The Traveling Steinbecks

Monday, 25 October 2010 02:13 PM Written by 

MILL VALLEY, CA. -- Daughter Michelle's house

It feels strange sleeping in one place for so long -- three days. I got used to moving fast, which is what I had to do to keep pace with John Steinbeck on his seven-day dash from Chicago to Seattle (Oct. 10-17, 1960). 

I'm waiting for the Traveling Steinbecks to catch up to me, so you can't accuse me of dogging it.

John, Elaine and Charley didn't get to San Francisco until Wednesday, Oct. 26, 1960.  We know this because the San Francisco Chronicle's Herb Caen wrote in a columnon Oct. 28 that Steinbeck had arrived in town from New York. Also, writer Curt Gentry (future "Helter Skelter" author) interviewed Steinbeck in his suite at the St. Francis Hotel on Oct. 28 for a San Francisco Chronicle article.

In the published version of "Travels With Charley," most of Steinbeck's trip from Seattle to the Monterey Peninsula was left out entirely or edited to remove evidence of Elaine's presence.

Steinbeck's four or five day stay at the St. Francis Hotel in downtown San Francisco is never mentioned at all in the manuscript or the book. And as far as the reader knows, it was just Charley and his master who visited the great redwood groves on the drive from Seattle.

But the original handwritten manuscript, which is kept like a sacred scroll at the beautiful Morgan Library in New York City, tells a more complete story.

It contains a handful of scenes Steinbeck wrote about his three-day wait for Elaine in a motel near the Seattle airport and their slow trip down the Pacific Coast.DSC_1033

The manuscript, which has been at the Morgan (pictured at right) since Steinbeck gave it to them in 1962, is broken up into five or six chunks that Steinbeck wrote over a period of almost a year.

Always written in his barely decipherable scribble, always written from top-to-bottom and edge-to-edge of the page, it contains virtually no edits or changes (the editing changes were marked on a typewritten version of the original draft).

The manuscript is handwritten mostly on carefully page-numbered yellow or white legal pads. One part -- which Steinbeck wrote while vacationing in Barbados in February of 1961 -- is in a ledger-like book that also includes a daily journal he kept. One day he notes that he got a card from JFK, whose inauguration the Steinbecks attended with the Kenneth Galbraiths.

For someone trying to follow Steinbeck's trail, the "Charley" manuscript is not a big help. Steinbeck is no more or less specific about where he was or when he was there than in the published book.

The manuscript does prove two things, however -- that Elaine was with him the whole time he cruised down the Pacific Coast and that the Traveling Steinbecks knew how to enjoy themselves on the road.

They had every right to enjoy themselves, obviously. It's just that detailing their fine lodging accommodations and uptown-manhattan lifestyle didn't exactly support the book's roughing-it-on-the-road theme, which no doubt was one reason the scenes were cut.121003_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy

(In a sloppy piece of editing, Steinbeck's line that "Quite naturally, as we moved down the beautiful coast my method of travel changed" was left in the book; reading that line in the manuscript, it's clear that the "we" who slept in a "pleasant auto court" each night was not referring to Steinbeck and poodle Charley but Mr. and Mrs. Steinbeck.)

One scene edited out of the final draft mentions "the several days" Mr. and Mrs. Steinbeck stayed "in a cottage at the base of a cluster of monster trees."

Steinbeck was sore and scraped up from having to fix Rocinante's flat tire in a rainstorm in southern Oregon (an adventure he apparently really had), and he said the cottage and its bathtub of near-boiling water seemed like "the perfect place to rest and refurbish our souls."

Another scene Steinbeck wrote in the manuscript does not reflect well on his love for the common man, which apparently cooled in late middle age. After he and Elaine heard about a good restaurant on the road up ahead, they decided to get dressed up and do the "town."

They were bummed out to find that the eatery in the middle of nowhere was not a Trader Vic's franchise but a neon hellhole.

Steinbeck wrote that it possessed "every damnable feature of our civilization -- cold glaring light, despondent roaring music from a cathedral juke box, batteries of coin machines, formica counters and tables. One wall was a cemetery of ugly … pies."

Great writing.

But the elitist/snobby tone -- and the fact that Steinbeck later makes fun of the waitress for saying "We ain't got no (liquor) license" -- is not flattering to Steinbeck, the appreciator of the common man. Some editor knew it obviously didn't belong in the final version of "Charley."

Another couple of wisely expurgated scenes involve the Steinbecks' attempts to get a hotel room in San Francisco. Elaine's calls ahead from roadside pay phones as they drove were for naught at first, but then they landed a room at the St. Francis Hotel in downtown.Westin-St-Francis-4_copy_copy

Steinbeck, as he described it, parked Rocinante at the luxury hotel's entrance -- and blocked traffic, as the doorman later complained to him.

Steinbeck went straight to his hotel room and jumped in the bathtub with a whisky and soda. He really enjoyed sitting in bathtubs.

Steinbeck purred that the suite was "pure grandeur." He was pleased to find no formica, no plastic, no cheap ashtrays in the already old and prestigious St. Francis.

As for Elaine, who preferred well-staffed English country inns to the "do-it-yourself" style of the modern American motel, Steinbeck said: "My lady wife was very pleased."

Later today I'll visit the handsome St. Francis Hotel that so pleased the Traveling Steinbecks -- if they let a Walmart frequent-sleeper like me in the lobby.

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