- My Life with John Steinbeck: The Story of John Steinbeck's Forgotten Wife by Gwyn Conger Steinbeck
Gwyn Conger, John Steinbeck's second wife, died in 1975. Douglas Brown, the journalist she hired and fired to ghost-write her memoir, died in 1997. Brown's unpublished manuscript of the interrupted project, left to a relative in England, eventually came to the attention of a businessman named Bruce Lawson, who has chosen to resurrect the abortive effort as a self-published book using Gwyn's byline. Issues of ownership and ethics aside, the result represents a compendium of errors, inconsistencies, and indiscretions fully justifying Steinbeck's insistence that he be judged by the quality and truthfulness of his own writing rather than the half-truths and false memories purveyed by others. Cashing in on "the story of John Steinbeck's forgotten wife," Lawson's book presents a challenge to reader patience and credulity, with a preface and cover blurb by Jay Parini praising its "authenticity" and significance as a "genuinely important literary discovery"— claims undercut by the troubled history of the material it contains.
In 1977, Steinbeck's sons sold tapes made by their mother with Brown in 1971 to John Jenkins, the historian and rare book dealer whose estate retains publication rights to their contents. The task of transcription and editing fell to his associate Terry Halladay, who presented the product of this labor as the thesis for his master's in English in 1979 at Stephen P. Austin State University. Halladay was and is a professional bookman with a gift for scholarship, and The Closest Witness: The Autobiographical Reminiscences of Gwyndolyn Conger Steinbeck succeeded where My Life with John Steinbeck fails, correcting Gwyn's chronology while leaving her vocabulary and voice intact and [End Page 234] documenting the nature of her relationship with Brown, a society editor in Palm Springs, where she owned an art gallery. Halladay couldn't locate Brown for comment. But the tapes showed why Gwyn let Brown go—and why Law-son's decision to present his words as hers will harm rather than help her reputation for reliability. As Halladay noted in The Closest Witness, with "no more than a cursory knowledge of Steinbeck" and a "lack of ability as an interviewer," Brown played a "counter-productive" role in the collaboration, and his "verbal participation" on the tapes comprises less than a quarter of the pages in Halladay's diligent transcription.
Given the obstacles put up by people long gone, the authentic and important literary discovery contained in Halladay's thesis is unlikely to see the light of day, leaving Lawson's readers unaware of Brown's counterproductive role, and perplexed by the British phraseology, society-press name dropping, and "cursory knowledge of Steinbeck" imputed to Gwyn in Brown's version of her testimony. Who contributed what to the editorial apparatus of the book is unclear, and the unexplained inclusion of "John, Ed Ricketts and Me"—found among the papers purchased by Jenkins and edited by Halladay—also raises the issue of a publisher's responsibility to disclose sources. When questioned at the 2019 Steinbeck conference, Lawson said he wasn't taking sides in the fight, just sharing. But sharing what, exactly, and with whom? "It was John Steinbeck's fate," wrote Halladay, "to become the subject of a posthumous biographical account against which he has no personal defense," leaving it to future readers to weigh Gwyn's testimony against other sources. A new biography of John Steinbeck is on the way, and The Closest Witness—along with copies of the tapes—can be examined at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. As for My Life with John Steinbeck: caveat lector. [End Page 235]
william ray is the founder and editor of SteinbeckNow.com. He received his Ph.D. in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writes on Steinbeck's religion.