Mission Art by Nancy Hauk Mirrors Steinbeck’s History

Image of Mission San Juan Bautista painting by Nancy Hauk

An exhibition of art in the California mission town of San Juan Bautista by the late Nancy Hauk, whose home in Pacific Grove was once the residence of the man Steinbeck mythologized as “Doc,” will have special meaning for readers curious about the history behind Steinbeck’s California fiction. Thirty years before Steinbeck was born to the west, in Salinas, voters in eastern Monterey County, including the Mexican Californians of San Juan Bautista and Yankee settlers in Hollister, were promised their own county if Salinas became the seat of Monterey County instead of Monterey, the mission town that was California’s first capital. One outcome of this political decision was the emotional geography that came to define Steinbeck’s social sympathies and sense of place. Salinas boomed, Monterey languished, and in 1874 the County of San Benito was born, named for the river the Spanish called after St. Benedict when they built the mission they named for John the Baptist. Hollister, the nearby town where Steinbeck’s father’s family farmed and raised five sons, became San Benito’s county seat.

Image of Nancy HaukSteinbeck’s mother’s family lived in Salinas before the county split, and she returned to live there with her husband in 1900. He became Monterey County treasurer following a political scandal. She became the kind of local activist who took sides on civic issues like the vote of 1874. Their son’s feelings about Salinas ran in the opposite direction and eventually became material for his writing. The family’s cottage in Pacific Grove was a refuge from Salinas when Steinbeck needed one, and the Hauk house where “Doc” Ricketts once lived is nearby. So is the Monterey lab that attracted artists, misfits, and other characters celebrated by Steinbeck in his Cannery Row fiction. The conflict between Salinas and Monterey epitomized in the San Benito vote 50 years earlier was emblematic of a deeper division explored in East of Eden, the book Steinbeck wrote for his sons. Steinbeck’s art reflected his sympathies in this fight and caused controversy. Nancy Hauk’s art reminds us of the history behind the fiction.

“Paintings of the California Missions,” an exhibition of work by Nancy Hauk (in photo), includes the Mission San Juan Bautista image shown here. It opens in San Juan Bautista on Sunday, December 17 and runs through March 2018.

The Forgotten Anti-Rebel Yell In Steinbeck’s Wayward Bus

Image of rednecks with Confederate flage

Monterey County’s move to rename Confederate Corners, the isolated intersection south of Salinas, California restyled as Rebel Corners in The Wayward Bus, has renewed interest in John Steinbeck’s 1947 re-imagining of Plato’s Ship of Fools allegory, from Book VI of The Republic. Located on Highway 68 in unincorporated Monterey County, Confederate Corners got its name during the Civil War, when a handful of Southern sympathizers proposed seceding from California as a mark of solidarity with the Confederate States of America. Except for informed readers of The Wayward Bus, the Monterey County ranchers’ mini-rebellion was largely forgotten until controversy over the removal of racist flags and statues in several states of the former Confederacy erupted, post-Charlottesville, into Trumpian rhetoric around issues of ethnicity, immigration, and loyalty to the flag. Like the Ship of Fools metaphor embedded in Steinbeck’s neglected novel—which few critics recognized, then or now—the recent news from Monterey County is replete with the kind of irony that appealed to the author, a big-tent American who began writing The Wayward Bus in and about Mexico.

The Passing of Frank Wright And the Men’s Clubs of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row

Image of Frank Wright at Doc's Lab on Cannery Row

The recent death of Monterey, California businessman Frank Wright at age 98 served as a reminder that the life of Doc’s Lab—Ed Ricketts’s marine biology laboratory on Cannery Row—had two distinct phases. The 1930s and 1940s were the period of John Steinbeck and Ricketts and the artists and poets and philosophers who gathered around them. The 1950s began the Lab’s second incarnation as a men’s club of painters, cartoonists, teachers, journalists, lawyers, and business people founded by Frank and his friends—all with a passionate interest in Steinbeck and Ricketts and a way of life that was already fading into the past. Like the earlier, even more casual men’s club, Frank’s group met and socialized and partied in the Lab’s raffish rooms and outdoor concrete deck and holding tanks overlooking Monterey Bay. In the process they kept the Lab largely as it was, preserving it for posterity.

Image of Hank Ketcham in 1953

The Men’s Club That Saved Doc’s Lab

Frank met Ricketts after joining the Army in 1942, and they remained close until Ed died. In the early 1950s, Frank and two other men bought the Lab as a meeting place for their circle of artists, educators, and fellow enthusiasts. For a slim sampling of this second generation Cannery Row men’s club, there was Gus Arriola, the brilliant creator of the comic strip Gordo. Eldon Dedini, the farm boy from South Monterey County who became a successful and sophisticated cartoonist for Esquire and Playboy. Morgan Stock, the teacher and director who spearheaded the drama department at Monterey Peninsula College, which in turn named a theater for him. The irrepressible, crusading attorney Bill Stewart. The Dennis the Menace cartoon creator Hank Ketcham (in photo), also a serious painter. Like Steinbeck and Ricketts, they were creative types drawn together by a love of talk, drink, and music. The Monterey Jazz Festival grew from their collaboration. So did the idea of making Doc’s Lab a living museum, now under management by Monterey, California’s department of cultural affairs.

Image of Nancy Hauk and friends in front of Doc's Lab

The End of an Era on Cannery Row

A personal memory: Years ago my late wife Nancy and I were walking along Cannery Row with Sue and E.J. Eckert (in photo to Nancy’s right). When we stopped in front of the Lab we got lucky. Frank Wright was standing on the stairs with Dennis Copeland, cultural affairs director for Monterey, California. Frank offered to give us a tour. He was a natural storyteller, warm and personable and charming, and when we left, walking out onto the bright morning sunlight of Cannery Row, the Eckerts said, “Boy, that was something!” They’ve never forgotten the experience. It was Frank’s gift to many when he was alive, and he was active well into his 90s. His death was indeed the end of an era.

Photo of Frank Wright courtesy Monterey County Weekly.

In 2017 the Iran Deal Included John Steinbeck’s Hometown

Image of John Steinbeck House in Salinas, California

Guest book entries by visitors to the gift shop in the basement of John Steinbeck’s childhood home show that the Steinbeck House remains popular with readers who travel to Salinas, California from other towns, states, and countries. For example the guest book page for July 17-August 17 contains entries from a cosmopolitan array, including France, Wales, the Netherlands, Hungary, Norway, New Zealand, Germany, England, Italy, and Canada. Less conventionally, guest book entries for the current year also include the Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Portugal, Iceland, South Africa, and—even more surprising—the Republic of Iran. An internationalist who believed that good treaties prevent bad outcomes, John Steinbeck would like the idea that the Iran deal with the United States extended, however briefly, to Salinas, California.

John Steinbeck Loved This Family Home in Watsonville, California, and So Will You

Image of Rodgers family home, Watsonville, California

For John Steinbeck, moving on in life meant leaving family homes—and friends—behind in California, starting with Salinas, where the Steinbeck family home on Central Avenue has become a living museum made possible in part by gifts of memorabilia from John Steinbeck’s oldest sister, Esther. The 11th Street cottage in Pacific Grove where Steinbeck often stayed when he was poor, single, or hurting remains in the extended family, but the pair of houses in Los Gatos where he lived with his wife Carol and wrote the books that made him famous both belong to strangers now. The bungalow he bought on Eardley Avenue in Pacific Grove when the marriage faltered and he needed writing space belongs to a bed and breakfast today, but it can be rented and is readily seen from the street. So is the historic adobe in Old Monterey that Steinbeck purchased with his second wife before abandoning California for New York, where he chose to live with Elaine, his third wife, until he died.

Image of Rodgers House interior today

Visit Rodgers House at Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds

Through it all, the family home John Steinbeck kept coming back to was his sister Esther’s house in Watsonville, California, the Pajaro Valley farming community nestled between the mountains and the sea northwest of Salinas, along the Monterey-Santa Cruz county line. Esther moved there to teach before marrying Carrol Rodgers, a prosperous rancher-farmer, and raising three daughters who called John Steinbeck uncle. The Rodgers family home on East Lake Avenue, built in the 1870s by Esther’s husband’s forebears, was bigger than any of the houses owned by Steinbecks in Salinas, Los Gatos, or Pacific Grove, but it was warm and inviting and popular with extended family members, including John. Though John Steinbeck became controversial and Carrol Rodgers remained distant, Esther loved her brother and welcomed him when he came to Watsonville. Evidence that Steinbeck enjoyed visiting the Rodgers household, wherever he happened to be living at the time, can found in letters and photographs from the 1930s to the 1960s on view at the home. After Esther died, friends and family members stepped in to preserve the house and move it to the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, where it’s open to the public by appointment. Call 831-724-5671.

Interior photo of Rodgers House today courtesy Dale Bartoletti.

 

The House Where Steinbeck Lived and Wrote Needs Help

Image of John Steinbeck's home in Salinas, California

John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902 in the front bedroom of the Victorian house at 132 Central Avenue in Salinas, California. In 1905 he was christened in the parlor of the Queen Anne-style structure—the same room where he later practiced the piano. In the living room he announced that he intended to become a writer. In the basement he regaled neighborhood friends with ghost stories and other tales. In an upstairs bedroom he wrote short stories that he sent to magazines, unsigned, as a teenager. He left for Stanford in 1919; years later he and his wife Carol returned to help care for his dying mother, a former school teacher who insisted that all four of her children go to church, learn piano, and attend college. In the same upstairs bedroom he occupied as a boy he continued to work on The Red Pony and Tortilla Flat, the book that brought him fame when it was published in 1935, the year his father died.

In the upstairs bedroom Steinbeck occupied as a boy he continued to work on The Red Pony and Tortilla Flat, the book that brought him fame when it was published in 1935, the year his father died.

The home was sold following Olive’s death, near the bottom of the Great Depression, in 1934. For the next four decades—years of war, recovery, and modernization—ownership of the aging Victorian house passed through various hands until its purchase by the newly created Valley Guild in 1973. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization created to save the house where Steinbeck was born, the Valley Guild made repairs, conducted research, and produced results that are evident today. The bed in which Steinbeck was born was returned. So were Olive’s desk and table. Steinbeck’s sisters stayed in California, and they and their children and grandchildren made generous gifts of period furnishings and family heirlooms. Thanks to the hard work of Valley Guild volunteers, the Steinbeck House was added to the National Register of Historic Places, a prestigious designation with some practical benefits.

For the next four decades—years of war, recovery, and modernization—ownership of the aging Victorian house passed through various hands until its purchase by the newly created Valley Guild in 1973.

Recognizing the need for an income stream to support ongoing maintenance and preservation, the founders put their heads together and came up with a plan that serves educational and economic goals equally. For five days each week throughout the year the House is open to the public as a lunch restaurant, gift shop, and bookstore operated by a team of 98 dedicated volunteers. The restaurant employs a professional chef and offers a changing menu. Table service is provided by Valley Guild members in period dress—docents in motion who educate diners about Steinbeck while taking orders and serving food. The annual Steinbeck festival and the National Steinbeck Center on Main Street, three blocks from the Steinbeck House, are partners in the enterprise of keeping Salinas, California at the forefront of global interest in Steinbeck’s life and work.

Image of Steinbeck House interior in Salinas, California

Time Catches Up With Every Victorian—Even Steinbeck’s

Age has its advantages, but keeping a 119-year-old Victorian house in working order is expensive. Not long ago it was discovered that the center of the Steinbeck House, supported by eight posts on brick footings, was slowly sinking. The posts run the length of the basement gift shop and bookstore and serve as the building’s legs. As they go, so goes the body. To prevent collapse, soil engineers and construction experts determined that the deteriorating posts and bases had to be replaced using concrete. Although the restaurant has remained open during the process, the project required closing the gift shop and book store, raising the central beams, and installing temporary supports while making excavations and constructing permanent posts and footings—all necessary to insure the future of John Steinbeck’s birthplace as a public resource.

Image of construction on Steinbeck House foundation

Using the GoFundMe Page Makes Giving Safe and Easy

The project is well along and, once all expenses are paid, is expected to cost $35,000. The bill, along with the revenue hole caused by the gift store closing, has created an urgent need for funds to keep the Steinbeck House open and operating in the black. The people of Salinas, California are community-minded and do their part. But the Steinbeck House is a national treasure, and help is also needed from friends and fans who live elsewhere. Fortunately this group is growing: visitors from 68 countries and 50 states have enjoyed lunch and a lesson in Steinbeck history while eating at the restaurant. Please do your part to keep the Steinbeck House on its feet. Visit the new GoFundMe page and make your tax-deductible gift to the project. The Victorian house where Steinbeck first wrote fiction is getting on, but just as beautiful as the day Steinbeck was born in the front room of his family home 115 years ago.

 

Praise for the Salinas Valley From The New York Times

david-laws-east-of-eden-15

A travel feature in the February 9 New York Times focused on food and wine in Carmel-by-the-Sea and Salinas, California also paid respects to East of Eden, John Steinbeck’s fictional account of bygone days in the Salinas Valley, where agriculture is still king. If you enjoy eating, drinking, and Steinbeck in that order, What to Find in Salinas Valley: Lush Fields, Good Wine and, Yes, Steinbeck is worth your time, whether your summer travel plans include grazing your way through Steinbeck Country or packing East of Eden with the lemonade and sandwiches for an afternoon getaway closer to home.

Photograph of the Salinas Valley by David Laws.

Surf Shop Repurposes a Piece of Steinbeck History

Image of Martijn Stiphout finishing surf board in Aptos, California

According to a February 1, 2017 Santa Cruz Sentinel article entitled “Surfboards with a literary connection” Martijn Stiphout, a John Steinbeck fan who builds surfboards at an “eco-friendly surf shop” in Aptos, California, is making a surfboard using Douglas fir salvaged from The Western Flyer, the sardine boat Steinbeck rented 77 years ago to explore marine and human culture along the coast of the Sea of Cortez. The boat’s new owner is Peter Gregg, a 32-year-old businessman and surfing enthusiast who is renovating the vessel in dry dock at Port Townsend, Washington for use as a floating ecology classroom. According to the Santa Cruz Sentinel feature, Gregg met David Dennis, co-owner of the Aptos, California surf shop, at the 2016 Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, where Dennis gave a talk about recycling wood from the Steinbeck family cottage in Pacific Grove for a novel purpose that would probably please Steinbeck, who enjoyed tinkering and respected age.

Photo of Martijn Stiphout by Vern Fisher, Monterey Herald, courtesy Santa Cruz Sentinel.

 

Sacramento, California Artist Gregory Kondos Gives “House of Steinbeck” to Pacific Grove Public Library

Image of Gregory Kondos family in Pacific Grove

Gregory Kondos, a 93-year old Sacramento, California artist and immigrants’ son, recently presented “House of Steinbeck,” his painting of the legendary 11th Street Steinbeck family cottage, to the public library in Pacific Grove, the California town where John Steinbeck lived on and off in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. The oil-on-canvas painting—based on photographs of the 11th Street cottage taken before its recent renovation—was presented to Linda Pagnella, who is retiring this week as the Pacific Grove Public Library’s director of circulation.

Image of Nancy HaukKondos said that he made the gift in memory of the Pacific Grove artist Nancy Hauk (left), a close friend and former student. “I painted it in memory of Nancy,” he explained, ”as a way of honoring her.” Before Nancy’s death in July, the Pacific Grove Public Library named its newly completed art gallery in her honor. Steinbeck’s first wife, Carol Henning, may have worked at the library in the early 1930s, when the struggling newlyweds subsisted on Depression-economy jobs, help from friends, and a monthly allowance from Steinbeck’s father.

At Home in Pacific Grove in Steinbeck’s Time and Today

Kondos and his wife Moni have a second home in Pacific Grove, not far from the cottage where the Steinbecks lived when Steinbeck began writing Of Mice and Men. Joining the painter and his wife in presenting the painting were (from left in lead photo) son-in-law Bobby Field, associate athletic director at UCLA; daughter Valorie Kondos Field, the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame coach whose women’s gymnastics team has won six national championships; and son Steve Kondos, an Aerojet engineer who helped build the first Mars Rover. Moni Kondos made arrangements for the gift.

Image of Steinbeck's 11th Street cottage, Pacific GroveLocation, history, and the enthusiasm of residents like Nancy Hauk, a former board member, have made the library a popular place for Steinbeck fans in Pacific Grove, a town with a long memory and a slow pace that appealed to John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts. The Steinbeck cottage is located at the corner of 11th Street and Ricketts Row, the alley named by Pacific Grove for Steinbeck’s friend and collaborator.

Kudos for Kondos in Sacramento, California’s Capital

Image of Kondos Gallery in Sacramento, California
Further proof that prophets, authors, and artists aren’t always without honor at home in California was provided several years ago by Sacramento, which renamed a city street Kondos Avenue. Sacramento City College, where Kondos taught until 1982, named its art gallery for him when he retired. A member of the National Academy of Design, Kondos has also exhibited in China, Europe, and Washington, D.C.

Photo of Bobby and Valorie Kondos Field with Steve and Gregory Kondos courtesy Steve Hauk.

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.