John Steinbeck IV comes to rest in the West

Destiny manifest

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.”

On October 31, 1988, a San Jose Mercury News story noted: “John Steinbeck IV, identified as the son of the late prize-winning author, filed a petition in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in San Diego for liquidation of his debts.

“The hand-written petition filed Monday by Steinbeck, acting as his own attorney, lists debts of $19,659 and property assets of $936.

“The petitioner, who identified himself as a self-employed writer, listed income of less than $24,000 annually in royalties from his father’s estate.”

In mid-December 1988, Osel Tendzin’s condition was exposed to followers. In the wake of that disclosure, John and others began to move away from the community. So by March 1989, although John’s allegiance to Buddhism did not diminish, he distanced himself from the organization in which he’d been active for 14 years. (Tendzin died in 1990 of AIDS-related pneumonia.)

In a March 1989 interview with the Reader, John explained about the family’s move to La Jolla: “We were doing movies. We wanted to be close to Hollywood but not in L.A.” The two-story La Jolla Shores house overlooked the ocean. The carpets were ivory cotton and deep. In a room John used as his office, a hanging was displayed. On the hanging were ranked various avatars in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon. In a raspy voice, John tolled out these avatars’ names and histories. Asked what he was working on, John said he was busy with development of a documentary film.

John said there had been no pressure on him to follow in his father’s footsteps. He added, “I’m sure there are all sorts of deep-seated psychological issues —comparing myself to him. They aren’t crippling at this point, but they’re there.” He talked about his closeness to his brother Thom. He confessed that his phone bill that month was $750, and much of that bill reflected his talking with Thom.

June 1, 1989, John filed a second bankruptcy petition in San Diego, setting aside the 1988 request and asking that his Chapter 7 request be converted to Chapter 13. Among creditors on the list is Azure Acres, a Sebastopol, California, hospital that treats chemically dependent persons. Azure Acres is shown as being owed $2000 from April 1988, the year Johanna Demetrakas described as the “pits” for John. The majority of creditors on the 1989 document are hospitals and doctors.

Karen Kenyon, who teaches writing at MiraCosta College and San Diego State University, said that in fall 1989, a student with whom John was friendly brought John to her Mira Costa class. “John came. And he was wonderful.” At Kenyon’s invitation John came again in spring 1990 to speak to her SDSU class. John by then was writing his autobiography. Legacy, and read three chapters. Kenyon described these chapters to be about John’s childhood. “He said many children of famous people have had trouble with drugs or alcohol. He told the class, I have to admit I have too.’” Kenyon’s impression was that Legacy wasn’t a Mommie Dearest book, but rather John’s meditation on his experience with his father and his, John’s, trying to come out from under that shadow.” She said John indicated that there had been for him “a big turn, for the first time, into his own life.” Johanna Demetrakas had last seen John in October. “He had been sober a year. Even in 1988, when he was so low and was drinking hard, it was clear he wanted to stop. Once I saw him starting to wrestle with it, I had some hope he was going to make it. And in October, I said, ‘Wow, John is making it.’”

Duncan Campbell, a 46-year-old Harvard Law graduate who practices in Boulder, said in a telephone interview that he met John in the early ’70s. Campbell was a member of Trungpa’s original group and resigned, he said, “over the scandal of the Regent [Tendzin].” Campbell said he and John became particularly close in the last three years, talking often, long-distance, about the community’s troubles.

Campbell had last seen John in Encinitas three weeks before he died. “He was excited about his book. It was the kind of writing he wanted to do for a long time.” John gave Campbell the manuscript to read. “He put it in a cardboard box. On top of the box was Legacy, the working title, and written beneath that, another title, I Laughed, I Cried, I Couldn’t Put It Down." Campbell reported he took the manuscript back to where he was staying and read voraciously. That the writing was lucid, wonderful.

Stanley Weiser, a writer in L.A. who’d known John ten years, said he talked with John the week before John died. “He was probably in the best state of mind of his life.”

Ruth Wallen, a local Buddhist, in a telephone interview said she and John met when John was in recovery. They taught a Buddhist class together. Soon after learning that John died, Wallen said friends began to gather in the house at Encinitas. Everyone there that weekend, she noted, strongly felt John’s presence. Wallen recalled that on Friday night, she and a friend went to the refrigerator, looked around, and found remains of John’s last supper, leftovers of the meal he ate before he went to the hospital, a double cheese pizza, and they ate it.

Wallen led the memorial service at the Encinitas house. About 100 people crowded into the living and dining rooms. Johanna Demetrakas, who came for the service, said, “Not many people there had known John for a long time. Most had known him for two years.” Nancy’s children and their friends were there. John’s 20-year-old daughter Blake, her husband, and six-month-old baby were there. Recently, Blake and John, who never met, had begun talking on the telephone and had plans for getting together. Men from John’s men’s group, his AA group, and Overeaters Anonymous group were there. Karen Kenyon came.

Wallen said, “There was a brief Buddhist ceremony, a sukhavati, a reminder of impermanence. It was a ceremony John particularly liked. You have out a bit of the deceased’s favorite food and drink.” In John’s case, since he no longer drank, said Wallen, the drink was coffee. The food was Top Ramen.

After the sukhavati, which ends with burning the deceased’s picture, John’s knife was passed. Everyone who wanted to do so held the knife and offered a memory of John. Duncan Campbell, who flew from Boulder for the service, said John’s brother Thom spoke of how proud he was of John. Then added that he, Thom, always assumed he and John would go out together like Halley’s Comet. It never occurred to him they would not go out together. Ruth Wallen remembered that Blake, John’s daughter, said, “You asshole!” and lamented she and her father never met.

While people gave testimonials, Stanley Weiser said, as if addressing John, “These are the best reviews you’ve ever gotten.”

(Nancy Steinbeck plans to finish John’s Legacy, and the book has a publisher, Prentice-Hall.)

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