In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Carol Steinbeck at Work
  • Susan Shillinglaw (bio)

In the mid 1930s, Edward F. Ricketts, the marine ecologist who ran a biological supply laboratory on Monterey’s Cannery Row, drew around him a coterie of talented, off-kilter artists and writers, John and Carol Steinbeck among them. After a day’s work of gathering cephalopods, writing a story, or toiling at odd jobs, the group often gathered to drink Burgermeister beer, unfold shaggy dog stories—John’s specialty—and talk endlessly about ideas, often far into the night. One memorable evening, recalled Virginia Scardigli, the lab group debated the differences among the good, the right, and the proper. It’s difficult to imagine what this gathering of the middling-good, the incorrigible, and the improper might have said on the subject—other than to poke holes in any exalted notions of good, right, and proper. Debunking made excellent sport, John Steinbeck’s métier.

And it was an indissoluble bond between John and his wife Carol, married from 1930 to 1943. During Steinbeck’s formative decade as a writer, Carol was John Steinbeck’s partner, editor, inspiration, muse. They were a team. Both were bums, rebels, outsiders, satirists, always impoverished, always empathetic with other marginalized souls. As a pair of outcasts, hand in hand they took on the world, John in books about power and powerlessness, and Carol the debunker in jaunty artwork: pen and ink drawings; little clay sculptures—“civic statues”; and brief satiric poems, “feelthy verse.” Hers was a winsome gaze.

No doubt, Carol’s artistic talents were modest—untutored and undeveloped might be a better description. She saw herself as someone nibbling at self-expression, sometimes serious about her output, usually dismissive or bemused about her creations. She relished the creative process and the satiric thrust of her art. Of her sculptures she told a New York Post reporter, they are “my amusement and ‘my amazement’—and sometimes I laugh until I’m sick—my very private and personal protest against all artistic poseurs.” [End Page 70]

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 1.

Figurine by Carol Steinbeck, 1950s. Courtesy of the author.

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 2.

Plaster cast of Carol Steinbeck, date unknown, probably 1930s. This and all subsequent images courtesy of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies.

[End Page 71]

Cartoonist John Held of the New Yorker was an early model (“Girls with long legs, short skirts, spread knees … so you could see their underwear,” recalled Carlton Sheffield, who shared his Eagle Rock home near Los Angeles with Carol and John in January 1930, the month of their marriage). At the Sheffields’, the magazine was read cover to cover each week. Carol’s creative gaze was also shaped by Peter Arno’s cartoons and other caricatures in the magazine. In several pen and ink sketches of their few weeks living at the Sheffields’, Carol depicts the gaiety of a household packed with three couples and several cats, and invigorated by Sheffield’s home brew. With seven in the household, he upped his brewing to eighteen gallons of beer every five days “and at that could barely keep up with consumption.” John wrote that his own beer drinking induced “a state of lassitude intershot with moments of unreal romance.” Years later he concluded: “As starved and happy a group as ever robbed an orange grove. I can still remember the dinners of hamburger and stolen avocados.”

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 3.

“The Sunbath, or what John Held Jr. found in his Christmas stocking.”

Carol captured the zaniness of the Eagle Rock sojourn in her sketches. Before she married John, she had been a career woman in San Francisco, working as a secretary and training as a journalist, a jaunty New Woman earning a good salary. Freed from her 9 to 5 job, however, newly married and very happy, Carol frolicked with the three young women of the household (Tal Lovejoy; her sister [End Page 72] Nadia, who visited briefly; and Maryon Sheffield) and helped form the “Eagle Rock Self Expression Society.” The Society sunbathed in the nude—there was “some, shall we say, informality...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 70-76
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.