John Steinbeck, American writer of over twenty major works and Nobel Prize winner, died at his New York home fifty years ago on December 20th 1968, the day before mid-winter. He was 66 and had been in declining health for several years.
One of his last books was The Winter of Our Discontent in 1961 – my personal favourite. Others late in his writing life were Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962) and America and Americans (1966), but Steinbeck knew his best work was in the past. He said himself that he had little left to say.
Pop stars and footballers can retire but critics forbid writers so to do. However, Charles Poore wrote of Steinbeck in The New York Times alongside Steinbeck’s obituary about the masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath. “He was out to rouse, not to soothe us into asking human beings to starve quietly and inconspicuously during the days of Depression and despair”.
Of the Nobel, Poore concluded – “His place in literature is secure. Steinbeck didn’t need the Nobel Prize. The Nobel judges needed him.”
The writer, in less forgiving tone, growled at one critic, who asked how long it had taken him to earn the $50,000 award – “Forty years”.
Until late in life, Steinbeck lived very hard. He caroused in his youth with Ed Ricketts and others, collaborated so well with Carol, his first wife, who suited his lifestyle at the time. Steinbeck burned himself out writing “Grapes” and succumbed – quite wrongly – to the charms of Gwyn Conger and then realising his mistake, stifled her creativity, treating her so poorly that she left him. She took their two sons – to whom he never really related, especially his second son John Jnr.
Luckily, John Steinbeck found Sag Harbour, Long Island and safe harbour with tough Texan, third wife Elaine Anderson Steinbeck. She stood by him for the last eighteen years of his life. She had the unenviable task of caring and managing not only him but his relationships with his sons and their mother, Gwyn, who almost certainly regretted her decision to leave John in spite of his behaviour. Steinbeck in grim humour just before dying, quipped to Elaine, “Sometimes suddenly, it will come to you that Gwyn won’t be getting any more alimony and you are going to laugh your head off” (Benson 1984, page 1034). He had paid Gwyn alimony for nineteen years as she never remarried and hated her with a vengeance. He never forgave her and also admitted to his publisher, Pat Covici, that he had based arch villainess, Cathy Ames, on his second wife (East of Eden Letters, page 39).
John Steinbeck’s health problems mirrored his declining powers as a writer. He was often depressed. He mourned the passing of old friends. Pat Covici had died in 1964, upsetting him almost as much as when his A Russian Journal collaborator and war photographer, Robert Capa, had died on a battlefield a decade earlier. His beloved sister, Mary, had also died, as had Adlai Stevenson, whom Steinbeck had supported in his US Presidential candidature.
Steinbeck injured a shoulder helping out a local with a handcart full of beer in Hong Kong. He had earlier had a heart attack at Capri, some minor strokes and these and the strain of an unnecessary foray into Vietnam took their toll. His son John Jnr said that “Being wrong about the war killed him” (The Other Side of Eden, page 151). His 1994 biographer, Jay Parini, concluded “In many ways, the Vietnam war sank John Steinbeck as a writer. It had sucked him into a vortex and it would not free him” (Parini, page 573).
Steinbeck said of his second son, whose arrest for possession of marijuana in Washington coincided with the writer’s major spinal surgery in 1967 – “They should have jailed you” (The Other Side of Eden, page 150). John Jnr formulated the quote “You can’t expect a good writer to be a good father” (The Other Side of Eden, page 148). He despised his father’s early support for Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam war. Steinbeck himself knew that he had failed his sons but never quite understood why.
Elaine nursed John through the recovery from his surgery but he started a terminal decline in May 1968. However, he retained his humour. He had a last pet dog, a pit bull, called Angel (!). Angel lost an eye so Steinbeck created an eye patch for him, later adding a wink with lashes on the eye lid.
In July, heart problems put Steinbeck in the New York Hospital. Emphysema and clogged arteries were winning the battle. Steinbeck confided in Doctor Denton Cox “I am not religious so I have no apprehension of the hereafter, either in hope of reward or a fear of punishment” (Life in Letters, page 856). Doctors advised that major surgery was not an option – the final course was set.
Elaine cared for him – at times with an oxygen mask at night. The Steinbeck’s moved back into their high rise New York apartment for a time, then back to Sag Harbour and then in the final weeks back to the 72nd Street apartment. Steinbeck told Doctor Cox how much he loved Elaine and that he also wanted – despite his atheism, a Church of England funeral.
Sadly, Gwyn’s mother was never allowed to speak to John, but she spoke to Elaine (My Life With John Steinbeck, page 180). Gwyn herself had said she had “Not dared to call anymore”. She added “I heard of his feelings about me through his letters to our sons…. I know he wanted his thoughts to get back to me, even if he did not admit it.” (My Life With John Steinbeck, page 181).
Nor did first wife Carol appear to make any contact – although she had been collaborating with her sculptor sister-in-law on a bust of Steinbeck – saying she wanted an accurate bust of “The son of a bitch” (Portrait of A Marriage, page 259). So, in death, Steinbeck was entirely estranged from two of his wives and one son – so very sad for someone raised in a church-going house full of sisters and happiness – only two sisters remained alive in far-away California.
John Steinbeck slipped away in a coma at around 5.30pm on December 20th 1968. “He had gone very easily and quietly. His eyes were closed and his heart just stopped” (Benson 1984, page 1036). Fittingly, two of Elaine’s supporters at the end were Elizabeth Otis, Steinbeck’s agent for decades and Dorothy Covici, widow of Pat Covici.
His short funeral service took place in New York – a simple coffin at Steinbeck’s insistence. Henry Fonda, who played Tom Joad in the movie of “Grapes” read from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and some lines from Robert Louis Stevenson. The Rector read from Psalm 121 including “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help”.
A final plea from a complex man – a storyteller who encouraged millions of Americans to read novels for the first time.