Yes, it’s true! Amazing as it seems, one of the greatest American writers of all time called Montrose home for a short while in the 1930s in a house that’s still here!
This amazing discovery was made by our own Glendale Councilman John Drayman a few years ago, and is backed-up by several biographies of the writer, plus some Steinbeck’s letters in the hands of collectors that are penned from Montrose, California. One day as Drayman and I chatted over the counter of his shop in Montrose, he reported that he had found an old listing of the L.A. addresses of several famous writers, and that it listed an address for John Steinbeck in Montrose for late 1932/early 1933. With the address in hand, we hopped into my car and headed for Hermosa Ave. between Rosemont and Sunset. We were disappointed when we pulled up to the address and found a ‘60s apartment building, but we got out of the car to check it out anyway. We walked up the driveway and there, immediately behind the modern apartment building, sat a small board-and-batten shack that had obviously once been the main building on the lot. We knocked on the front door and were greeted by a pretty lady with a beautiful British accent. John introduced himself and asked, “Do you know anything about the history of this house?” to which she responded “Well, no really, other than John Steinbeck lived here”. John and I just looked at each other flabbergasted! She related that she had been visited by a literature professor from UC Santa Barbara earlier in the year that had photographed the house and filled her in on its short history as Steinbeck’s home. The house is obviously very old, one of those ramshackle little wood-frame homes that people used for hunting shacks and weekend getaways in CV in the teens and twenties. At some point the larger apartment was built just in front and the shack, little changed from its configuration in the ‘30s, became a rental unit attached to it.
Thanks to the work of the Eagle Rock Historical Society, we know the story of Steinbeck’s time there. In the late ‘20s and early ‘30s Steinbeck had not yet hit it big as a writer. Writing full-time then, he was bouncing back and forth between Eagle Rock, where he spent nights carousing with his friend Carlton Sheffield, a professor at Occidental College, and his parent’s home in Monterey. In the summer of 1932 Steinbeck again headed south from Monterey, this time with his new wife, Carol. The Depression was hard on Los Angeles and as they were unable to afford anything in Eagle Rock – neither of them had jobs – they took a cheap rental in Montrose. Here they spent several months, completely destitute but happy, drinking the nights away with friends and stealing fruit from the surrounding orchards to survive. They were in poverty, yet living the high life, free and happy. They had good fellowship, camaraderie, thoughtful conversation, and plenty of time to write. Steinbeck later looked back longingly on this time of no worries and great friendships, when they survived on cheap hamburgers and stolen oranges and avocados. In the spring, their desperate finances pushed them back north to free rent with Steinbeck’s parents.
So how did Steinbeck’s time in Montrose affect his career? I think it’s no coincidence that his next novel, and his first commercial success, was “Tortilla Flats” published in 1935, immediately after his time in Montrose. Although the book is set in the Monterey area, the story is strangely similar to Steinbeck’s Montrose life. In Tortilla Flats, a group of happy and noble bums, poor in finances but rich in friendship, struggle to survive. The themes of the novel – the beauty of simple things, communing with the landscape they live in, and the benefits of poverty – can be directly related to what John Steinbeck saw and experienced in Montrose in the ‘30s within the walls of a little shack that still stands on Hermosa Avenue.
Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.