen wonder into a typist looking for work in Hyde Park.

Birdie last made national news in 1935. Divorcing her husband on grounds of cruelty and abandonment, Birdie refused a court order to allow her estranged husband visitation rights. Birdie pleaded that she was only protecting her four-year-old daughter. Whereas Thomas Reeve went to jail for skipping out on a hotel bill at the end of her touring career, Birdie sat in the Cook County Jail for contempt of court until she revealed the location of her daughter.

Near the end of his life, Thomas Light Reeve branched off as a romance novelist. (Sample prose: "[Her] robust vitality, vibrant exuberance, dynamic buoyancy and her natural strong urge for mating and her craving desire for the opposite sex and connubial bliss gave vent in unhindered and unrestrained form and broke down all the dikes and barriers with its stormy, raging flood.") Long passages of self-published novel Myrtle Green are dedicated toward its hero, Dr. Normal Light, explaining the actual meaning of the Bible. In an autobiographical conclusion portraying the author as a misunderstood, persecuted genius, Thomas declared that Birdie's "merits had to be polluted with gags and drivel to suit moronic heathen minded halfwits," but her effort to "exemplify Light . . . will live . . . "

Thomas died in 1944. Remarried, Birdie poured her talents into her business. A winsome 1982 profile in the Hyde Park Herald mentioned Birdie had once been invited to meet President Calvin Coolidge in the Oval Office, but avoided her unsettled childhood. Her father's system of shorthand was "as unorthodox" as his two-fingered typing system, Birdie admitted. Her office at the Hyde Park Bank Building is now occupied by a clinical psychologist.   v

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