Gwyn Conger Steinbeck was the second wife of John Steinbeck, master story-teller and Nobel Prize winner. She was born 25th October 1916. She met Steinbeck in late 1938 or early 1939, when she was just 22. At a border crossing to Mexico in March 1944, she said she was 27 which supports her 1916 birth date. The 7 January 1920 census, when Gwyn is listed as three years old, also validates the 1916 date.
She was christened Gwendoline Louise, although she later changed her name to Gwyn in 1941 approximately, to avoid confusion with her mother who was known as “Big Gwen”.
Big Gwen’s background is shadowy; she was married at least three times, and when Gwyn married John Steinbeck in New Orleans in 1943, Gwyn claimed to be older than she was, probably to reduce the disparity between their ages. She was 26: her new husband was 41.
Big Gwen’s background gives some clue as to why her daughter was a little out of the ordinary, apart from her striking good looks. A friend, Janet McCall, described her thus “she was pretty too – taller than most of us, with dirty blonde hair and a lovely curl.” (Parini 279). Gwyn’s mother’s background is mysterious. In the 1900 census aged nine, she is shown as living in the household of a great aunt Cornelia, who was her father’s aunt. Her father we believe was James Madison Aubrey II. She is described as a boarder. Why? By deduction, Big Gwen was thus born in 1891.
By the 1910 census, Big Gwen, now aged nineteen, is still living with great aunt Cornelia and is described as a music teacher. Presumably her mother’s profession lead Gwyn to be musical. By 1920, Big Gwen is listed as being with her father, James Madison Aubrey II and his then wife Alice (nee Caldwell). They had married on 3rd March 1901. They probably met when James was selling pianos. Was Alice, Big Gwen’s mother?
By 1930, Big Gwen is living with a Benjamin Klein – her husband, and Gwyn is living with them also – described as a stepdaughter, aged thirteen.
The Aubrey connection possibly provides the key to Big Gwen’s background. James Madison was the fourth president of the United States (1809 – 1817), James, the piano seller’s father was James Maddison Aubrey I – presumably named after the former president.
James Madison Aubrey I was a very substantial farmer and landowner who acquired many thousands of acres via land grants in the days of US president James Polk in the 1840s. This was just before Wisconsin became the 30th State of the Union in 1848. His son, James Aubrey Jnr., was born in 1867 and died in 1943.
James Jnr., was at one time married to a Pauline Fuller. She was the eldest of six daughters of Chief Justice Melville Weston Fuller. He was at one time, the eighth Chief Justice of the USA. Amongst other highlights, he once administered the Oath of Allegiance to 25th President William McKinley who was later assassinated in 1901. A forebear of the chief justice, one Edward Fuller, was a signatory to the Mayflower Compact of 1620, so Chief Justice Fuller was highly respected, a pillar of US society.
So, when his wife, Pauline Aubrey divorced him on May 23rd 1895 in Chicago, the case was national public knowledge. The couple had two children, Melville (born in 1889) and Mildred (1890). During the divorce proceedings, Aubrey’s attorney – Mrs Aubrey choosing not to be present through illness, said that her husband’s unfortunate habit of “over indulgence in spirits and liquor was the principal reason for her unhappiness” (New York Times, May 26 1895). Divorce was very unusual at the time – but other witnesses testified as to James Aubrey Jnr’s intemperate habits. The judge, Judge Horton, granted the divorce. No alimony was to be paid to Mrs Aubrey, but James Aubrey Jnr., was to have access to the children. At this point, Big Gwen would have been four years old. Was intemperance the only grounds for the divorce or was there another reason?
Thus, Gwyn via mother, had had a more than interesting background, which may have intrigued John Steinbeck., or did she not know of it? She had read some of his early work, she was beautiful, musical and he wanted her.
They married in New Orleans on March 29 1943 and had two children both born in New York, Thom on August 2 1944 and John Jnr., on June 12 1946.
In 1948, Gwyn told John Steinbeck that she wanted a divorce., and her husband agreed on the grounds of incompatibility-the only basis to which he would agree (Life in Letters p324). This was finalised in 1949. She had custody of the children. She never remarried and moved to Palm Springs and later to Boulder, Colorado where she died, seven years after her former husband, in 1975.