Fri 24 Sep, 2010 09:56 am
At Steinbeck’s Getaway as Heirs’ Feud Revives
By COREY KILGANNON
SAG HARBOR, N.Y. — Many things about the little house at the end of a point jutting into a cove of Noyac Bay have not changed in the 50 years since John Steinbeck set out from here with his poodle on the 10,000-mile, 11-week road trip that would become “Travels With Charley.”
The tall oaks described in the book are a half-century older, but still shading the expansive, grassy bluff. At the entrance to the kitchen remain the marks where Steinbeck recorded the height of each guest to the cottage, including the poodle, Charley. Japanese tourists show up in droves and lone looky-loos wander without permission, gawking at the writer’s shack where Steinbeck wrote “Travels” and other works, and at the quirky touches he left, like the statue of a unicorn.
But the house Steinbeck called “my little fishing place,” about a mile out of town, is part of a long-running and bitter family estate battle, pitting the surviving sister of the author’s third wife, Elaine, against his oldest son and a granddaughter. While the sister, Jean Boone, said she had decided against preserving the home as a historic site or museum because her family enjoyed vacationing there, the son, Thomas Steinbeck, said he could imagine the house as a writer’s school or haven but not a museum, saying his father would think that silly. It remains unclear who will be allowed to decide its future.
“The house belongs to Steinbeck’s blood heirs,” Thomas Steinbeck, 65, insisted in a telephone interview from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Mrs. Boone, 81, insisted just as forcefully: “The house belongs to me. Elaine left it to me, and I’m leaving it to my family.” She said the property was left to her in a trust.
And so continues a family feud worthy of a Steinbeck novel. In 2004, Thomas Steinbeck and his niece Blake Smyle sued the family of Elaine Steinbeck, who married the author in 1950 and died in 2003, leaving most of her estate to her children from a previous marriage and to her sister. The suit alleges a “30-year conspiracy” to cheat the Steinbeck children and grandchildren of royalties and copyright control.
In 2009, the suit was dismissed, but Thomas Steinbeck and Ms. Smyle have appealed. Oral arguments will be held on Oct. 8 in Manhattan before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Thomas Steinbeck does not lay claim to the Sag Harbor property in the appeal, which is mainly over the rights to his father’s books. But his wife, Gail Steinbeck, said he hoped a victory in the case would help prove that Elaine Steinbeck had breached her fiduciary duty by giving Mrs. Boone the property in “an underlying action to strip the Steinbeck family of its property.”
Steinbeck is well known for writing about his birthplace, California, where “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden” are set. But he spent much of his life in New York, splitting time between the Upper East Side of Manhattan and his simple sanctuary here in what was once a working-class harbor village, but in recent years has become upscale. He had some of his happiest times and most inspired moments as a writer on these two acres.
In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck’s cross-country trip with Charley, which began with a three-ferry hop to Connecticut on Sept. 23, 1960, Mrs. Boone offered a rare tour of the property, which is on a private lane. (Mrs. Boone said that when she opened the place for visiting on the centennial of Steinbeck’s birth, neighbors complained; it has occasionally been rented out, to help pay for upkeep.)
Though Thomas Steinbeck said “there is no longer anything Steinbeckian about the place,” Mrs. Boone insists the two-bedroom bungalow remains much as Steinbeck left it.
Indeed, there is still a medieval-looking sign over the doorway to the writing house, which Steinbeck, who loved bantering in Arthurian language, named Joyous Garde, after Lancelot’s castle. On the ground at the hut’s entrance is the word “Aroynte,” which may be derived from an old English term meaning “Be gone!” But Steinbeck’s books and other belongings were removed from the shack in recent years because they were getting moldy.
Steinbeck relished his privacy in the cozy, six-sided structure, which overlooks the water in three directions. He spent mornings and evenings here, writing pieces like “The Winter of Our Discontent,” inspired by Sag Harbor, in pencil on legal pads.
“Elaine used to say that John enjoyed having no distractions,” said John Stefanik, the longtime caretaker of the property. “The words just flowed out here.”
At the entrance to the swimming pool Steinbeck built for Elaine, the inscription he scrawled with his finger in a patch of excess cement is still there: “To his ‘Ladye,’ ” it reads. “In thee I have myn erthly joye.”
The garage walls are covered with grapevines that Steinbeck brought from Salinas, Calif., and inside is the author’s hand-stenciled sign warning “Trespassers Will Be Eaten.” His scribbling also adorns the walls and tool drawers: “Knives, Chisels and Bladey Things;” “Screws (Anybody);” and “Holes, Bits, Augers and Awl.” A drawer of miscellany is labeled “Exotics.”
Mr. Stefanik opened the nail drawer and laughed at its label: “Glory! Nails, In Excelsis.” He said, “You know what it’s like to find the right nail for a job: you’re like, ‘Hallelujah!’ ”
He stared at the scrawl, nearly faded into oblivion, and said, “I wish there was some way to preserve this.”
In the living room of the house is the miniature steel cannon Steinbeck used to scare the geese away. The walls are still lined with photographs of Steinbeck, with famous people and accepting the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature in suit and tie, or knocking around Sag Harbor dressed like a fisherman. He enjoyed walking Main Street in his fisherman’s cap, rubber boots and work clothes, and he would frequent the Black Buoy, a fisherman’s bar on Main Street.
In a humorous essay, “Conversation at Sag Harbor,” Steinbeck wrote about visiting the property with his two sons on a manly bonding trip. Thomas Steinbeck remembered when the house “was a shell of a shack with no insulation — you could see the wood framing inside.”
Mr. Steinbeck, a writer whose first novel was published this year, said his father liked Sag Harbor because its salty feel reminded him of Monterey, Calif., and because he was treated like any other person there. He recalled helping his father equip a Land Rover for the trip with Charley, before Steinbeck opted for a bigger camper: the 1960 GMC truck that he named “Rocinante,” after Don Quixote’s horse.
“The book was his farewell,” said Mr. Steinbeck, who wrote a screen adaptation of “Travels” for HBO that has yet to be produced. “My dad knew he was dying, and he had been accused of having lost touch with the rest of the country. ‘Travels With Charley’ was his attempt to rediscover America.”