John Steinbeck was my father

John Steinbeck IV, living in La Jolla, talks with Reader writers.

John Steinbeck, father of John Steinbeck IV.  "My brother and I, we talked with him a lot about things, languages and history and cultures and customs. We traveled around the world with him."
  • John Steinbeck, father of John Steinbeck IV. "My brother and I, we talked with him a lot about things, languages and history and cultures and customs. We traveled around the world with him."

John Steinbeck IV, John Steinbeck's son moved to La Jolla 18 months ago. In 1970, during a winter and spring offensive in Laos, John was holed up during the monsoon in an old French hotel in Vientiane, and again read The Grapes of Wrath. "By that time I was writing. I saw the nuts and bolts of his writing. That was a impressive to me as the historical value of the book, and what the book did to America."

John Steinbeck IV.

John Steinbeck IV.

John Steinbeck IV, younger son of John and Gwyn Steinbeck, was born in 1946 in Manhattan. His parents were divorced in the late '40s. John and his older brother Thom lived with their mother, frequently visiting their father (whose Third Avenue and 72nd Street apartment was seven blocks from their mother's). Between father and sons, said John. "It wasn't like a vast separation.

John and Thom "hit the England prep school circuit, got thrown out of a lot of schools." (John, at 15, "left school before Timothy Leary thought it was interesting," he explained. "I decided to educate myself.") In 1965 he was drafted and served for a year as an information specialist with the U.S. Army in South Vietnam. In 1968 his first book, In Touch (A.A. Knopf), was published.

As a boy, John remembered seeing the film version of The Grapes of Wrath when his father screened it for guests. "I was quite young. It was the most depressing thing I'd ever seen in my life."

As a boy, John remembered seeing the film version of The Grapes of Wrath when his father screened it for guests. "I was quite young. It was the most depressing thing I'd ever seen in my life."

Returning to Vietnam in 1968, John helped create Dispatch News Service, which uncovered the My Lai massacre. In 1970 he won an Emmy for his work on a CBS special, The World of Charlie Company. During the early 1970s John traveled through Asia and studied Buddhism and wrote nonfiction pieces that were published in major magazines. In 1975 he moved to Boulder, Colorado, to continue Buddhist studies. He stayed in Boulder for 12 years, studying and teaching at the Naropa Institute (one of whose founders is Allen Ginsberg). He and his wife Nancy, a psychotherapist, and their two children moved to La Jolla 18 months ago. (John explained: "We were doing movies. We wanted to be close to Hollywood but not in L.A.") The live in a simply and exotically decorated to-story house overlooking the ocean and Scripps Institution of Oceanography

A vice president for Steinbeck Films, Inc., which manages past and present film projects generated by his father's novels as well as other material, John is at work on development of a documentary film, The Log from the Sea of Cortez: The Second Voyage of the Western Flyer. Also, he teaches and practices "Straightforward Buddhism — the foundation of Buddhist philosophy, practice, and study."

A bulky, bearded man, barefoot, John Steinbeck IV opened the front door, invited us to come in. We wriggled out of our shoes ("You can leave them on if you want," John assured) and followed him across the ivory cotton carpet into a small, white-walled room. Displayed on the south wall was a hanging on which were ranked various avatars in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon. Rapidly, his voice raspy, John tolled off these avatars' names and histories. On a low table beneath the hanging were bowls that held incense, rice, coins, a pocket knife.

In the house's lower level, along the stairway leading up to bedrooms, books spilled from bookshelves. Had John's father prodded him to read? "Correctly suspecting he had given birth to a petty thief, my father encouraged me to read by locking in a leaded glass-front bookcase books that he thought were essential — the Iliad, Lao-Tse's Tao Te Ching, Mark Twain, the Bible, King Arthur and His Knights, and other tales of chivalry. Then he hid the key where he knew I would find it and threatened me within an inch of my life if he ever caught me in there. Needless to say, I learned to read rapidly"

On the patio, we settled on chairs beneath an umbrella shading a round table. Ravens dive-bombed through evergreens above us, cried: "Caw, caw, caw." Nancy, John's blonde wife, brought coffee in white mugs, went back into the house to answer the telephone. Their son, a teenager, slipped out the back door and stood by his father, waiting for a break in conversation to say he was going, that he would be back in an hour. He was introduced, look us each in the eye, shook our hands, and said good-bye.

We sipped our coffee. So, what had it been like to be the child of one of the United States' most famous writers? "I didn't know John Steinbeck was my father until the next-door doorman said to me when I was about five, 'Do you know your father is John Steinbeck?' 'Yeah,' I said, But I had no idea what that meant.

"Steinbeck —" John paused, explained that he spoke of his father alternately as "Steinbeck" and "my father" "—Steinbeck is a beloved writer. People loved him. I'm not sure that's all completely deserved, being his son. But people really feel they knew him in a way that really touching to them."

He'd had, John admitted, "a lot of practice with being John Steinbeck. I've always been very generous with who he is and what that's about. Not my brother. It gets in his way a little more; he's more 'Get our of my face.'"

John's brother Thom lives in Los Angeles. He's a screenwriter, an artist, a painter. He makes things, he has very gifted hands."

Are they close? "Our phone bill last month was $750. He's my best friend, the only guy who knows what I know, including Vietnam, growing up with my mother and my father. He's the only person who knows what I know. I always think it's very sad when I hear of siblings — one's in Buffalo selling insurance and the sister's teaching school in San Diego and they haven't really talked in 16 years."

About his father, John said, "My brother and I, we talked with him a lot about things, languages and history and cultures and customs. We traveled around the world with him. I had a great education. He had a lot of eclectic interests as I do or my brother does: Why a crossbow arrow will penetrate your breast at a certain number of miles per hour.

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