On May 12, 1942, John Steinbeck applied for a New York State license to carry a concealed weapon. The permit, in the county of Rockland and the city of Palisades, was for two Colt Automatic revolvers. Character witnesses on the application included the actor Burgess Meredith, the artist Henry Varnum Poor, a veterinarian with the first name of Morris and a ``housewife & property owner'' named Sally.
To my knowledge, this document has never been brought to public notice by Steinbeck scholars or biographers. It indicates that a Nobel Prize–winning author to be, feeling his life was at risk, likely carried a concealed weapon on his person in the late 1930s and `40s.
The reason given for the permit request was "self protection." Steinbeck was 40 years of age, he was six-feet tall and weighed 190 pounds, according to the application. His hair was listed as brown, his eyes, blue. He lived on a street called House in the Woods.
He was, at the time, in addition to being the author of ``Tortilla Flat,'' ``Of Mice and Men'' and the Pulitzer Prize-winning ``The Grapes of Wrath,'' employed by the ``U.S. Govt..'' The nature of his business for the government was ``Information,'' probably a reference to his job with the Coordinator of Information, which eventually was merged into what would become the CIA. His place of business for this job was in New York City.
The application asked ``Have you ever had a pistol license?'' A pen line is run through the ``No,'' leaving the ``Yes.'' The ``Year of Issuance'' of that previous license is noted as ``1938,'' a year in which he was writing ``The Grapes of Wrath'' in the California towns of Pacific Grove _ where the family still has a summer cottage _ and Los Gatos.
The application was approved in two days. Why did Steinbeck, who obviously felt he needed a gun in California, now in 1942 feel he needed one in New York? Perhaps it had something to do with his government job.
Another story is, he received a phone call in Palisades from Pacific Grove, Monterey or Salinas in Monterey County, California in which the caller said something akin to, ``You may feel you are safe three-thousand miles away, but we are coming after you.''
Since Steinbeck had, according to an account told to me, only a few years earlier had a gun pointed at him in his hometown of Salinas, that phone call, if truly made, might have prompted him to immediately apply for the New York State gun license.
A handsome, elderly Salinas woman named Lilly, now deceased, told me the following story: sometime in the late 1930s a group of Salinas High graduates decided to have a picnic on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Lilly, who for a time had a little antique shop in Salinas, was chosen to make a phone call to another Salinas High grad', Steinbeck, who was twenty-five miles west in the coastal town of Pacific Grove.
``I said, 'John, we know you are worried that some people in Salinas might be a threat to you. We think you are exaggerating your fears. We are having a picnic, and we would all like to see you. Please come.' '' Lilly could be charming and persuasive and Steinbeck relented _ probably because he did want to see old friends. He was getting famous now, and there were stories to exchange.
Lilly recalled the day going well. Then a white pickup truck jumped the curb onto the picnic grounds, scattering adults and children. Two men jumped out, one of them sticking a gun into Steinbeck's chest. ``There was a threat about he better stop writing what he was writing, or else,'' Lilly said. ``John got angry and his face turned red and he clenched his fists and we all yelled at one time, `John, don't move!'. . . We told the men we knew them, and if anything happened to John . . . well, we knew where they could be found.'' The incident could well have been what prompted Steinbeck to apply for that 1938 gun permit.
Lilly said that from then on she had nightmares that, because of a telephone call she made, Steinbeck might have been killed and ``Cannery Row,'' ``East of Eden'' and ``Travels with Charley'' would never have been.
It seems fairly obvious the assailants wanted Steinbeck to abandon writing ``The Grapes of Wrath.'' ``The Harvest Gypsies,'' ``In Dubious Battle'' and ``Of Mice and Men'' had already been published, and it was clear through these works he sympathized with the plight of migrant field workers.
There was no reason to believe ``The Grapes of Wrath'' would be otherwise. It's publication could only hurt powerful agricultural interests. The Farmers Association of California was virulently anti-Steinbeck, and it was only after the publication of ``The Grapes of Wrath'' that Steinbeck wrote ``they can't shoot me now,'' because in his opinion it would be clear who had done it. But he had been vilified from many corners, labeled a Communist and a revolutionary, to name some of the milder labels, although simply being slandered and/or discredited was among his lesser worries.
If I had any reason to doubt the general arc of Lilly's story _ and I didn't _ it would be countered by the memories of two other individuals who felt a cloud of danger casting itself over Steinbeck.
The artist Judith Deim, who did a portrait of Steinbeck that is now at the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University, was part of a group of artists and writers in Monterey and Pacific Grove that included Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts. She often spoke of the sometimes dark days of the 1930s.
Her painting ``Beach Picnic,'' depicting six figures on a nocturnal seaside outing, is indicative of that sense of danger. Deim said outings with Steinbeck often included a number of people for protection, and frequently these outings were at night. In her painting, Ricketts leans back on his elbows and a kneeling Steinbeck pokes pensively at the sand with a stick, ignoring a beautiful nude woman nearby.
I met Herb Heinrich in 1998 while co-curating with Patricia Leach the inaugural art exhibition at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Heinrich had been Steinbeck's childhood friend. Heinrich, pushing 90 in 1998, had been some years younger than Steinbeck, but as a next door neighbor was, according to Heinrich, one of the few children Steinbeck's mother Olive would let John play with.
Heinrich recalled kids playing baseball or hide and seek on summer evenings and calling to John's bedroom in the family's Salinas Victorian house, and John looking out the window forlornly and ``shaking his head that he couldn't play.'' While that solitude and imposed isolation might have been the making of the great writer, Heinrich also felt it stymied Steinbeck's social skills; when he did mix with the kids, he stood awkwardly, holding his long arms close to his sides, and walking to school he usually trailed behind the others, despite his size.
Heinrich remembered a time when he was operating a Salinas service station. He hadn't seen Steinbeck in years; then one day a large car with dark windows pulled into the station and the driver asked Herb if he would get into the back seat of the car to talk to someone, a friend from the past. Heinrich, who was naturally cantankerous, said if anyone wanted to talk to him, they could come to him.
The driver asked him to please reconsider and Heinrich, who was just as naturally curious, relented. It was, of course, Steinbeck in the car. Heinrich quickly picked up that Steinbeck feared being seen by anyone else. They conversed, and Heinrich remembered him as being morose and sad.
Steinbeck's reputation in Pacific Grove and Monterey as a less than friendly person persists to this day. If someone approached him, often a stranger, and said, ``Hey, I read your stuff _ can I buy you a drink?'' he'd decline firmly and walk away. It 's likely Steinbeck, after the Salinas incident, did not know whom to trust. He stuck with the people he knew and liked. The center of this group, the charismatic presence, was Ricketts, not Steinbeck. Joseph Campbell was part of the group, and even Charlie Chaplin would drive up from Los Angeles to spend weekends, sleeping on Ricketts marine biology lab floor on Cannery Row.
It has been said Steinbeck drank a lot. Jean Ariss, a novelist (``The Shattered Glass'') and friend of the writer, mused that it was amazing such a drunk could write so many great novels. ``Oh, sure, you drink all day and write `Grapes of Wrath' in the nights,'' she once said. ``It's easy. It's a snap.'' If Steinbeck was drinking, maybe it was out of worry and fear. Certainly he wrote ``The Grapes of Wrath'' under immense pressure and with great courage, and a few drinks would have been understandable.
Two of the character references for Steinbeck's 1942 pistol license application had interesting connections with the writer in addition to being friends and Rockland County neighbors.
Henry Varnum Poor taught art at Stanford after graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and Steinbeck attended Stanford for a period, though after Poor had left the university. In New York Poor did a portrait of Steinbeck, his second wife Gwen, and their infant son, Thom, that is now at the National Steinbeck Center. Painted just a year or two after the New York pistol license request, it's a difficult picture: Gwyn, cradling the crying infant in her arms, looks exhausted, her eyes dark, Steinbeck physically powerful but weary. Poor did not conceal the strain the small family was under; in fact, you get the distinct impression he wants us to know something.
Burgess Meredith starred as George in the 1939 film version of ``Of Mice and Men.'' The character George, like Tom Joad in ``The Grapes of Wrath,'' could have made it in the world on his own. But as Joad would not desert the family and workers he felt tied to, George was loyal to the mentally deficient Lennie Small unto his death. In turn, Meredith was loyal to Steinbeck _ he was a friend, he championed him and, after Steinbeck's death, frequently came to Monterey County to participate in events in Steinbeck's memory.
It would be interesting to know what Poor and Meredith knew and thought when they signed that application in 1942. Were they on hand at the same time? Was the veterinarian there? The housewife? Did they exchange looks? Was the signing perfunctory? Or was there a sense of urgency and danger? And if so, were they sad? It seems they must have been, that it had to come to this, that a great writer's life was in danger because he had written the truth.
``And whatever is hidden should be made naked. To be stripped of darkness is to be cleansed.” _ Dylan Thomas.
Copyright Steve Hauk
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