The Forgotten Wife – Presentation about Gwyn Conger Steinbeck – San Jose University, May 2019
Hello, may I introduce myself. My name is Bruce Lawson. I am a semi-retired businessman from Montgomery, a small former county town/seat in Powys, Mid Wales, about half the size of Salinas in Steinbeck’s time and twice as sleepy. The locals like to keep the secret to themselves. We have two castles, one on private land about 100 yards from my house which was built in 1070, 950 years ago by a lieutenant of William the Conqueror, one Roger De Montgomery. The roof leaked so it was replaced by an Edwardian castle on the hill in 1223 which I can see from my home. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you.
I used to be involved in politics – ours is even more fraught than yours so, I decided to write uncontentious books. Little did I know. My Life with John Steinbeck has given me a once in a lifetime opportunity to add a little to Steinbeck’s family history in his second marriage. Despite difficulties this chance could not be passed up.
The circumstances surrounding the publication of My Life with John Steinbeck, about the second, almost deliberately forgotten wife of John Steinbeck, are somewhat bizarre. Besides giving my “take” on Gwyn Conger – a “take” which acclaimed biographer, Jay Parini, confirmed was hard to find, I hope to explain why, for reasons of fairness, the publisher felt her long-lost story should be told.
It has been a bumpy ride to publication – certain parties did not wish it and continue to wish it would go away, but in fairness to Gwyn it will not. None of the standard introductions to the Penguin editions of Steinbeck books make any mention of Gwyn Conger at all, albeit she was the mother of his two children. Is that fair? She was with him for eight years when he produced a number of notable works, including The Moon is Down, The Wayward Bus, Cannery Row, Bombs Away, The Pearl, A Russian Journal and began to conceptualise Gwyn as arch-villainess Cathy Trask in his biographical masterpiece East of Eden.
John Steinbeck is an amazing writer (not in his words, an author) and it is sad that part of his private life as Jay Parini put it “has been in shadow for over half a century”.
Englishman Douglas Brown conducted the interviews with Gwyn in the early 70s, but died in 1997 aged just 59. He was one-time editor of the Palm Springs Desert Sun. He was also a freelance showbusiness correspondent. He died suddenly whilst on holiday in York, England, where he was visiting with his brother John, who lives here in Montgomery. Doug interviewed Gwyn on many occasions and prepared the script.
In 2013, I wrote a biography of Charles Rolls of Rolls-Royce, pioneer aviator and co-founder of the iconic car company that bears his name. This was self-published and sold, and still sells, a satisfactory number of copies to the elite motoring fraternity including some here in America. Doug Brown’s brother asked if I would like to see the manuscript. It was like Susan Shillinglaw’s scrap book moment. We felt it important enough to arrange its publication, also ensuring a legacy for Doug Brown, and were much encouraged when Jay Parini saw merit in the book and agreed to write a preface. Unsurprisingly, because of its contentious nature, we found neither agent nor publisher, who were prepared to take it on, so I formed a publishing company to do so. Some may say that Gwyn may not have been a reliable source of information, but after all there are two sides to every story. In her prologue, Gwyn asserts John said “I have very strong morals, but I change my morals to fit the situation.” She goes on to say that if she confronted him with a lie, he would simply answer “Gwyn, for the moment, that is the truth”. Who knows?
Doug wanted to publish Gwyn’s memoir, but was thwarted by the huge presence of the Steinbeck family and his untimely death. Some of the interview tapes: there may be more than one set, ended up elsewhere, but there was a gap in her narrative between March 1945 and December 1946. This coincides with the time when Steinbeck was working on The Pearl. It also covers the birth of John Jnr in 1946 and indicates that John Snr., did not want a second child. “I don’t want it, I don’t want any more kids”, and “If I can’t have you to myself then I am sorry we had any children at all”. During that second pregnancy, Gwyn describes being sworn at, and her husband trying to kick her down the stairs of one of the brownstone houses he purchased. This was at 175 East 78th Street, New York. She fell down the stairs in front of viewing visitors, whom John had brought to the house.
Chapters 15 and 16 of My Life with John Steinbeck are particularly graphic. One moment is described when John Jnr was seriously ill, as a very small baby. He was taken home – perhaps to die, the doctors saying nothing further could be done for him. The second night, the child bawled all night and Gwyn alleges John Steinbeck said to her “I wish to Christ he would die: he is taking up too much of your f!!!!!! time”.
Gwyn says her love for John “died” at this point. Yet the start of their relationship was so different. Jay Parini writes they met in a club where Gwyn was singing, although My Life with John Steinbeck has Gwyn being asked to visit a sick Steinbeck by her close friend Max Wagner. This was when John was recuperating from his Grapes of Wrath exertions and his battles with the magnificent, long-suffering Carol. Susan Shillinglaw’s biography, Portrait of a Marriage, is a wonderful picture of their time together. Carol sounds great, and my view is that John Steinbeck made the biggest mistake of his life in leaving her.
I believe John met Gwyn in mid 1939 when she was just 22. They met on and off during that year and first became intimate in Autumn 1939 when Gwyn tells of her becoming pregnant. John didn’t seem particularly helpful and after Gwyn confided in her mother, she arranged for Gwyn to have an abortion. Gwyn recalls hearing the news “War in Europe” (September 1939) while she was with Max Wagner. This was after a riotous Monterey weekend and party with Max, John, Carol and Ed which concluded in the Ricketts’ lab. Carol would have assumed, as she was meant to, that Gwyn was an item with Max, although Steinbeck requested Gwyn’s presence via this subterfuge.
The following year, 1940, Steinbeck contacted her again at the second year of the San Francisco Exposition held to celebrate the construction of the two major bridges. She was singing in some CBS experimental radio broadcasts.
Gwyn professed to revere Ed Ricketts, at least in the early days of her relationship with John. She tells of a special magic “he was John’s offspring – the source of the Steinbeck Nile”. She accepted Ricketts’ sexual excesses but felt Ed was over-idolised. After Ed’s death, her take on the fact that John destroyed diaries and letters was that Steinbeck thought there is a beauty in the world which you just don’t want others to pore over. A more pragmatic reason for Steinbeck’s actions could have been that the consequences of revelations about Ricketts’ dalliances (and Steinbeck’s?) on the inhabitants of Monterey. Steinbeck had destroyed much correspondence before, as evidenced in November 1939 – In Working Days – The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath.
Nevertheless, Carol and Ricketts inspired John Steinbeck. As Susan Shillinglaw writes, on Ricketts’ death, “Steinbeck buried part of his soul.”
John made the running with Gwyn, she asserts, but she was hardly prepared to meet in a triangular shoot-out with Carol in 1941 and found it quite jaw-dropping. By then Carol was 35 – Gwyn about 25 and Carol having sustained her man for so long, and having sacrificed having children, must have hated her husband and his younger lover. Steinbeck thought there might have been an affair, years earlier, between Carol and Joseph Campbell, a writer who had worked at one-time for Ed Ricketts. He perhaps never forgave Carol for this aberration. Sauce for the gander one thing…but for the goose?
Gwyn was not amused when John said at the meeting between Carol, Gwyn and himself “And I have been thinking. And what do you women want to do about me?” He then added “Whichever of you ladies wants me the most: that is the woman I am going to have”.
“John left the house and two of us were alone” Gwyn said, adding “I wasn’t ready for that kind of shit. It was like a Nixon/Kennedy debate”. She left at the end of the drama but days later John advised her of Carol’s departure to New York and that he and Gwyn would stay together.
Up until the time of their marriage in 1943, the couple enjoyed the money John had earned, less the substantial settlement to Carol. Her memoir describes early houses – one haunted. She also recalls a pet rat called Burgess (named after the actor Burgess Meredith) and John’s weeping at the death of the rat. They moved to and from New York, at one time to Sneddens Landing. Gwyn met many well-known faces. She gained an insight into his writing and his moods, but her asthma and heavy drinking took its toll. Weeks after their wedding in New Orleans, Steinbeck effectively snuck off to war – some considerable shock to his young new wife. He later admitted being unfaithful while away and she possibly was too.
English writer, Lord Jeffrey Archer wrote a short story called A Wasted Hour which was according to him, inspired by real events, in which Steinbeck picks up a student hitch-hiker on the way to Stanford and confides: “When I got home (from the war) I discovered my wife had shacked up with some other fella. Can’t say I blame her. Not that I was single for too long, because soon after, I married Elaine. I can only tell you one thing I know for sure, Kelley, three wives are more than enough for any man”. (Tell Tale ISBN 978-4472-5230-6) Coincidentally Archer had a successful early book entitled Kane and Abel (was even as well known an author as Archer being circumspect about the title – why not Cain and Abel?)
Six months later John came back from war, injured and very tired, and in Gwyn’s words “he was down, really down, very depleted” and admitted to feeling very old. However, he was not too old in the autumn of 1943 to sire his first son Thom, who was born in June 1944, despite the couple’s lengthy journeys to and from Mexico, while Gwyn was pregnant.
As an expectant mother, she got her first harsh looks from John. She describes his crass behaviour as being insensitive, both to her wellbeing and to her unborn son.
While the Steinbeck’s waited for their happy event, Gwyn describes the conception of a book Everyman in which the central character is a young Ed Ricketts, who wanders into a Mexican cantina, then meeting a cockroach bartender and other insect characters. She describes how Pat Covici, Steinbeck’s publisher, told him to destroy it, saying “That is a beautiful fire you have going there”. She also describes a less hilarious apartment fire, hilarious for Gwyn and her mother, Big Gwen, but not for John who could not take a joke about himself and who sulked for days afterwards.
She also described the making of ranch coffee – fuel for some of the finest American literature ever written. “He wanted a good brand of coffee and it was always ranch coffee. He began by measuring out the grounds enough for six to eight cups. When the water came to the boil, he dropped an egg into it. Westerners make coffee that way; sometimes if they have eggs for breakfast, they throw in the shells. The coffee pot was very messy to clean out. After that, into the coffee, John poured canned milk and quite a lot of sugar – brown, natural sugar”. Gwyn further added that when working, Steinbeck did not drink at all but made up for it when he had finished or at the end of the week or project.
Around this time, Gwyn met Burl Ives and was present on the occasion when Steinbeck met Hemingway, at Tim Costello’s New York bar, with Bob Capa and John O’Hara. Later she met Ernie Pyle the revered war correspondent, who became Thom’s godparent. Pyle was to die shortly afterwards, in a war zone, which upset John badly.
After Thom’s birth, as Steinbeck was polishing Cannery Row, he became restless again and dragged the family off to California. Their first house was dubbed the “White Cliffs of Dover” by Gwyn, which she hated. She was soon mollified, however, when they moved into an 1830s adobe house in Monterey, which she loved, and which they renovated together.
However, on Christmas morning in 1945 she was jolted when Steinbeck, without warning, said “I’ll see you later, I am going to spend Christmas Day with my sisters”. He then left Gwyn, Thom and Miss Diel, their nanny, to celebrate without him. Gwyn admits to being an “outsider” with John’s family – feeling “they plainly did not want me there”. After Christmas, John suddenly decided that Gwyn was to follow him on yet another move. This time to Mexico. Restless or what? And when The Pearl was finished, did they return to California? No, this time to New York – to the 175 East 78th Street brownstones.
Gwyn cites John’s behaviour to her and their second son John Jnr as the cause of their breakup. The couple had a happy interval when she travelled with him to Scandinavia, where John received a Liberty Cross from the King of Norway. This was for his inspirational short novel The Moon is Down which inspired wartime Resistance leaders across Europe. They were alone, the kids had stayed home – John had her to himself and could spend money lavishly, as he liked to, but even then, tormented her about buying a Swedish farm, before returning home.
Gwyn describes how John went to Mexico to finish The Pearl and she took her year-old son to see his grandfather – her father, in Florida. She discovered she was pregnant again. On hearing this her husband said “I don’t want it. I don’t want any more kids.” And then “I am too sick, too sick, I don’t want any more children. Go to the hospital in Mexico City and have an abortion.” Gwyn told him that she would not and that she had had too many abortions already. Then, perhaps as a punishment, she told him that her doctor had said she could not have sex after the third month of pregnancy because of the effects of amoebic dysentery.
She relates how her husband was unwell at this time, suffering from Beriberi and scurvy and describes how, with a nurse looking after baby Thom, she was able to nurse him back to health. They returned to New York in March 1946 when she was six months pregnant, leaving John behind. He would return by car with dog Willie and manservant Victor.
In New York, events moved quickly. Despite illness, John Jnr was born, somewhat unwelcomed, in June. His parents rowed about a name but Gwyn won the argument. However, John Jnr nearly died and Steinbeck’s reaction, described earlier, finally killed Gwyn’s blind devotion to him and his talent. However, they fought and made up, before returning for a last paradoxically peaceful and riotous Christmas – which included John making “toodling” Christmas punch in vast quantities in the bath tub, with his neighbour Nat Benchley.
Calm descended for a while. Christmas was good and Steinbeck bought Gwyn an antique diamond and ruby ring. This replaced one he had bought her when Thom was born but which had been stolen or lost. The couple had two healthy children, plenty of money and John was writing. Life should have been perfect but it was not.
The marriage struggled through 1947, the couple travelling without children to Paris. They mixed with the rich and famous, albeit both hobbling, John from a fall from an apartment window and Gwyn from a failed kick at Willie, the dog. She missed him and kicked a wall. Steinbeck and Bob Capa travelled to Russia to write about its post-war people, in what became their successful collaboration of Capa’s photographs and Steinbeck’s prose, A Russian Journal.
On their return and for Gwyn’s thirty-first birthday John bought her a Hammond organ. Gwyn produced a demo disk full of songs she had written. These earned plaudits from musical friends, including the Frank Loessers who knew a little of music, having written Two Sleepy People and later the musical Guys and Dolls. Her joy was short lived however as John raved at her “I don’t know why the f…, you have to get in competition with me”. She gave up her composing.
By 1948, Gwyn felt John wanted to escape domesticity and ignored his second son, John Jnr. He was doubting his paternity, a subject explored in his play Burning Bright (1950), interestingly dedicated to Elaine. John moved out into a local hotel to continue his monomaniacal commitment to his writing.
After a final argument about moving to a remote farm in upstate New York, Gwyn felt John was never going to change his overall behaviour and asked for a divorce. She left with her sons in summer 1948 for Reno, Nevada.
She was difficult after the divorce, refusing to release research books, dictionaries etc. John surreptitiously retrieved some items on access days!
When John found and settled with Elaine, Elaine must have been endlessly patient and diplomatic to deal with John’s writing, moods of depression, finances, children and, by then, a difficult second wife Gwyn.
This was particularly so, during the acrimonious Family Court hearing in New York, about increased maintenance., at a time when John had bought an expensive Jaguar, and was spending each New Year in the Carribbean. John’s relationship with Gwyn deteriorated further after a final confrontation between them following a motor scooter accident involving John Jnr. – after which the couple never spoke again.
What conclusion do we draw about the Steinbeck wives? They were very good for his literature. One might say that the two failed relationships coincided with his two greatest works The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. Carol inspired him, nursed him, ran his life and enabled him to “break through as a writer” in the tough times of the Depression. He undoubtedly betrayed her – casually on a number of occasions and brutally in his lengthy affair with Gwyn. Trading in for a younger model is commonplace, but he didn’t need to do it and regretted it sorely for the rest of his life.
Gwyn was bright, flattered by a famous man’s attention and his intellect. She assuredly had an eye “on the main chance”, but so had Carol according to Mary Ballantyne, a neighbour who knew the Steinbeck family well. Gwyn was ready bait for a very tired Steinbeck after his (and Carol’s) The Grapes of Wrath efforts and he took it. He made a huge mistake in marrying her. His involvement with her created the most villainous female character I have ever read of, a fact which he confirmed in a letter to his publisher Pat Covici. Gwyn called time on their marriage and her temerity to leave him was never forgiven. He admitted she was the prototype for the brothel madam East of Eden Letters-page 46.)
Elaine never revealed her private life with John Steinbeck, although commenting “he was a perfect Pisces”. Jay Parini confirmed this, being asked never to question her on their private life, but the Texan lady inherited a more compliant husband who wanted no more domestic hassle. Steinbeck was frugal in many ways and recognised the financial consequences of a third divorce. He was tired, older and a depressive and had learned his lesson. The Nobel Committee got it entirely right in 1962. He was belatedly given the award, but after East of Eden, his second great crisis work, he achieved little, although in Travels with Charlie and America and Americans and to some extent In The Winter of Our Discontent, he told his perception of the decline in American standards and life. He had earned his Nobel earlier, long before Hemingway in 1954. John growled at one carping critic, who asked how long it took him to win the $50,000 prize “Fifty years!”
In his Nobel acceptance speech, John Steinbeck spoke eloquently of the writer’s duty. “He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and favours ….. and to declare and celebrate man’s proven capacity ….. for gallantry in defeat ….. for courage, compassion and love”. Noble sentiments – but where was his compassion for the mother of his children?
And Gwyn? Her life post Steinbeck was a mess. Toby Street’s prediction to Big Gwen came true. “Well I’ll tell you, Bird Eyes, once upon a time Carol was a sweet girl. John made her into a monster and if he gets Gwyn, he will make her into a monster too”. Street himself was married more than once. Gwyn never remarried – probably due to the maintenance arrangements – she had no money of her own, apart from her divorce settlement. Her health sadly deteriorated through asthma and alcohol -a legacy of years of heavy drinking with John. The marriage ruined her, and she had no male Elaine to bolster her when in decline. Our book does not contain any material of her later life which was short – she died, aged fifty-nine in Boulder, Colorado.
She reminisced that John “loved as he wanted to,” adding, “somewhere our love was turned off, for a moment. That moment was enough to change two lives. But I know the love we shared for each other never really ended and never will”.
To close, I leave you with this thought. Why has Gwyn been totally side-lined? John Steinbeck was brilliant. His writing was unpretentious, spell-binding, story-telling taken from life with great depth. But did his connections need to snuff out Gwyn, his one big mistake? After all, he pursued her. She left him for his unreasonable behaviour, albeit the divorce was on the grounds of incompatibility, the only grounds he would accept. Her story may be questionable. Who knows, but her memoir has to be told. In the words of biographer, Jay Parini, in his preface to My Life with John Steinbeck “authenticity shines through its pages and that cannot be denied”.
Bruce Lawson, San Jose, California, May 2019