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  • Intrepid Martha
  • Susan Shillinglaw (bio)

Martha Cox was a woman not easily forgotten. Her love of books, theater, writers, San José State and Lyon College was palpable—and unforgettable. When I took over as director of her beloved Steinbeck Research Center in 1987, after Robert DeMott returned to Ohio University, Martha, then retired, did not think I could cut it, a young professor with two small children and no Steinbeck credentials at all. I hope she approved of the direction I took the Center. Certainly, over the years, Martha and I had many energetic encounters. Board members and I often took her to lunch in San Francisco at the Palm Court in the Palace Hotel, one of her favorites. A little like Gatsby, she visibly expanded among the gracious palms. She was a Southern lady to the core. On another occasion, Martha cooked Steinbeck Center board member Ben Reichmuth and me her famous chili—her signature dish—as we sat in her San Francisco apartment discussing fund-raising. Another night in the City (for both John Steinbeck and Martha Heasley Cox, San Francisco was always the City), I presented her with a Mac computer, a gift from me. I always wanted to please Martha because I admired her fierce and uncompromising dedication to the SJSU Steinbeck Center, to the University, to the Magic Theater, and to modern authors.

Martha loved attending Steinbeck Award events, especially the first with Bruce Springsteen. Elaine Steinbeck also attended the event, and I think both she and Martha shed twenty years each in his presence. Another time, when Martha and the board dined with Studs Terkel, she regaled us and held forth with a discussion of Nelson Algren—wonderful memories.

In my eighteen years as Director of the Steinbeck Center that she founded, I came to appreciate fully the high bar she set for any scholarly endeavor. With the help of her student assistant, Greta Manville, Martha collected the [End Page 70] core of the Steinbeck collection—first editions and scholarly materials—and created oversized scrapbooks of Steinbeck ephemera. Maybe it was those scrapbooks that sealed the deal for me: her devotion to the Center and to John Steinbeck’s career was imprinted on every page.


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Fig 1.

Martha Cox with Bruce Springsteen the night he received the first “In the Souls of the People” John Steinbeck Award at San José State University, 1996. Collection of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies.


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Fig 2.

Martha Cox with Elaine Steinbeck, 1996. Collection of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies.

In 1997, when the Center moved for a brief time into new headquarters in Wahlquist Library on the SJSU campus, I held a dedication ceremony to honor those scrapbooks, the first editions, and the Steinbeck Research Center that Martha had founded in 1971. At that time, the Center was renamed in her honor [End Page 71] as the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. I have photos of a beaming Martha, shaking hands with a beaming Jim Levitt, board chair at the time. I think she was happy.

I know she left an indelible imprint on San José State University, on all who knew her, and certainly on me. [End Page 72]

Susan Shillinglaw

susan shillinglaw is a professor of English at San José State University and recipient of the 2013 President’s Scholar Award. She is Director of the National Steinbeck Center and author of A Journey into Steinbeck’s California (Roaring Forties Press), Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage (U Nevada P, 2013), and On Reading The Grapes of Wrath (Penguin, 2014), as well as essays on Steinbeck.

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