UNPUBLISHED ARCHIVE OF STEINBECK LETTERS DATING FROM 1948-1949, A PERIOD HIS BIOGRAPHER DESCRIBES AS A LONG CRISIS OF THE SOUL.
73 Autograph Letters Signed (John, JS and J), in pencil and pen, 119 pp recto and verso, most legal folio, various places including Pacific Grove, CA, Malibu, Hollywood, New York, and Mexico, [October, 1948 to August, 1949], to Henry S. White, most on lined yellow foolscap, leaves creased, mildly toned, some cuts at margins of several leaves, a few with original autograph transmittal envelopes, water stains to one letter, overall a very legible archive. Together with 50 Typed Carbons of Whites correspondence to Steinbeck from the same period.
After enjoying success for much of the late 1930s and early 1940s, John Steinbeck suffered a series of setbacks in 1948. In May of that year, he received word that his beloved friend and co-author Ed Ricketts was fatally injured in a car accident. Steinbeck raced from New York to California to see his friend one last time, but by the time he arrived in Monterey Ricketts was dead. When he returned to New York after the funeral, his estranged wife Gwen asked him for a divorce.
At approximately the same time, Steinbeck embarked on a new business venture with television producer Henry S. White, photographer Robert Capa, and RKO vice president Phil Reisman. The company, called World Video, was incorporated in early 1948 to package shows for sale to TV networks. Steinbeck was intrigued by the possibility of the new medium, believing that the television audience would crave better quality material than that of radio. During the nearly two years of Steinbecks involvement with World Video, he became a faithful correspondent of Henry S. White, reporting not just on pending projects, but also detailing the ups and downs of his own life and work.
The present archive begins in the fall of 1948, at Steinbecks lowest. Steinbeck describes for White the agony of his divorce proceedings and a miserable, drunken, brawling trip to Mexico, followed by the saddest holiday season of his life. Soon after, hes hired by Darryl Zanuck to write the screenplay that will become Viva! Zapata but is crippled by writers block. Then, as he is trying to get a film of Cannery Row off the ground, he finds himself embroiled in a breach of contract suit with a producer named Bernie Byrers, who claims that Steinbeck sold him the rights back in 1945.
During the period of this correspondence, Steinbeck also finds the means for his redemption. Through his Hollywood connections, he meets Elaine Scott, wife of actor Zachary Scott, who will become his third wife. Though Steinbecks early letters to White are full of quips about his many conquests, including actress Paulette Goddard and a woman in Mexico referred to only as Trampoline, he is demure when mentioning Elaine, referring to her as his new girl, shyly confessing that he thinks this one has potential.
Steinbecks two projects, film and television, dovetail in a long letter to White written October 14, 1949. Steinbeck is busy writing the Zapata script for Elia Kazan while White produces Kazans Actors Studio for ABC. Despite the shows popularity with viewers, the network is reluctant to sign it up for a long-term contract, and White suspects that Kazans earlier associations with the communist party may be to blame. Steinbeck writes a long letter in response indicating that it may be his own left-leaning associations that are sinking the company. In part: The fact of the matter is that certain people with money will not put it out for Gadg [Kazan] is associated with it. Now let me go on. I have wondered a lot why we, who have the best shows cant get sponsors while the lousy ones can. And if you hadnt brought this up I intended to. I think I had a certain value to WV [World Video] in its formation and in attracting to the company a certain kind of people who were needed. But now I want you quite unemotionally to consider my record. And dont get excited. Before the Grapes of Wrath I was denounced before the [?] Committee as a communist. The fact that the committee did not even answer my request to be heard is of no importance. The fact that the denunciation was made to swing a local election is of no importance. The fact that will occur to sponsors is that I was denounced. Next comes the Grapes of Wrath. [Cardinal] Spellman, then an employee of W.R. Hearst, wrote a full page attack on me in all Hearst papers not only as a communist but as anti-religious
I was denounced on the floor of Congress. It is in the congressional recordas a communist and a liar. My books were publicly burned in a dozen towns in California. Steinbeck goes on to describe how Bank of America tried to boycott Fox when Zanuck decided to make a picture of The Grapes of Wrath; how during the war he was blackballed by the army, in spite of having the support of F.D.R. and General H.H. Hap Arnold. Steinbeck adds that J. Edgar Hoover is gunning for him, and If the name of Kazan stops Actors Studio what do you think my name does for the whole company? He goes on to suggest an honorable way for Steinbeck to leave the company, in the hopes that World Video will be more successful without his notoriety attached.
White turned down Steinbecks offer to resign, but World Video only lasted a short time longer, and the correspondence between the two men ends by 1950.
These letters are unpublished.
Provenance: From the Estate of Henry S. White.
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