A Second Steinbeck Tells a Tale

Thom, Son of John, is living and writing in Montecito

JOHN AND THOM: Thom Steinbeck sat under a spreading oak in his Montecito yard, his first novel in the bookstores and where I found it, at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.

At 65, the son of legendary author John Steinbeck has been a New Yorker, chopper door-gunner in Vietnam, film script writer, published author of short stories, and now, somewhat to his surprise, a novelist.

Barney Brantingham

In the Shadow of the Cypress (Simon & Schuster, 2010) is a mystery, revolving around an ancient Chinese jade seal and a plaque supposedly left by Chinese mariners visiting the Monterey coast in the 1400s.

Thom (short for Thomas), dressed in cream-colored slacks, a denim jacket, aviator sunglasses, a felt hat, and loafers when he talked Sunday, said he’d found it hard living in his father’s old Monterey-area turf.

Too many uninvited people dropping into Thom’s former place above Point Lobos, and too many questions about his late Nobel laureate father, author of The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, East of Eden and other classics. “People felt they could just walk up” to his house. “It got out of hand,” he said.

“I couldn’t live in Monterey. It’s hard being a Steinbeck there. People are always taking shots at my old man.” While The Grapes of Wrath, sympathetic to the plight of 1930s dust bowl immigrants to California, made John Steinbeck famous, and won him a Pulitzer and the film an Oscar nomination, it also spawned great anger in the Salinas area.

He was called a communist, which he wasn’t, and his books were burned. “John got so many death threats that he carried a gun,” Thom said. “He was afraid someone was going to shoot him.”

Now he’s lionized at the magnificent National Steinbeck Center, scene of the recent annual Steinbeck Festival I attended. Thom and his wife, Gail, are on the center’s board, but he has mixed feelings about the place. “My father would have hated it,” said Thom. “A museum to him? If he’d been alive, he would have burned it down, or got his friends to do it.”

John Steinbeck could be gruff. “But he was extremely shy,” and uncomfortable with his unwanted celebrity status, said Thom. “He believed that the work should stand for itself.”

Thom told how, when his father was invited to New York’s famed gathering of literary wits at the Algonquin Hotel, Dorothy Parker sniped, “Mumble louder, John.”

Thom enjoys the bucolic peace of upper Montecito and the house he shares with Gail, who was busy tending the roses. He is leading a long legal battle with descendants of John’s third wife, Elaine, and publishers, for copyrights to the Steinbeck books.

“I’m very quiet,” Thom said. “I’m very homebound.” He loves Santa Barbara. “This is a town for people who live here. Monterey is a tourist town. It didn’t have the feeling of community that Santa Barbara/Montecito does.”

Oddly, perhaps, he hasn’t been invited yet for a book-signing at one of the local bookstores. After Thom’s first book of short stories, Down to the Soundless Sea, was published in 2002, Random House asked him for a novel. “I’m a short-story writer,” he protested.

But he knocked out a massive 850,000-word book, Flight of the Sparrows, about how two Irish cousins ended up in Monterey. The publisher pronounced it way too big a package. So it sits on Thom’s shelf.

Since then, Simon & Schuster has published the 246-page In the Shadow of the Cypress mystery, and Thom has three more books waiting to see the light of day. “My passion is history,” he said. “The Chinese have always fascinated me, and minorities in America. I didn’t want to write books. I never thought of being in competition with my father.”

Thom, who calls himself a “six-finger” typist, uses a laptop with an enlarged keyboard. His father tended to write from around 5 or 6 a.m. until 1 p.m., he said. Thom’s writing habit? He grinned. “I wish I had one. Just whenever the spark drives me.”

VAL VERDE $: Following last week’s column, in which a niece of the late owner of Montecito’s Val Verde estate charged that a foundation grossly mismanaged the assets, to put it mildly, a lawyer replied that the foundation’s one-time executive director and her husband “deny the wildly inaccurate statements of your source.”

In fact, attorney Timothy V. Milner implied that the statement did not actually come from former owner Nancy Oliva, Warren Austin’s niece, with whom I have been corresponding, but Austin’s “disinherited daughter.” He apparently referred to Carol Austin, who is not my source. Oliva, who is, and is associated with San Francisco’s Institute for Health and Learning, assures me that she is real. She reports that “Dorothy Austin is now a single mother, living in Washington state.”

Milner contends that the Val Verde Foundation was “the victim of the collapsing economy,” not “some sort of conspiracy.” Acts by foundation executive director Gail Jansen and her husband, Lee, were subject to approval by the board of directors, he pointed out.

The Val Verde Foundation went bankrupt last year, and we await the trustee’s report on who did what.


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