John Steinbeck’s Life in Montrose
I wrote previously about the amazing discovery that one of America’s greatest writers, John Steinbeck, spent a few months living on Hermosa Avenue just east of Rosemont in a little shack that still exists as a rental unit behind some apartments. Since then, my former CV High School teacher, now mentor, Gary Keyes gave me a copy of “The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer” by Jackson J. Benson, which details Steinbeck’s short time in Montrose.
It was mid-summer of 1932, and Steinbeck and his wife Carol had been staying in Pacific Grove living off handouts from his parents and Carol’s secretarial job with Ed Ricketts (fictionalized as “Doc” in “Cannery Row”). Ed had to let Carol go, and the Steinbecks decided to head for sunny Los Angeles and their friend “Dook,” a professor at Occidental College. These were wild times for young Steinbeck, and John embraced the Bohemian lifestyle – lots of drinking and carousing. He was broke but happy.
Looking for cheap rent, they found a shack for rent amongst other shacks in Montrose. John had found a publisher (unbeknownst to him about to go bankrupt) for “Pastures of Heaven,” and had gotten a very small advance. Carol was busy typing the manuscript for “To a God Unknown,” and John was scrambling for any paid writing job.
Steinbeck wrote some freelance sketches of local life in CV, and attempted to sell them to area newspapers but was turned down. Yes, you read that right! Perhaps the greatest American writer submitted material to our little local rag, The Ledger, and they turned him away! As far as we know, those essays no longer exist as Steinbeck was in the habit of burning work he was unhappy with, but imagine the vignettes of life in CV that were penned by this great writer!
Steinbeck was influenced by local events in other ways. In January of 1933, desperate for money, Steinbeck wrote to his agent:
“We live in the hills behind Los Angeles now and there are few people around. One of our neighbors loaned me 300 detective magazines, and I have read a large part of them out of pure boredom. They are so utterly lousy that I wonder whether you have tried to peddle that thing I dashed off to any of them.”
He was referring to “Murder at Full Moon,” a mystery thriller that he had regretfully submitted to his agent under a pseudonym. He always considered it a piece of “hack literature,” and it was never published. Yet as he sat in his little shack in Montrose reading a neighbor’s magazines, he held out hope that even it might be published.
By February of 1933 he was finished financially. He wrote to a friend: “Apparently we are headed for the rocks. The light company is going to turn off our power in a few days, but we don’t care much. The rent is up soon and we shall move… We’ll get in the car and drive until we can’t buy gasoline anymore.”
They did leave and the next year Steinbeck’s fortunes changed for the better.
It’s fun to imagine the various influences that Steinbeck’s time in Montrose may have had on his writing. His first literary success, “Tortilla Flats,” published just after leaving Montrose, followed the lives of a group of desperately poor friends living in a shack. Was that based on Steinbeck’s time here? It seems likely.
While in CV he undoubtedly encountered Okies camping in the canyons and streambeds of CV as was written about by Woody Guthrie in his song, “The Los Angeles New Year’s Flood.” Did these encounters contribute to his portrayal of Okies in “The Grapes of Wrath”? Our tragic flood happened just a few months after Steinbeck left and it can be assumed he heard that the area of Montrose he had lived in was devastated. Was this the basis of his flood scene in “The Grapes of Wrath”?
It’s definitely food for thought, but we’ll never know fully what influence Montrose had on one of America’s greatest novelists, John Steinbeck.