Grab your magnifying glass and get ready to investigate as Mashable uncovers Big/Little Mysteries.
The world’s most famous typing teacher was born in a garage in Sherman Oaks, Calif., more than three decades ago.
Her creators named her Mavis Beacon and she would go on to teach a generation to type with her trademark tranquility while coaching millions of students through the basics of QWERTY.
In the many years since, she’s come to represent excellence in typing, used as a shorthand for speed everywhere from the Tonight Show to The Office. As Jim once complimented Pam, arguably one of the most famous characters ever to hold down a typing-centric job: “Mavis Beacon doesn’t even type 90!”
The twist? She wasn’t real.
“Mavis” was simply the image on the cover of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, a software program developed by Software Toolworks in the 1980s. (It was later acquired by Pearson, the educational media behemoth.) Many over the decades came to believe in her as a living, breathing teacher and the folks at Software Toolworks didn’t try too hard to clarify that wasn’t so.
“We just said that she was our symbol of excellence, and that became more of a marketing slogan,” Joe Abrams, who ran Software Toolworks with Walt Bilofsky at the time, explains.
That ambiguity was enough for devotees of the game to build a mystique around the woman they thought was teaching them how to clank quickly and accurately away on their keyboards. For some, a kind of shared false memory, or Mandela Effect, took hold. Some swore they’d seen her at typing competitions. Or maybe she ran a school?
As one Philadelphia man put it, back in the ’90s: “There really is no Mavis? I can’t believe it.”
“I thought she was real. I’m pretty sure my dad did too,” Alex Handy, the founder of the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment, says. “I mean, there’s no reason that you wouldn’t.”
Which is where the second twist comes in. There was a real Mavis, sort of: the real-life model for the cover of the software.
Her identity is known and she has a name that rivals Mavis Beacon’s in memorability and grandeur: Renée L’Esperance. She was discovered while working as a salesperson at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills in the ’80s and paid $500 for a one-time photoshoot, according to Abrams.
L’Esperance, originally from Haiti, allegedly moved back to the Caribbean in the ’90s to live a quiet life, according to a decades-old article in the Seattle Times. Other models eventually replaced her on the packaging.
Renee L’Esperance, the iconic Mavis Beacon of “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing,” was later replaced by other models.
Credit: Screenshot: Amazon
For decades, the story ended there: A surprise software hit, its fans’ runaway imaginations, and a largely accidental icon. As far as finding L’Esperance? That’s where the trail goes cold.
Sometime in 2018, though, along came Jazmin Jones, later joined by Olivia McKayla Ross, two video artists and self-described “e-girl investigators,” who reopened the case.
“How could she just disappear?”
They’re on the hunt for the “real” Mavis Beacon — that is, L’Esperance — and they’re chronicling their journey in a documentary-slash-narrative film that blurs the line between reality and fiction. Filmed in real time as they try to find L’Esperance, it’s aptly dubbed Seeking Mavis Beacon.
For the filmmakers, the search is about more than just quirky vintage software or learning to type. Many such mysteries have been solved before; we know who’s behind the voice of Siri, we know where the classic Microsoft desktop image was taken. Seeking Mavis Beacon goes further and asks what it means — for the cultural representation of Black women, for our collective remembrance of digital spaces — that no one has tried in earnest to find the original Mavis until now.
“Mavis Beacon is of historic significance simply as a piece of educational software,” Handy, the digital museum founder, explains, citing the program’s longevity. After all, millions have her to thank for their typing abilities.
That leads to a “maddening” question, Jones says: “How could somebody who got so much attention, and stole the show in this way, how could she just disappear?”
Ross adds, “How can y’all actually let this woman be missing for 26 years? It feels really weird to be…the first people who are like, ‘Oh, you can’t find her? We still want to hear from her. So we’ll look.'”
The birth of an icon
To understand the search for L’Esperance — and how you can help — you need to know a bit more about Mavis’ weird, winding origin story.
Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing was created in a wildly different world: Venture capitalists weren’t breathing down the necks of every young dude with a Patagonia jacket and a half-baked startup idea; Mark Zuckerberg was a literal baby.
“There were no ground rules in the industry. There was no industry,” Abrams, of Software Toolworks, says.
In that scrappy environment, he explains, software products were primarily being developed “by engineers, for engineers.” Abrams had difficulty describing his line of work at dinner parties, noting that it was still before the iconic 1984 Mac commercial that introduced the company’s first personal computer. The general public was fairly clueless when it came to home computing — and that was opening for anyone who wanted to sell software.
Software Toolworks, founded by Abrams’ cousin Walt Bilofsky, swiftly filled that gap in 1985 when it merged with Software Country, a software company owned by the charismatic Les Crane, a former talk show host from the ’60s once dubbed the “bad boy of late-night television.”
With Bilofsky on software, Abrams on the business side of things, and Crane on big ideas and marketing, a general strategy for targeting the computer-hesitant consumers of the ’80s emerged: The products would make users feel like they were communicating with a real person, easing them into the idea of interacting with a computer.
The products would make users feel like they were communicating with a real person, easing them into the idea of interacting with a computer.
One of the earliest inspirations for that vision was a Software Toolworks program called Eliza, a faux-psychiatrist and a kind of early artificial intelligence prototype. Eliza could reply to statements from users about their lives, jobs, and relationships. However, Wilofsky explains, “It wasn’t intelligent. It was a trick. All it really did was repeat back what the user was saying.”
Trick or not, it shaped Software Toolworks’ products to come. “What it did prove was that you could engage the user with the computer by letting them know that the computer was listening to them. Was it listening and understanding? No. But was it responding to the user? Absolutely,” Bilofsky says.
Using that same general formula — make the computer respond to the user — Software Toolworks released Chessmaster 2000 in 1986. The runaway hit chess engine had a crucial addition: a human mascot on the box. In this case, a character actor dressed up as a wizard. Now, not only did the software feel personable, there was an actual person advertising it as well.
“There was all sorts of stuff like that,” Handy says, citing programs like Norton Utilities, which featured the real-life programmer Peter Norton on the front of its packaging.
Software Toolworks, however, was about to take it a step further, with a fake expert and a real model. Next up on the company’s agenda was a typing teaching program, which at the time consisted of programs like MasterType or IntelliType, Abrams notes. Step one was finding some kind of human emblem à la Chessmaster — and a chance trip to the perfume counter at Saks in Beverly Hills led Abrams and Crane to L’Esperance. (As one of Mavis’ late programmers, Michael E. Duffy, put it, the run-in was “like Lana Turner being discovered at Schwab’s [drugstore].”)
L’Esperance got a new business-formal outfit from Abrams and Crane, went over to the Century Plaza business square, took some pictures alongside Abrams’ young son, and got $500 for her time.
Jones looks at original stills from the day when Renee L’Esperance became Mavis Beacon.
Credit: Jules Retzlaff
It was a serendipitous run-in that would have big implications for Black representation in software. “It was not necessarily unusual to have a piece of software named after a human being at the time…” Handy says, adding that the real innovation was choosing a Black woman “as the mascot, because that was the aspect of Mavis Beacon that really stood out.”
Smooth sailing, it would seem, but there was trouble ahead. Software Toolworks’ distributor was on board and pre-selling the software, Abrams explains, but a trip to the Bay Area stalled the process.
“We showed them the box and they were a little bit taken aback,” Abrams remembers. “They said, ‘Let us go out and show our customers.’ And they came back and they said…’we’ve lost about 50% of the pre-sales.'” The distributor’s customers weren’t willing to sell software with a Black woman on the cover, he says, and Abrams and Crane were given a terse ultimatum: “Either replace the cover, or we’ll cut our orders back by 50%.”
“Either replace the cover, or we’ll cut our orders back by 50%.”
On the flight back to LA, Abrams and Crane, still in disbelief, decided to trust their instinct which, Abrams says, was that “[Mavis’ race] should be irrelevant.”
That gut reaction — and the present-day implications Seeking Mavis Beacon is examining — proved lucrative. Within months, the company made up for the initial sales cut, and, buoyed by a glowing review in the New York Times, sales soon skyrocketed. Mavis was well on her way to becoming the icon she is today. That was great news for the emergent Software Toolworks.
“There was a lot riding on the development of the product, and we did celebrate a lot,” Abrams says. He adds that upon completing the Macintosh version of Mavis Beacon, one developer was so excited that he climbed up a billboard on busy Ventura Boulevard to celebrate.
Still, Abrams is careful not to portray the crew as social justice warriors. Though they were “proud” to display L’Esperance’s image on their software, the decision wasn’t necessarily part of a bigger crusade to depict a character that could serve as an inspiration for Black kids — even though they’re glad that’s what it became for Jones, Ross, and countless others.
More than anything, they were shocked that having a Black woman on a piece of packaging caused such a stir in the ’80s. Bilofsky, who wasn’t directly involved in the marketing, adds that while they considered the decision potentially “controversial,” it was a non-issue for “three Jewish guys from the Bronx.”
It’s this part of the story that Jones and Ross especially want to dig into. “What we’re talking about in this project is kind of like intention versus impact,” Jones says. “I don’t really question that Mavis Beacon was made with the best of intentions that can happen under capitalism.”
Even if L’Esperance’s face on the box was part of an attention-getting marketing scheme, Jones and Ross are more interested in examining the consequences of her face on the cover, all these years later.
The character that “should exist”
Jones’ and Ross’ in-progress film is unconventional in format: the filmmakers are its central characters as they document their real-life investigation into L’Esperance’s current whereabouts. They’ve been filming themselves as they interview the program’s developers, field calls from a tip hotline they’ve set up, distribute missing person flyers, and talk to people — and each other — about what Mavis means to them.
That means every potential lead, from any source — cough, cough, dear reader — could get them closer to finding L’Esperance. “It’s not some Hollywood crew…pretending that they’re investigating,” Jones explains. “No, we actually need your help.”
Jones and Ross have been documenting their search for typing teacher Mavis Bacon in real time.
Credit: Owen Smith Clark
Jones’ and Ross’ film is inspired, in part, by the ’90s queer classic The Watermelon Woman, the first feature film directed by a Black queer woman. In it, the filmmaker Cheryl Dunye searches for a Black actress from the 1930s who’s credited in a fictional film called Plantation Memories only as “The Watermelon Woman.”
“By the end of the film, you come to find out — spoiler here — the ‘Watermelon Woman’ isn’t real,” Jones explains. “And Cheryl Dunye has done this whole investigative search around a character that she thinks…should exist.
“I get really emotional watching [The Watermelon Woman] because you see Cheryl Dunye do the work of imagining this fictional Black woman live a good life,” she adds.
Similarly, Jones stresses, Seeking Mavis Beacon is at its core less about whether or not Mavis is “real,” and more about properly honoring everything she represents, both as an imagined cultural figure and in L’Esperance’s corporeal form, just as Dunye did for the fictional Watermelon Woman.
“Mavis Beacon is in this liminal space,” she adds. “Why was she made in the way that she was? Why is she Black? Even if the reasons we find behind that are fraught, I’m so glad she existed because it did allow for people like me and Olivia to project ourselves into a digital space.”
The search for L’Esperance, the original Mavis Beacon, is ongoing.
Credit: Jules Retzlaff
In the version of the software Jones used as an 8-year-old in the ’90s, there were animated hands, belonging to the fictional “Mavis,” that carried out typing commands on screen.
“It’s a real visualization of my body in this realm, and it’s so seamless,” she explains. “You couldn’t even get that in Pokémon games,” Ross adds, in reference to the dearth of Black avatars in other digital environments at the time.
“To have a Black woman kind of be held up as the pillar for excellence and competency and respectability…it’s so interesting, so loaded, because there weren’t really any prototypes before,” Jones says, adding that she used Mavis Beacon at a time when she couldn’t even find Band-Aids that matched her skin.
“We’re calling this a wellness check,” she explains, regarding the search for L’Esperance, stressing that Mavis was a “portal” for seeing herself in the world.
Desperately seeking Renée
Because the search for L’Esperance is ongoing, Jones and Ross are keeping mum on the specifics of what they’ve found so far. Jones says they “have a working theory about what happened to Reneé” that they’re currently trying to confirm.
Ross explains they’ve been following all of the logical leads in the story.
For instance, when Abrams met L’Esperance, he noted she had incredibly long fingernails — so long that she likely couldn’t have operated a computer even if she had wanted to.
That raised a barrage of questions for Jones and Ross, in part because the length of her nails fluctuates in reporting on the topic. “They’re seven inches at one point,” Ross says. “If anyone had nails more than a half a foot long, you’d remember her.”
The seemingly inconsequential detail quickly became a focal point; Jones visited Saks in Beverly Hills, noting that L’Esperance would’ve been an extreme exception if she could “defy” the “respectability politics of an environment like that” as a Black woman in the ’80s with multi-inch nails.
The question that peppers their film also arises when looking into something as apparently mundane as her manicure: How could this woman be forgotten?
Even the smallest details, like L’Esperance’s manicure, can become focal points in the search for Mavis Beacon.
Credit: Jules Retzlaff
Jones and Ross are hoping the search leads them to other women who depicted Mavis Beacon on subsequent iterations of the software too. Already, tips have come from unexpected places. Jones matched with someone on Tinder who said they went to high school with one of the other Mavis Beacons.
The official hotline number and form for sending tips is available on their website but, Jones says, “We’ll take leads anywhere — in the DMs, Tinder. Hit me up on Pinterest.”
And because their search is ultimately about properly honoring L’Esperance and the concept of Mavis Beacon, they also want to hear from anyone who was touched by her in some way.
“If she taught you to type, if you loved it, if you hated it, if you had a nickname and called her Mavis Bacon…we want to hear from you,” Jones says.
“We don’t know what we’re going to find,” she adds. “And we hope that it is a triumphant story in which Renée L’Esperance is just chilling, and is like, ‘Why did you bother me? I’m living great.'”
“We want to make sure she’s good. We want to make sure she gets her flowers.”