John Steinbeck was born 110 years ago today. I know it doesn't necessarily follow, but that fact made me wonder again about his missing portrait by the artist Ellwood Graham.
Not that there is a shortage of portraits of the author of The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck was reticent about making public appearances. He did not do talks, which makes it all the more amazing how well he handled his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. But he liked having himself painted or photographed.
James Fitzgerald did a great portrait of him when Steinbeck was living in Pacific Grove, California, in the 1930s and hanging out with Ed Ricketts in his marine biological lab in nearby Monterey on Cannery Row. That image, showing Steinbeck wearing a V-neck sweater, no shirt or T-shirt, is now in the National Portrait Gallery.
Yousuf Karsh photographed him, showing Steinbeck cupping his face in his hands, a burning cigarette in the fingers of his right hand. A Paul Farber’ photograph of Steinbeck shows up often on book covers and anthologies, and though in black and white it accents Steinbeck’s luminous eyes; you assume they are blue.
Apparently Steinbeck’s blue eyes were striking. There is a fine collection of newspaper articles on Steinbeck which was published by the University of Mississippi in 1988. It is called Conversations with John Steinbeck. A half dozen of the writers mention his blue eyes (As well as his sense of humor; it seems he could be spontaneous, merry and kidding with journalists, until later years when some critics got to him and he soured).
Ella Winter wrote in 1935 that Steinbeck’s height and blue eyes and "slow talk" made her think of the poet Robinson Jeffers. Two years later an unidentified journalist for the New York World Telegram noted of Steinbeck, "He is deeply tanned, with the bluest eyes you’ve ever seen." Louis Walther, in 1938 writing for the San Jose Mercury News, described Steinbeck as having "frank blue eyes," while another writer saw "bright blue eyes."
We have photographs of the missing Ellwood Graham’ portrait of Steinbeck, and the eyes are blue, the right eye seemingly larger than the left, as you can see here. It seems Graham was trying to catch the complexity of the writer. It’s an interesting portrait, one that, according to some rumors, Steinbeck was not mad about.
Whatever, its whereabouts are unknown. The story is that Graham and his wife, also a superb artist, Judith Deim (then known as Barbara Stevenson), both did Steinbeck portraits at the same sitting. Steinbeck and friends had returned from a trip to the Sea of Cortez, and after a bout of partying Steinbeck wanted to settle down and write. He suggested that while he did that Deim and Graham could do a painting of him, a desire they had expressed often.
Fortunately we still have Deim’s fine portrait, which is at the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University. Graham’s is gone, vanished. There are many stories, speculations actually, about what happened to it. John Houston the film director coveted it and may have owned it for a time. There’s a story someone won it or lost it in a poker game.
Of course we may never know, but I am hoping that it will have been recovered by, say, perhaps Old Blue Eyes’ 120th birthday.
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...