John Steinbeck (1902 -1968), supreme writer and storyteller, got millions, who had never before read fiction, to read his novels and magazine pieces – stories of ordinary characters told in a home-spun way. Despite his critics, Steinbeck’s books still sell in tens of thousands worldwide and his 1962 Nobel Prize was well earned. A critic at the time, on hearing of the $50,000 prize, sniped at Steinbeck saying how long did it take him to earn it? ‘Forty years’, was the gruff, yet succinct reply.
Of his three wives, Carol, Gwyn and Elaine, Gwyn has been totally and perhaps deliberately forgotten. Steinbeck pursued her. She was introduced to him by his childhood friend Max Wagner at just twenty years old. Gwyn was bright and beautiful and taught Steinbeck to enjoy life. It was a relationship doomed to fail, but it lasted eight years, during which time he wrote several major works.
Age difference, his indifference and the dislike of Gwyn by Steinbeck’s sisters (he was the only boy amongst the siblings) meant their union was ill-advised. Yet she met celebrities like Robert Capa, Ernie Pyle, Burgess Meredith, Charlie Chaplin and Ernest Hemingway, in an alcohol fuelled war and post war era.
Eventually, partying and travel did not compensate for his affairs, unexplained absences, constant restlessness and indifferent, sometimes brutal behaviour toward her and their children. Then there was Steinbeck’s sole mate, Ed Ricketts, who contributed to a relationship that was “a bit crowded”.
When Gwyn divorced Steinbeck, he was astounded, and spent the rest of his life hating her, even demonising her as Kate, the wicked villainess in East of Eden. Steinbeck could hate with a passion – and did. He confided this characterization to his publisher Pascal Covici in Journal of a Novel-The East of Eden Letters.
Gwyn never remarried and died in 1975, at just 58, a chronic asthmatic whose condition was worsened by smoking and periodic heavy drinking. This is a story never before told. Was she treated fairly? Did Steinbeck value her? Was she thwarted in her ambition-a victim of attitudes at that time?
Before her marriage to John Steinbeck Toby Street, Steinbeck’s long-time friend and lawyer told Gwyn’s mother, known as Big Gwen, ‘Carol was a sweet girl too, but John made her into a monster. If he gets Gwyn, he will make her into a monster too.’ Perhaps he did. Read her memoir, a missing piece of Steinbeck’s private life, and make up your own mind.
Bruce Lawson, Publisher