Elaine Steinbeck, a vivacious former Broadway stage manager who carefully guarded the literary estate of her late husband, John Steinbeck, over the 35 years since the Nobel laureate’s death, died Sunday at a New York hospital after a long illness. She was 88.
Steinbeck, who married the iconic American novelist in 1950, edited collections of his work, including a volume of his letters, and spoke around the world on his behalf.
She sanctioned the Tony Award-winning production of “The Grapes of Wrath,” directed by Frank Galati on Broadway in 1990, and was a liaison between her husband and producers of his works, 10 of which were made into movies.
A resident of Manhattan and Sag Harbor, N.Y., where the Bay Street Theater stage is named in her honor, Steinbeck also played an important role in the conception of “Travels with Charley,” her husband’s 1962 chronicle of a road trip across America with their French poodle.
She donated boxes full of his papers, photographs and other memorabilia to the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University and to Stanford University.
“He was the most fascinating man I’ve ever known,” she said some years ago. “He read everything. He knew so many people. I was just dazzled by his personality. He was so much fun, so different from anybody I had ever met.”
Steinbeck was a native of Austin, Texas, whose parents had prospered in the oil business. Interested in acting since childhood, she studied drama at the University of Texas at Austin. There she met and fell in love with another aspiring actor, Zachary Scott. They married and moved to New York in 1939.
He managed to find stage work quickly, but she did not. Unable to find roles, she schooled herself in the technical aspects of theater production and became one of the first women to stage-manage a Broadway show -- the original 1943 production of “Oklahoma!” Other shows she managed during that decade included the Broadway production of “Othello” starring Paul Robeson and Uta Hagen.
She had a daughter with Scott, Waverly, who survives her, as do a stepson, Thomas Steinbeck, four grandchildren and two sisters.
Her marriage to Scott was nearing its end in 1949 when she met John Steinbeck, whose literary reputation was already well established in such works as “Cannery Row,” “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”
The famous author had just ended his second marriage and was moaning that he would never love another woman or write another book. Hoping to lighten his mood, a friend tried to set him up on a date with Ava Gardner. When the Hollywood leading lady couldn’t make it, the friend arranged for him to meet another actress, Ann Sothern.
Sothern brought along her friend Elaine, a tall, sandy-haired woman whose ebullience the writer would later describe as so strong it “glows in the dark.”
“It was the strangest thing,” Elaine Steinbeck recalled in an interview with the Associated Press several years ago. “There may have been eight people in the room when we all met, and he didn’t talk to anybody but me and I didn’t talk to anybody but him.”
For their first date, the novelist gave her a tour of Monterey’s Cannery Row, the sardine packing district that he described in his famous 1945 novel as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”
They met secretly over the next months, often roaming the Central California territory that he knew so well.
She obtained a divorce from Scott in December 1950 and married Steinbeck a week later.
Over the 18 years of their marriage, Steinbeck learned to strictly observe the conditions he required while in the throes of literary creation. In Sag Harbor, the writing day always began with a walk to the shore with Charley. Then he worked without a break from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day at a desk that faced a wall to block out distractions.
He sometimes tested his characters’ dialogues on his wife but, as she discovered, did not welcome her commentary.
“You’re my wife. You’re not my agent,” he told her after she remarked that a line spoken by Cal in “East of Eden” was out of character. She burst into tears, then both began to laugh, but she never played critic again.
Years later, after suffering a mild stroke, her husband was depressed and decided he wanted to tour the country by himself. Steinbeck was opposed to the idea, relenting only after he agreed to take their dog, Charley, with him.
The writer had given his wife Charley as a birthday present. While he was on the road, he wrote notes every night and mailed them every few days to Steinbeck.
“We were on the phone one night,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1992, “and I told him how his notes reminded me of the Robert Louis Stevenson book about traveling with a donkey.
“ ‘You’re writing travels with Charley,’ I told him. ‘Elaine, you just named the book,’ he said.”