The Forgotten Wife – Gwendoline Conger Steinbeck

Gwendoline (Gwyn) Steinbeck was the second, yet largely forgotten, wife of John Steinbeck. Traces of her are hard to find in the introductions to any of his twenty-plus books, despite the fact that during their time together between 1939 and 1948, she bore him two children, Thom and John Jr.  Also, during these wild wartime years, his published works included The Moon is Down (1942), Bombs Away (1942), Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1947), and A Russian Journal (1948). Steinbeck became a filmmaker with The Forgotten Village (1941) and wrote of marine biology in Sea of Cortez (1941). His war correspondent’s reports from Europe he later collated in Once There Was a War (1958) and in their time together, he conceived a second ‘Big Book,’ East of Eden.  Any suggestion that the literary return on the eight years they were together was meager is very wrong.

Steinbeck abandoned his first wife and muse, Carol, for the glamorous redheaded singer shortly after the publication of his book The Grapes of Wrath. Gwyn, in turn, left then divorced him for his inconsiderate, boorish and uncaring behavior. Most scholars accept that Steinbeck based Cathy Trask (Ames), the inherently wicked character in East of Eden on Gwyn. Steinbeck alludes to this, writing to his publisher Pat Covici, quite clearly on Page 39 of Journal of a Novel – The East of Eden Letters.  ‘She is a tremendously powerful force in the book. And her name is Catherine or Cathy-Does that give you any clue to her?’  Gwendoline or Gwyn divorced him and he never forgave her.

The book, My Life with John Steinbeck arises from an inherited script discovered recently in Wales. The manuscript derived from a series of interviews carried out in Palm Springs by show business correspondent and newspaper editor Douglas Brown in 1972, three years before Gwyn died in 1975.

Two biographies – in 1984, (Jackson Benson) and 1994 (Jay Parini) told one side of her tale. In this book, in her own words, she sets the record straight from her perspective, outlining the sacrifices she made and indignities that she suffered. She paid a high price for her involvement with the restless, driven genius that was John Steinbeck. Theirs was a marriage that could not succeed, despite her great love for Steinbeck, the man and writer.

My Life with John Steinbeck describes his working habits, his insatiable wish to learn about everything and write about it, and the forbearance of Gwyn dealing with his capricious moods and egocentric behavior.  The Preface, by American biographer Jay Parini, casts a light on the relationship between a husband and a wife which would be wholly unacceptable in these more modern and enlightened times.

Paperback: 978-1-9996752-0-2
E-book: 978-1-9996752-2-6
Hardback: 978-1-9996752-1-9

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