A Visit to Steinbeck’s Sag Harbor Spread
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Funny how inspiration strikes. For me, it occurred at a Westport, CT book sale in Spring 2003. I was browsing titles and tripped across “Travels with Charley” by John Steinbeck. The 1960 road trip saga – Steinbeck’s last look at America, with his dog Charley in tow – drove me to purchase a van, stock it with supplies and set off in September 2003 to follow in Steinbeck’s footsteps, using the tattered paperback as my atlas. The journey, through 35 states during 66 days over 17,000 miles of American road, would result in my own book titled “Chasing Charley”, which is on track to be published in 2011.
Sag Harbor Starting Line
It seemed appropriate to begin my adventure at Steinbeck’s property in Sag Harbor. So on a fine Saturday in July 2003, at the invitation of Steinbeck’s sister-in-law, Jean Boone, I set off from my Fairfield, CT home for the eastern Long Island cove-side residence. Jean had inherited the estate when Steinbeck’s widow (Jean’s sister) Elaine passed at age 88 that spring after a long illness. Jean now shared the property’s upkeep with her companion of three decades, Ray Downey.
With a large bottle of red wine and six of beer in hand, I motored to New London and, a little before two, drove up into the mouth of the Mary Ellen, for the 16-mile ferry crossing to Orient Point.
A sign welcomed me to “Long Island’s Wine Country” as I rolled from the ship, headed west along 25 toward Greenport where I would connect with the North Ferry to Shelter Island. The route was lined with vineyards attended by brown-skinned workers, and market stands displaying juicy cherries, fresh-picked flowers and other garden delights. I was sure these sights reminded Steinbeck of his birthplace -- Salinas, California.
The North Ferry was a much smaller vessel than the Mary Ellen, accommodating only 25 cars, and boarding was on a first come first serve basis. I rolled my truck aboard, set the brake, stood at the prow and, when we docked, followed winding 114 south across Shelter Island to the South Ferry for the voyage to Sag Harbor. What I briefly saw of the island was appealing — high hedgerows obscuring shingled homes and tennis courts, and tanned young couples, like one preppy pair in an old Army jeep, jetting about.
The South Ferry crossing was equally brief and soon I was in Sag Harbor. The houses and well-manicured properties in this area were also hedge hidden – privets mostly that Steinbeck would have admired for the privacy they afforded.
A lantern-bedecked bridge was the gateway to Sag Harbor Village, which, this day, was mobbed with sightseers. A clerk at a bookstore on the main guided me with directions to the Steinbeck home and, rising from hammocks strung between massive oaks shading the large backyard, Jean and Ray greeted me.
Situated on a horseshoe-shaped cove, the parcel’s main structures included a modest main house, smaller “bunkhouse” where Steinbeck’s two sons had lived, tool-filled “workshop,” small in-ground pool that John had built for Elaine, and pier. Just prior to John taking his cross-country journey, Hurricane Donna laid siege to Long Island and the little cove, submerging the pier under four feet of water and forcing him to emergency secure his 22-foot cabin cruiser, the Fayre Eleyne (named after his wife, of course).
Most remarkable to me was Steinbeck’s small “writing house” -- “Joyous Garde” as he had named it, at the point of the land overlooking the water. John would hole up here to write and read. Books were still perched on a high shelf inside, among them an identical copy to mine of “Travels with Charley.” Small stones that John had set in concrete at the foot of the entry spelled out “AROYNT,” translating to “Be Gone.”
The covefront was so tranquil that you could hear the oars of passing kayaks dip in the water, the rustle of the trees and the occasional ding of a bell that Steinbeck had strung up in an oak.
Ray trotted out a large bottle of Skyy vodka, which we enjoyed on the rocks with Carr’s crackers and Brie, while seated at an awning-sheltered table on a brick patio.
The sun dropped in the sky and bathed us in a pink light, gnats began to make themselves known and Jean kept the stories coming, speaking about Elaine now and how Steinbeck had lovingly remarked that her faults were “precious few.”
Jean also related how John would make things with his hands — whittling and gluing strange contraptions and devices like a mobile made from the skeleton of an old umbrella and bird figurines. She laughed about the holes John would dig in the yard for the purpose of baking locally harvested clams.
Jean mentioned a toast the author would always make when drinking — “Here’s to Ava Gardner.” As the story goes, Ava couldn’t make a meeting with the author and that very night, he met and had drinks at the Pine Inn in Carmel, CA, with Elaine.
I heard about the Steinbeck boys and how “Johnny” had died at the young age of 44 of a pulmonary aneurysm following an operation on a herniated disc and that Tom is writing screenplays and giving lectures in California.
I also learned that Steinbeck suffered from Transient Ischemic Attacks, essentially brain assaults that lasted minutes or hours -- an early sign of his developing arterial sclerosis from which he died at the age of 66 in December 1968.
A tour of the house ensued. In addition to paintings of seaside scenes by the likes of John Morris, collected shells and other bric-a-brac, all about were photos of family and celebrated friends. These included actors John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, with whom Elaine became acquainted. Sinise played Tom Joad in the 1991 TV adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath” and directed and co-starred in a 1992 film version of “Of Mice and Men,” along with Malkovich.
Many of these photos were contained to and covered almost every inch from floor to ceiling of the “Hall of Fame,” a narrow passage that connected the kitchen and master bedroom. There were even photos in the bathroom, including one of the famous poodle Charley.
When we moved inside to wicker couches in the glass-enclosed porch to escape wee biting beasties, conversation continued — about Steinbeck’s constant interest in the world around him, his retention of everything he read and of Cervantes’ novel “Don Quixote”, which was the author’s own inspiration for his cross-country quest.
As I listened to all the stories, I could feel John’s spirit in the room and became even more committed to fulfilling my voyage. I even imagined John, in khakis and Wellingtons, sitting in his big chair with a snifter of brandy in hand, eager for an update about the America he had once trod.
It was a fascinating and memorable visit to Steinbeck’s humble Sag Harbor haven… and so engaging that I missed the last ferry back to New London and had to make the longer land-based circle home!
For a more detailed overview of Lauterborn’s “Chasing Charley”, go to www.publishersmarketplace.com and key in the book title in the search window.