Destiny Manifest

John Steinbeck IV comes to rest in the West

John Steinbeck IV.
  • John Steinbeck IV.
  • Image by Paul Stachelek

John Steinbeck IV died February 7 at Scripps Memorial Hospital in Encinitas. He was 44. Surgeons had completed successful repair of a herniated disc. Forty-five minutes later John was dead. An autopsy indicated cause of death as pulmonary aneurysm.

John Steinbeck IV’s father’s great novel The Grapes of Wrath told the story of an Oklahoma family, the Joads, who sold what they could, packed the rest onto a battered truck, and headed for California. In 1988, rather like the impoverished Joads, John had pulled up stakes in Colorado and headed for California. He had consigned his possessions at an auction house outside Denver.

Jim Syring, an editor at Denver’s KCNC-TV, went to the sale. In a recent telephone interview, Syring read from the Rocky Mountain News dated May 21, 1988. “Steinbeck IV now lives in California and decided to sell his father’s belongings because his lifestyle has totally changed, and he lives a very, very simple life. Steinbeck is a journalist, and his brother Thom is a writer. Neither of them feels the Windsor chair or Federal candlesticks are a part of their life anymore.”

Syring summed up the paper’s account: A christening gown and matching lace-trimmed bonnet that had been John’s father’s sold for $78. A pine desk for $3200. A painting of Gwyn Steinbeck, Steinbeck’s second wife and John’s mother, sold for $6000. Wine glasses sold for $40. A dollar was bid for a measuring cup that had been John’s.

John Steinbeck IV’s mother, Gwyndolyn Conger, and John’s father met in Hollywood in 1939. Gwyn was 20 and Steinbeck 38. The Grapes of Wrath had made its way to the best-seller list. Kern County Associated Farmers denounced the book as “obscene sensationalism.” Steinbeck received death threats. Depressed, unhappy with his first wife Carol, he hid out in the Garden of Allah Hotel and later in dark, furnished rooms in the Aloha Apartments.

Jackson Benson’s True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer tells that Gwyn started singing professionally in Chicago when she was 14, came to Hollywood while still a teenager. Gwyn and Steinbeck met through a mutual friend. Their affair, Gwyn would tell Benson years later, was “off again, on again, Finnegan.”

April 1941, with Steinbeck’s marriage to Carol almost entirely frayed, Steinbeck asked Gwyn to fly up to Monterey from Los Angeles. Benson writes: “When Gwyn walked into the house, she remembers, John and Carol were sitting on a dirty-ragged couch drinking pink champagne, and it was obviously not the first bottle.” Then, Gwyn told Benson, “He [Steinbeck] did a very funny thing, which I should have realized was a peculiar insight into his nature. He said, ‘I want you two gals to talk this out, and the one who feels she really wants me the most gets me.’ ”

Steinbeck left the two women alone. A week after the women’s conversation, Carol and Steinbeck separated for the final time. The divorce was filed a year later, and John and Gwyn married in March 1943 (Gwyn told Benson that Steinbeck made her swear she would never tell their children that prior to their wedding day they had been sexually intimate). The couple’s first son, Thom, was born in August 1944, and in New York City on June 12, 1946, John was born. Three years later, Gwyn and Steinbeck divorced. In 1951, Steinbeck married Western movie hero Zachary Scott’s ex-wife Elaine. The two boys and Gwyn stayed on in Manhattan.

John was drafted in 1965 and served with the Army in Vietnam. In 1968, his book, In Touch, about Vietnam, was published. He returned to Vietnam that year and established the Dispatch News Service. He began to study Buddhism. His father died that year, and John could not be located in Vietnam in time to attend the funeral.

During the early 1970s, John traveled between the U.S., Europe, England, and Asia. By all accounts, these were troubled years for John — too many drugs and too much alcohol. In 1971, in Vietnam, John’s first wife gave birth to a daughter, Blake.

In 1975, John moved to Boulder. He became a student of the Venerable Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. A Tibetan monk, Trungpa in 1970 began teaching Buddhist meditation in Boulder and in 1973 established Vajradhatu, a Tibetan Buddhist church. His group grew into the largest Buddhist sect in the United States.

The Vajradhatu Buddhist community was not an ascetic, celibate group. The San Francisco Chronicle noted: “The group had a reputation for a lighthearted imitation of the manners of the English nobility, for heavy drinking, and for a freewheeling sexual style that long outlived the ’60s.”

In 1976, Trungpa named Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin (born Thomas Rich in Passaic, New Jersey) to head the group. Tendzin was slated to lead the religious community after Trungpa’s death.

John was deeply, seriously involved in Buddhist practice and immersed in the Vajradhatu Buddhist community. In 1979 at a Buddhist retreat, John met Nancy Halpern. At the time, Halpern was married; she had two young children, Michael and Megan. Several years later, John and Nancy married.

In 1985, while John was still in Boulder, Tendzin tested HIV positive and kept his test results secret from the larger community and continued to engage in unprotected sexual activities with disciples. Trungpa died in 1987, at 47, of physical problems brought on by heavy drinking, leaving Tendzin in charge.

Johanna Demetrakas, an artist who lives in Los Angeles, had known John since the mid- ’70s. John lived in L.A. with Demetrakas and her husband and two sons between 1978 and ’79. Demetrakas said by telephone from her home that John and Thom had been in and out of L.A. over the years, that there was always the hope on their part that another movie would be made from one of their father’s books. Demetrakas could not, she said, remember that John or Thom ever had jobs and assumed that royalties from their father’s books helped support them. John, she said, was usually short of cash. She recalled that in 1987, John was in town and didn’t have a place to stay and had been crashing in a Vietnamese Buddhist center in L.A. “When he moved to California,” Demetrakas said, “John was in one of the worst times of his drinking. I think it [his move to California] had something to do with his marriage at the time; 1988,” Demetrakas added, “was the pits for him.”

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