COURT BATTLES: Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, is beset with physical ailments, and John Steinbeck’s dead. So why do Steinbeck’s Santa Barbara son and 87-year-old Lee have to wage court battles to regain their royalties?
In most novels, you come across one or more bad guys. Here, the real-life characters include a supposedly wicked stepmother and allegedly conniving New York literary agents.
For Santa Barbaran Thomas Steinbeck, John’s only surviving son, at least an estimated $45 million in royalties is at stake. Thom, as he’s known to friends, and his feisty wife, Gail, have lost their federal court battle and the appeal, but Gail assures me, “This litigation is far from over.”
Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, the same controversial literary agent is involved in both cases. Harper Lee charges that her ex-agent, Samuel Pinkus, and others duped the frail woman, hard of hearing and with failing eyesight, into assigning him the copyright to her only book for no compensation.
It would take a lawyer like Harper’s fictional hero Atticus Finch (with help from the novel’s valiant daughter, Scout, and mysterious Boo Radley) to weed through the legalistics, let alone find justice.
As for Thom and Gail, they filed suit in 2004 claiming that John’s third wife, Elaine, conspired with literary agents Eugene Winick and Pinkus in a “30-year hidden conspiracy to deprive John Steinbeck’s blood heirs of their rights in the intellectual property of John Steinbeck,” according to the current issue of Vanity Fair magazine.
After Oprah Winfrey launched her book club in 2003 with John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, Hollywood got excited about remaking the 1955 film. Gail says she and Thom lined up a top director and a fine script. But Thom, who at that time retained some rights to East of Eden, felt that Pinkus wasn’t active enough in the movie negotiations.
According to a conversation related in Vanity Fair, Gail told Pinkus by phone, “Sam, this is going to be a beautiful, beautiful project. You need to get this deal closed.” Pinkus replied, according to Gail, “You fucking bitch. How dare you interfere in my business?”
You’re my employee, she promptly reminded him. Get back to work and close the deal. After lunch, she said, Thom told her, “‘Fire him.’ So we fired him.” The movie, like many dreamed up in Hollywood, never got made. Pinkus declined to comment on the article when contacted by Vanity Fair.
If the agents and heirs of the late Elaine Steinbeck, and Elaine’s late husband “former B-actor” Zachary Scott (in Gail’s words), prevail, it would shut down the John Steinbeck Family Foundation, Gail told me. It’s dedicated to John’s legacy and to provide scholarships to teachers, Gail said.
The problem is that Thom and his late brother, John IV, assigned their share of their father’s copyrights to Elaine in return for increased royalties, but she then willed the copyrights to her family, not the Steinbecks.
I interviewed Thom and Gail two years ago, and things haven’t gotten any better. “There is a war on copyright owners, and in the New York courtrooms, big business or the litigant with the most money will always win,” Gail said. “Right or wrong, it just doesn’t matter in the Big Apple.”
In 2009, the suit by Thom and his niece (John IV’s daughter) was dismissed in favor of Elaine Steinbeck’s estate and her heirs. “Today, Thomas and Gail live in a rented house, having lost the case and most of their money in the lawsuit,” according to Vanity Fair.
Thom, now 68, a former Vietnam chopper gunner and foreign correspondent, and now a novelist, is writing his memoirs.
Harper Lee still resides in tiny Monroeville, Alabama, in an assisted-living home a few blocks from a courthouse like the one she wrote about in her only published novel. Mockingbird has sold more than 50 million copies and was made into that memorable 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck.
In her case, however, she waged a successful battle to regain her copyright. And in May, Lee filed a lawsuit claiming that Pinkus engaged in a scheme in 2007 to dupe her, then 80 “with declining hearing and eye sight,” into assigning the copyright to his company for no consideration, and also giving him control over millions of dollars in royalties. Damages will be determined at trial. No date has been set.