San Francisco -- St. Francis Hotel, Oct. 27, 1960
Fifty years ago today, when Curt Gentry got a tip that John Steinbeck was in this town, he did what any hustling free-lance writer would do -- he called the famous author in his hotel room and begged for an interview.
Gentry got his interview with Steinbeck in the St. Francis Hotel at 11 a.m. the next day, Oct. 28, 1960.
Steinbeck had put his "Travels With Charley" trip on hold and was socializing with friends at the city's top bars and restaurants.
He talked with Gentry about presidential politics, Ernest Hemingway, the novel he just finished ("The Winter of Our Discontent") and the immorality of an America whose people Steinbeck thought were growing soft and unwilling to do the hard work necessary to survive.
Gentry, then 29, would go on to write more than a dozen books, including "Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders" and "J.Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets."
But in 1960 he was a struggling writer and bookstore manager who lived in North Beach, the Italian neighborhood in downtown San Francisco where the hip jazz culture of the Beats would soon give way to the hippie rock culture of the 1960s.
Gentry knew Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and other writers whose headquarters were in North Beach at Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore at the corner of Broadway and Columbus.
He also was a big admirer of Steinbeck, an author who had no connection with the Beats, and vice versa.
When Gentry went to interview Steinbeck, he brought along a shopping bag with every Steinbeck work he could carry -- 21 books. He asked Steinbeck to sign them, which Steinbeck did.
Gentry told me last spring that when he got to Steinbeck's room at 11 a.m. Elaine Steinbeck was still in bed and she and Steinbeck looked like "they both had quite a night." Charley was not to be seen and Gentry assumes he had been checked into a kennel.
As soon as his interview with Steinbeck was over, Gentry typed up about 10 pages of notes. In the notes, Gentry wrote that Steinbeck was friendly, talkative and politically partisan. He told Gentry he was driving across the country in an attempt to find out what the people think about politics.
"Everywhere he has traveled," Gentry wrote in his notes, "there is fantastic interest. People are not indifferent, or undecided. They just won't say."
Steinbeck, who told Gentry he thought a Kennedy victory was imminent, made fun of Eisenhower and lamented that for the previous eight years the Republicans had "made it fashionable to be stupid." Gentry also wrote that Steinbeck "had much to say on Richard Nixon, a great part of it unprintable."
Gentry's subsequent article, headlined "John Steinbeck: 'America's King Arthur is Coming,'" ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, Nov. 6, 1960.
The Chronicle, which along with the San Francisco Examiner supported Nixon against Kennedy, had the final political word, as newspapers always do. It cut out all the nice things Steinbeck said about his hero Adlai Stevenson.