A collection of unpublished letters with outstanding content and inscribed books establishing the close friendship John Steinbeck and his wife Elaine shared with theater director John Fearnley. The correspondence is lengthy, writerly, and warm, and the inscriptions humorous and joyful. The letters, largely undated, map primarily to their time in England from March through September 1959. The inscriptions were likely made in the mid-to-late 1950s – most of them post-dating their publications by years or even decades..
In the first edition of East of Eden (1952) Steinbeck writes as if he simply pulled it off Fearnley’s shelf:
What joy to write
in the copy of my
book which belongs
to my friend John Fearnley:
I think this might be
the reason I wanted to
write it. John Steinbeck.
In the third printing of The Red Pony (1937) Steinbeck leaves a cute poem in an inscription employing nicknames they gave each other on a trip in the 1950s:
Dear Fearnley (Small Change)
When you are old
And cannot see,
Put on your ‘specs,
And think of me.
Your [ ] friend
John (Inside Straight) Steinbeck
And in the first edition of Travels with Charley (1962) – the only inscription that could be contemporaneous with publication – he wrote as if from himself and his dog Charley: “For Fido Fearnley / Bow Wow and F-F-F-T! From John and Charley Steinbeck.”
(Also from Fearnley’s library, but unadorned by Steinbeck, are a jacketed pre-publication second printing of Cannery Row (1945), and a jacketless copy of Tortilla Flat (1935).)
Steinbeck met Elaine Anderson – then wife of actor Zachary Scott – in May 1949. They married in December 1950, after Elaine’s divorce. It was Steinbeck’s third and final marriage. Anderson knew Fearnley, casting director for Rodgers and Hammerstein from 1945-1955, from their shared theater production days. (Anderson’s most high-profile credit we can trace is as assistant stage manager of “Oklahoma!” in the mid 1940s.) In one letter, Steinbeck writes to Fearnley, “Elaine protects you like a mother hen. …You are pretty much her property, you know.” The three worked together on “Burning Bright” in October 1950, with Steinbeck as writer, Elaine as his assistant, and Fearnley as casting director, and again in 1955 when Fearnley cast Rodgers and
Hammerstein’s Broadway production of “Pipe Dream,” a musical based on Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday which ran for 256 performances at the Schubert Theater.
In some of these letters and inscriptions Steinbeck incorporates nicknames they devised on a New Year’s trip to Trinidad and a holiday sail around the Windward and Leeward Islands during that “Pipe Dream” run: They “took Calypso names: Inside Straight (Steinbeck), Queen Radio (Elaine Steinbeck), and Small Change (Fearnley)” (Letters 519).
In two of these letters Steinbeck writes at length on the many issues he had with that Rodgers and Hammerstein production, from script to direction, in the process revealing his thoughts and feelings about Sweet Thursday, of which he hopes that Fearnley might helm a new stage adaptation.
Steinbeck adorns those letters, as well as the cover of the dust-jacket of The Red Pony, with his signature flying pig stamp and his handwritten phrase, “as astra per alia porci” – “to the stars on the wings of a pig,” referencing the common lore that one of his early teachers had told him he’d only become a writer “when pigs fly.” Elaine explained elsewhere in 1983,
The Pigasus symbol came from my husband’s fertile, joyful, and often wild imagination. After his signature on letters or inside his books, he would draw a fat little pig with wings, and lettered his name, “Pigasus.” John would never have been so vain or presumptuous as to use the winged horse as his symbol; the little pig said that man must try to attain the heavens even though his equipment be meager. Man must aspire though he be earth-bound. At some point, he began to write “Pigasus” in Greek letters, and he added the motto, “Ad Astra Per Alia Porci,” “to the stars on the wings of a pig.” Once in the ‘50s when we were living in Florence, we became friends with a Florentine nobleman and his family. Count Fossi was a delightful old gentleman, a student of the Arts, and his avocation was drawing. He proposed to John that he should draw a proper Pigasus, and he asked, “Should I draw it in the style of Michelangelo or Rafaello?” John chose the latter.
Responding to Fearnley’s thoughts on a better take on Sweet Thursday, Steinbeck provides a detailed history of its failure and heaps a large helping of blame on R&H. He offers to share his copious notes in the event Fearnley wants to do a new version. In part:
No[w] to a few comments on Sweet Thursday. I have always felt that the boat was missed and I think I know the beginning of the error. When Dick announced that it was going to be called Pipe Dream, my heart fell but I didn’t know why. Now I think I do know. That name indicated that R+H didn’t believe it. They were telling the audience that it wasn’t true before they started and in spite of the cleverness Pipe – get it? – the message was still that. Not believing it themselves, they couldn’t convince anyone else. Now, few things I know, but one I am sure of. If you are going to play farce or magic, you have to believe it before an audience will. I think that is a basic rule. If you will read Sweet Thursday again you will see that I believed every word of it and played it as though it were the most important thing in the world. Pipe Dream doesn’t convince anyone. Therefore I should change the name back 1st for the reason of verity and second to get over the odor of failure. Pipe Dream was a flop. Sweet Thursday still has its violent partisans. Air Marshall Sir John Slessor told me the other day that he had read it six times and he had never heard of Pipe Dream. Anyway that’s my first suggestion. You know many of the others, because we discussed them. But while we were on the [p.2] road I wrote about 200 pages of notes and suggestions. Every word went to Dick and Oscar and every word was ignored. (ALS, “John,” to “Fearn,” Whitsun Saturday [May 16th 1959], 2 pp. lined paper ad astra porci stamp at the close.)
(In that same letter, Steinbeck additionally discusses P.T. Barnum, and hopes to hook up Fearnley with Joseph Bryan III, author of The World’s Greatest Showman: The Life of P.T. Barnum (1956): “I told J. Bryan about our talk about the Great Showman largely because he knows more about Barnum than anyone living. He was enthusiastic and said there were many things that had never been used by anyone. I hope you two get together. He might also be valuable about getting money, as though that were your problem.”)
In his next letter, after sharing gossip about Jayne Mansfield and “Pipe Dreams” actress Temple Texas, Steinbeck returns to the subject of “Pipe Dreams” / Sweet Thursday; in part:
I am pleased that you are leafing through Sweet Thursday. I am writing Elizabeth Otis to let you have those notes if you want them. They are kind of formless screams of pain at what was going on at the time. I don’t know whether they would be of any value to you or not. But you are welcome to them. Imagine that E.O. will want them back. As I remember them they are a frightening forecast of what was going to happen to that show. When you look at them please remember that not one of the suggestions was ever taken and only twice were they even acknowledged. (ALS, “Inside Straight,” to “S.C. [Small Change] Bracken,” 1959, 2 pp., ad astra stamp at the head.)
He encourages Fearnley to conceive his own vision for the project: “Getting involved with Oscar and Dick might not only confuse you but also might fill you with a disgust for the whole story. There’s one thing you can say for Pipe Dream. It was even worse than we thought at the time.”
He devotes a paragraph to his current work, his retelling of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur which would be posthumously published, incomplete, in 1976 as The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights:
After all the mountain rumbling that has been going on in me re Arthur Revisited my mouse has taken flight – going like a fleitermaus [misspelled for “fledermaus”?, German for “bat”] out of hell. I don’t know whether good or not but it feels good. Happened all at once and now I have to go back and do the whole thing from the beginning again. Why do I always have to take the longest way round. To me a short cut is the longest way home. Now that it is going, it seems so easy and inevitable. How could it be otherwise sort of thing. And that simple logical approach, dear friend, has taken four years of agony before writing the first stinking word that will stick. But oh! It’s lovely when it happens, just lovely.
He spends the balance of the letter on Elaine, local events, and social activities.
Another letter merits quoting in full its lovely reflections. In it, Steinbeck reports how well his work is going in Somerset, a place with which he feels a kinship, among people he admires. (ALS, “John,” to “Fearn,” , 2 pp. lined paper with “Discove Cottage, Bruton, Somerset,” embossed at the head.)
Dear Fearn: I know the fayre Elayne has kept you posted on our rural life but you have had a birthday and I wish you joy of it. It’s a kind of two bit chicken shit birthday though. You must wait four years for a block buster. It is amazing to me that when these great occasions finally come to pass, they don’t amount to much – just days like other days, not really involving us.
These days in England are important out of all proportions. I don’t recall ever having been so content and unbewildered. Words for my work appear like little magic footprints as though an invisibility had passed by and I am pleased with them. And out of this peace and disengagement with the nettles of other people’s troubles, I am able to look at Malory with a new eye and to find things in the Morte I didn’t know were there. Of course, the enormous reading I have done must have some effect here but the reading has since receded into the background so that it does not blur the original for me. The days go quickly. Too quickly. It seems to be too true that a day of few events is speedier than one with many. Time is such an elastic thing.
My working window looks out on fields and ancient cottages and huge oaks and hills topped with the forts of stone age people and below me a manor house of the 13th century, thatched and beautiful. There is nothing in my view that has not been here since the Middle Age, except a few more recent cows and I don’t imagine their shapes are much changed. And after work at the desk, some work in the garden, if it is bright or reading if it is not. I keep the fires and the heat, chop the wood and feed the coal stove and Elaine with her two helpers keeps the house. At night with a drink or two I go back to my wood carving – just now a set of spoons carved from an ancient piece of oak – next a mortar and pestle for Elaine to grind spices in. It’s a good life and I only fear the inevitable cry for help from you know who. I could wish that it might hold off for a while.
[page 2] The people here are wonderful to us. They have time to be kind and the leisure for courtesy – a thing we have forgotten in our hurry be dead. But we have relearned it rather quickly so maybe it is not unalterably lost.
You will remember how the spring comes here almost like a burst of sound. Grass and trees and blossoms seem to come shouting out. And the days are so varied – no two minutes alike – a patch of bright warm sun and a shower and a quick wind all in a few minutes. Somerset people are farming people, a mixture of Saxon and Celt which is my own blood line. Perhaps that is why I feel so at home here – more than I remember anyplace. No factories here, no industrial pushing and moving, no influx of strangers to work machines. And the people are not afraid. They like what they have and they don’t want to change it. They are not rich but neither are they poor and each one is a rock of individuality respected by all the other rocks. You know all this. I don’t know why I should tell you. I’m going to stay as long as I can but even when I leave I will be more content, knowing this is here to come back to if necessary. The cottage is small and comfortable and very old. At least sixty generations have lived and died here and it is not haunted with any evil thing, only a sense of having been lived in quietly. What more could I want, now, at my age and with the work I have set out to do – nothing more that I can think of – nothing more.
I hope you are having a good time with plans and all. The more I consider the Barnum thing, the more validity it seems to have.
And now it’s time to start my day of work and I look forward to it.
That August, he writes again – this time a typed letter. In discussing the state of his current work on the Malory adaptation he raises a larger conversation about comedy and tragedy, Don Quixote, Sweet Thursday and “Pipe Dreams,” American writers, readers, and audiences, the mail he gets from readers, the changes he senses in Fearnley through his letters of the past couple of years (since leaving R&H in 1955), and a statement on the nature of art. Having opened the letter with his sadness at leaving Somerset, he concludes it with the happiness he and Elaine share thanks to this recent sojourn. (TLS, with autograph postscript, “J.,” to “Small Change,” August 29, , 2 pp. letterhead for The Cottage, Discove, Bruton, Somerset.) In part:
Monday we are driving into Cornwall and all the way back up the coast from Lands End to the Bristol Channel. I have to accumulate topography for future use. My work has come to a stand still for the moment. I find I know too much but not enough. If I knew less, it would be so much easier. But there are overtones in all of this. It isn’t what it appears – knights and ladies and knock a guy off a horse. It has the great beat of all human experience. And that leads me into what you have said in your letter. In my so called comical writing I have used comedy or tried to to insert the dart of tragedy. It is not enough that the guy gets to bed with the dame in the last act. Somewhere in between there must be the strong and eternal association with the realities of the soul. Outwardly I have made Hazel a clown, but that should not conceal completely his pain and sorrow and the essential fact that he is a great hero who through his own agony and perplexity strives for some kind of moral perfection. Don Quixote had this quality. When Mike Todd wanted me to write the script for Don Quixote I asked him if he thought of it as a comedy. He said, ‘Of course,’ and I told him I could have nothing to do with it in that case. A story must burst its seams with meaning and yet not quite rip through. Actually I suppose that it is a kind of double function in which the reader and the writer have a secret set of messages. And the fact that not everybody gets the meaning, doesn’t change that fact at all. In the matter of R and H, I think perhaps they were aware of the meaning but were afraid of it because of a contempt for the audience. It is the old feeling ‘I get it but will they.’ And I have found that a much greater number get it than is generally supposed and that you cannot, must not write for the others or you become just like them. I get many letters which have this message – “There are so many ugly and painful things in the world, why don’t you write about pleasant things.” And I know that the writer of such a letter has not seen any painful things at all, has in fact walled himself away from them and so starved himself of understanding. In Sweet Thursday I think I have made it very plain that there were only two possibilities and both of them tragic. One, that Doc doesn’t get the girl, and two that he does. And the fact that he is well aware of the consequences and still is helpless, is the essential tragedy. It seems to me that American writers have never been aware of the nature of comedy, that it must be firmly rooted in tragedy or it has not the nature of true comedy. …
His support of Fearnley reveals his love for his friend and his belief in his talent:
In your letters and company in the last year and a half or two years, I feel a great change. Perhaps it is a sense of freedom, of being your own man. This is painful and hard but it is also the most rewarding thing. If you are someone else’s man you are only accorded errors. The excellences go to the boss. But this way you have free access to both success and failure, and you have had much more success than failure.
Thinking he is done, he writes, “Enough of this,” but then on second thought adds “something you already know.
Every art or piece of art must have two natures. It must be itself, complete and final and unique, and it must also be all things, a reminiscence of everything. Unless it has both qualities it is incomplete and consequently bad art.
He concludes with a note about his and Elaine’s happiness: “Queen Radio is thriving. This has been a most rewarding and lovely time for both of us. She says she has never been happier and I can believe it and I can echo it.”
The Steinbecks left England that fall, returning to New York and Sag Harbor. The next letter to Fearnley appears to date to early 1961, as they prepare for a trip to Barbados. Fearnley had gifted him a shirt, and Steinbeck lost no opportunity for the combination of wit and philosophy which characterize all of these letters, even this thank you letter; in part:
I am going to take the glory shirt with me on the trip and one day when we are invited to tea with some very minor British official, (the more minor the more formal) I shall wear it, and you who think you are rather well dressed will shrivel when you see how it is possible to shine like a tiny flame in an evil world. That is a mistaken quotation from a poem I don’t know. It is a beautiful shirt. Now I must live my life so that I will be invited someplace where it would be to meet to wear it. A certain archaicism seems to be creeping into this letter.
… I just can’t wait until we are on the Tropic Bird [a boat helmed by Rudy Thompson]. Let us live a kind of healthy life if we can. I am going to take very little material, a small pocket 60x microscope and a small bottle of formalin. Not even any jars. I’ll use fruit jars or something if I want to preserve anything. I am not even going to take any reference books and I’ll probably hate myself for that but I won’t anyway. If I can’t identify something I will just remain in ignorance…. I do wish I had my western library here. I am going to call [biologist and co-founder of cryptozoology] Ivan Sanderson and ask him whether there is any single volume of animals of the region. He knows the area as few people do.
He closes, hearkening back to his discussion earlier in the letter of the expression “I can’t wait,” which he has used once and will now use again: “Anyway, thank you for the beautiful shirt and I JUST CAN’T WAIT.”
(TLS, “John,” to “Fearn,” [January 1961?] East 72nd St. letterhead, 1 p.)
After receiving the Nobel Prize in 1962, Steinbeck embarked on a series of international travels.
In 1966 he writes to “Roger” at the Council for the NEA (to which President Johnson had appointed Steinbeck earlier that year) enclosing Fearnley’s proposal for a “pilot program” extending the work of the NEA across US borders. (TL carbon to “Roger,” November 17, 1966, Fearnley’s proposal not present).
That December, as war correspondents for Newsday, John and Elaine left for Saigon. Soon after their arrival, Elaine writes to Fearnley, addressing him as “Small Change.” (ALS, January 7, 2 pp.) Her letter provides a detailed account of her and John’s time in Vietnam thus far in the midst of the war. In part: “Yes, I’m proud of John too. He’s doing a good job here. I do hope you are seeing his pieces in the N.Y. Post, though I can’t quite see you reading a N.Y. Post! We’ve been here 4 weeks today – and what a lot we’ve experienced and learned.” She writes of their son Johnny, who met them at the plane while on a 3-day leave, and “then was allowed to come back for the Christmas week-end…. He’s in top form, knows Saigon from stem to stern, and brought to us a steady stream of Vietnamese friends, and his own buddies and officers. He is so happy that we are sharing a part of this terrible experience… John is now on another up country trip – and he hoped to spend today & tonight on the mountain with Johnny…” She talks about what life is like there, for her as a visiting American, in a hotel full of press people – “American correspondents & photographers – and C.B.S. Hq.”:
John went to the field for 8 days….I felt quite jumpy, as there were so many pre-truce rumors of V.C. terrorisms, and everybody had a lot of advice to give me. However one soon gets used to this kind of talk & goes about one’s business….there’s the sound of near-by firing all through the day, and at night when we walk on the top terrace of the hotel we hear the firing and see the flares in the hot night sky….
She has left the city limits only twice, “once on Christmas Day…to see the Bob Hope Show with 10,000 of our beautiful men,” and again on New Year’s week-end: “Picture Queen Radio on a military chopper, doors wide open, sitting next to a gunner with his weapon trained down toward the ground to return enemy fire over V.C. territory! Not many American ladies have that experience.” She talks about the history of Vung Tau as a “lovely French resort” now “falling into” physical and moral “decay.” “It is now an R&R center for Americans…& at least the men have good hospitals, the beach, and the sea.” Of John’s work she writes,
John is out in the field a good deal of the time. He is enthralled. He goes anywhere anybody will take him. I worry, but my emotions are completely under control. Never have I ever been such a good quiet wife! And I do so hate his getting up at 4 in the morning and going out in fatigues & armed. – (You know John, you may be sure he is accoutered & caparisoned!) – We’ve met many fascinating people outside the military – Buddhist priests, Viet teachers, students, writers, & composers. Very appealing people; the young over here have never known anything but war.
Though there are “very few diversions in this town,” she reports on what there is, and offers quotations from “one so-called English-speaking newspaper…a chaos of typos and sensationalism. The night-club ads are my favorites. Some of our head-liners this week are: Miss Suzy Pak, Baby Jane, Elwis Phuong, and best of all, Miss Rubies Korean. – My favorite club is the Ritz. Its motto has become ours: ‘Who Say of Ritz Say Anti-tiredness.”’ That says everything, no?” they are soon moving on to Bangkok, so she asks him to call Elizabeth Otis for the best address to send them a letter. “We send you, oh, so much love & so many kisses.”
John Steinbeck died in 1968.
Years passed, during which is seems likely Elaine and Fearnley were in touch by phone and in person, as both were in New York. The next communication in this series, though undated, seems to date to that period, referencing perhaps a show attended together. It is a brief but lively note, to “Dearest S.C.” – “All evenings spent with you are good whether the entertainment is or not. We can provide our own good entertainment and do! I L U / QR.”
A longer letter finds them separated – Fearnley is in London and Elaine is likely in Sag Harbor – and is centered on an upcoming visit from Elizabeth Taylor. Elaine references other friends, the Royal Wedding, and encourages “Ducks” on his current London directing project, signing it, “QR” for “Queen Radio.” (ALS, “Q.R.,” July 27-28, (1981), 4 pp.) In part:
Guess who’s coming to dinner. Elizabeth Taylor and it’s no joke. She & the Senator have taken to coming to visit Ruth Floss. (As they would say in Texas). They love it our here (our “peace & informality”) and invite themselves. They don’t want parties, just family. This time they requested to see Elaine’s house so I am cooking Sunday night. Jerry Robbins & Terrence will complete the “family.” – You can see why people fall in love with Elizabeth. She is a real giggly girl. (The fact that she can’t play Regina is beside the point.)
… 28 July / Up tomorrow morning at 4:30 to watch the Royal Wedding. Wish I were a bridesmaid.
Elaine’s friendship with Fearnley predated her meeting Steinbeck, and outlasted his life. When Fearnley died in 1994, Elaine helped arrange his funeral collation. The final item present is a letter from composer Richard Lewine (managing director of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization from 1979 on) providing from memory a listing of Fearnley’s productions, hoping it will be of use to her, and thanking her for “for helping with the picture.” (TLS, December 19, 1994, 1 p.).
PLEASE CLICK ON THE ON THE PDF BENEATH THE PHOTOS FOR A GUIDE THE ARCHIVE.
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