Steve Hauk

About Steve Hauk

Steve Hauk is a playwright, short story writer, and art expert in Pacific Grove, California. Co-curator of This Side of Eden—Images of Steinbeck's California, the inaugural art exhibition at the National Steinbeck Center, he has written on John Steinbeck for Steinbeck Review and is the author of two CINE Golden Eagle award-winning PBS-telecast documentaries narrated by Jack Lemmon, Time Captured in Paintings: The Monterey Legacy and The Roots of California Photography: The Monterey Legacy. His plays include Fortune's Way, or Notes on Art for Catholics (and Others)The Floating Hat, Reflections of an American Mossad, A Mild Concussion, and The Cottages, Scenes from Lives Interrupted. Steinbeck: The Untold Stories, a book of fictional stories based on incidents from Steinbeck's life, has been published by SteinbeckNow.com.

The Conversation with John Steinbeck’s Widow That Was All About Names, and Love

Image of Elaine and John Steinbeck

It was 1998. I had co-curated with Patricia Leach the inaugural art exhibition at the grand opening of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. A week or so after the opening I received a phone call from a woman with a Southwestern accent, or at least that’s what I judged it to be.

“Mr. Hauk, this is Elaine Steinbeck, the widow of the author John Steinbeck.”

“Hello, how do you do?”

“I am doing well, thank you. I was wondering if you would do me a favor, please.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Could you look in a Monterey County telephone book and tell me how many times you see my late husband’s name associated with a business or commercial enterprise?”

I opened my phone book to the businesses section and started flipping the pages to the S’s. I wondered how Mrs. Steinbeck picked me to call, then realized it must have been because she saw my name in conjunction with the exhibition at the National Steinbeck Center, This Side of Eden: Images from Steinbeck’s California.

Well, I found Steinbeck’s name tacked on to six or seven area enterprises. There was, I recall, a credit union, a used car dealership, and a dry cleaner, among other Steinbeck-somethings. As I read them off to Mrs. Steinbeck, she said, “Oh, my.” She said this or something similar several times in a charming sort of way. I joked that I might think of adopting the Steinbeck name for my business. She laughed, sort of. The commercialization of her husband’s name obviously bothered her, but she didn’t seem terribly upset, just mildly irritated and genuinely curious.

We talked for several minutes. She asked about the National Steinbeck Center and wondered how her husband was remembered in Monterey County. I found her a pleasant conversationalist. Over time, as I grew more interested in her late husband’s work, I regretted I didn’t ask for her phone number that day so I could call now and then to ask questions about his life.

The other day, I picked up the Monterey County phone book, turned to the business section, and flipped to the S’s. Some of the businesses with the Steinbeck name in 1998 had obviously closed, but new ones had sprouted up and the number using the author’s name was up eight, including a kennel (Steinbeck loved dogs), two realty firms (he owned houses in Monterey and Pacific Grove), a dental center (he said he met Ed Ricketts at the dentist’s), a café (think Bear Flag), a produce business (perfect fit), even an equine clinic for ponies, red and otherwise.

At her husband’s funeral in New York, Elaine Steinbeck asked his friends and mourners not to forget him. It isn’t what she had in mind at the time, but in a way that Steinbeck would probably appreciate, the continued commercial use of his name in Monterey County, 50 years after his death, is a sign of recognition and respect. I think she realized that and it’s the reason she called me 20 years ago. I’m glad I got to speak with her. She was smart and personable, like most Texans I know, and she was a theater person with an ear for poetry. When she died in 2003, her ashes joined John’s at the Salinas, California cemetery where, as she predicted (quoting Keats), she came to rest, like Ruth, “amid the alien corn” of her loved one’s people.

The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the selfsame song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn . . . .

      (from “Ode to a Nightingale”)

The Monterey Peninsula and John Steinbeck’s Myna Bird

Image of John Steinbeck sculpture in Monterey

Although I think he eventually changed his mind, in 1972 I was able to empathize with John Steinbeck’s dislike of being interviewed when a writer from National Geographic magazine came to California’s Monterey Peninsula to do a cover piece on the region. His name was Mike Edwards, and he phoned me to set up an interview. I had been a reporter for the Monterey Peninsula Herald, as it was called then, and had left there and was now working over the hill for the Carmel Pine Cone. Interviewing people was the same for both newspapers and I felt at ease with it. Being on the other side of the desk, being interviewed myself instead of doing the interviewing, seemed a natural, so I said yes when Mike called.

National Geographic Captured “Interesting Times” in 1972

Image of hippie near MontereyThese were interesting times in our region. The hippie movement was in full flux and kids were getting in trouble smoking weed and running away from Cleveland or Denver and hiding out from frantic parents on the Monterey Peninsula or down in Big Sur. I did a story for the Herald about a local mayor riding with the police to root out the hippies. The next day I encountered the mayor and, his eyes big, he said, “My God, that story you did on me—people are furious with me!’’ That reflects the way Monterey Peninsula people could be in those days. There was a lot of conservative money, yes, but most of the citizens believed in individual rights. They didn’t want a mayor to be a cop hassling hippies. When an oil company threatened to drill in Monterey Bay, protestors included hippies and others from the left, along with marchers from the right, joining in common cause. The oil company backed off.

When I met with Mike Edwards at my desk at the Pine Cone I was surprised to discover that, while interviewing others was easy, being interviewed made me uncomfortable. Though Mike was a gentleman, polite and professional, I was a nervous wreck. I was used to asking the questions, not answering them, and I was relieved when the November National Geographic appeared and I saw that Mike had been merciful. I was neither quoted nor mentioned in “A Land Apart – The Monterey Peninsula,’’ though I hoped I’d at least provided him with some decent background for his story.

Cover image from November 1972 National Geographic

Mike had come to the Monterey Peninsula deeply interested in the region through reading John Steinbeck. He wrote in his piece that he was drawn to the “derelict sheds – part corrugated metal, part masonry, part rusting clutter – that stand along the seven blocks of Cannery Row’’ by reading Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s friends Bruce and Jean Ariss helped him understand the area even more. The Arisses were on their way to becoming local legendary figures themselves, in part because of their friendship with Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, but also because they were talented artists of great strength and character. Bruce was a painter and writer. Jean was the author of two novels—The Quick Years and The Shattered Glass.

“Being Quotable” About the Title of The Grapes of Wrath

Cover image from "The Grapes of Wrath"“I spent an interesting afternoon in the company of Jean,” Mike wrote, “and her husband, Bruce, a writer, editor, and artist well known for his murals,” explaining that “they saw Steinbeck often in Edward Ricketts’ laboratory on the Row.‘’ After describing Steinbeck as “a large, thickset man, usually wearing jeans and a shabby sheepskin coat,” Jean told Mike about spending a day in 1939 with John Steinbeck, his wife Carol, and Ed Ricketts, going over the manuscript of John’s new novel, not yet titled. “She remembers Ricketts saying to Steinbeck, ‘This is a fine book – your best. It will win you the Nobel Prize.’ . . . The group spent the afternoon trying to think of a title, finally agreeing on ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ “

That’s what you call being quotable. John Steinbeck gave Carol credit for the title, so perhaps it was on the day Jean recalled in her interview with Mike Edwards. I wish Jean had been more specific. If she were, I’m sure Mike would have reported it. He went on to a distinguished career, writing 54 articles from around the world for National Geographic. He was honored by the Foreign Correspondents Association for his writing on the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl—something Steinbeck would have admired, the courage to cover that story—and he retired as a senior editor at National Geographic in 2002. He died last year in Arlington, Virginia.

Cover image from "Conversations with John Steinbeck"Why do I think John Steinbeck eventually changed his mind about being interviewed? Because of a collection of 26 articles, all quoting Steinbeck, titled Conversations with John Steinbeck, edited by Thomas Fensch and published by the University of Mississippi. At times Steinbeck comes across as taciturn and uncooperative. At others he really seems to be enjoying himself. My wife Nancy and I picked up a copy several years ago in a little shop on Lighthouse Avenue in New Monterey, which used to have a half-dozen bookstores specializing in collectible editions. At the time I was working on a play about Steinbeck, setting him in his New York apartment at night, the only other characters a ghost, a talking myna bird, and a whirring tape recorder.

I got the idea for the myna bird from a Steinbeck letter I traded for some years ago, a handwritten missive to Fred Zinnemann, the director of High Noon, From Here to Eternity, and other fine films. In the letter Steinbeck is giving the myna bird to Zinneman, and describes the bird’s character and required care. The tape recorder in the play was, I think (one can never be quite sure about these things) my own invention, perhaps inspired by reading that Steinbeck liked tinkering and “gadgets.”

The Imaginary Myna Bird With the Meaningful Name

Nancy and I took Conversations with John Steinbeck home, sat down on the couch, and opened it. One of the first interviews we read was a 1952 piece by New York Times drama critic Lewis Nichols interviewing Steinbeck in the author’s Manhattan apartment. They seemed to get along well as Steinbeck discussed work on the book that would become East of Eden. Steinbeck proudly mentioned having a writing room, something that—echoing Virginia Woolf—he considered of paramount importance. “This,” Nichols wrote, “is the first room of his own he ever has had.’’ Then: “It is a very quiet room. For companionship, Mr. Steinbeck would like to get a myna bird. With a tape recorder he would teach this to ask questions, never answer, just ask.’’

Representational image of myna birdWhen we read that, Nancy looked at me and we laughed. We felt we were channeling John Steinbeck, though to this day I still haven’t finished the play. Neither have I given up. Someday. And someday I’d like to elaborate on Steinbeck’s charming myna bird letter to Zinnemann. Steinbeck, incidentally, called the myna bird “John L.”

For the fighter John L. Sullivan? Or the labor leader John L. Lewis? Either one would be meaningful.

 

An Artful Reminder of Japanese American Internment 75 Years Ago

Image of George Matsasaburo Hibbi's painting from Topaz camp

The forced internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor distressed John Steinbeck, who admired Franklin Roosevelt, the president who signed the internment order. Today, exactly 75 years later, the memory of Executive Order 9066 continues to burden American history. An anniversary article on the World War II internment of Japanese Americans in the January 2017 issue of Smithsonian Magazine leads off with a profile of Jane Yanagi Diamond, a vibrant internment survivor I happen to know.

Image of Dorthea Lange's Photograph of young Jane Yanagi and family

The 1942 photograph taken by Steinbeck’s ally and contemporary Dorothea Lange (above) shows Jane as a sorrowing child holding on to her pregnant mother’s hand, moments before the Yanagi family boards a bus on the way to the emergency assembly center hastily set up by the federal government at a California racetrack. The family was then sent to Topaz, an internment camp in Utah that would also house two exceptional California artists, Chiura Obata and George Matsusaburo Hibi. Obata, an art instructor at UC Berkeley, and Hibi, a prolific painter from Hayward, California, founded an art school at Topaz that uncovered hidden talent and helped internees cope until the war ended and they could go home.

Image of George Matsasaburo Hibbi's painting of Topaz camp

Obata eventually returned to his teaching post at Cal and became famous for his Yosemite scenes. Hibi’s paintings included internment camp scenes like the one shown here. He was also magnanimous, donating 50 of his and his family paintings to the Hayward community before being sent to Topaz. Michael Brown, the author of Views from Asian California – 1920-1965, quotes Hibi as saying this about the gift: “There is no boundary in art. This is the only way I can show my appreciation to my many American friends here.’’ Obata died in 1975, Hibi in 1947, two years after his release from Topaz.

Image of Jane Yanagi Diamond at home in Carmel today

How Creating Art Helped Japanese Americans Survive

Obata and Hibi were part of a remarkable art movement in the Japanese American camps, most of which included professional artists who realized the importance of establishing a creative outlet for the internees. The work they produced–both professionals and students–was so moving, so powerful that in 1992 the Japanese American National Museum, the Wight Art Gallery at UCLA, and UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center assembled a landmark traveling exhibition, “The View from Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps 1942-1945.” Hibi’s colorful painting of four Topaz internees seated at easels is testimony to the spirit of the movement he and Obata helped create.

Obata and Hibi were part of a remarkable art movement in the Japanese American camps, most of which included professional artists who realized the importance of establishing a creative outlet for the internees.

I was a reporter at the time, and I wrote several articles about the exhibition. My interest was initially stirred when I learned that a Japanese American artist named Miki Hayakawa was taken from my town of Pacific Grove, California, to an internment camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I knew Hayakawa was a superb artist because several of her exquisite paintings had come into the art gallery that my wife Nancy and I owned there. Hayakawa lived in Pacific Grove from 1939 until her removal to the camp and may well have known—or known of—John Steinbeck, who was in Pacific Grove off and on during that period. Hayakawa died in Santa Fe in 1953.

I was a reporter at the time, and I wrote several articles about the exhibition, ‘The World From Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942-1945.’

I met Jane Yanagi Diamond (shown above at home) several years ago when she and her husband Tony came into the gallery. They live in Carmel and had a painting by Hibi that had hung at Topaz and that Hibi gave to Jane’s father when the family was released. Jane wanted to find a good home for the work and together we decided that it should return to Topaz, where a museum had been established to memorialize the internment of Japanese Americans like Jane. The piece was dramatic. Painted on four panels, it depicts three tigers stalking a brave antelope or gazelle, head down, determined to hold its ground in the face of an approaching threat. I wondered at the time if Hibi painted it to give children like Jane the courage they needed to go on.

I met Jane Yanagi Diamond when she and her husband Tony came into the gallery. They live in Carmel and had a painting by Hibi that had hung at the Topaz camp.

Jane developed a love of art, favoring the freedom of California plein air painting—work painted out of doors in an Impressionistic manner—and attending frequent art openings in and around Carmel with her husband. When an exhibition of Nancy’s paintings opened at the Pacific Grove Library several years ago, Tony and Jane were there. She recently shared a story about her father. “After Topaz,” she said, “whenever my father would get angry about something–sometimes something I might have done–I could always redirect his anger by mentioning Franklin Roosevelt because it brought back memories.”

Jane developed a love of art, favoring the freedom of California plein air painting and attending frequent art openings in and around Carmel with Tony. She recently shared a story about her father.

The Yanagi family also had the three tigers and the gazelle to help them hold onto a piece of personal history made less painful by art. But Hibi’s painting has now returned to Topaz, where it will continue to tell the story of artful courage and coping from a troubling episode in American history.

Photograph of Jane Yanagi Diamond by Paul Kitagaki Jr. courtesy Smithsonian Magazine.

John Steinbeck’s Monterey County: On Reading Steve Crouch’s Steinbeck Country

Image of Steve Crouch portrait by Martha Casanave

Photograph of Steve Crouch by Martha Casanave

A few days ago I bought a second copy of Steve Crouch’s 1973 photography book Steinbeck Country from a young man in financial trouble, the only reason I made the purchase. That evening I glanced at several chapters. They were powerful and prescient (“ . . . the seeds of desperation are at hand. They may already have been planted.’’), and I had to keep reminding myself that the book wasn’t written by John Steinbeck. Why I had it in my head that Steve Crouch–a top-tier photographer–shouldn’t be a fine writer as well, I have no idea.

Steve Crouch–a gentleman I knew only slightly–seemed to have absorbed some of John Steinbeck’s style and love for Monterey County. Each of the 20 chapters of his book leads off with a quotation from Steinbeck’s writing, and the chapter titles (“The Farmers,” “The Spanish,” “The River Valley,” “The Mountains”) have Steinbeck’s simplicity. One—“The Mexicans—is especially relevant to the threats made against the nation’s Mexican-American population in the recent presidential campaign.

Cover image from Steinbeck Country by Steve CrouchI met Steve when I was a reporter at the Monterey Herald, where he would occasionally take on freelance assignments. I don’t know whether he was ever a staff member, but I recall seeing him in 1973, not long after Steinbeck Country had been published by American West Publishing Company of Palo Alto.  I recall Steve smiling shyly and scratching the back of his head when someone stopped to compliment him on the book, as if the book’s success had come as a complete surprise to him. I wasn’t into Steinbeck yet, and my interest in the book at the time was simply for its exquisite photography. If I could go back I’d ask him about the people and places he discovered during his travels around Monterey County, his meetings and relations with the people and the land celebrated by John Steinbeck in The Pastures of Heaven, Cannery Row, and East of Eden.

Steve’s intimate familiarity with Monterey County is evident in a chapter called “The Wind.” No one can write about the Salinas Valley convincingly without writing about the wind, and Steve experienced its harshness when he photographed farm laborers: “The people who work in the fields come prepared against the wind, muffled to the eyes, for the wind can cut to the bone. Men riding the tractors resemble Bedouins of the desert.’’ I experienced the same winds, though less painfully, in my job as a reporter. For instance, while covering a high school baseball game in the valley one day, I witnessed a player throw his cap in anger. The afternoon wind blew the cap high up onto the backstop and, roaring, held it there for the entire game, several hours. It ripped pages from my reporter’s notebook. Imagine what it could do to stoop laborers, men and women, cutting lettuce heads.

The people who work in the fields come prepared against the wind, muffled to the eyes, for the wind can cut to the bone. Men riding the tractors resemble Bedouins of the desert.

In “The Mexicans” Steve quotes To a God Unknown, then tells the story of the legendary bandit Tiburcio Vasquez, a kind of Latin Robin Hood who died in 1875 at the end of a rope. Though honored in memory by many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, Vasquez may not have been Mexican at all: “[I]n those days of ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian,’ it was also said that ’the only good Mexican is a dead Mexican.’” Of mixed blood, Tiburcio Vasquez “was too dark ever to be taken for Anglo-Saxon,” and Anglo migrants from the East were moving in on Monterey County’s Mexican-Americans. “That his cause was hopeless did not matter,” Steve writes. “[W]hat was important was that he provided a champion for the Mexicans when they needed one.’’

Tiburcio Vasquez, a Latin Robin Hood who died in 1875 at the end of a rope, was a champion for the Mexicans when they needed one.

Moving on to the field worker strikes of the 1960s and 70s, Steve points to another form of Mexican-American displacement: “Mexicans who live on the farms are moving away, displaced by machines. Most of them have become permanent residents of the valley towns . . . . When they do work, the pay is good, particularly when a complete family works—and Mexican families often muster as many as eight or ten to work.” Reporting from Salinas, I saw instances where this ethic could be detrimental. For instance, there was a basketball coach at Alisal High named Jim Rear. Season after season he brilliantly coached a group of short (for basketball) Mexican-American players into smart, winning teams. When labor was needed some parents pulled their sons from the team to work in the fields, perhaps costing their children academic advancement or college scholarships in return for not much, but necessary, family money. Several players, some of them fine students, told me that their parents failed to see the need for extra school activities—including sports—when the boys could be earning money in the fields.

When they do work, the pay is good, particularly when a complete family works—and Mexican families often muster as many as eight or ten to work

After Steve died in 1984, the late photographer Al Weber saved his work from a trip to the dump. Steve’s book has become a classic, and his photos of John Steinbeck’s Monterey County are now part of the special collection at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The second copy of Steinbeck Country I bought was inscribed by a woman named Rosalind to a man named Larry, who “introduced me not only to Steinbeck, but to so many of the beauties within the pages of this book. May `Steinbeck Country’ bring you some of the pleasure and joy you have brought me.‘’

Steve Crouch must have liked that. I think Steinbeck would too.

Photograph of Steve Crouch @Martha Casanave.

Passed On: John Steinbeck’s Affinity for the Visual Arts

Image of Thom and John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck not only liked being painted, he liked artists and had a deep affinity for the visual arts. For much of his life he counted artists among his most trusted friends. His appreciation for the visual arts, and the needs of working artists, started on the Monterey Peninsula and continued in New York. As suggested by this undated photograph of Steinbeck with his son Thom, he passed this appreciation on to his children. As a result, of the great American writers of the 20th century perhaps none has been captured in portraits and drawings as often as John Steinbeck.

Cover image of Monterey Peninsula art colony history

I think there are two main reasons for Steinbeck’s attraction to artists and being a subject of their work. The place where Steinbeck lived for much of his first 40 years, California’s Monterey Peninsula, was thick with gifted artists when Steinbeck was growing up and beginning his career. And because what Steinbeck was writing in the 1930s and 40s did not make him particularly popular with the local establishment, even endangering him, his circle of friends was necessarily limited, and included artists. This connection with artists carried over when Steinbeck moved to New York and eventually extended to Europe as well. I have a 2001 letter from the late Thomas Steinbeck in which he wrote, “By the time I showed up on the scene, my father had already sat for a number of notable painters.’’ Thom “showed up’’ in New York City, where he was born to John Steinbeck and Gwyndolyn Conger in 1944.

Image of Judith Deim, Ellwood Graham, and children

Three major portraits of Steinbeck that we know of were made before he left California for New York. One was by James Fitzgerald. The other two were by the husband-and-wife artists Ellwood Graham and Judith Deim, shown here with their children in an unattributed photograph from the late 1940s or early 1950s.

Image of John Steinbeck portrait by James FitzgeraldFitzgerald was born in Milton, Massachusetts and arrived in 1928 as a seaman aboard a freighter. Once he settled in Monterey, he became a part of the group of writers and artists who gathered at Ed Ricketts’s legendary lab on Cannery Row. In 1935, the year Tortilla Flat was published, Fitzgerald did this charcoal study of a young, gaunt Steinbeck, his face half in shadow, that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Reportedly Steinbeck and Fitzgerald had their disagreements, but their friendship endured. There is a photograph of Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and Ricketts standing on Cannery Row with improvised musical instruments in their hands, including pots and pans. Fitzgerald left Monterey in 1943 for Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine; several years ago the Monhegan Museum established the James Fitzgerald Legacy in honor of his standing as one of America’s greatest watercolorists.

Graham and Deim were both born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1911. Sometime in 1936 or 1937 they met Steinbeck and Ricketts–who were on their way to Mexico–while working on a WPA mural project at the Ventura Post Office in Southern California. The fiction writer and the marine biologist from Pacific Grove were impressed by the work and invited the young couple to visit the Monterey Peninsula, where Deim and Graham eventually settled. Steinbeck was generous, paying their way to Mexico to learn to “paint out loud,’’ advising them, Deim later wrote, to “go to Patzcuaro and not to Tasco where all the tourists go.’’

Image of John Steinbeck portrait by Judith Deim

In 2000 Deim wrote that when Steinbeck and Ricketts returned from their expedition to the Sea of Cortez in 1940 “there was much rejoicing, partying, storytelling at the Lab. After a few days of this . . . John felt it was time to get to work. He said, ‘Why don’t you kids paint my portrait and I shall be forced to concentrate and get on with my book.’” Deim’s modern, compact portrait of Steinbeck in the act of writing, shown here, now hangs at the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies in San Jose.

Image of John Steinbeck portrait by Ellwood Graham

Ellwood Graham’s psychological study of John Steinbeck (above) has been missing for decades. One story says that Steinbeck’s friend, the film director John Huston coveted the painting, another that it was won or lost in a poker game. Its discovery, if it still exists, would be a major find.

Image of self-portrait by Henry Varnum PoorOne of the first artists Steinbeck became friendly with in New York was Henry Varnum Poor, shown in this self-portrait. In the early 1940s Poor was, like Steinbeck, a resident of Rockland County, and he agreed to be a character witness for Steinbeck in 1942 when the writer applied for a New York State pistol license. This took some courage because Poor had executed a major mural in the Department of Justice building in Washington, and Steinbeck was controversial.

In 1944 John and Gwyn commissioned Poor to do a Steinbeck family portrait, with Gwyn holding a crying infant Thomas. It’s a stark painting. Thom, who disparaged his depiction by Poor in the 2001 letter, added that “My mother loved this painting above all others, which only lends credence to Mr. Poor’s interpretive skills.’’ Whatever he thought of Poor’s painting—which now belongs to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas—John Steinbeck continued the family-portrait habit. Thom, again in his 2001 letter, noted that “before I could tear myself from the ancestral grasp, my portrait had been painted three times.’’

By maintaining his relationship with artists in New York, it’s possible that Steinbeck wanted to help keep them employed, as he had for Graham and Deim back on the Monterey Peninsula. Thom writes about his father’s close friendship in New York with “that singular genius William Ward Beecher.’’ Thom and his brother Johnnie were fascinated by Beecher’s work but were “pole-axed’’ when their father told them Beecher would paint their portrait, which they realized meant lengthy sittings, away from mischief-making. Thom later recalled that when he and John misbehaved their father took out his frustration by “shaking his fist’’ at his sons’ portraits rather than at them.

Image of Bo BeskowAnother Steinbeck portraitist was the handsome Swedish artist Bo Beskow (left), who painted or drew the writer at least three times. Beskow remained a trusted confidant during a three-decade relationship in which the two friends exchanged letters, notes, and encouragement, sometimes under trying circumstances. Beskow’s informal 1946 portrait of a smiling John Steinbeck illustrates the fall 2012 issue of Steinbeck Review. A Beskow drawing of Steinbeck with the notation “Copenhagen, Dec. 8, 1962’’—two days before Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize speech—came to auction several years ago.

Of course artists didn’t depict Steinbeck only in portraiture. Judith Deim’s late-1930s painting “Beach Picnic’’ shows Steinbeck, Ricketts, and other members of the lab group gathered on an unidentified Monterey Peninsula or Big Sur beach. Deim said the painting, which has a pensive quality, was done when threats were being made against Steinbeck and his friends gathered around him protectively, as the composition suggests.

Cover image of Cannery Row sketches by Bruce Ariss

Bruce Ariss, another prominent Monterey Peninsula artist from the lab group, did an arresting drawing of Steinbeck sitting under a cypress tree watching as the characters he created parade by on a busy Cannery Row. Ariss’s spontaneous drawings of Steinbeck and Ricketts and the others populate his book Inside Cannery Row: Sketches from the Steinbeck Era. Some of Ariss’s images can be seen today on the colorful banners that dot Cannery Row.

Not all of Steinbeck’s artist friends drew or painted him. Armin Hansen and Howard Everett Smith were leading artists on the Monterey Peninsula with close relationships to Steinbeck, but I know of no portrait of the writer by either one. Hansen wasn’t really a portraitist, so it’s unlikely he painted Steinbeck. Smith did do portraits: perhaps his most famous subject was the poet Robinson Jeffers, after John Steinbeck the Monterey Peninsula’s greatest literary figure.

Image of Tortilla Flat book illustration by Peggy Worthington Best

And then there were the illustrators of Steinbeck’s books. Mahlon Blaine, an artist Steinbeck met in 1925 while traveling to New York for work, created the cover art for Cup of Gold, Steinbeck’s first novel. Steinbeck was unsatisfied with the image, and he continued to be involved in selecting illustrators for many of the works that followed. To create the cover art and illustrations for the deluxe edition of Tortilla Flat like the one shown here, he helped choose Peggy Worthington (later Peggy Worthington Best), the wife of a poet and editor at Viking Press, his publisher. Thomas Hart Benton, the Missouri populist painter, was a natural choice to illustrate Viking’s deluxe edition of The Grapes of Wrath.

I’m uncertain whether Steinbeck knew Elmer Hader, the California artist who created the dust jacket for the first edition of the novel in 1939. Both Steinbeck and Hader were from Monterey County, Hader born in 1889 in the little town of Pajaro, not far from Salinas. If Hader wasn’t personally acquainted with the author, he certainly understood The Grapes of Wrath. His inspired image of the Oklahoma Joads seeing California for the first time has become almost as iconic as the characters themselves.

Cover image of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath"

Some years ago I was contacted by the auction house that was putting the original watercolor for Hader’s Grapes of Wrath cover up for auction. They asked what I thought it should sell for. Guessing, I said $30,000-$35,000. That seemed high, they replied, since no Hader painting had ever sold for more than a tenth of that amount. Looking back today it’s obvious the eventual purchaser got a bargain . . . for $65,000.

I think Steinbeck would have smiled at that result. He liked artists and he wanted them to receive their due, preferably while they were alive. He passed on his affinity for the visual arts, and he did what he could to help the artists he knew.

This is the 300th post published by SteinbeckNow.com since the site launched three years ago. View the related video—Steinbeck’s Storied Artists, with commentary by Steve Hauk—from the site’s YouTube channel.—Ed.

Paul Newman’s Of Mice and Men: Steve Hauk’s True Story

Image of Paul Newman

Now and then I wonder what Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men would have looked like staged by Paul Newman, how it would have felt. Would George have taken on a swagger? Would Curley’s wife have been even sexier? Newman after all had a way with exotic characters, whether Ben Quick or Brick or Cool Hand Luke or Fast Eddie Felson.

Paul Newman had a way with exotic characters, whether Ben Quick or Brick or Cool Hand Luke or Fast Eddie Felson.

Before assuming Newman might have exaggerated or distorted Steinbeck’s earthier Lennie or Slim, it’s good to remember the Westport Country Playhouse production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Newman’s folksy Stage Manager couldn’t have been more sagely understated. That was in 2003.

Image of Westport Country Playhouse

By 2007 Newman was dying and knew he didn’t have much work left in him. The fact that he chose to direct Of Mice and Men at Westport–in what would have been his theater directing debut at age 81–was certainly a deep bow to Steinbeck. The play was to open in mid-2008, but Newman’s health worsened precipitously. He stepped down from the production on May 23.

The fact that he chose to direct ‘Of Mice and Men’ at Westport–in what would have been his theater directing debut at age 81–was certainly a deep bow to Steinbeck.

I was disappointed–I wanted to see what he would have done with it. While I knew I couldn’t make it to Westport to see the production, I figured it would be filmed, as Our Town had been for public television showing. Newman died several months later, in September 2008.

Newman’s Challenge: “Where ya’ gonna send the dime?”

I’d met Paul Newman two decades earlier. It was 1987. I was writing sports for the Monterey Herald, and he had come to Monterey to race at the Laguna Seca racetrack. We talked cars and speed, then the conversation turned to theater and film. He mentioned he would soon be editing a film version of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie starring his wife, Joanne Woodward.

I’d met Newman two decades earlier. I was writing for the Monterey Herald, and he had come to Monterey to race at the Laguna Seca racetrack.

I have no idea why, but I said, ”Well, it’s a great play but don’t you think it’s been done too often?’’

He stared at me and said slowly and clearly, as if I was standing there talking to Chance Wayne throwing back another shot of bourbon, “It’ll knock your socks off–and I’ll bet ya’ a dime.’’

About then other reporters moved in and I said goodbye. I’d only gone a short way when Newman called after: “Where ya’ gonna send the dime?’’

I’d only gone a short way when Newman called after: ‘Where ya’ gonna send the dime?’

The reporters stepped aside as he jotted his address on a scrap of paper. My wife Nancy and I saw the film several months later. Knocked our socks off. I wanted to send him the dime but couldn’t find the scrap of paper with his address–and have not come across it to this day.

The reporters stepped aside as he jotted his address on a scrap of paper.

I’ve never felt so guilty over nonpayment of anything. I knew he expected some kind of reply and just about the worse kind of reply to anything is silence. Years later I got an address for him and mailed him a dollar. I didn’t receive an answer but by then he was fighting the cancer and I didn’t expect one. Still, I hoped he’d read my apologetic letter and smile as he pocketed the dollar.

Paul Newman and Steinbeck: A Marriage Made in Heaven?

paul-newman-racingOf Mice and Men would to my knowledge have been Newman’s first artistic encounter with Steinbeck. But that day in 1987 at the racetrack in Monterey, when the conversation turned to literature, he acknowledged he was in Steinbeck country in classic Newman style. His blue eyes scanning the surrounding hills close by Steinbeck’s Pastures of Heaven, he said, “No wonder Steinbeck loved it here–sure is pretty.’’

Paul Newman was famous for the way he could throw a line. But the one that will always haunt me is “Where ya’ gonna send the dime?’’ 

Another true story by Steve Hauk will appear next week, the 300th blog post published since SteinbeckNow.com launched three years ago. Meanwhile, here is a sample of Paul Newman’s “folksy Stage Manager” in the 2003 Westport Country Playhouse production of Our Town.–Ed.

The Day I Met Muhammad Ali: A Surreal Experience

Photo of Muhammad Ali by Ralph Starkweather

Photo and copyright by Ralph Elliott Starkweather

In the fall of 1962 I was at Los Angeles City College writing for the school newspaper. In an article I predicted that a young boxer named Cassius Clay, eventually to be known as Muhammad Ali, would lose his upcoming fight to the crafty Archie Moore. I said the brash, youthful Clay would hobble across the ring at the end of the fight to congratulate the grandfatherly Moore. That led to a surreal encounter with Ali, the three-time heavyweight champion who died on June 3 after battling Parkinson Disease for three decades.

I predicted that a young boxer named Cassius Clay, eventually to be known as Muhammad Ali, would lose his upcoming fight to the crafty Archie Moore.

Los Angeles was a hotbed of prize fighting in the 1960s. The heavyweight division in particular was crowded with talented fighters, many of whose lives would end prematurely. Though Parkinson Disease had a name, chronic traumatic encephalopathy was unfamiliar. Fighters ended up suffering from CTE anyway, and Ali eventually contracted Parkinson Disease, a degenerative condition with multiple causes and no cure.

Los Angeles was a hotbed of prize fighting in the 1960s. The heavyweight division in particular was crowded with talented fighters, many of whose lives would end prematurely.

Few fighters were able to hit Ali in 1962, but head trauma was already, or was becoming, an issue for boxers such as Joey Orbillo, Jerry Quarry, and Eddie Machen. Quarry, saddled with the Great White Hope label, would eventually die of what was described at the time as dementia pugilistica. He became helpless and required round-the-clock care. Machen, a fighter of ballet-like grace, took terrible beatings toward the end of his career, spent time in a psychiatric ward, and fell to his death from an apartment window at age 40.

Few fighters were able to hit Ali in 1962, but head trauma was already, or was becoming, an issue for boxers such as Joey Orbillo, Jerry Quarry, and Eddie Machen.

Orbillo, who fought Quarry while on leave from service in Vietnam, courageously walked point during combat missions–an extremely dangerous duty which he volunteered for because, he reasoned, he was single and his comrades had families. He took such a severe beating from Quarry that he was held back from combat, and another soldier was killed taking the point in his place. Mourning the loss, Orbillo credited Quarry with saving his life.

Life at Los Angeles City College in 1962

These tragic stories–and there were many in the heavyweight division–had yet to be told when I wrote about the Ali-Moore fight for the Los Angeles City College paper. Thinking back, I have no idea why I even wrote the column. Ali was of course famous, but there were few signs of his future greatness. And Los Angeles was full of celebrities, some of whom—David Jansen and James Coburn, for instance—could be seen walking across campus or sitting in coffee houses along Vermont Avenue.

These tragic stories had yet to be told when I wrote about the Ali-Moore fight for the Los Angeles City College paper.

Clint Eastwood, Donna Reed, Paul Winfield–a superb Othello–and Morgan Freeman had taken classes at Los Angeles City College. So had the poet Charles Bukowski, as well as musicians Charles Mingus, John Williams, and Leonard Slatkin. While working at the newspaper I covered a lecture given in the stadium by writer Aldous Huxley. It was one of his last. During my interview with Huxley I realized how terribly ill he was.

The Day Muhammad Ali Walked through the Door

Many of the buildings at Los Angeles City College were relatively new at the time, but the newspaper office was located in a long, narrow prefab with tiny windows. The day my piece on the Ali-Moore fight appeared, I was working on another story when I heard someone chanting “I want Hauk! I want Hauk!” in the distance. The voice was familiar. I stepped outside and saw Ali approaching the building, surrounded by excited students and waving a copy of the paper.

The newspaper office was located in a long, narrow prefab with tiny windows. I heard someone chanting ‘I want Hauk!’ in the distance. The voice was familiar.

“Are you Hauk?” Ali said. “Now don’t lie to me–I can see you are! How could you write this–me lose to Archie Moore? Don’t you know I’m the greatest? Can’t you see I’m pretty? Don’t you know I’m going to give that old man Archie Moore the spanking of his life?”

‘Are you Hauk?’ Ali said. ‘Now don’t lie to me. I can see that you are!’

I replied that it was a columnist’s job to have an opinion. Ali laughed and said that was fine, but he’d prove me wrong. Then he led the students back across the campus. Later he returned to the newsroom alone, sat down, and introduced himself. He was soft-spoken, a bit shy, and quick to smile.

I replied that it was a columnist’s job to have an opinion. Ali laughed and said that was fine, but he’d prove me wrong.

He went on to beat Archie Moore in four rounds, just as he had promised. At the end of the fight I was happy to hear he walked–not hobbled–across the ring to embrace the older man. It bothered me that he shrugged off the win by saying he had beaten “an old man.” Moore deserved better. Ali in those days could be a touch cruel, a quality he wrung from himself and turned into amazing compassion.

Parkinson Disease, Gentleness, and Death

As the years passed Ali began to take the kind of punches that so damaged other fighters, some of them heavyweight champions. Those magnificent heavyweights were killing each other. Then Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson Disease, and one can’t help from feeling it had been hurried along by all of those punches.

As the years passed Ali began to take the kind of punches that had so damaged the other heavyweights, some of them champions.

That he held on for three decades was a testament to Muhammad Ali’s will and resolve, which he called on for causes far beyond the parameters of boxing–and an instinctive gentleness, humor, and kindness, which I had been fortunate enough to experience.

Photo of Muhammad Ali by Ralph Elliott Starkweather

Photo and copyright by Ralph Elliott Starkweather

The Photography of Ralph Elliott Starkweather

In a distinguished career ranging the world, Ralph Elliott Starkweather has taken photographs for Life, National Geographic, Gourmet, Smithsonian, and many other magazines. He also had a close relationship with Muhammad Ali, traveling with the late fighter and even recording him moving into a new home.

Ralph explains how the lead photo, published here for the first time, was taken: “I went to his home to document his moving into a place called Rossmore in Los Angeles. It was exclusive at the time–guard-gated. My favorite photo because for 10 minutes he was on his own left to his thoughts. In a way like a Black Buddha deep in meditation.”

The other photo is of Ali hoisting Starkweather’s nephew, Chris English, 37 years ago at Los Angeles International Airport. Ali would have been about 37 or 38 at the time, halfway through his life.

“Bill”: Monterey, California Short Story by Steve Hauk

Portrait image of Bill of Monterey, California by the artist CKline (Caroline)

Bill

I

Bill has swept back blond hair, lazy blue eyes, sucked in cheeks, a gaunt, leathery look from years of house painting. He spent decades balancing on ladders braced by collapsing gutters or rotting sideboard, but never fell far or broke a bone. Other than part-time bartending in a place called Segovia’s in Monterey, California, Bill’s retired now. He still drives the paint-smeared pickup truck he used in his work. Though he’s working less, he’s still gaunt.

Bill’s from Philadelphia and grew up hearing stories about an uncle he never met, Philly fighter Eddie Cool. Eddie squandered his talent, falling down drunk in the city’s gutters. He once said his father died a drunk, and he would, too. So for a lot of years Bill steered away from alcohol. He remembered meeting and getting to know the old Philly trainer Sam Solomon, and openly crying as Solomon described again and again the handsome Cool’s demise at the age of thirty-five due to careless living and drinking.

Still, Bill was naturally sociable so he took a drink now and then, and then a few more. After a stint in the Navy, he roamed the country, hoisting beers along the way. In New Mexico he decided he’d like to live in Alaska and packed up his pickup truck. When he hit the California coastline he turned north. When he came to Monterey he pulled over and watched the waves breaking on the shore. This gave him a kind of peace. He decided to put Alaska on hold.

Bill walked away from a hotel room for twenty-seven dollars a night, got one for seventeen, then a few days later found an affordable, thin-walled fisherman’s cottage just above Cannery Row. Rent included a chair, a cot, a black and white TV – he picked up a fridge at the dump. He found piecemeal labor jobs. He installed braces and boards on the sides of his pickup truck bed and made money hauling stuff. When someone asked him if could paint, he did that, too, and graduated from interiors to more dangerous exteriors.

At a pizza bar he met an older couple, Bruce and Jean, who had been friends – young protégés back then – of the late author John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts. Bruce, a painter, and Jean, a writer, liked a good time to dull some dark memories. Being with people they liked helped, so their house up on Huckleberry Hill was often wide open for guests. One day, not having seen him for a time, Bruce and Jean showed up at Bill’s cottage with a bottle of Chianti.

This surprised Bruce and Jean’s other friends. They said, “Bruce and Jean don’t visit you – you visit them. What’s going on?’’ Bruce told Bill, “Do you know why we like hanging out with you? You don’t treat us like old people.’’

Bill attributed that to his relationship with the Philly trainer Sam Solomon. Bill hadn’t treated Sam as old either, he loved him too much.

Bruce and Jean had seen a lot of life – violence in the valley’s agricultural fields, Steinbeck’s life threatened, and the much-loved Ricketts killed when his car stalled on the train tracks, standing by as his broken body was lifted onto a stretcher. They’d also seen artists and writers and poets fail, while they themselves had struggled to establish themselves; they did better than most though recognition was long in coming. For every local artistic success story, there were many more of failure, a few suicides sprinkled among them.

Through Bruce and Jean, Bill became a regular at Ricketts’ old laboratory on Cannery Row. A kind of men’s club had established itself of artists, cartoonists, judges, writers, professors, business types, all of a slightly raffish bent.

Hanging over them were the memories of Steinbeck and Ricketts, giving the place an exhilarating though sometimes haunted quality. In the good times, people swore you could get high just breathing the air, simply by stepping into the lab. The lab could also be unpleasantly aromatic. Rotting kelp and dead sea life would wash ashore on the rocks just below the concrete deck that extended out behind the lab. Still, that just added to the character of the place.

Eventually Bill left the board and batten cottage and rented a larger house in nearby Pacific Grove. It was a short walk to the shoreline, a middling one to the Row. When a friend lost his job, Bill rented him a room for almost nothing. When another separated from her husband, Bill rented her a room. And so on. Bill couldn’t say no, though granted he liked receiving rent – but, he told himself, it wasn’t much and included full kitchen privileges as long as people cleaned up after themselves.

The house at various times held seven or eight people, including a charming but luckless scholar in a frayed blue blazer living in the garage, made more comfortable by carpet remnants Bill gathered from painting jobs. Bill’s became a social center to rival Bruce and Jean’s.

One night the tenants and Bruce and Jean were sitting around Bill’s half watching the Academy Awards while sipping cocktails when Bill noticed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was winning all the awards but its author wasn’t on hand. Bill asked Bruce and Jean if, in the day, Steinbeck showed up when his books made into films were up for awards.

“That wouldn’t have been like John,’’ said Jean, and Bruce nodded.

Bill sipped his cocktail and pondered. He knew Ken Kesey lived in Springfield, Oregon. So though he realized it was a long shot, he turned down the television and called information. He not only got a number, when he dialed Kesey himself answered in his crystalline voice: “Ken here.’’

Surprised, Bill said, “Bill here.’’

“Bill who?’’

“Bill of Monterey.’’

After a pause, “Well – Bill of Monterey – what can I do for you?’’

Bill explained he’d heard Kesey had had a falling out with the film’s producers and guessed that’s why he wasn’t in Hollywood, and what did he think of what was going on so far?

“Well, I‘m in the backyard shed editing a magazine article, no TV, so I don’t know what’s going on down there. But since you ask me how I feel about it . . . have you ever suddenly remembered you have something important in your pocket, but when you reach in all you find is a hole big enough to match the growing pit in your stomach? That’s how I feel. Something important to me . . . part of me . . . is missing.’’

Bill felt tears coming to his eyes.

“Like after a shock treatment?’’

“Yeah, maybe so . . . .’’

“Or a lobotomy?’’

“You don’t feel anything after a lobotomy, Bill of Monterey – that’s why they do them.’’

“Yeah.’’

When Bill got off the phone, he confused Kesey and shock treatments and lobotomies in his head with Sam Solomon and Uncle Eddie Cool lying in a Philly gutter – and wiped the tears from his eyes. Bruce and Jean comforted him. He was becoming like a son to them.

Portrait image of Bill, Ken Kesey, and Jean and Bruce Ariss by the artist CKline (Caroline)

II

Bill met a woman and fell in love and they had a daughter and the tenants had to go. When the marriage ended the tenants began returning and the daughter had many adults looking after her and getting in the way in the kitchen. There were only so many burners and pots and pans.

Cannery Row was eventually and predictably appropriated by developers. Work began on a sprawling luxury hotel project then was stalled by money problems. Cyclone fences couldn’t hide concrete pilings and rusting rebar. The lab guys didn’t mind eyesores from the past littering vacant lots – fish hoppers and caved-in boilers had character and echoes of Steinbeck and Ricketts – but contemporary pilings and rebar were another matter.

A restaurateur had the inspiration of hiding the fences and what was behind them with murals depicting Monterey life. With the city’s blessing, Bruce put out word anyone with the artistry and vigor to paint a vision of Monterey on sheets of plywood was welcome to try.

The city provided a hundred boards. Bruce coerced Bill into priming them on the lab’s deck, wisely hiring an attractive masseuse to keep Bill and the other volunteers – who delivered the primed plywood boards to artists and picked up the murals when completed – on the job. When a major earthquake struck on a fall afternoon, Bill tumbled off the masseuse’s table and some of the already installed murals collapsed. But they could be repaired and nobody on the Row was killed and the lab held together.

The mural project miraculously transitioned from an attempt to artistically cover up pilings and rebar into a symbol of the rebuilding spirit of mankind. Bruce was lionized. A walkway leading to the lab was named for him.

A year later Bruce and Jean’s house burned down. Bruce gathered himself for a final project – designing and constructing a new house for Jean. There was no shortage of volunteers to help. When the house was completed – a minor masterpiece of stone and arching wood beams – Bruce declined quickly.

On his deathbed Bruce said to Bill, “I love you – dance in the streets all night long.’’ He was prophetic. The city shut down Cannery Row traffic in his honor and people danced all night to the live music of Jake Stock and the Abalone Stompers, none longer than Bill.

Jean went on for another decade. She worried to friends that often when Bill called late at night to talk about the old times, he’d had too many cocktails. It tore at her heart. Bill wondered about this because when he visited it was usually Jean who brought out the Jack Daniels.

When someone young and smooth arrived from Los Angeles and talked an aging Jean out of important papers relating to life at the lab, Bill had to be dissuaded from traveling to Los Angeles and throttling the man. When Jean died, Bill regretted not having done it.

Portrait image of Carnnery Row by the artist CKline (Caroline)

III

Two men knocked on Bill’s door. They were wearing suits, loose ties and carried clipboards. They showed Bill identification. “We’re from the city. We’ve had complaints. Your tenants are living here illegally, have been for years. They have until four this afternoon to vacate the premises.’’

Bill worried most about the scholar in the frayed blue blazer in the garage. Over the next few weeks Bill found temporary shelter for most of his tenants. A few found housing on their own. A friend allowed the scholar to room with him across town. Bill’s daughter was already independently in her own place, so that was not a concern.

A week later Bill was evicted from the house. He became depressed, drank a little but not a lot. Memories of his uncle, Eddie Cool, and old Sam Solomon’s stories were always there to make him think hard. He would push it to the edge, but never cross a particular line he had unconsciously but firmly set in his head.

Even when Bruce and Jean had worried about him, he knew he would be okay. He would not die in some gutter like Eddie Cool. If he hadn’t learned abstinence or moderation, he had learned a kind of control.

One other thing he knew – he had to leave, he could no longer afford Monterey, the city’s rising cost of living. Philly was out. He cast about. He fondly remembered a dusty border town in New Mexico he had paused in decades earlier on his way to – he thought then – Alaska.

Portrait image of Bill of Monterey, California by the artist CKline (Caroline)

He made calls, he talked to people, he was told he could live cheaply in this town, which had changed little in the decades since. Through an agent he found for almost nothing a miner’s hut with paper-thin walls overlooking the desert. Like the sound of the breaking waves, he decided, the silence would bring him a kind of peace.

Illustrations by CKline (Caroline), who is happy to report that she is creatively pursuing multiple projects in the arts.

“Self-Protection”: Film Documents Steinbeck’s Application for a Gun License in New York State

new-york-state-gun-license

The film “Steinbeck: Armed with the Truth (And a Colt Automatic)” came about after Paul Boczkowski and Marie Wainscoat of Longtimers Productions, a California company, viewed a gallery exhibition I helped put together six or seven years ago in Pacific Grove with my wife Nancy and the prominent marine biologist Robert Brownell, a student of Ed Ricketts as well as John Steinbeck. The idea for the exhibition was born when a man sent me a copy of the application for a gun license that Steinbeck submitted in New York State on May 12, 1942. In his application Steinbeck sought permission to carry two concealed revolvers for “self-protection.”

New York State Gun License Fires Interest in Pacific Grove

The person who sent me the gun-license application worked for a museum and felt the application was important enough to be made public. The subject of Steinbeck and guns already had my attention, and I agreed. Some years earlier I had spoken with a Salinas woman who told me that sometime in the mid-to-late 1930s she had witnessed Steinbeck being threatened by a man with a gun, perhaps hired by others, who was upset about what he felt Steinbeck was writing. We called the exhibition—which included artwork, letters, and documentation—“Steinbeck: Armed with the Truth (And a Colt Automatic).” The producers kept the title for their film about the show. “Steinbeck Fully Loaded,” a Sunday magazine feature, appeared in the Monterey County Herald.

I also wrote a piece about Steinbeck’s gun license application for an innovative literary-blog website called Red Room that, unfortunately, no longer exists. Before the site went out of business, Paul Douglass—at that time the editor of Steinbeck Review—picked up on my post. This led to my writing a pair of articles for the journal in the spring of 2008 and the fall of 2009.

Since that time, my account of Steinbeck and guns has appeared in a number of periodicals and books, though no one bothers to notify me before they publish it. The gun license episode tied in with other stories and historic tidbits about Steinbeck I had picked up while writing for the Monterey County Herald, operating a Pacific Grove art gallery with a literary bent, and co-curating the inaugural art exhibition at the National Steinbeck Center in 1998.

Monterey County Sources Inspire Stories About Steinbeck

My sources were often people who had known Steinbeck well, or their descendants. Two were classmates of John in Salinas. Another was the daughter of a Monterey County cop who corresponded with Steinbeck after the writer left California for New York, and who shipped Steinbeck several revolvers via railway express. A fourth was the son of a Monterey County Herald editor who became a good friend to Steinbeck and helped him find a Big Sur mountain lion as a gift for the people of England—an incident I used in a book of stories that I wrote about Steinbeck’s life in Monterey County and New York State.

I call the series “Almost True Stories from a Writer’s Life.” The stories reflect the portrait of Steinbeck painted by my sources: a complex man of great gifts, deep compassion, and capacity for fun, traits overshadowed by very real and very dark threats experienced by Steinbeck in Monterey County. Some of my stories include artists, the secondary theme of the film. Artists were important to Steinbeck throughout his lifetime: he numbered them among his friends and felt not only comfortable, but also safe with them. When you have as many enemies as Steinbeck did, I learned, “safe” becomes important.

Which is why he applied for that gun license on May 12, 1942.

Sample “Almost True Stories from a Writer’s Life” in Steve Hauk’s Archive.—Ed,

Dora and Flora: From Short Stories about John Steinbeck By Steve Hauk

Dora and Flora had in common being of the same species and general place of birth, but that was about all. Dora was stuffy and stiff, and her expression was glazed and artificial. Flora was svelte and sensual, quick and dangerous with alive, darting eyes.

Dora would end up on a British warship, much loved of men, often patted on her head for luck in times of stress or danger. Flora would make her home in a London zoo, beloved of men, women and children alike, but not to be patted under any circumstance.

This is the story of how they got to their respective homes and it begins with a friendly meeting between two men in Somerset in 1959–one a British Navy lieutenant named Wellesley, the other a visiting American writer named John.

On a late summer eve following dinner, John and Wellesley sat outside John’s thatched cottage enjoying a potent drink called scrumpy, and maybe that had an influence on what was to transpire.

Scrumpy is particularly popular in Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. The name derives from the word scrimp, which means (perhaps) a small withered apple, the kind that, fermented, produces cider with a hefty content of alcohol.

After his third scrumpy the lieutenant mentioned to John a pressing concern: he served aboard the H.M.S. Puma, one of four anti-aircraft vessels named for wild cats. The others were leopard, lynx and jaguar.

Wellesley found it bloody tragic that the Puma was the only frigate of the four without a wardroom mascot–in each case, a preserved head of the animal the ship was named for. John had been a war correspondent in London and North Africa and understood.

“Why, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but I come from Monterey County in California, and there are pumas everywhere, most with bodies attached to their heads. Wouldn’t you rather have a whole body than just a head? And wouldn’t you rather have the puma alive than stuffed?’’

John had an ulterior motive for bringing up the idea of a live puma, though he didn’t tell Wellesley. Naval wardrooms were for officers only, and a puma–stuffed or alive–would require a bigger space, one accessible to the ship’s entire crew. John loved the English, but he disliked clubby class distinctions.

Wellesley said he wasn’t sure a frigate involved in military maneuvers could manage a living puma, even in a cage. But he had to admit that a whole puma, stuffed and stationary, would certainly give his ship bragging rights.

The conversation continued on this elevated plane until the cider was finished. The next day John remembered in a sketchy way what he and Wellesley had discussed. Accordingly, he wrote a sketchy letter to Jimmy, a Monterey newsman and before that the driver of a Coca-Cola delivery truck.

As best Jimmy could make out from John’s morning-after letter, John wanted him to get down to Big Sur in south Monterey County and snag a live puma in the sprawling, precipitous Santa Lucia Mountains. John seemed to think it would be as easy as picking up a quart of milk at the corner grocery store. This threw Jimmy, because he knew John knew that the Santa Lucias were rough, unforgiving country.

Jimmy had recently written a story about the artist rebels of the early Beat Generation who were moving into the Big Sur of Henry Miller and Eric Barker, despite stark warnings about the tough terrain from the two older writers. “Either you live up to it or it rejects you and sends you to a purgatory,’’ said Miller. ”Sun is not all,’’ wrote Barker, a poet. “Here we drink fog like rain.’’ Jimmy recalled scrambling up a hill on one of Big Sur’s foggy days, notebook in hand, to find young men and women watching him–hands on hips, petulant yet lordly in pose. He rubbed his eyes. When he opened them they had disappeared into the mist. If they could evaporate in an instant, what was his chance of finding a puma?

Worried, he showed John’s letter to his wife Nancy, who read it and said, “John’s been drinking something, that’s for sure–but he’s serious. He wants a puma for the British Navy. He doesn’t want you to track it or capture it, Jimmy–just coordinate the effort is what I bet he means. I’m sure he will straighten it all out.’’

As Nancy had predicted a second letter bringing clarity arrived a few days later. John described the surprising power of a scrumpy, then said he would like a stuffed mountain lion if one could be found already stuffed–not one killed for that purpose–and maybe a live puma. Jimmy grew enthusiastic and wrote a story for the newspaper, emphasizing the idea of locating a stuffed puma since capturing a live puma seemed iffy.

The readers, who still held a wartime warm spot for the British, responded swiftly. Money poured in and when a Salinas hotel owner named Jeffery happened to have a puma skin and head–a big one–on the floor of his lobby, the money was used to have the tattered hide groomed and mounted on a redwood slab. Writing about this, Jimmy realized that “stuffed puma” lacked charm. He named it “Dora,” a name similar to character in one of John’s books, and it stuck.

John–if Jimmy could get it to the San Francisco airport–had arranged to have the stuffed and mounted puma flown to London and delivered to the H.M.S. Puma mooring in the port of Plymouth. Dora was loaded into his station wagon, and for a hundred and more miles stared angrily out the back window at following drivers.

At the airport Dora was posed for photos with two stewardesses, then put aboard a Pan-American flight. As Jimmy wrote in the newspaper, Dora was thought to be the first stuffed puma to come across the Polar route by air.

John and the H.M.S. Puma crew met Dora at Plymouth. A wire service photograph showed the goateed author amidst a dozen sailors reaching out to give Dora a pat. It was such a success that John wrote Jimmy again– could a live cougar be found as well? A zoo near London had promised to provide a home for such a puma that could be visited by the crew and the general public.

Starting from scratch, Jimmy let it be known that he needed a puma trapper. Hudson, a maverick rancher and politician with backcountry expertise, told Jimmy a tracker-trapper named Mathis lived deep in the mountains above Big Sur in a cabin inaccessible by car and without a phone. “You’ll have to track him,’’ Hudson warned. ”He’s hard to find.’’

Jimmy drove down the coast. Just north of the village he pulled over and asked a man walking on the shoulder of the road if he knew of a trapper named Mathis. “Trapper? I’m from Cleveland,’’ the man replied, perspiring, mouth quivering. “I’m looking for my son. Tall, brown hair–probably spouting bad poetry, plays a guitar. If you see him, please tell him his mother cries for him every day.’’

In the village everyone knew of Mathis–he hiked out of the mountains every few months to purchase supplies, they said, but no telling when. Jimmy would have to wait around or trek in to find Mathis himself. Discouraged,  Jimmy had a beer at Nepenthe, a gathering place on a hill leaning toward the Pacific with a view to the east of the mountains. He was on his second beer when a waitress yelled to the bartender, “Here comes Mathis!’’

“Where?’’ asked Jimmy.

Peering through the bar’s telescope, she replied, “He’s a few ridges over.’’

Stepping aside, she let Jimmy have a look. He made out a big man with a walking staff making his way down the mountain.

”When will he get here?’’ he asked.

“Not tonight,’’ said the waitress. “He’ll camp tonight and show up some time tomorrow–early afternoon, I’d guess.’’

“I need to talk to him.’’

“Then stay where you are. He comes here first for a few beers.’’

So Jimmy came back the next day and waited until Mathis walked through the door and dropped his backpack and had several beers. He gave the waitresses and bartender the latest backcountry news, which included some kids–bad musicians, from the sound of it, he said–moving into a nearby canyon, disturbing the peace.

After Mathis–a big man with a thick red beard and piercing green eyes–finished his third beer, he became quiet. Jimmy broached the subject of trapping a puma for Britain’s people and navy, explaining the project in full.

“What have the British done for me?’’ Mathis asked, shifting uncomfortably on his bar stool and already looking yearningly toward the hills he had just walked out of.

“We were allies in World War II,’’ explained Jimmy.

“I’d forgotten–I don’t have a television,’’ Mathis replied.

Then he thought a while.

“I’ll tell you what–you say a puma would have a good life in that zoo? Treated and fed well and given good care? Do you know that for sure?’’

“John said it would and I believe John.’’

Mathis thought, had another beer, and thought some more.

“The puma population’s lower than when . . . what’s your name anyway?’’

“Jimmy.’’

“Well, Jimmy, the puma population’s lower than it was when this John friend of yours was here and I don’t want to deplete it more. But . . . I have this female mountain lion less than a year old named Flora.”

“Flora?’’

“Yes, I’ve always liked the name.’’

“I’ll be damned–Flora.’’

“Yes–Flora.’ Mathis was impatient and a bit puzzled, but had always found it prudent not to let his curiosity get the best of him. “Anyway, Flora’s back in the mountains hanging out around my place. I found her as a cub. She’s not much good at hunting anything bigger than a squirrel and thinks bears are playthings, so I worry if something happens to me. I’d like to think she’ll be safe . . . even if it has to be somewhere else.’’

So they talked some more and a deal was struck. Jimmy wrote John who now arranged for a living puma to be flown from San Francisco to London. Mathis wasn’t sure when he’d get back to the village because sometimes Flora took it in her head to roam, requiring Mathis to track Flora or wait for her to make her way back, no telling when.

The following week a waitress at Nepenthe spotted Mathis and Flora in the distance, Flora on a leash. The trapper and puma arrived the next day to meet Jimmy, who had borrowed his wife Nancy’s pickup truck. Mathis said he and Flora had spent their last night together under the stars, the slim puma sleeping with her whiskered chin propped on his massive chest.

Mathis gently guided Flora into a cage, which was lifted onto the bed of the truck with the help of two village men. Mathis reached through the bars and rubbed behind Flora’s ears, saying goodbye, tears running down his cheeks into his rough red beard. He mumbled something and turned to begin the long trek back into the wilderness, then changed his mind and abruptly and swiftly turned up the hill to Nepenthe–and beer.

The distressed Flora yowled after him and all the way to the airport, causing several fender benders on the way to San Francisco.

Jimmy was relieved but saddened to pass a suddenly silent Flora on to Pan-American. To lessen the pangs he assured himself it was all for the best. He tried to imagine Flora in her new home enjoying cream teas, and John, his friend Wellesley and all England toasting her with a scrumpy. It was generally thought, Jimmy concluded in the newspaper the next day, that Flora was the first live puma to fly the Polar route.

This sketch about John Steinbeck and a pair of Monterey County mountain lions named Dora and Flora who flew the North Pole is excerpted from “Almost True Stories from a Writer’s Life,” a collection of short stories by Steve Hauk currently under development for print publication.