Women in John Steinbeck’s Life on Display in San Jose

Image of John Steinbeck quotation about women

Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Cathy/Kate in East of Eden. Elisa Allen in “The Chrysanthemums.” Such women from John Steinbeck’s fiction are unforgettable. So, on examination, are the women in Steinbeck’s life, as this quotation suggests. Steinbeck’s mother Olive Hamilton and first wife, Carol Henning, were both from San Jose, California, and San Jose State University is celebrating each (and the two wives who followed) in a special exhibit of documents and photographs on the 5th floor of the MLK Library, located on the San Jose State University campus, through January 20, 2018.

Image of exhibit on John Steinbeck's women at San Jose State University

MLK Library Exhibit through January 20

To paraphrase the man who bragged about failing his way to success in marrying for the third time, the success of John Steinbeck’s marriage to Elaine Scott, from 1950 until his death in 1968, was possible only because the strong willed mother and wives who preceded her prepared him for their partnership. Some say he married his mother. Steinbeck doubted Freud and disliked psychoanalysis, but he’d be happy to see the women in his life get the credit they deserve for the roles of educator (Olive), editor (Carol), and manager (Elaine) without which his writing wouldn’t be so quotable.

The exhibition may move next to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, where the theme of the 2018 Steinbeck Festival (and the inspiration for the MLK Library show) is “The Women of Steinbeck’s World.” The May 4-6, 2018 festival will be held at the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, where John Steinbeck and his sister Mary studied biology when they were students at Stanford University. Susan Shillinglaw, professor of English at San Jose State University and director of the National Steinbeck Center, is the author of Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage,

 

 

 

 

How John Steinbeck’s Name Caused Confusion at the Pacific Grove Post Office

Image of John Steinecke at the Pacific Grove post office

Just the other day she stepped into our Pacific Grove, California gallery with a distinguished-looking gentleman who likes to do carvings. Her name’s Joy and the gentleman was her husband Jerry.

The subject of John Steinbeck came up—as it usually does in the gallery—and Joy said:

“My parents couldn’t stand him.”

“Why not?”

“They’d get late night phone calls from people, usually inebriated, asking for him—for John Steinbeck. Getting them up in the middle of the night infuriated my folks.”

Steinbeck probably would have liked Joy, a school teacher and administrator who has taught and teaches everything from English and business to quilting, because she added with finality: “And that’s all I know about it.”

It reminded me of something Ma Joad might say.

I waited a bit then asked some questions anyway.

Joy said her parents came to Pacific Grove in 1943. Her father was about 37 years old at the time but could have been drafted into the army even though he and his wife Lela had a young child. Someone recommended that he join the post office instead of the army and he did, becoming, eventually, a clerk in the Pacific Grove branch on Lighthouse Avenue, a branch Steinbeck would have used for many of his postal needs in the 1930s—perhaps sending off typescript copies of Tortilla Flat and Of Mice and Men to his publisher in New York.

What, I asked Joy, was her parents’ last name?

Steinecke,” she said. “It came right after Steinbeck in the phone book.”

“And what was your father’s first name?’

John,” she said.

It was beginning to come together . . . .

I could see someone in a phone booth looking up the Steinbeck phone number in the middle of the night—maybe to give the author some good advice, not realizing he was now living on the East Coast. Having had a few drinks, the caller could easily morph Steinbeck into Steinecke, or maybe the finger marking the place slipped down the page just a smidge and, hey, it still says John! If the Steinbeck name wasn’t listed, Steinecke would do nicely.

As a result, Mr. Steinecke, scheduled to begin work at the post office in a few hours, gets calls at two, three in the morning. Not easy to get back to sleep, the phone conversations likely still echoing in his head:

“Mr. Steinbeck, I think . . . I think you should change the ending of Tortilla Flat.

“I’m a postal clerk!”

“I know, but you wrote the book.”

According to Joy, John Steinecke would not have been amused.

“My dad was the grandson of a Prussian general who immigrated from Germany in the mid-1800s,” Joy said. “His sense of humor was not particularly well-developed, and he would probably huff about those phone calls if he were still alive. Anyway, he might not laugh, but he definitely would be pleased that you were writing about him and John Steinbeck.”

So, on a recent morning, with images of John Steinbeck and John Steinecke dancing interchangeably in my head, I went into the Pacific Grove post office for stamps and spoke with a clerk named Ron. For all I know, Ron was standing where Mr. Steinecke stood decades ago.

Ron said, quite the opposite of what Mr. Steinecke thought in the 1940s, “Steinbeck’s one of my favorites. People recommend other writers, but I always seem to come back to Steinbeck.”

Of course, if Ron had been living back then, working in the Pacific Grove post office, and his name was John Steinecke, even Ron Steinecke, he might have switched his literary allegiance to Hemingway or Faulkner.

Period photo of John Steinecke serving young customers at the Pacific Grove post office from Norton and Gus, by Margaret Hayden Rector (Grossmont Press, 1976).

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.

The Gift Shop Visitor from England Who Wanted East of Eden to Go On Forever

Image of John Steinbeck house gift shop volunteer and customer

Since moving to Salinas, California, I’ve volunteered twice monthly in the house where John Steinbeck grew up: one day assisting Chef Augie in the Steinbeck House restaurant kitchen and one working day in the Best Cellar, the book and gift shop in the basement that inspired the punny name. Because I work in the gift shop only once a month, it was a stroke of luck that I happened to be there on July 20, a busy day that began when my cohort John Mahoney and I saw reservations for 40 on the restaurant’s board upstairs. Forty was a good start. Counting walk-ins without reservations, it meant we could anticipate quite a few visitors to the gift shop before and after lunch. Even a slow day gets better when a “bluebird” visitor drops in and engages in fan chat about John Steinbeck. Along with near-record gift shop sales, July 20 also brought a bluebird encounter that I will never forget.

Even a slow day gets better when a ‘bluebird’ visitor drops in and engages in fan chat about John Steinbeck.

Shortly after we opened the door at 11 a.m., two parties came in: a father and teenage son from the Czech Republic and a 40-something couple from England with their small daughter. We’re used to foreign visitors in the gift shop, and the five we had that morning were talkative and friendly. Like his father, the teenager was clearly a Steinbeck fan—easy to tell as they zoomed past the shiny, pretty things and headed for the book section at the back of the shop. We stock some early editions of John Steinbeck, and the Czech father was visibly excited to find a vintage copy of The Red Pony to buy, lavishly illustrated, from the 1940s.

We’re used to foreign visitors in the gift shop, and the five we had that morning were talkative and friendly.

While the little English girl and her mum were occupied with the gift shop’s amazing dollhouse replica of Steinbeck House, one of our most popular not-for-sale items, John and I got to talking with the husband, who asked us what our favorite Steinbeck novel happened to be. We answered East of Eden, and he said he loved it, too. Then I mentioned that the first time I read the novel I dreaded getting to the end because I didn’t want the story to stop. The man’s response caught me by surprise: “Oh, my wife never did finish it for that reason.” I thought he was joking and turned to his wife. Yes, she said, ” I just didn’t want to know the end of those characters” after grieving over the death of Sam Hamilton, John Steinbeck’s grandfather, earlier in the story. Like me, she was familiar with the expression “book hangover,” which I confessed that I experienced when I finished reading East of Eden.

Like me, the woman from England was familiar with the expression “book hangover,” which I confessed that I experienced when I finished reading East of Eden.

Gift shop sales support the operation and maintenance of the house memorialized by John Steinbeck in East of Eden, and we were busy that morning. I would have welcomed more fan chat with the English couple, the Czech father, and the other bluebirds who visited during the day. Most of our out-of-town and foreign visitors on package tours of the Salinas-California area are focused on the rich history and Victorian architecture of the Steinbeck home. When lovers of Steinbeck’s fiction identify themselves, it’s a heartening reminder that our work helps to keep the house open and running. I’ve had other memorable experiences in the gift shop. But the standout will always be the English lady who couldn’t bring herself to finish East of Eden—not because it bored her, but because she loved the characters too much. I hope that some day she allows herself to read all the way to the end. Like the Steinbeck House, it’s graceful and glorious and gladdening.

Photo of Steinbeck House gift shop interaction by Angela Posada.

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

Image of Elaine and John Steinbeck

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

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

“Hello, how do you do?”

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

“Yes, of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      (from “Ode to a Nightingale”)

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.

 

University of Oklahoma Names David Wrobel Dean

Image of David Wrobel, Steinbeck and American history scholar

David Wrobel, professor of American history at the University of Oklahoma, has been named interim dean of the school’s College of Arts and Sciences by David Boren, OU’s president. A specialist in the history of the American west and chair of OU’s history department, Wrobel is the author of Global West, American Frontier: Travel, Empire and Exceptionalism from Manifest Destiny to the Great Depression; Promised Lands: Promotion, Memory and the Creation of the American West; and The End of American Exceptionalism: Frontier Anxiety from the Old West to the New Deal. He teaches an interdisciplinary course in the College of Arts and Sciences on Steinbeck, the focus of his cognate-field work at Ohio University, where he studied Steinbeck with Robert DeMott and the late Warren French as part of his PhD curriculum in American intellectual history.

On the Road with Family in John Steinbeck’s California

Image of Janet Ward, director of University of Oklahoma's Humanities ForumDavid Wrobel received preliminary news concerning his appointment in early June while driving from the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, to Pacific Grove, where he and his wife, Janet Ward (shown here), were vacationing with their daughter and sons at the Eardley Avenue cottage in which Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts began writing Sea of Cortez. His current book projects include America’s West: A History, 1890-1950, scheduled for publication in January 2018; We Hold These Truths: American Ideas and Ideals, from the Pre-Colonial Era to the Present; and John Steinbeck’s America, 1930-1968: A Cultural History. A native of London, England, he earned his undergraduate degree in history and philosophy at the University of Kent. Janet Ward, an interdisciplinary scholar of urban studies, visual culture, and European cultural history, is a professor history at the University of Oklahoma, where she directs the school’s Humanities Forum.

John Steinbeck Surprises Visitors in Northern Ireland

Image of Anne Hauk and sons at Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland

Imge of John Steinbeck mural in Bushmill's, Northern IrelandWhile traveling through Northern Ireland recently with her husband Tom O’Connell and sons Wyatt and Henry, Anne Hauk discovered this mural of John Steinbeck peering down from a building in the coastal town of Bushmill’s, three miles from Giant’s Causeway, the family’s destination. Steinbeck’s Ulster forebears emigrated to the U.S. during the 19th century famine that decimated the local population; 100 years later their celebrated grandson could be seen peering up from a glossy American ad promoting Ballantine’s Ale. Steinbeck, a sometimes self-effacing writer with an instinct for gadgets and whiskey brands, would be less surprised but also less gratified than Anne Hauk was by the apparition at Bushmill’s, home of Ireland’s legendary Black Bush label.

Image of Ballantine Ale ad featuring John Steinbeck

A resident of San Francisco, Anne is the daughter of Steve Hauk, an art expert and playwright from Pacific Grove who has written a series of short stories about Steinbeck, Salinas, Monterey, and the bibulous culture of bygone Cannery Row. A Jack Daniels-John Steinbeck fan, Steve identified the source of the image in Bushmill’s as a photo of Steinbeck by Sonya Noskowiak, a member of the San Francisco photography collective f/64. In East of Eden, the autobiographical novel Steinbeck was writing when the Ballantine ad appeared, Steinbeck’s Grandmother Hamilton, a hard-shelled teetotaler, makes her husband’s life miserable with religion. But Sam Hamilton had the last word. A sympathetic character given to imbibing with friends when she wasn’t looking, he is the subject of a 2016 BBC television program on Northern Ireland’s contribution to the culture of the United States. That Steinbeck would toast.

Family travel photos courtesy Tom O’Connell.

 

Curing Verbal Tic Disorder On MSNBC’s Evening News

Image of Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell, and Chris Matthews

Last week I channeled my inner English teacher by urging greater attention to grammar in blog posts about John Steinbeck. As with Steinbeck, however, I had issues with my high school English teacher. Like Mrs. Capp, the Salinas High teacher who underestimated Steinbeck’s need for praise, a teacher named Margaret Garrett used negative attention against adolescent error at Page High School in Greensboro, N.C. Once a month in our senior English class each of us had to give a short speech without notes, facing the class and Mrs. Garrett’s gorgon gaze. Filler words—I mean, like . . . umm, you know—were sharply received. Uh . . . kind of, sort of, in any event—mumbling, cliché, butchered syntax produced a steep frown, and the noisy clap! clap! of Mrs. Garrett’s hard, red hands. The technique she used to cure teenage verbal tic-disorder was practiced and perfected and frightening. In my case it was effective, engendering a hypersensitivity to sloppy speech that makes the talking heads on MSNBC, my preferred purveyor of cable news, increasingly hard to watch and hear.

Composite image of Chris HayesCompare the slow legato of John Steinbeck’s archived radio voice with the rapid staccato of Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, and Chris Hayes, who may be the most extreme example of stop-start arrhythmia on mainstream cable news. Close your eyes and count the filler words, clichés, and redundancies uttered by hosts and guests in an average on-air minute: I mean, you know, sort of, kind of, like . . . um, take a listen, tweet out, frame out, report out, break down, knock down, at the end of the day, now look . . . . Try to diagram the sentence that begins with this typical guest response: “Yeah, Chris, you’re absolutely right, yeah, but look [or take a listen to] . . . .” Imagine what John Steinbeck—a political sophisticate who thought bad syntax disqualified Dwight Eisenhower—would make of Donald Trump as president today, or of the contagious verbal tic disorder that has become the broadcast norm, corrupting discourse and advancing group-think. It’s the oral analog of thoughtless writing, caused by three attitudes Steinbeck abhorred: haste, inattention, and lazy following.

Image of Catherine RampellExceptions stand out because they’re both rare and promising at MSNBC. My favorite example is a young Washington Post opinion writer named Catherine Rampell, a frequent guest on Hardball with Chris Matthews and The Last Word, Lawrence O’Donnell’s marginally more listenable show in the slot behind Matthews, Hayes, and Maddow. As a communicator Catherine is like John Steinbeck: she speaks as she writes, clearly and carefully. I’m thrilled with her because she tickles my testy inner English teacher—and because I first met her when she was a high-achieving high school student in Palm Beach, Florida, where her father Richard Rampell, a culturally-attuned accountant, was my friend and fellow in the fight for local arts funding. In the past I’ve complained about Palm Beach, about the Trumpettes of Mar-a-Lago who worship Donald Trump and his dumbing down of everything. Now it’s a pleasure to praise the place for producing his opposite: a splendid writer and speaker with a career in journalism that John Steinbeck would admire and probably envy. Look for Catherine Rampell on MSNBC. And listen. You’ll be hearing about her.

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.