My Life with John Steinbeck - Frequently Asked Questions
An interview with Bruce Lawson, Editor Lawson Publishing Ltd about Gwyn Steinbeck and her memoir: My Life with John Steinbeck
How did this journal end up in Wales?
A friend of mine John Brown, who lives near me in Montgomery Powys, told me he had a script written by his brother Douglas Brown, former editor of the Palm Springs newspaper, The Desert Sun, which had never been published. Douglas Brown had bequeathed it to his daughter Candace, who in turn gave it to her uncle John.
Because I had self-published a successful biography of Charles Rolls of Rolls-Royce, pioneer motorist, road racer and early aviator who co-founded Rolls-Royce (ISBN: 978-1-909644-39-7), John Brown enquired as to whether we could get Douglas’ story published.
Why is Gwyn called “The Forgotten Wife”?
This theme developed over the two years that I have researched the project. In the standard introduction to any of Steinbeck’s books, there is no mention whatsoever of Gwyn Conger Steinbeck, his second wife, though his first wife Carol is mentioned, as is his last wife Elaine. Gwyn was with him for eight years, during which time he produced some of his best work, and was mother to his only two children, Thom and John Jnr. It seemed unfair that she has been air-brushed out of Steinbeck history.
How did the Steinbeck community react to the discovery of the material?
Scholars in America who were advised of our project, reacted by saying “we wish we had known about this information before.” One is Jay Parini who did a substantial biography in 1994, nineteen years after Gwyn had died entitled John Steinbeck – A Biography. He always thought he couldn’t get a “fair take” on what Gwyn was like and was interested that this gap material turned up.
What do you think is especially valuable about Brown’s book?
It’s important in understanding Steinbeck. During her time with him, she bore him two children. He wrote several of his major works: The Forgotten Village, The Sea of Cortez, his wartime book Bombs Away, The Moon is Down, Cannery Row, The Wayward Bus and The Pearl. She was with him when he left to go to Russia for the book that became A Russian Journal. Also, during their time together he formulated his second “big book”, the blockbuster East of Eden which later became a film that launched James Dean.
What was Gwyn doing when she met John Steinbeck?
Lured by the glamour and possibility of getting a film part, Gwyn first encountered Steinbeck in Hollywood. She was a tall beautiful girl and she could sing. Her mother who encouraged her, had been a music teacher and a talented musician. Gwyn acted as a film extra, sang in clubs, on the radio, and worked as a waitress-anything to make ends meet.
Steinbeck was married but it seemed not to be an issue for her. Was this because of the kind of aura that surrounds famous men?
It was an issue. They dated for a while then parted. Months later, Steinbeck heard her singing on the radio and contacted her again.
Steinbeck was married but his first marriage was crumbling, particularly in the aftermath of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath in April 1939. He couldn’t handle the fame of meeting famous people and all the money the book generated. The Grapes of Wrath sold over 400,000 copies in 1939. Film rights were then sold and a movie ensued with Henry Fonda in the lead directed by John Ford.
I think that Gwyn was first attracted to him because she was intelligent and realised that he was a fascinating and wealthy man. He was drawn to her, because she didn’t argue with him and was young, smart and gorgeous.
Who were some of the important people in their life together?
One was Ed Ricketts, marine biologist, a lifelong inspiration to Steinbeck and at the centre of their social life when they were in Monterey, although by the time Gwyn was involved, they spent a lot of time in New York. A close friend was Burgess Meredith, a well-known star from his title role in the film G.I Joe, and many years later in the Batman and the Rocky films but who had had a very long and distinguished career on the stage. Gwyn also met Ernest Hemingway, photographer Bob Capa, Charlie Chaplin, Henry Fonda, Nat Benchley, Paulette Goddard, writer John O’Hara, composer Frank Loesser (who wrote the musical Oklahoma), and artist Diego Rivera whom she met when in Mexico.
Why did they move so often to Mexico, New York, San Francisco, Monterey?
Steinbeck was a manic personality. When he was involved in a book, he was in a world of his own. When a project was over, he wanted to move onto the next one. Early in his career, he thought Californians didn’t like him because of his left-wing leanings in his books Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath. His take on the plight of the Okies was indeed supported by the wife of President Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt.
When he was well away from the controversy in New York, Steinbeck didn’t like the climate so he would return to California – where they didn’t seem to value writers as much. From time to time, he would escape to Mexico. The packing up and moving so often wore Gwyn out; as her health was never robust and she had two small children.
Did she view these migrations as essential for his work?
No, apart from the trips to Mexico, to Russia with Robert Capa and later to Norway to receive a decoration in connection with the book The Moon is Down. Later in their marriage, she felt he wanted to escape from her, his children and parental responsibilities. I also think he had a roving eye all his life, until he settled down with his third wife, who was mature enough to handle him (and he could not afford another divorce!)
What happened to Gwyn when Steinbeck went into the army?
He didn’t go into the army. He arranged to get into the action as a war correspondent and spoke to Mrs Ogden Reid, owner of the New York Tribune, who got him a passport. He hadn’t had one for years as he was disliked by some authorities in New York because of his left-wing leanings which came out in some books. He managed however to disappear into the European “Theatre of War” within weeks of their marriage, against his new wife’s wishes. Understandably, Gwyn as his new bride, was concerned that he might be killed or wounded. He was slightly injured, which made him grumpy for some time on his return. In her opinion, however successful he was, it was unnecessary and selfish.
How did her views of their life together eventually change over time?
I think that Gwyn was worn out. They got on very well in the physical sense, but Steinbeck was not the most considerate person! Also, having established the fact that he could father a child, he was disinterested in having another and indeed largely ignored his second son. Gwyn says in her script, on at least two occasions, he asked her to have an abortion. This pattern had occurred in his first marriage where Carol apparently agreed not to have children, so that it would not get in the way of his writing. This attitude carried over into his second marriage.
Did she give up important things to be with him?
Gwyn, a talented singer, was on the national radio at the San Francisco Exposition of 1939. Years later, when he bought her a Hammond organ, she wrote some songs and had them put on a demo disk. Steinbeck was furious: he didn’t like her taking any of his limelight and forbade her to further her musical career. In their house, it appears that there was only one view and that was his.
Gwyn says she was so in love with him, she forgot to take care of herself. And that he was a person “in love with love.” Was this why she asked for a divorce?
I think it was a cumulative situation for her, as later on in their marriage she did not enjoy robust health. Gwyn had two difficult pregnancies, two Caesarean deliveries, about which he was unsympathetic and in today’s climate, wholly unreasonable. There can come a point in a relationship, where the pros and cons become out of balance, and I think by 1948 she realised he would never change. Gwyn wanted a better life of her own and decided to divorce him, which she later regretted. She was just 31. She probably then missed the excitement and the financial security. Gwyn never remarried and a contributing factor may have been her alcoholism (her alcohol mis-use is referenced in The Other Side of Eden by John Steinbeck Jnr). Her single status made Steinbeck very cross, because he was forced to support her from 1949 until he died in 1968, some nineteen years later.
Would you say Steinbeck fits the stereotype of men of his era, who famous or not, believed they had the prerogative to behave as they liked, while women existed to serve?
Straight answer – yes. Steinbeck was greatly influenced by marine biologist Ed Ricketts. Their relationship was so close, his first wife thought their relationship was, to use Princess Diana’s phrase “more than a bit crowded”. Ricketts was wholly amoral, and although Steinbeck was from a church-going background, he seemed to become more promiscuous as he got older. He had the wherewithal to attract women, not just with his money and influence but his intellect. After Gwyn left him he had an affair with actress Paulette Goddard, the former wife of Steinbeck’s close friend Burgess Meredith.
The “Me Too” movement has been exported to countries around the world. Do you think men and women now view themselves and their roles differently?
Yes. As someone who was born in 1946, attitudes of men to women (and vice versa!) have changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Anyone who hasn’t adjusted their take on relationships is somewhat foolish and out of touch. I have been married twice and feel that I didn’t treat my first wife as well as I could have. I had learned a lot by the time I came into my second relationship, almost twenty years ago. I hope that women don’t overplay their hand, because otherwise a lot of fun will be lost because of too much suspicion between the sexes – albeit this is somewhat justified, if continuing revelations are to be believed.
Fantasy plays a role in Gwyn’s life with Steinbeck, but her inherent honesty gives a fascinating look at the demands of what we call genius and the psyche of the gifted muse. Perhaps her thwarted talents contributed to her alcoholism later in life?
I am not sure about this. Steinbeck worked very hard when he was working. He didn’t drink until the end of the day, or on holiday between books. A writer’s life is often abnormal: it is so intense that when a particular project ends, the opportunity to relax and unwind is only natural. People in the creative industries do work hard and play even harder. Gwyn got caught up in this, but eventually she realised that Steinbeck just wanted a courtesan, housekeeper and nanny. He didn’t want her to be anything else. She was not allowed to express herself and this did exacerbate her drinking which together with her asthmatic tendencies, left her less robust than Steinbeck wanted.
Would you say Gwyn’s book is the missing lynchpin in the portrait of Steinbeck, writer, man, friend, husband and father?
Yes. The genius that was Steinbeck, mellowed by age and experience, eventually found someone who would have been an equal partner, but firm with him, when he married Texan, Elaine. She sought to maintain his persona that he was a country boy, who had made good through sheer hard work. Steinbeck was spoiled by his sisters and his parents, being the only boy in the house. He was for a long time supported financially by his father, for five years between 1930 and 1935. He received an allowance of $50 per month equivalent to $700 today.
The biographies of Steinbeck by Jackson Benson in 1984 and Jay Parini in 1994, were written with the cooperation of Elaine Steinbeck who thought there would never be a challenge to her version of Steinbeck’s life and his relationship with Gwyn as known. This was because Gwyn had died in 1975. There is a certain irony that the script has turned up after forty years, which tells of the interaction between Carol and Gwyn, the second wife, and is to quote Jay Parini “a genuinely important literary discovery.”
It also describes Steinbeck’s boorish behaviour with his family and frenetic wartime days in America.
The book fills a huge gap. It is only fair Gwyn gets a chance to tell her side of the story about her relationship with one of the greatest writers in 20th century America. Very much a missing lynchpin.
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