John Steinbeck's Hero Adlai

Saturday, 09 October 2010 02:56 PM Written by 

 BARABOO, Wisc.  -- US 12 and 5th Ave.

Libertyville, Ill., sounds like it should be the HQ of America's libertarians, but it's not.

It's where Adlai Stevenson had his 70-acre farm and where John Steinbeck, his wife Elaine and poodle Charley stopped for a visit probably 50 years ago today, Oct. 9, 1960. Oct. 9 was a Sunday that year.

Steinbeck was headed north to Wisconsin, where I am writing this while sitting in the shade on someone's front wall in the amazing little town of Baraboo. DSC_0050_copy

A block behind me a street fair that would put the Three Rivers Arts festival to shame has been in full swing in Baraboo's thriving downtown since 9 a.m.

At least half of the county's populace is strolling along buying things like artistic rocks and quilts and brats cooked by guys who support a professional football team with the funny name "Packers."

I was at the Stevenson farm in the horsey part of Libertyville yesterday afternoon. Nicole Stocker of Lake County Forest Preserve (which owns the farm's current 40 acres) gave me a personal tour of the roomy farmhouse Stevenson lived in from the late 1930s until he died in 1965.

Click for a video tour of Stevenson's home.

Thanks to Nicole, I now know enough about the simple, practical but smartly designed Moderne/Prairie Style house to sell it if I were a Realtor and it was for sale -- big airy rooms with huge windows, a great Art Deco bathroom and a long back deck looking out at the lawn and blazing oak trees that stretch to the DesPlaines River.DSC_0117

Steinbeck and Stevenson were more than contemporaries and pen pals. They had several interests in common -- liberal/New Deal politics, agriculture, dogs and the legend of King Arthur and the Round Table.

Politically, Steinbeck was a Stevenson man, 110 percent. He desperately wanted him to be president, not Ike, in '52 and '56, and he helped Stevenson during the 1950s with his speeches.DSC_0093_copy

I've read some of the long letters Steinbeck sent to Stevenson during the run-up to the 1960 election at Princeton's collection of Stevenson papers. They are filled with advice, complaints, laments and highly partisan and semi-scurrilous comments.

Steinbeck hated Nixon and ridiculed Eisenhower for his poor syntax.

But he was leery of supporting Kennedy whole hog because he didn't trust what he termed "a bed-hopper" and because he would be hurt by the Catholic issue. He was still a Stevenson Man long after it was clear that Stevenson's days as the Democrats' standard bearer were over.

Nicole, who conducts tours at "The Farm," showed me around the house, which has been restored for tours since 2008 and is used for meetings but still needs work.

Most of its rooms need to be filled up with furniture, but Stevenson's study has his old desk, his books and his address book -- which happened to be opened to "S." Steinbeck's name and Sag Harbor phone number are there.DSC_0107

In 1960, Stevenson's place was still a working farm. He grew corn and soybeans and had a vegetable garden. He had horses, sheep and a pack of Dalmatians, all named after characters from King Arthur's Court.

He, like Steinbeck, lived frugally for a rich man, but there was a housekeeper and a caretaker on the premises. And one of his neighbors was Marshall Field, who owned a little department store in Chicago.

The way my crack staff of history detectives and I figure, Steinbeck and his wife stayed at the Ambassador East in downtown Chicago until Sunday morning, Oct. 9, 1960. Then they drove out to Libertyville to stay there Sunday night.

Stevenson's three sons were gone then and Nicole says the three Steinbecks probably stayed in the guest suite, where Eleanor Roosevelt slept when she popped by. Many historic figures of the era came to talk  politics with Stevenson in his ample living room -- from Robert Taft to JFK.

It's clear from Steinbeck's letters to his wife from the road that the next morning, Monday, Oct. 10, he was driving north on US 12 and his wife was jetting her way back to New York with plans to meet him again when he reached Seattle.

I would have corroborated that theory with Steinbeck's ghost, but Nicole and I did not see it at Gov. Stevenson's old farm. Just Steinbeck's name and phone number.

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