Posts Tagged ‘John Steinbeck’

Letter from John Steinbeck to Marilyn Monroe: “He is already your slave. This would make him mine.”

Saturday, March 9th, 2019

This 1955 letter from John Steinbeck to Marilyn Monroe has been making the rounds on Facebook in the last few days, so we thought we’d join the party. It’s a sweet letter, somewhat bashful, and it was found in the superstar’s personal archive, and sold for $3,250 at Julien’s in 2016. Steinbeck humbly, even grovelingly requests a “girlish” photo for his nephew. Did she send the photo to the lovestruck boy, Jon Atkinson? We’ll never know, but she valued enough to keep it till her dying day.

Stanford’s most illustrious drop-out

Friday, February 27th, 2015

Happy birthday, loser!

“We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say — and to feel — ‘Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.’”

So wrote Nobel prizewinner John Steinbeck, Stanford’s most illustrious drop-out, who was born on this day in 1902. “He came to Stanford to mollify his parents, primarily his mother,” explained Kevin Hearle, a visiting scholar at the Bill Lane Center for the American West a few years ago. “He wasn’t excited about it. He didn’t see why he needed a college education to be a writer.”

Nevertheless, he made some lasting connections here – one of them was Prof. Edith Mirrielees, who would warm and ignite his hope, and also Ed Ricketts, a man who would later be immortalized as “Doc” in Cannery Row. (I’ve written about Ricketts here and here and here and here.) According to a Stanford Daily article a few years ago by Taylor Grossman:

“In a 1964 letter to his good friend Dook, Steinbeck asked, ‘Do you ever go near Stanford? I don’t think I would like to go. It would be kind of embarrassing because I was such a lousy student, I suppose. Anyway, I have no call for the Groves of Academe.’

“The Groves of Academe, however, had housed him well in some regards. In a 1962 letter to Mirrielees, he wrote about her influence on his writing.

“’Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in your class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly,’ Steinbeck said. ‘I was bright-eyed and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb from you the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. You canceled this illusion very quickly.’”

birthday cakeIn the six years that he was enrolled at Stanford, starting in 1919, he only accumulated 93 units — becoming equivalent in status to a junior. At the Faculty Club, his photo on the wall with all the Nobel Prize winners even though he refused to take “required” classes…

Moscow’s 800th birthday party in 1947: Robert Capa captures a poignant moment

Monday, December 31st, 2012

Women “celebrating” in Moscow 1947.

Slavic scholar Grisha Freidin is a child of Moscow – he and his family emigrated to the U.S. when he was teenager.  So that means he recalls the city’s 800th birthday party on September 7, 1947.  “I remember playing with the colorful commemorative insignia (few things were colorful then) and hearing my parents, probably in answer to my questions, refer to the celebrations with uncharacteristic ebullience. Clearly it was a major landmark of the post-war years in Stalin’s Russia.”

The era’s most famous war photographer, Robert Capa, was on hand to document the event with John Steinbeck – and add a little nuance to the official party line of a a people looking inexorably forward to a glorious future.  Grisha looked up Capa’s photos, and has a compelling essay over at his blog, The Noise of Time:

And yet, whatever the restrictions, this war photographer was able to convey the atmosphere of the 1947 Moscow. Indeed, many images are composed to give expression to the wrenching tension between the ordinary folks’ desire to cash in a little of that great WWII victory – to ease gently into the long-deferred private life – and the unspoken command shouting at them from every poster: “Attention! To the Glory of the Empire, March!”

Capa’s and Steinbeck’s work were serialized in The New York Herald Tribune, later published as A Russian Journal, with Photographs by Robert Capa, a book which is still in print.  I’m not sure even Steinbeck could top Grisha’s observations on the photograph above.  From his blog:

Muscovite Grisha

The woman facing the camera is wearing a thick shawl and a heavy coat, the other is in a light dress, epitomizing the two sides of the Russian “Indian summer” and, perhaps also, the desire to use hope to trump the cold reality, for “it was a brilliant cold day,” as Steinbeck noted in his Journal. Both women are young and beautiful and strikingly dignified. But their faces suggest a more complicated story. The furrowed brow, the lines around the mouth, the alarm in the eyes of the woman facing the camera – what is behind them? And what about her dancing partner? Alone in the frame in a white flowery dress, her hair beautifully arranged, but her gaze is fixed on a point in infinity and her  profile is frozen into a classical tragic mask. Her right arm, bare and vulnerable, is gracefully stretched out, and the slight curve of her back is protected by the hand of her partner, apparently, stronger and more practically dressed. The tension is palpable. Were the music to stop at that moment, one of them and perhaps both would hunch over and burst out crying. To make sure your are not imagining all of this emotional dynamite, you check their expressions and posture against the other two female couples in the background: they, too, look tentative, dispirited, and forlorn, though lacking in grace and dignity compared to the couple in the foreground. The out-of-focus smiling faces to the right of the dancers only amplify the grotesque contrast between the intended mood of the festivities and the pain of the city’s post-war life. So much sadness fills this instant captured by Capa that it can never be effaced or redeemed.

Read the rest of Grisha’s post, which includes a dicussion of Henri Cartier-Bresson‘s photos of the city a few years later, is here.

“So much sadness … can never be effaced or redeemed.”

The best bookstore I’ve never seen: Carpe Diem in Monterey

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

A bit of heaven in Monterey... if heaven isn't redundant on the Pacific Coast.

Fate does strange things.


Some time ago I had written a short article on an Islamic prayerbook, “Beauty with an Unknown Past” (it’s here).  A Stanford curator found the mystery book in a small bookshop in Monterey.

The article generated some interesting reaction – but the biggest reaction was mine, when I got a letter from the proprietor of the bookshop (who is also a fan of the Book Haven, incidentally).  It turned out to be a long-lost friend, James Bryant, whom I met over three decades ago in London.  And the bookshop is Carpe Diem Fine Books.  With his wife, Mary Hill, he has been running Carpe Diem since 1995, in a charming 1930s Carmel-stone building in historic Old Monterey.  It’s a few doors down from Robert Louis Stevenson‘s house.

Lunch at the Faculty Club followed a few weeks later, with a long chat to swap memories and bring us up to 2012. He had become an eminent bookseller and patron of the arts, while Humble Moi remains a lowly writer, tapping on a keyboard in the blogosphere, into the wee hours.

Later, he sent me photos from Carpe Diem. Wow. I’m a sucker for the Carmel style – the Robinson Jeffers home is still one of my favorite houses anywhere – and this shop epitomizes it.  No surprise, then, that its “discriminating selection” of out-of-print, signed and unusual books in all fields has a special emphasis on the history and literature of California and the West.  (It also has a special collection of signed John Steinbeck books here.)

The AAA magazine Via wrote, “The entire shop … is a bibliophile’s delight.”  A local magazine, Pebble Beach, claimed it was “simply the Best… featuring a constantly changing inventory – from the classics to the unexpected…”

As for me, I still haven’t seen it yet.  But I hope to sometime between September 13 and 16.  You see, the bookshop is just one of James’s ventures.  He’s also one of the founders of the Art in the Adobes Festival, which is featuring a program, “Rediscovery: Monterey Peninsula Artists at Home and Abroad” this year.

Organizers claim that “influential artists, important paintings, and some of the roots of Western U.S. art will all be rediscovered at the Art in the Adobes Festival weekend.”

How good are the paintings?  You can get an idea from Abel Warshawsky‘s Paris Studio, circa 1930, at left  (courtesy City of Monterey).  But stop and browse Carpe Diem’s shelves while you’re there.

See you in Monterey – Insha’Allah.




Poet Moore Moran: A death in Ordinary Time

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

Moore Moran, Sept. 27, 1931 - Feb. 27, 2011

I received an email from my publisher at Ohio University Press/Swallow Press earlier this week – the poet Moore Moran, known to his friends as Mike, died on February 27.  He was 79.

I had blogged about the Santa Rosa poet here and here. He had published his first full-length book, Firebreaks, in 1999 – it bagged a National Poetry Book Award.  His newest book, The Room Within, was published last year.

“Imagine a poet who could deal with the experience of Jack Kerouac but with too much intelligence to limit himself to the road. You don’t have to imagine him. He exists. He has many skills, all of them beautifully bright, and on occasions when he looks into the abyss they take him safely over it,” said Turner Cassity of Moran’s poems.

But I was startled when I reread the email a few days later and realized I had overlooked that the memorial would not be in Santa Rosa, but nearby, in Menlo Park – where, it turns out, he had graduated from high school before getting two degrees from Stanford.

So I dropped in on Friday afternoon to pay my respects to a poet in the century-old Church of the Nativity.  But it was not a poet who was being honored so much as  “husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, father-in-law, friend, poet,” according to the program.

He was much loved.  About 150-200 friends and family came to the mass, with bluegrass guitar and bass fiddle performers Dennis and Ehlert Lassen singing “Amazing Grace” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  Not necessarily what one would expect from the poems, with their bleak, spare mystery.

Surprisingly, everyone looked like they had come for the same event – the men were all in jackets and ties, and the women in somber suits and dresses. Banished were all traces of “California casual,” where some people look as if they had wandered in from the garden or the beach or a cocktail party.  Nor did there seem to be any poets on hand from the “Yvor Winters Circle” – but then, the room was crowded and I was in a back corner, and this was a very quiet death, after all.

The priest, referred to only as “Father Davenport,” recalled that Moore Moran, despite disability, was “always smiling” and “a good man.”

His son, businessman Mike Moran, said, “I never stopped amazing my dad, and my dad never stopped amazing me.”  The son, to put it mildly, was not a poet or lit freak.

His father taught the kids Latin and music, as well as Yvor Winters, John Steinbeck, and J.D. Salinger.  He was “an encyclopedia of jokes,” recalled his son.  And, in fact, the program included his poem “Just Joking,” written on his 51st birthday, when he had “maybe a third of a tank left”:

…the bewildered heart in us which,
Year by year, measuring our slim attainments
With mounting despair, still feeds
In its recesses some faint hope, despite
The certain knowledge that what it hopes for
Cannot change the tide…

“He was often lost in afterthought,” said his son.  “I’m certainly no poet, but I came to appreciate my father’s poetry.” He recalled the children’s hesitancy to have their father correct their writing, because “then we’d go back for another hour of writing.”

But sometimes dad came in handy.  Moran Jr. recalled a long discussion his father launched when the son was having trouble “getting” Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales.  The next day in class,  Moran Jr. performed the usual duck-and-hide with averted gaze, to avoid the teacher targeting him with a question.  The teacher targeted him anyway.

Thanks to his dad’s monologue, the so-so student poured forth with a reply “at a depth and level far beyond what my teacher had.”

The class was “absolutely stunned.  The whole room was silent,” he recalled.

“I was bumped up to AP English,” he said, and paused for only an instant. “That lasted about four days.”

On Moran’s memorial page at, David Sanders wrote: “A gentleman and a fine poet. It was an honor to edit and publish his last book.”

“Just Joking,” with its rambling style is nice, but my favorite Moran poems are quick and cryptic – like this one:

Ordinary Time in the Pews

Church of the Nativity, Menlo Park

Ordinary days again.
Advent, Pentecost are past;
who now will accept our sins,
raise the dust in which we’re cast?

Cold the God flesh on the tree,
banned the crèche to attic murk,
sheer the silence after prayer.
Nothing seems at all to work.

Yet we try and try again
serving Him we hardly know:
honk if you love Jesus, friend,
beeping blessings as we go.

Here we meet who, somehow, must
rescue meaning from the dust,
where betrayal’s kiss presents
our best hope of relevance.

PostscriptPatrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence has added a lovely tribute here.  “Earth only will find him cold.”

Postscript on 3/7: Looking online for others who remember Moore Moran, I found this mini-memoir from Peter Robinson.

Tonight at Kepler’s: Palumbi tells of the heroes of Monterey Bay — Ed Ricketts, too

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

“I go all over the world giving talks about how much trouble the ocean is in,” Steve Palumbi told Lou Bergeron a few months ago in an article here.  “Then I find myself back here, going along the shore of Monterey Bay to my office, and the contrast between how stunningly beautiful this bay is and what I see going on in the rest of the world is stark,” he said.

Monterey now has one of the most celebrated shorelines in the world.  But Palumbi, now director of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, knew that the Monterey bay was once “an industrial hellhole” and had suffered the same problems as other shorelines around the world. So how was this region able to recover? He began digging into the past and found the story so fascinating he ended up writing his new book (with co-author Carolyn Sotka), The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival.

He’ll tell the story tonight at 7 p.m. at Kepler’s in Menlo Park.

Palumbi on the bay (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Monterey began as a natural paradise, but became the poster child for industrial devastation in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.  The cast of characters for Palumbi’s book includes an eccentric mayor who wasn’t afraid to use pistols, axes, or the force of law to protect her coast; fishermen who love their livelihood; scientists who are fascinated by the sea’s mysteries, and philanthropists and community leaders willing to invest in a world-class aquarium.

But one character in particular fascinates us.  Remember last June when we posted a few stories (here and here and here) about the crazy Steinbeck auction?  Ed Ricketts‘ briefcase was the most mysterious and contested item.  Ricketts figures into Palumbi’s narrative.  Bergeron writes:

No story about Monterey Bay in the era of the canneries would be complete without Ed “Doc” Ricketts, the eccentric, pioneering biologist immortalized in John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row.

“Ed Ricketts taught John Steinbeck enough ecology so that he could write the first great ecological novels, such as The Grapes of Wrath,” Palumbi said. But while Steinbeck went on to write about the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, Ricketts ended up living through what Palumbi called “the dust bowl of the sea” in Monterey Bay.

Kind of a cult figure (Photo: Ed Ricketts Jr.)

“Ricketts knew exactly what was going on decades before anybody else, but he could never really get anybody to pay attention to him,” Palumbi said.

Along with Steinbeck, Ricketts became friends with Joseph Campell, who would later become a well-known scholar of legend and storytelling, writing books such as The Power of Myth.

Although Ricketts, Steinbeck and Campbell often engaged in philosophical discussions, Palumbi said their get-togethers generally weren’t too dry. “They had some pretty amazing parties in the late 1920s in Pacific Grove,” he said.

The proof in the pudding

Saturday, June 26th, 2010
“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”– John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck’s comment (discovered above, after three days of writing about the Steinbeck auction) adds another slant on last week’s New York Times review of Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut, a thriller about marriage.  Bestselling author and practicing lawyer Scott Turow writes an insightful review of what sounds like a haunting book.  The review is here.  An excerpt with a local twist:

Nearly 40 years ago I was a fellow at the Creative Writing Center at Stanford. The director, Richard P. Scowcroft, who had helped his revered friend Wallace Stegner establish the program, told those of us in the advanced fiction seminar that the one subject he had always feared writing a novel about was marriage, because it still seemed to him the most complex and frequently unfathomable of human relationships, notwithstanding his own long and successful marriage.


Turow doesn’t mention that he endowed the Richard Scowcroft Fellowship in Creative Writing.  He has said that not only was Scowcroft, who died in 2001, “a distinguished professor of English and a fine scholar, but his works, such as Back to Fire Mountain, have been undervalued. Above all, his gifts as a teacher of creative writing are beyond dispute. He knew exactly when to bring you yet closer to being a good writer.”

Turow would seem to be proof.

By the by, Turow works most of his cases pro bono (including a case 15 years ago where he won freedom for Alejandro Hernandez, who spent over a decade on death row for a murder he did not commit).

“Ed Head” alert: an update on the Steinbeck auction

Friday, June 25th, 2010

Jerry Garcia of American science (Photo: Ed Ricketts Jr.)

Just got an update from Joe Wible of the Hopkins Marine Station Library about the mysterious sale of Ed Ricketts’s briefcase at the NYC Steinbeck auction earlier this week (I wrote about it here and here):

I did hear today from someone who knows the person who made the winning bid for the Ricketts briefcase and manuscripts. It did go to a private collector from southern California and is not likely to end up in a library or museum. Bummer.

Now I understand why a marine librarian would be interested in Ricketts — the only scientist to have 15 animal species and a nightclub named after him (I’ve never read Cannery Row):

Wible ... he told me so

“‘Ricketts is like a cult figure,’ says Joseph Taylor, professor of environmental history at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. Of all the scientists who ran marine research stations along the Pacific Coast, Taylor says, ‘he was by far the most colorful.'”

The quote is from a five-year-old San Francisco Chronicle article on Ricketts here.  I finally googled Ricketts, just as   Wible told me to do — and found this description:

“He is the Jerry Garcia of American science — a beer-drinking, bearded guru who ignored the social and scientific orthodoxies of his time, a progenitor of the counterculture, an enigmatic ecologist whose pioneering work was initially rejected by the scientific establishment.”

“And the winner is…” More on the Steinbeck auction

Friday, June 25th, 2010

National Steinbeck Center (Photo: Stuart Schwartz)

News is drifting in about the results of the Steinbeck auction earlier this week, and the big winner is … the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.

How is that for good news?  You can read about it here and here.

They are the ones who acquired the desk chair and globe.  They are the ones who acquired the pipes and glasses.  They are the ones who acquired manuscripts and correspondence, film and audio recordings.

“We got everything we wanted and then some,” said Gail Steinbeck,  wife of the author’s son, Thom Steinbeck.

The Steinbeck Center people aren’t the only winners, of course.  And some players were working at a disadvantage.

Steinbeck in 1962

Academic libraries have it tough when it comes to auctions:  They don’t have a big pot of gold, and they can’t act on a whim.  They must get authorization for expenditures from their institutions, and that process doesn’t easily allow for the give-and-take, push-and-shove of an auction — where upping the bid a buck,  after intuitively sensing that a competitor has hit his limit, or deciding to forgo some objects so you can go-for-broke on another — could make the difference between having the winning bid or walking away empty-handed.  Moreover, their budget cycle tends to end with the academic year in June – so they are at the bottom of their financial barrel at this time of year. Nevertheless, the Stanford University Libraries did come away a winner, on both the items it bid for.

Not surprisingly for a university, they went after documents rather than glasses, pipes, or briefcases.  Stanford already has significant holdings in its Steinbeck collections, including manuscripts, notes, correspondence, photographs, and ephemera. The libraries will add to its Steinbeck holdings “Lot 205. Documents relating to 1956/1960 Elections,” including typed signed letters from William Faulkner, Adlai Stevenson, Harry Truman and others.

They also acquired “Lot 222.  Film and script documents. ‘Zapata’ Revisited,” including correspondence from Darryl Zanuck, Elia Kazan, and others.

“We don’t have much political material,” said Annette Keogh, successful bidder for the Stanford libraries in what she termed the “swift and surprising” auction — hence the interest in the first lot.  “There was some interesting film stuff about Zapata – we do have other film-related materials, thought would be a good compliment.”

“They struck me as something researchers a rather than collectors would be interested in,” said Keogh.

But who got the briefcase that had belonged to Edward Ricketts, a longtime Steinbeck friend and collaborator?  The mysterious lot went to an undisclosed bidder for $18,000.

Why did everyone want it, and why did it go so high?  According to Joe Wible, head librarian and bibliographer at the Hopkins Marine Station Library, who made an unsuccessful bid:

There are a lot of “Ed Heads” out there who would be potential buyers for the Ricketts materials.  Search “Ed Heads” and “Ricketts” in Google and you get over 500 hits.  I wish the auction house had separated the briefcase from the papers it contained into separate lots.  I suspect the bidding went so high because of the briefcase.  Other than maybe the telegram notifying Steinbeck of Ricketts being hit by the train, I don’t think the papers would have sold for such a large sum of money.  I was only interested in the manuscripts and correspondences that were inside the briefcase so that historians studying Ricketts would have access to those documents.

I am very curious to know who had the winning bid.  Unfortunately, if it was a private collector we may never know.

Meanwhile, drop the Book Haven a line if any more news surfaces.

Hasty and half-hearted Steinbeck auction raises questions

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

His glasses and pipes

If you weren’t at Bloomsbury Auctions in NYC today, you missed a great recession-era auction — half of the John Steinbeck items went below estimated prices, or failed to sell at all.

Steinbeck’s chair and terrestrial globe sold for $1,800 — below the $2,000 to $3,000 pre-auction estimate.  One manuscript, Steinbeck’s acceptance speech for his 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature, was among 26 lots (out of 50) that didn’t sell at all.

According to the Associated Press story:

His chair and globe

The most spirited bidding went for a briefcase that had belonged to Edward Ricketts, a longtime Steinbeck friend and collaborator who was the inspiration for the character of the lonely biologist ‘Doc’ in “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday.”

Estimated at $9,000 to $12,000, it sold for $18,000, one of the few items that went higher than expected.

One would-be buyer told me that the Steinbeck Center at San Jose State University was not bidding on any of the lots.  The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas bid on a few, and the Monterey Public Library made a bid for the briefcase, but dropped out.

The Ricketts briefcase

Nobody seems to know where this stuff is going — or where it went.  It’s too bad, as a major concern for many public-spirited bidders was that Steinbeck’s personal items might be sequestered into personal collections and therefore be lost to the public. Speaking in an Oakland Tribune article here, Executive Director Colleen Bailey of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas said:

“All of these things should be preserved and available for everybody to see, and not stuffed in a closet somewhere in somebody’s personal collection,” Bailey said. “It’s an opportunity for the world to gain access to his private world.”

Autographed manuscripts

“There’s such a fascination with the private lives of people who have done such wonderful things.”

Apparently, some were caught off guard by news that John Steinbeck memorabilia was to be auctioned — including the author’s son and daughter-in-law, Thom and Gail Steinbeck, who were quickly raising money to bid for items and take them back to Salinas.  As of Monday, they had raised $4,600 of a hoped for $15,000.

Meanwhile … has anyone heard anything?