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  • Writer's pictureJohn Thompson

Steinbeck's Local Legacy

Steinbeck's Local LegacyOf all the gifts John Steinbeck received throughout his life, the most significant was the illustrated book given to him by his nearsighted Aunt Molly. On his ninth birthday in 1911, either at his family's home in Salinas or at his grandmother's cottage at 222 Central Avenue in Pacific Grove, he received Malory's Morte D'Arthur, the colorful saga of King Arthur and his bold knights. In the drawing of young John Steinbeck shown here, he imagines Malory being inspired by Arthur, who holds a broken lance.

Young John Steinbeck dreaming of King Arthur.Steinbeck's Arthurian quest became a lifelong preoccupation, though he admitted in his later years that he was never able to successfully finish his own ambitious writing project on these complex themes.

Gangland killer Ho Kim You.Just a few blocks south of the Steinbeck's comfortable two-story home was a colorful neighborhood known as Chinatown. Some shop owners there ran bordellos and gambling joints, with the occasional opium pipe being offered. Although the Chinese-American community in Monterey County was predominately a hard working and law-abiding community of immigrants from the area around Canton, a small group of ambitious Chinese pursued criminal careers. Their gangs, known as Tongs and Triads, sometimes sent out hit men called "hatchet men" to enforce their extortion of criminal businesses.

John Steinbeck reading to Lincoln Steffans while his wife Ella squabbles with their young son.

With this in mind, the nine-year-old Steinbeck furiously rode his bike over to Chinatown to see the puddle of blood on the floor where the owner of a local gambling den had been assassinated by Tong "hit men." Ho Kim You was later arrested when his speeding jalopy was pulled over near Palo Alto, and later he was sent to San Quentin for the gangland murder.

After his books became popular, John Steinbeck frequently drove over the hill to Carmel. One Carmel resident he visited from time to time was the renowned "muckraking" journalist Lincoln Steffans, a renowned progressive who retired to Carmel after he was diagnosed with heart disease. In the accompanying cartoon, Steinbeck is shown reading aloud from "Of Mice and Men," a work that he later admitted was not one of his strongest pieces of writing. Listening both critically and attentively is Steffans, interrupted by a phone call. Steffans' radical wife, Ella Winters, squabbles with their young son while she, too, listens to Steinbeck's tales of how a penniless and retarded farm worker was hunted down by Salinas police after he accidentally killed a woman acquaintance.

Flora Woods reflecting on how she looked at age 68 as compared to how she looked at age 30.

"Cannery Row" is one of Steinbeck's most famous works. Originally his wife's close friend Beth Ingels attempted a novel with that title, focusing on the struggles to unionize laborers in that Monterey neighborhood. In Steinbeck's story, he offers portraits of some characters that lived in that area above the bay - one of which was Flora Woods, the madam who ran the bordello there. On the left, after paying kickbacks to the police chief, the elder Ms. Woods reflects on how she looked when she was young and beautiful, comparing her features at age 68 in 1944 to her slimmer features at age 30 in 1906 when she first entered her line of work.

Sade reflecting how she looked in 1940 as compared to how she looked in 1922.

Over in Carmel, Steinbeck used to stop in at Sade's Bar on Ocean Avenue. Sade had once been a dancer and actress on Broadway and in Hollywood. After her face and figure aged her away from starlet roles, she and her architect husband Milt moved to Carmel and opened their popular bar. In this cartoon, the elder Sade, who opened her drinking establishment in 1926, reflects back on her former beauty. Today Sade's has moved, but carries on as a well-known Carmel watering hole at its new location on Lincoln Street just south of Ocean Avenue.

John Steinbeck is an important part of the history and heritage of Salinas, Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel. The Steinbeck Center Foundation in Salinas was founded in 1983 by a group of Salinas residents who wanted to share Steinbeck's life with his world-wide circle of fans. Click on the photo of John Steinbeck and you will be taken to the home page of the Steinbeck Center Foundation where you'll find lots of interesting information about their activities.You also might want to check out the virtual tour of John Steinbeck's Pacific Grove maintained by Esther Trosow.

We wish to thank John Thompson for his contribution and it is reprinted as submitted without editorial comment or change.

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