You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

John Steinbeck's Love Letters, Treasures Stashed in Storage Finally Get Unpacked

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 1/2/2020 Leslie Brody
a book on a table: A signed copy of John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. © James Sprankle for The Wall Street Journal A signed copy of John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

A bunch of old boxes left in storage for years in New York City have yielded a trove of love notes, photos and oddities from the life of John Steinbeck, the Nobel Prize-winning author who died more than 50 years ago.

The findings include a curl of the writer’s light-brown baby hair, a wastebasket made of an elephant’s foot and a telegram from President-elect John F. Kennedy inviting Mr. Steinbeck to his 1961 inauguration.

Get news and analysis on politics, policy, national security and more, delivered right to your inbox

There is also a tiny coffin holding a hummingbird wrapped in colorful thread. The author often mentioned the charm, made for him by a witch doctor in Mexico. “It has just about all the magic there is in the world,’’ Mr. Steinbeck once wrote.

These belongings are among a stash put in storage in Manhattan after the death in 2003 of the author’s widow, Elaine Steinbeck, his third wife. The boxes sat there while Mr. Steinbeck’s heirs fought complex legal battles for decades over the right to control and profit from his works. In September, a federal appeals panel ruled on damages owed to his widow’s daughter by the widow of one of Mr. Steinbeck’s late sons.

In an opinion full of literary references, Judge Richard Tallman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit quoted “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens: This “suit has, in course of time, become so complicated, that…no two…lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises.”

Mr. Steinbeck’s books are among the American novels most often found on school-reading lists, including “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” which won the Pulitzer Prize. Several were made into films, such as “East of Eden.” He wrote with sympathy about the plight of migrant workers and the failed dreams of the downtrodden, but faced backlash from readers who saw him as too critical of some aspects of capitalism.

Jay Parini, a Middlebury College professor who wrote a biography of the author and became friends with Mrs. Steinbeck, said the documents belong in research universities but fans might enjoy owning the personal objects, which will be auctioned in February.

“Having a little piece of Steinbeck can be incredibly moving,” Mr. Parini said.

Volumes of Mr. Steinbeck’s letters and mementos have already been published and gathered in collections, with many on view at Stanford University and the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., where he grew up.

This newly unpacked batch offers an intimate view of the author’s devotion to Mrs. Steinbeck, including her photos of the first time they met in 1949, their wedding album (guests included composer Richard Rodgers and actor Burgess Meredith), and letters detailing their busy years living in Manhattan and Sag Harbor on Long Island, N.Y.

A stole of sable fur the author gave his wife bears his note in script. “I have always felt that the rebozo of Mexico was the most charming of garments,” he wrote. “Still believing this I have had one made in more suitable materials.”

In his habit of using whimsical nicknames with her, he signed it “with great love, Franz Joseph II,” apparently alluding to the prince of Liechtenstein, a wealthy principality near Switzerland.

This summer, the family of Mrs. Steinbeck’s daughter decided to sell the stuff in storage and contacted Heritage Auctions, a marketplace for collectibles. Elyse Luray, who handles estates there, said she picked dozens of items for an October auction that raised about $154,000. She passed about 100 boxes and furniture to a smaller outfit, Curated Estates, whose owner Jason Iorio had time to sort through them.

Mr. Iorio, his wife Jill Iorio, as well as researcher Charles Potters started delving into the boxes at a warehouse in Lincoln Park, N.J., a suburb about 25 miles west of Manhattan. They were thrilled to find far more than old dishes and cooking pots. “We feel a historical responsibility to get this done,” Mr. Iorio said.

Mrs. Steinbeck kept her husband’s poems, her correspondence about their journeys around the world and photos carefully marked with dates and locations. There are shots of his poodle, made famous by his book, “Travels with Charley,” and a lithograph of Abraham Lincoln. “John said he had never written in a room where this didn’t hang,” said an incomplete inventory that came with the boxes.

Curated Estates plans to auction the goods on Feb. 27, the author’s birthday. One of Mrs. Steinbeck’s grandsons, Bahar Kaffaga, said by text that “The Estate is pleased that they are now getting the attention they deserve.”

The offerings include a handwritten note by the author that Mrs. Steinbeck found after his death at age 66 in 1968. “That’s the greatest crime one can commit against oneself—the refusal of any experience good or bad, pleasant or painful,” he wrote. “That is a kind of negation I hope I never come to.”

Write to Leslie Brody at leslie.brody@wsj.com

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal.
The Wall Street Journal.
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon