What I Learned from The Winter of Our Discontent

Image of high school students Googling

I’m a small-town high school teacher and newspaper columnist, and every month I pick a new book, usually a literary novel, to read and recommend to my followers, who seem to enjoy what I have to say. Recently I chose The Winter of Our Discontent, and I confess it was because of the title rather than the content. But John Steinbeck’s novel is an apt expression of what I see as the winter of our discontent in the United States today, and it reflects the reality I face every day in my classroom.

When I chose The Winter of Our Discontent, I confess it was because of the title rather than the content.

As John Steinbeck fans know, The Winter of Our Discontent tells the story of a simple grocery store clerk, an outwardly respectable man named Ethan Allen Hawley, and his moral descent into corruption and crime. Steinbeck’s moral tale gave me plenty of “ah-hah” and “why, yes” moments—the kind of experience one expects from excellent literature, and the reason I recommended it in my column. As Steinbeck notes in the novel, “A man who tells secrets or stories must think of who is hearing or reading, for a story has as many versions as it has readers. Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure. Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of prejudice, some paint it with their own delight. A story must have some points of contact with the reader to make him feel at home in it. Only then can he accept wonders.”

Steinbeck’s moral tale gave me plenty of ‘ah-hah’ and ‘why, yes’ moments—the kind of experience one expects from excellent literature, and the reason I recommended it in my column.

Though written years before the invention of the internet and social media, Steinbeck’s cautionary words are well-suited to our digitally-driven era. At this point in Steinbeck’s narrative, Ethan is thinking about how he has to shape his stories, or lies, to fit his hearers, and about a king in another story who told his secrets down a well because “It only receives, and the echo it gives back is quiet and soon over.” If only that were true today. For every tweet sent, there is usually a careless reader who misunderstands, misinterprets, or misappropriates the sender’s message, creating a backlash that becomes a raging beast that takes on a life of its own.

For every tweet sent, there is usually a careless reader who misunderstands, misinterprets, or misappropriates the sender’s message.

I don’t spend much time reading the comments people leave below online news stories or Facebook posts, but when I do I’m amazed at how far they wander from the point of the story or post. As Steinbeck knew, we take things out of context and add our own prejudices when we read or listen, and while I enjoy friendly banter as much as he did, I’m tired of the nastiness to which people increasingly resort when they don’t understand or approve of someone else’s point. I’m especially disgruntled when negative comments come from leaders who ought to know better and set an example for others.

As Steinbeck knew, we take things out of context and add our own prejudices when we read or listen.

As a school teacher, I recognized the truth in John Steinbeck’s unflattering portrayal of Ethan’s teenage children, particularly Ethan’s son Allen, and this line from the novel really made me laugh: “Three things will never be believed–the true, the probable, and the logical.” Often my students don’t believe me when I tell them something that is demonstrably true, then give instant credence to the next rumor they hear or read online, repeating it as if it were gospel truth. Fewer and fewer adults seem capable of logical thinking, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised. If you’re a teenager who isn’t capable of sound reasoning, you’re unlikely to believe someone who uses it. Like their parents, too many adolescents today are prepared to accept negative surface propaganda while doubting deeper truths.

Like their parents, too many adolescents today are prepared to accept negative surface propaganda while doubting deeper truths.

Is this because people want to take the easy way out of every problem, as Steinbeck suggests in The Winter of Our Discontent? Ethan is appalled when he learns that the patriotic essay for which Allen has won a cash award has been plagiarized. But Ethan’s reaction is hypocritical, because by this point in the story he has stooped pretty low himself. Unlike his father however, Allen shows no remorse, defending his behavior in much the same way my students defend their reliance on the internet so that they don’t have to do any thinking for themselves. Instead, when Allen’s plagiarism is exposed he gets mad at the person who ratted on him and utters the rallying cry of all cheaters and thieves: “‘Who cares? Everybody does it.’” Like John Steinbeck, I care, and I care very much. I’m weary of calling out cheaters like Allen in my classroom. Like Ethan in the novel, I sometimes think about throwing in the towel and calling it quits.

I’m weary of calling out cheaters like Allen in my classroom. Like Ethan in the novel, I sometimes think about throwing in the towel and calling it quits.

Ethan has had his own “Who cares?” moments growing up, but he had the advantage of a perfect teacher in his Aunt Deborah, a character I liked because I love words, grammar, literature, and everything associated with language, just as she does. When Ethan comes across the word talisman and asks her what it means, she tells him to look it up. As a result, he recalls, “So many words are mine because Aunt Deborah first aroused my curiosity and then forced me to satisfy it by my own effort. . . . She cared deeply about words and she hated their misuse as she would hate the clumsy handling of any fine thing.” When he finds the definition of talisman he discovers new words that he is forced to look up, too. “It was always that way,” he says. “One word set off others like a string of firecrackers.”

Aunt Deborah is a character I liked because I love words, grammar, literature, and everything associated with language, just as she does.

I highlighted the passage in the novel because I love the simile, and I love the way Steinbeck manages to incorporate his passion for words into an otherwise depressing story. Now, more than ever, we need Aunt Deborahs in our lives to make us aware of the beauty and magic of words at an early age. No doubt this idea impressed me because of the prejudices I bring with me to when I read John Steinbeck: others might roll their eyes because they don’t share my experience. Steinbeck fully understood the limitation we bring to our reading, and he wrote The Winter of Our Discontent in part, I believe, to help readers participate in the remedy he offers. Much has changed since The Winter of Our Discontent was written, but the deep truths to be discovered in Ethan’s story apply today. The winter of our discontent in the United States will end eventually, I hope sooner rather than later , but The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck will always have lessons for us—if we have ears to listen and love words enough to understand.

The Hour of the Pearl: John Steinbeck’s America and the Election of Donald Trump

Image of "The Hour of the Pearl," oil on canvas by Ron Clavier

Donald Trump’s upcoming presidential inauguration is seen by many as ushering in a bizarre and unprecedented era, not only for Americans, but also for citizens of other countries. Yet, like similar ceremonies elsewhere, the presidential inauguration is merely a point on a timeline that began decades ago and culminated in the 2016 election. Because the trend is longstanding and disturbing, the outcome at hand threatens to take the course of history in a dangerous direction. Indeed, it might be said that deep beliefs of the American people, and profound principles of American democracy, are at the heart of an evolutionary process which, perhaps inevitably, produced the society reflected in the 2016 election.

For me, chief among the past thinkers who foresaw this most clearly is John Steinbeck, the writer who has most inspired my thinking and my art. For four decades he wrote of his love for America and his hatred of what his countrymen were doing to their country. Though the 2016 election might have been worse, past political campaigns have had their share of ugliness, as Steinbeck wrote in America and Americans, the last book he wrote. In it Steinbeck described the scars left by elections which he observed closely as a citizen, and in which he frequently participated by giving advice and drafting speeches on behalf of Democratic candidates for president. I would like to quote passages from Steinbeck’s writing, starting with America and Americans, to help readers of all cultures and all ages today comprehend Steinbeck’s moral genius in the context of the 2016 election and the upcoming presidential inauguration.

Once the nominations are completed, the campaigns for election begin—hurtful, libelous, nasty, murderous affairs wherein motives are muddied, names and reputations beshitten, families tarred and tawdried, friends and associates mocked, charged and clobbered. . . . In fact, the rules of nonsense are suspended during a Presidential election, as well as memories of honesty and codes of decency. (America and Americans, 1966)

While campaigning in 2015-16, Trump not only bragged about his repeated abuse of women, he also took advantage of campaign speeches to mock and blame women, as stupid men always have, for the infidelities of their men. How any woman could have voted for so misogynistic a man is beyond all reason. But this is only one example of his breathtaking disregard for the necessity and sanctity of societal rules. While insisting on law and order for others, he repeatedly flouted fundamental rules of engagement in past election discourse. In ignoring the traditional imperative of constructive and respectful debate—ridiculing the infirm, insulting opponents, disdaining other races and religions—he highlighted the very worst characteristic of the human species: cruelty.

It is the race, the species that must go staggering on . . . our ugly little species, weak and ugly, torn with insanities, violent and quarrelsome, sensing evil—the only species that knows evil and practices it—the only one that senses cleanliness and is dirty, that knows cruelty and is unbearably cruel. (Burning Bright, 1950)

Over the millennia most of us have learned to obey the rules or suffer punishment for breaking them. But most important, even the rule-breaker knew he was wrong and the others right; the rules were understood and accepted by everyone. . . . Could this be our difficulty, that gradually we are losing our ability to tell the difference? The rules fall away in chunks and in the vacant place we have a generality: ‘It’s alright because everybody does it.’ (America and Americans)

It is a rare morning when our newspapers do not report bribery, malfeasance, and many other forms of cheating on the part of public officials who have used the authority vested in their positions for personal gain. Of course we don’t hear of the honest men, but the danger lies not in the miscreants but in our attitude toward them. Increasingly we lose our feeling of wrong. (America and Americans)

It is probable that here is where morals–integrity, ethics, even charity–have gone. The rules allowed us to survive, to live together and to increase. But if our will to survive is weakened, if our love of life and our memories of a gallant past and faith in a shining future are removed–what need is there for morals or for rules? Even they become a danger. (America and Americans)

In promoting his violent version of authoritarian populism, Donald Trump used outrageous lies, frequently disproved, to foster fear and anger in the American electorate. For example, last August he accused President Obama and Hillary Clinton of “founding” the Islamic State, the same method used by McCarthy to smear citizens and officials he accused of aiding Russia.

. . . as Joseph McCarthy proved, the more ridiculous the charge, the less possibility there is of defense. (America and Americans)

Now for many years we have suckled on fear and fear alone, and there is no good product of fear. Its children are cruelty and deceit and suspicion germinating in our darkness. And just as surely as we are poisoning the air . . . so we are poisoned in our souls by fear, faceless, stupid, sarcomic terror. (Once There Was a War, 1958)

The job insecurity and looming poverty that threatens many Americans has placed real fear in their hearts. Trump succeeded by exploiting this unrest, as well as claims about “illegal immigrants” that are as effective today as they were when Steinbeck used them to plot The Winter of Our Discontent.

Men don’t get knocked out. . . . What kills them is erosion; they get nudged into failure. They get slowly scared . . . It rots your guts. . . . I can’t think beyond next month’s payment on the refrigerator . . . I hate my job and I’m scared I’ll lose it. . . . But I know when you’re sick you need medicine or maybe an operation or maybe a shock. Our people were daring men. You know it. They didn’t let themselves get nibbled to death. And now times are changing. There are opportunities our ancestors never dreamed of. And they’re being picked up by foreigners. Foreigners are taking us over. Wake up . . . . (The Winter of Our Discontent, 1961)

And those who believe that these elements of the 2016 election were without precedent, or are likely to go away soon, are kidding themselves.

Ideas are not dangerous unless they find seeding place in some earth more profound than the mind . . . .they are ineffective without the black earth of discontent to grow in . . . . In each case, the idea is dangerous only when planted in unease and disquietude. But being so planted, growing in such earth, it ceases to be an idea and becomes an emotion. . . . (Sea of Cortez, 1941)

Meanwhile, Donald Trump claimed he was “smart” for avoiding paying taxes without admitting that he did.

If a man has money, he doesn’t ask, ‘Can I afford this?’ but, ‘Can I deduct it?’ Two men fight over a luncheon bill when both of them are going to deduct it anyway—a whole nation conditioned to dishonesty by its laws, because honesty is penalized. (Sweet Thursday, 1954)

There are, I am told, rich men who are willing to be dishonest. I believe I am safe in saying there are none who are willing to admit they are fools. (The Short Reign of Pippin IV, 1957)
We know about our tycoons only when they are giving something away, and their gifts and foundations are usually a means of keeping their money out of the hands of the tax collector. (America and Americans)

Trump also promised to reverse some of America’s most progressive legislation and to “drain the swamp” in Washington, blaming media, political opponents, and intellectual elites for the unrest and suspicion about government that he exploited more effectively than other candidates.

. . . we seem to be in a state of turmoil all the time, both physically and mentally. We are able to believe that our government is weak, stupid, overbearing, dishonest, and inefficient, and at the same time we are deeply convinced that it is the best government in the world, and we would like to impose it on everyone else. (America and Americans)

We shout that we are a nation of laws, not men—and then we proceed to break every law we can if we can get away with it. (America and Americans)

Continuing his assault on progressive government, Trump used anxiety and anger about Islamic terrorism to churn up fear and marginalize Muslims, forgetting one of the most fundamental aspects of America’s success—tolerance, acceptance, and the willingness to help others.

Americans are remarkably kind and hospitable and open with both guests and strangers; and yet they will make a wide circle around the man dying on the pavement. Fortunes are spent getting cats out of trees and dogs out of sewer pipes; but a girl screaming for help in the street draws only slammed doors, closed windows, and silence. (America and Americans)

Trump’s repeated vow as a candidate to name conservatives to the Supreme Court far enough right to satisfy religious fundamentalists is a violation of a core principle guaranteed by the U.S. constitution: the separation of church and state.

We constantly rediscover the excellence of the architecture of our government. It has been proof not only against foreign attack but against our own stupidities, which are sometimes more dangerous. (America and Americans)

The narcissism of Trump’s claim that only he can fix things is clinical in nature, and will prevent him from doing what doesn’t benefit him personally. E pluribus unum: does he know what America’s founding motto means?

The President must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else. (America and Americans)

In the past, unless a president acted illegally, Americans respected both the office and the office holder. This civility has been shredded.

We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear. We abuse him often and rarely praise him. We wear him out, use him up, eat him up. And with all this, Americans have a love for the President that goes beyond loyalty or party nationality; he is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him. (America and Americans)

But it isn’t enough for those who oppose Donald Trump to blame those who supported him. Americans, all of them, must recognize their own contribution to, and accept responsibility for, the situation in which they find themselves.

In the present climate of whining self-pity, of practiced sickness, of professional goldbricking, of screaming charges about whose fault it is, one hears of very few who do their own time, who take their rap and don’t spread it around. It is as though the quality of responsibility has atrophied. (America and Americans)

Unfortunately, a sense of entitlement to leisure and luxury at impossibly low cost has led to an obese, lazy, solipsistic, violent, substance-dependent population in some sectors of the United States. Blaming foreigners for illegal drugs, to take one example, is unacceptable. If there were no market, there would be no importation.

I strongly suspect that our moral and spiritual disintegration grows out of our lack of experience with plenty. Once, in a novel, I wrote about a woman who said she didn’t want a lot of money. She just wanted enough. To which her husband replied that just enough doesn’t exist. There is no money or not enough money. A billionaire still hasn’t enough money. . . . Having many things seems to create a desire for more things, more clothes, houses, automobiles . . . . We are trapped and entangled in things. (America and Americans)

As a Canadian who has lived in the USA and benefited from its largess, it pains me deeply to witness this insanity. But the truth is that for too long America has touted success without admitting failure—and ignored the existence or validity of cultures in other countries, including Canada.

We in the United States . . . should be taken as a horrible example and our methods avoided by any government and people enlightened enough . . . . (Sea of Cortez)

As a scientist, I’m particularly concerned about a president-elect who ignores science when convenient and who makes frequent unfounded assertions based on hearsay rather than provable fact.

. . . the most dangerous tendency in the world is the desire to believe a rumor rather than to pin down a fact. (A Russian Journal, 1948)

Perhaps the most serious example of this ignorance is Trump’s denial of global warming, which he appeared to take back slightly after being elected. Unfortunately his cabinet appointments confirm the inconvenient truth that, for purposes of governing, he doesn’t believe the climate is really changing—or if it is, that human waste and carbon-dependency is a contributing factor than can or should be checked.

With our own resources we have been prodigal, and our country will not soon lose the scars of our grasping stupidity. (Sea of Cortez)

[The] tendency toward irresponsibility persists in very many of us today; our rivers are poisoned by reckless dumping of sewage and toxic industrial wastes, the air of our cities is filthy and dangerous to breathe from the belching of uncontrolled products from combustion of coal, coke, oil, and gasoline. Our towns are girdled with wreckage and the debris of our toys—our automobiles and our packaged pleasures. Through uninhibited spraying against one enemy we have destroyed the natural balances our survival requires. All these evils can and must be overcome if America and Americans are to survive; but many of us still conduct ourselves as our ancestors did, stealing from the future for our clear and present profit. (America and Americans)

Above all, Donald Trump is a bully’s bully. His blatantly hyperbolic claims during the campaign callously played on the economic fears of Americans while exploiting their pain for his gain. His campaign rhetoric and behavior since winning have made me fearful, too. As a foreigner, I now fear that by setting foot in America I will be subject to the kind of disrespect and violence sanctioned, for the first time in my memory, by the highest office in the land.

Until I have evidence that this fear is unwarranted—and for as long as Donald Trump is president—I have decided not to re-enter the United States. I regret this because I have close friends and family members in America I will miss seeing. But when Americans say they want to be “great again” it sounds to me as if they will only be comfortable when they are once again the dominant “winners” of the world. It reminds me of the bully who tweets almost daily that those who disagree with him are “losers.” Such disrespect makes me feel unwelcome and unsafe in Donald Trump’s America.

When I joined the Advisory Board of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University two years ago, I hoped my work as a Canadian artist, scientist, and humanist would offer a helpful perspective and foster the values espoused by John Steinbeck in his life and writing. As a result of the 2016 election, however, I now fear that America will drift even farther from Steinbeck’s hopeful daylight into the darkness of anger, cynicism, and crude mockery embodied by the president-elect.

I briefly considered resigning my duties on the Steinbeck center’s board; but because I’m an optimist, like Steinbeck, I have decided to stay. I am confident that the pall over America will lift eventually, as day follows night. Meanwhile, technology makes it possible for me to participate in meetings, and Steinbeck’s delicate metaphor of the “hour of the pearl” reminds us that the transition from darkness back to light is a fundamental truth of science, art, and the arc toward justice of human history.

Early morning is a time of magic in Cannery row. In the gray time after the light has come and before the sun has risen, the Row seems to hang suspended out of time in a silvery light. The street lights go out, and the weeds are a brilliant green. The corrugated iron of the canneries glows with the pearly lucence of platinum or old pewter. . . . It is a time of great peace, a deserted time, a little era of rest . . . the air is cool and fresh. . . . Very few people are about, just enough to make it seem more deserted than it is. . . . the hour of the Pearl—the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself. (Cannery Row, 1945)

Today, on the eve of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, I urge self-examination on others, and the resolution to forsake all that Steinbeck felt was the worse in us.

I have named the destroyers of nations: comfort, plenty, and security—out of which grow a bored and slothful cynicism, in which rebellion against the world as it is or myself as I am are submerged in listless self-satisfaction. (America and Americans)

On behalf of SteinbeckNow.com, to which I will continue to contribute, I also urge readers of this post to respond by commenting, or by sharing their thoughts in a guest-author post of their own. Whether or not you agree with my decision to stay away from America until the madness passes, engagement with American values and principles embraced by Steinbeck during his lifetime is to participate in the books he wrote in the way he wanted: actively, with empathy, imagination, and faith that the Hour of the Pearl will come again to our world.

The Hour of the Pearl, oil on canvas by Ron Clavier.

The Winter of Our Discontent Deepens as Trumpettes Party

Image of Trumpettes with portrait of Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago

It’s doubtful either Donald Trump or the minority of Americans who just elected him ever read The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck’s prophetic fiction about public and private corruption in America 60 years ago. But for fans of the novel the parallels with our winter of discontent today are troubling. Cheating and self-dealing, inequality and incivility, anti-immigrant hatred and hysteria—is the USA less or more selfish today than it was when Steinbeck wrote his cautionary tale? For Donald Trump and his fans among America’s fraction-of-one-percent, personal profit is the golden rule and goodness can measured in tax cuts and capital gains. Add one word to the line from Richard III quoted in Steinbeck’s title—“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of New York”—and Shakespeare’s metaphor for an English tyrant’s mood aptly expresses the ardor felt by the Trumpettes of Mar-a-Lago, the palatial club in Palm Beach where Trump now holds winter court. I don’t know if John Steinbeck visited Mar-a-Lago. or encountered Donald Trump before he died, but I’ve had the pleasure of both and I’m pretty sure Steinbeck would take a very dim view.

John Steinbeck’s View of Donald Trump and Mar-a-Lago?

Image of Donald Trump's Palm Beach estate Mar-a-Lago

Before I moved to California and discovered Steinbeck Country I lived in West Palm Beach, where I ran a prominent nonprofit and played the organ at St. Edward’s Catholic Church, “the Kennedy church,” in Palm Beach. Once I substituted at Bethesda-by-the Sea, the Episcopal church where Trump reportedly received applause from attendees on Christmas Eve. I knew Ralph Wolfe Cowan, the artist who painted the Dorian Gray-like portrait of Trump shown in the lead photo of this post. My home in West Palm Beach wasn’t far from the bridge connecting with Palm Beach near Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s spacious domain, so named because it stretches from Lake Worth to the Atlantic. I passed by often on my way to church, and I was a luncheon and gala guest on those occasions when doing my job entailed hobnobbing.

Image of Marjorie Merriweather PostIt’s even possible I toured Mar-a-Lago before Donald Trump, who bought it at a discount from descendants of Post cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1985. A year or so earlier a friend of mine arranged for a private look-see at the estate where Post entertained lavishly when John Steinbeck was alive. By the 1980s the mansion’s faded interior resembled Norma Desmond’s living room in Sunset Boulevard—aging, abandoned, populated by the ghosts of parties and partners past—and John Kennedy was the only ex-president with a known Palm Beach address. To fill this gap, Post willed Mar-a-Lago to the government as a presidential retreat when she died. But the property lies under the flight path of Palm Beach airport, adding to security issues, and before Trump came along the Palm Beach social scene had attracted few of Kennedy’s successors. Johnson wasn’t the Palm Beach type, Nixon and Ford and Reagan enjoyed Walter Annenberg’s hospitality in Palm Springs, and the George H.W. Bushes had close ties to the old money on Jupiter Island, a less pretentious winter enclave an hour north of Palm Beach.

Image of memorial plaque at Mar-a-LagoPalm Beach prejudice presented another problem. Kennedy wasn’t welcome everywhere, even as president, and top-tier social clubs like the one across the road from Mar-a-Lago excluded Catholics and Jews from membership as recently as my time. To his credit, Donald Trump thumbed his nose at this tradition when he opened Mar-a-Lago Club for those with sufficient cash and cachet, regardless of race or religion, in 1995. As a marketing strategy his open-door policy was a winner, attracting socialites and business leaders and making Mar-a-Lago a popular venue for black-tie charity events. Trump’s inauguration committee may be having trouble signing talent, but name entertainers like Vic Damone loved playing Mar-a-Lago, and the evening I spent chatting with Diahann Carroll, Vic’s wife at the time, is my warmest memory of the place. Vanity Fair covered Mar-a-Lago favorably almost from the start, though the tone changed after the editor of the magazine described Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian.” (“How Donald Trump Beat Palm Society and Won the Fight for Mar-a-Lago was a source of images for this post.)

Image of Christopher HitchensIn 2003 my organization was celebrating its 25th anniversary when the publisher and a retinue from Vanity Fair flew to town in preparation for an expose of Palm Beach social mores. One of the writers in the group—the late Christopher Hitchens, a regular contributor to Vanity Fair—invited me to tag along when a Republican billionaire with a household name hosted dinner at a Palm Beach club that still banned Jews. Rather late in life Hitchens had learned that his maternal grandmother was Jewish, a topic of conversation as we waited outside the club, so I suggested that he ask for a kosher menu once we were inside and seated for dinner. The next day I got a call from the head of the Palm Beach cultural venue where my organization’s anniversary event was about to be held. It happened that his board chairman was an officer of the club—a thin-skinned millionaire who learned, almost instantly, about our quiet indiscretion the night before. I wrote the requisite letter of apology and agreed to keep my mouth shut about the incident, but Christopher seemed gratified when I reported the result to him. He said it proved our point perfectly.

Image of Roy Cohn and Donald TrumpLike John Steinbeck, a writer he admired, Christopher Hitchens was politically astute, egalitarian, and courageous under fire from bullies, Left or Right. Like Steinbeck, he supported America’s pursuit of an unpopular war (in Hitchens’s case, Iraq; in Steinbeck’s, Vietnam) and bravely paid the price. Like Steinbeck, he distrusted power, disliked braggadocio, and detested xenophobia, insult, and incitement to mob violence of the kind seen more than once during Donald Trump’s campaign for president. Roy Cohn, the McCarthy-era lawyer who taught Trump how to play New York hardball, was anathema to Hitchens, as he’d been to Steinbeck when The Winter of Our Discontent was written. The odious combination of compulsive mendacity, obsessive opportunism, and pathological aggression that repelled Steinbeck advanced Cohn’s career and attracted clients. One of them was Donald Trump, the billionaire developer described by Hitchens in 1997 as a “bankrupt real-estate monarch [who] can treat the skyline as his own without any hint of a nasty creditors’ meeting at any of his numerous and lenient banks.” Trump’s Palm Beach ascendancy might have amused Hitchens. But I think it would offend Steinbeck, who ridiculed small-town ambition and conspicuous consumption in The Winter of Our Discontent.

Steinbeck’s California Dreads What Palm Beach Celebrates

Image of John SteinbeckI am unacquainted with the four Trumpettes who posed for Vanity Fair in front of Ralph Cowan’s painting of Donald Trump. But I recognized names from the past when I read reports about holiday festivities at Mar-a-Lago. An outspoken Trumpette quoted by national media outlets once worked for the Democratic county commissioner from West Palm Beach. On New Year’s Day the Palm Beach daily newspaper published an admonishing letter to readers in which she promised that “President-elect Trump will make us financially secure again” and described “the days of massive government waste and corruption” as a thing of the past caused (presumably) by Democrats. Today, more than 30 years after I first met this woman and a decade after leaving Florida for California, I feel about Donald Trump’s Palm Beach as John Steinbeck felt about Salinas, his home town. I’m grateful for the memories but sad for the “dear little town” I used to know. As Mar-a-Lago celebrates and Washington gets ready, the winter of our discontent grows darker by the day here in his home state.

Remembering Carol Robles, “Great Heart,” 1937-2016

Image of Peter Hoss and Carol Robles at Steinbeck House

Carol Robles died at the Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital just before 7:00 AM on October 28, 2016. Her great heart failed.

Carol called herself “just an Idaho farm girl,” and that’s what she was.

Carol Joyce Hansen was born in Emmett, Idaho on December 24, 1937. She attended Boise State University for a year, married, and then moved to San Jose. In 1978, she moved to Salinas and worked at the Sears store on South Main and served as Human Resources manager until 1992. After leaving Sears, she decided to complete her B.A. degree, and went to Hartnell College and then to Golden Gate University, graduating in 1994 summa cum laude with a degree in human relations. She later helped set up the Golden Gate University extension in Monterey.

She spent the past two decades traveling the world. And she also devoted herself to the Salinas community, particularly John Steinbeck’s legacy. She was deeply involved in the National Steinbeck Center from its inception, really “part of the heart and soul of the Center,” as her friend and traveling companion, Peter Hoss, noted. “She was the world’s expert on John Steinbeck’s life,” he continued. And that was so. Carol spent hours tracing details of the Steinbeck and Hamilton family history, and many consulted her about his life. She also trained NSC docents and volunteers and gave many, many tours of Steinbeck County-land that she loved. Carol’s bus tours were unforgettable; she sat in the front and regaled people with in-depth stories about Steinbeck’s life and career. Her tours of the Steinbeck House in Salinas were equally detailed and lively. Those who were fortunate enough to hear Carol talk about Steinbeck will never forget her passion.

Carol was also active in the Salinas Chamber of Commerce, Dixieland Monterey, and Mensa.

She is survived by her stepson, Robert Robles and wife Bertha, as well as six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

A memorial will be held at the National Steinbeck Center, Sunday, November 13 at 1:00 pm.

Donations can be made in Carol’s name to the National Steinbeck Center (1 Main Street, Salinas, 93901) or to the Valley Guild for the Steinbeck House (132 Central Ave. Salinas, California 93901).

Peter Hoss contributed to this post. Photograph of Peter Hoss and Carol Robles at the Steinbeck House by Susan Shillinglaw.

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.

Angling Days: My Love Affair With American Literature, John Steinbeck & Fly Fishing

Cover of Robert DeMott's book on fly fishing

A book on fly fishing by a scholar of American literature is great news for fans of John Steinbeck, especially when the scholar is Bob DeMott. The author of Angling Days: A Fly Fisher’s Journals talks about his lifelong love affair with John Steinbeck and fly fishing in this interview for Armstrong Television, serving Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia.—Ed.

Thinking of John Steinbeck? Pencil Your Own Blog Post

Image of someone thinking about a blog post on John Steinbeck, who wrote with a pencil

SteinbeckNow.com is the author website with an ambitious mission: to connect John Steinbeck, who preferred pencils, with readers accustomed to computers. Other American authors also have author websites. But most are designed for academics, or tied to venues or foundations raising funds for programs and projects. Steinbeck never wanted an academic title or degree; he even resisted when his home town attempted to name a school after him. Pitches for money made him uncomfortable and commercialism often made him angry. In this same spirit, the only non-academic author website that bears his name is non-commercial and focused on the present, not the past. Content comes from contributors who write for love, not money; new blog posts are published weekly, almost 300 since the site launched three years ago. Contributors, 48 to date, come from the United States, Europe, and Africa as well. Some write poetry, fiction, or drama inspired by Steinbeck’s life or work. A few are specialists who prefer to test their ideas online before writing their article or book. Most are amateurs who participate in Steinbeck’s books as he intended, with imagination. Thinking about John Steinbeck in a fresh or personal way? Put your thoughts in a blog post for the only Steinbeck author website created for readers like you. Content is curated and subject to editing, but turnaround is fast and layout looks appealing. Steinbeck thought imaginatively, then put pencil to paper. Now it’s your turn to write. Getting started is easy: email the idea for your blog post to williamray@steinbecknow.com.


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.

Discovering Unexpected Connections to East of Eden During a Family Trip to Northern California

Cover image from a British edition of East of Eden

John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath made a deep and lasting impression on me when I read it as a school-curriculum book whilst a young teenager in the UK. I consequently became a lover of Steinbeck’s writing, reading many of his other books over the years that followed. After moving to Southern California for work a few decades later, I visited the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas with my family en route to San Francisco and our holiday home rental farther up the Northern California coast, in the picturesque village of Mendocino (pop. c. 1,200). The towns of Salinas and Mendocino have appeal for fans of Steinbeck like me, and I recommend stopping at both when you visit Northern California.

Image of Levin family visit, National Steinbeck CenterAs a chemist I found the National Steinbeck Center engaging for the insights it offered into Steinbeck’s life and career as a journalist, novelist, and (briefly) “bench chemist” for the Spreckels Sugar Company. But there was more. An exhibit depicting Steinbeck’s epic biographical novel East of Eden caught my attention because of the biblical and philosophical commentary concerning man’s responses to evil influences that it revealed. This prompted me to purchase a copy of East of Eden in the bookstore as we were leaving. I read it during our stay at the idyllic sea-view house we rented in Mendocino overlooking rugged coastal cliffs and resident sea lions, a dramatic setting in which to experience Steinbeck’s multi-generational saga.

Steinbeck’s discussion of the Hebrew word “timshel” in East of Eden fascinated me as a metaphor for our choice in how and whether to response to evil, and I was moved to look up the passage in the Hebrew Bible that contained the word—from the story of Cain and Abel—that Steinbeck quotes. When I discovered that Steinbeck had incorrectly transliterated the Hebrew word timshol, I consulted Hebrew and other sources about its meaning and Steinbeck’s use. My research was eventually published in an article by Steinbeck Review, as reported in a post at SteinbeckNow.com.

Image of the Ford House Museum and Visitor CenterWhilst staying in Mendocino and reading East of Eden, I encountered unexpected connections to Steinbeck and his novel during a visit made by our family to the Ford House Museum and Visitor Center to learn about the history and culture of the area. The story of the Ford House began in 1851 with Henry Meiggs, the Gold Rush sawmill owner who built Fisherman’s Wharf on San Francisco’s famous Embarcadero. Learning that a ship with cargo from China had sunk off the Mendocino coast, Meiggs sent an employee named Jerome Ford to the wreck site to search for salvage. Ford failed to find the ship, but he discovered something of even greater value to his employer: a magnificent forest of redwoods stretching many miles inland from the rocky Northern California shore.

Following Ford’s advice, Meiggs arranged for sawmill equipment to be shipped around the Horn from the East Coast to Mendocino, where the first sawmill opened in 1852, with Ford as superintendent. The second house constructed in Mendocino from lumber cut by Meiggs’s mill was built for Ford and the woman he married in 1854 in Connecticut, the time and setting chosen by Steinbeck for the opening section of East of Eden. Readers will recall that 10 years after publishing East of Eden Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley about seeing the redwoods in and around Mendocino while driving down the Northern California coast with his wife Elaine—a century after the Fords settled into their redwood home.

Image of John SteinbeckI discovered one more connection between East of Eden and Mendocino during my family visit to the Ford House: Mendocino was a shooting location for the 1955 movie adaptation of East of Eden that starred James Dean. Scenes were also shot in Spreckels, the sugar company town outside Salinas where Steinbeck worked while a student in high school and at Stanford. Years ago I was introduced to Steinbeck in school in the United Kingdom, so it was a delight for me to discover unanticipated connections between his life and writing in Northern California as an adult.

Many thanks to Jenny Heckeroth of the Ford House Visitor Center and Museum and to Lisa Josephs at the National Steinbeck Center for their help.

John Steinbeck’s Monterey, California: The Way It Was

Image of John Steinbeck and Monterey, California

I was surprised when my friends Matt and Vivian told me about a silk opera cape that John Steinbeck wore long ago to a posh cocktail party in Pebble Beach. I didn’t doubt them (I knew them too well for that), but really—an opera cape with a red lining? It happened when they were visiting me at home during the time I lived in Monterey, California. Vivian noticed a book by Steinbeck on my writing table.

“Oh, we know him,” Vivian said, explaining how she and her husband Matt had catered the Pebble Beach affair, and how John sat alone in the corner at the party wearing a cape. “Anyone who wanted his attention had to go to him,” she added. “I thought he was being a snob. But when the party wound down he got up and spoke.”

Steinbeck said, “I’ve seen your side of the hill,” recalled Vivian. “Now who wants to see how the rest of the world lives?”

“And so off we went to Steinbeck’s house in Pacific Grove,” Vivian added, “where he showed us how to drink wine out of a gallon jug you propped on your shoulder.”

Listening to the story, I felt sure Steinbeck was giving the Pebble Beach crowd a two-fingered salute that night long ago. But I was left wondering about the cape, which seemed out of character for the writer. Years later I read a letter from Steinbeck to his soon-to-be second wife, Gwendolyn Conger, describing how a group of kids in Pacific Grove appeared at a neighborhood party dressed in capes. He said he thought it might be amusing if he were to venture out wearing one, too. Eventually he did. Mystery solved.

Image of George Harrison

Celebrities Pass Through and Come Calling in Monterey

The more I think about my life surrounded by artists on Huckleberry Hill—a hill overlooking Pacific Grove and Monterey, California—the more I regret not asking more questions and listening to more stories about John Steinbeck during the 1930s and 40s. Years later, during my time there, celebrities who today would be followed by a gaggle of fans and reporters managed to live, work, and visit in peace. Famous writers in the region’s rich history included John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, Dennis Murphy (the son of a childhood friend of Steinbeck’s), Eric Barker, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Image of Steve McQueen

Among the motion picture stars who came to town were Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Shirley Temple Black, Doris Day, Bing Crosby, Joan Fontaine, Clark Gable, Kim Novak, and Frank Sinatra. Singers, too: Bobby Dylan and Joan Baez. Artists galore: Bruce and Jean Ariss, Ephraim Doner, Liza Wurtzman, John Steinbeck’s portraitist Barbara Stevenson Graham, who painted under the nom de plume Judith Deim. The art collector Bill Pearson, who owned a gallery in New Monterey, plus a flock of colorful cartoonists: Eldon Dedini, Hank Ketcham, and Gus Arriola. Photographers, some famous—Ansel Adams Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham—and others less well known: Morley Baer, John Livingston, Al Weber, Brett Cole, and Ruth Bernhard. Lesser literary lights called Monterey or Pacific Grove home as well: Ward Moore and Milton Mayer and Winston Elstob and Martin Flavin and Bob Bradford and Lester Gorn, to name a few.

Image of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor

For the most part, prominent residents and visiting celebrities alike were treated by the denizens of Pacific Grove and Monterey, California, as friends or neighbors or passers-by who deserved privacy, like everyone else. Alcohol was often in evidence, and it was tolerated, even in formerly-dry Pacific Grove. Before my time the poet Dylan Thomas had passed through, driven by a wealthy woman from Berkeley in a yellow convertible. I was there when Liz Taylor and Richard Burton drank and argued and threw martini glasses at one other in a local bar. The racing driver Augie Pabst drove a car into a downtown motel swimming pool. Harold Maine, the author, visited a friend and drank all the aftershave in the bathroom. At the pub I owned in Monterey, Kenneth Rexroth leaned over and whispered, for my ears only: “I write poetry to fuck girls.” During the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival virtually every important rock musician in America paraded through my doors. The great jazz monologist Lord Buckley (“The Naz”) crashed one of my parties and gave a fireside performance that lasted well past dawn.

Image of Janis Joplin and the Holding Company

When a very young Diana Ross came to my bar, the Bull’s Eye Tavern, with the Supremes, a pub patron helpfully pointed out that they might not be of drinking age. I just shrugged. I figured that if I got tagged for serving these minors, the publicity would be worth a fortune. When Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company hit town, they parked their canary-yellow Ford Anglia outside the Bull’s Eye and came in to drink, play darts, and play music. (Better music than darts, as I recall.) To me, it was clear from the size and condition of the car they left at the curb why Janis sang “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”

Image of Bing Crosy

Singers, Gangsters, and Royalty—All in Town for Fun

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor once stood six feet from me, gazing down at a flower garden I was constructing at a home in Pebble Beach. We exchanged smiles, as I was to do on a different occasion looking into the face of an aged and wrinkled Clark Gable. Bing Crosby saw me one afternoon and mistook me for his son. “Gary! What in the hell are you doing there?” he shouted in my direction. At the time I thought he had a vision problem, though it seems the problem may have had more to do with drink, as the man was rarely sober. He owned a house in the area that served as a party retreat for his boys. One day a young soldier from Fort Ord appeared at the Polygon Bookshop on Cannery Row. Leafing through a book of photos by Ansel Adams, he said wanted to be a photographer and would give his right arm to meet Adams. Winston Elstob, the writer who co-owned the Polygon with Jim Campbell, picked up the phone and dialed Ansel’s number. Within 30 minutes Adams arrived at the bookshop in his old blue Cadillac and spent an hour or more talking with the lad.

Image of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan

Cannery Row was a Monterey magnet, then as now. One evening I dropped into a coffeehouse bar where Bobby Dylan and Joan Baez, along with Richard Farina and Joan’s sisters Pauline and Mimi, sat in a corner singing quietly, playing guitars, and plucking a dulcimer. Los Angeles, a day’s drive, was a draw for locals like me—and vice versa. While visiting friends there, I met a screenwriter named Lionel Oley. Liking what I had to say about life in Monterey, he immediately moved north to join the Monterey-Pacific Grove fun. I located a rental house for him around the corner from mine on Huckleberry Hill, and his boyhood friend Rod Steiger often visited. After returning to Los Angeles from one trip to Monterey, Steiger observed that it never rained in LA, then took off his trench coat and handed it to me.

Image of Rod Steiger

Lionel’s girlfriend moved up to Monterey as well, bringing with her a friend who was the mistress of the gangster Mickey Cohen. Mickey became a frequent caller, driving up from Los Angeles in his big bullet-proof car. The attractive business card he handed me identified him as the proprietor of a Los Angeles ice cream parlor. It was difficult going anywhere with Mickey because he would spend half an hour or more obsessively washing his hands, then go back inside to the bathroom to wash them again. Knowing his violent past, I was sure he was scrubbing away imaginary blood. One time, sitting in the back of Mickey’s car, the girlfriend rubbed her palm across the thick glass window and said, “I wish someone would start shooting so we could see if this damned stuff works.” Mickey shuddered visibly.

Image of Mickey Cohen

When Living in Monterey Was Like a Motion Picture

John Steinbeck’s Big Sur, down the coast from Pacific Grove and Monterey, California, was a powerful lure for writers and artists. The author Henry Miller, Big Sur’s genius loci, would sit on his sofa opening a large mailbag delivered to his mailbox at the foot of Partington, his wife Eve at his side, putting the letters with money into one pile and those without cash in another. The wonderful English poet Eric Barker lived nearby in a house on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

Image of Henry Miller and Eve
I was writing, too. One day a man named Roland—a friend of my friends, the artists Bruce and Jean Ariss—approached me at Big Sur’s legendary Deetjen’s inn holding a photograph album. Years earlier he had lived in Taos, New Mexico, near D.H. Lawrence and Lawrence’s wife Frieda. He asked if I would I help him write a book about the experience, showing me photos taken in the late 1920s that included one of Frieda mounted on a horse, looking quite large. I said yes, and we agreed to meet at my house on Huckleberry Hill the next day to get started.  Alas, poor Roland never arrived: he died of a heart attack that night.

Image of D.H. Lawrence wife wife Frieda

Motion picture people were attracted to the Monterey area for obvious reasons. During my time, a would-be actor named Ron Joy lived next door to my neighbor Lionel. Bucking the northbound trend, Ron headed south to Hollywood, where he failed as an actor but eventually achieved success as a movie magazine photographer. After getting engaged to Nancy Sinatra, he drove her up to Monterey in his little red MG roadster. If you’ve ever ridden 400 miles up and 400 miles down Highway 1 in the bucket seat of an MG, you, too, will understand why she stutters and looks so jumpy in her movies. I had a house party one night, and somehow Ingrid Bergman’s daughter Pia Lindstrom and a girlfriend from Sweden heard about it. They were staying at a Monterey motel and took a cab to my home, where they arrived unannounced and ended up spending the entire weekend. The Bull’s Eye Tavern prospered.

Image of Bull's Eye Tavern ad

After Playboy magazine published an item about the Bull’s Eye that said my pub was the only place to go in Monterey, George Harrison and Ringo Starr appeared one evening with an entourage that included Neil Aspinall, Mal Evans, and Derek Taylor. After I closed, I invited them all to my house, where George told me that the Beatles were history. “Listen again to ‘Here Comes the Sun,’” he confided. After returning to London, he made me an honorary member of the Apple Corps, and I still have the ceramic green apple broach George sent me to prove it.

Image of Clint Eastwood

Carmel, south of Pacific Grove, has had its share of celebrities, too. The same week the Beatles came to my bar, Clint Eastwood—later the mayor of Carmel—walked into the Bull’s Eye with his friend, the golfer Ken Green. Even then, long before Dirty Harry, Clint was known to throw a punch at people with beards and long hair. “John,” he assured me, “I wouldn’t bust up your place. You’re a writer, and I respect that.” (Lucky me.) At a garden party in Carmel Highlands, the actor-screenwriter-producer John Nesbitt invited me to move to Los Angeles to work on his film series, The Passing Parade. Laughing, I said I wouldn’t give up a day in Monterey for a year in LA, even to work for him.

Image of Marilyn Monroe on location in Monterey, Calfornia

Because of its beauty and location, the Monterey-Pacific Grove-Carmel coast drew motion picture directors and stars almost from the beginning. When work was over, actors and writers sometimes stayed behind to live and play. During my years on Huckleberry Hill, it seemed that a picture was being shot every month somewhere between Monterey and Big Sur. If you were in the right place at the right time, there was a good chance of getting work as an extra, though a common complaint was that filming was one of the most boring jobs in the world. Shooting sometimes began before dawn and extended through the night. The tedious part for an extra was standing by as the director shot and re-shot the same scene—a little like Mickey Cohen, my gangster acquaintance, washing his hands while the rest of us waited.

Image of Frank Sinatra
Inadvertently, I almost appeared in a scene from a motion picture called Kings Go Forth when I happened to be in Martin’s Fruit Stand on the Carmel Valley Highway as the crew was shooting in an orchard behind the store. Frank Sinatra sauntered over, dressed in an army uniform for the scene, to buy an apple. Thinking back recently to my encounter with Ol’ Blue Eyes, I found a website that lists hundreds of films made around Monterey, California. My memory was further refreshed by the Monterey County Film Commisssion’s map showing where specific scenes were shot.

Image of William Saroyan

John Steinbeck, Bill Saroyan, and the Company They Kept

Like John Steinbeck, a handful of major writers, artists and actors of note lived in Monterey before they became famous. In Steinbeck’s era (and mine), the community offered kinship, support, and a quality of privacy that, for celebrities today, would require a wall and bodyguards to achieve. My home in Steinbeck’s old neighborhood and my pub downtown attracted an assortment of characters—famous, infamous, and struggling—not unlike Doc’s lab in Steinbeck’s day. We were all of us, in our own way, aiming for the top. Some succeeded and moved on, like Steinbeck. Others failed. I was among those who eventually left; though success spoiled Monterey for Steinbeck, my memories are mostly happy ones. If my friends Bruce and Jean Ariss were still alive, I’d talk with them about their friends Carol and John Steinbeck: about Ed Ricketts; about Steinbeck’s fellow California writer William Saroyan; about Burgess Meredith, Charlie Chaplin, and the composer John Cage, all friends of Steinbeck at one time or another. If I were rewriting the past and directing this particular picture, I’d get poor Roland to the Monterey hospital in time, and I’d add a scene for Roland to share his stories about D.H. and Frieda Lawrence in Taos—a place, like Monterey, where the stars shone brightly in a bygone era.