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Newsletter: The decades-long battles over John Steinbeck’s estate

Author John Steinbeck
Author and Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck, early 1960s.
(Underwood Archives / Getty Images)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Sept. 13, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

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John Steinbeck entered the literary stratosphere by way of his native Central California, through stories that lionized the downtrodden and often unseen.

“The Grapes of Wrath,” his account of the fictional Joad family fleeing the Dust Bowl for the promise of the golden west, won him the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, as well as accusations that he was spreading Communist propaganda. He was a man described by many as a “bard of the people” for his dignified and sometimes romanticized portraits of the working poor.

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But Steinbeck’s own legacy of success has divided his family, with the disputes spilling from one generation to the next.

His heirs have been clashing over the author’s estate for more than half a century now, since Steinbeck’s death in 1968. Money, power and potential star-studded movie deals have been at the center of the fights. It has been “a family feud worthy of a Steinbeck novel,” as the New York Times put it in 2010.

On Monday, a federal appeals court issued a ruling in the latest, and hopefully last, go-round before the courts.

Rather than attempt any full explanation of all the legal particulars that have transpired over the decades, I’ll instead just tell you that Judge Richard Tallman began his opinion in this week’s ruling by quoting Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House”:

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“This ‘suit has, in course of time, become so complicated, that … no two … lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises.”

Suffice it to say that it’s been a battle over control that has largely pitted Steinbeck’s widow against his children from a previous wife.

Some quick background: Steinbeck had two sons and three wives. He met his second wife, Gwyndolyn Conger, during the “Grapes of Wrath” publicity blitz in 1939. He was 38, still married to his first wife and hiding out in the Garden of Allah. She was very young, very beautiful and working on the fringes of Hollywood.

Their marriage was not lengthy, but it did produce Steinbeck’s only children, John Steinbeck IV and Thomas Steinbeck.

Steinbeck met his next and final wife, Elaine, when Ava Gardner flaked on a Carmel dinner party invitation in 1950.

The author was supposed to have been the star’s escort, but the host arranged for him to meet another actress after Gardner begged off. The actress brought a friend — Elaine — and she and Steinbeck had wed by the year’s end. (Lest she forget he was the John Steinbeck, he took her on a tour of Monterey’s Cannery Row for their first official date.) They were married by the end of the year, and together until his death.

The problem, of course, was his will. Unlike Prince, Steinbeck did have one, but there were flaws — namely the lack of discussion around copyright.

The will left the majority of his estate (then valued at more than $1 million, albeit in 1968 dollars) to Elaine. His two sons were granted $50,000 each.

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Future profits from his works were directed to his wife and a lawyer, but the will did not specifically address copyright of those works. The trouble started soon after his death, and the family has been in litigation on and off since at least the early 1980s.

All three primary parties — Elaine, John IV and Thomas — are now deceased. John IV died in 1991 at 44 and Thomas in 2016 at 72. Elaine died in 2003, at 88.

But the battles, like any true blood feud, did not end with the deaths of any (or even all) of the original parties. Instead, their heirs continued the fight.

The current lawsuit, which was brought by Steinbeck’s stepdaughter (Elaine’s daughter from her first marriage) Waverly Scott Kaffaga, alleged that Steinbeck’s late son Thomas and Thomas’ wife Gail Steinbeck had impeded film adaptations of Steinbeck’s famous works.

Kaffaga alleged that Gail had helped put the kibosh on a “Grapes of Wrath” remake that might have been directed by Steven Spielberg, and the potential for “East of Eden” as a Jennifer Lawrence vehicle.

A Los Angeles jury had found in favor of Kaffaga in 2017 and awarded her more than $13 million. In their ruling this week, the appeals court chose to uphold the $5-million verdict, but toss the additional $8 million that Gail faced in punitive damages.

“This has to end. We cannot say it any clearer,” Judge Tallman wrote in his ruling, directly before quoting from Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.” (The ruling includes another Dickens quotation and at least seven from Steinbeck’s various literary works. The judge, who was clearly having some fun, also chose to order it by “chapter.”)

And speaking of literary interpretations, the Associated Press reports that the ruling “may finally free Kaffaga to make the most of Steinbeck’s copyrights,” meaning Steinbeck’s works could come to the screen again.

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[Cue the sound of a thousand Hollywood creative executives, readying their pitches for “Of Mice and Men” but with women, a YA “Cannery Row” remake set in space and maybe “East of Eden” as the first Quibi epic, with all 600-plus pages of story unspooling in 10-minute bites.]

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

TOP STORIES

All crew members were asleep when the Conception caught fire early on Labor Day, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. This is a major revelation in the investigation of the worst maritime disaster in modern California history, as the boat was required by federal law to have a “night watchman” who was awake and could alert others to fire and other dangers. Los Angeles Times

Southern California grocery workers approved a new contract, preventing a strike that could have affected a large swath of California. Roughly 47,000 employees of Ralphs, Vons, Pavilions and Albertsons stores in Southern and Central California were eligible to vote this week on the three-year contract. Los Angeles Times

Plus, the latest from Sacramento as lawmakers race to finish business before the legislative session ends:

  • Doctors, nurses, lawyers and court workers in California may soon be asked to confront their prejudices under three proposals headed to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom. Los Angeles Times
  • Taking one of the toughest stands in the nation against police use of facial recognition technology, California lawmakers on Thursday passed legislation barring police from installing it on body-worn cameras for three years. The bill still needs Newsom’s signature. Los Angeles Times

L.A. STORIES

Where are L.A.'s lesbian bars? “The absurdity of lesbian public life in Los Angeles, or lack thereof, is a problem many of us bemoan; [Lauren] Amador, a trained architect, decided she wanted to fix it.” Eater

Super-sized movies are testing the patience of audiences — and there may be a financial cost, as longer run times equal fewer showings per screen. (I for one strongly endorse Alfred Hitchcock’s famous take: “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”) The Hollywood Reporter

They can’t all be Grand Central Market: Does L.A. have too many food halls? Los Angeles Times

Citizen Public Market rendering
This artist rendering shows Citizen Public Market, which is under construction in Culver City and is set to open in the fall. The food hall is being developed in a building that was once headquarters to the Citizen newspaper.
(Rick Moses Development)

How doughnuts fueled the American Dream, particularly here in Los Angeles. 1843 Magazine

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren tore into each other’s plans and fended off attacks from rivals eager to join them at the head of the field of White House hopefuls during their first clash on the same stage. Los Angeles Times

Sen. Kamala Harris’ brother-in-law is the public face of Uber’s fight with labor. It’s awkward. Los Angeles Times

Twitter is refusing to disclose the identities behind two parody social media accounts being sued by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare). One parody account pretends to be the congressman’s cow. Nunes is also suing Twitter. Fresno Bee

CRIME AND COURTS

A deputy L.A. city attorney shot and killed his wife and son at their suburban Northridge home before killing himself, authorities say. Los Angeles Times

The Alameda district attorney’s office opened an investigation into the Oakland coliseum naming deal. Mercury News

The FBI is investigating a venture capital fund started by Peter Thiel for alleged financial misconduct. Recode

Turlock police raided an industrial building whose owners include former Rep. Jeff. Denham and uncovered an illegal marijuana grow of nearly 4,000 plants. Modesto Bee

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Imperial Beach shorelines remain closed after nearly 100 million gallons of sewage-tainted runoff recently poured over the border from Mexico. Local officials plan to visit the nation’s capital in coming weeks to urge lawmakers to fund an U.S. EPA blueprint released this summer for capturing sewage-tainted flows in the Tijuana River. San Diego Union-Tribune

The Friant-Kern Canal is sinking at an alarming rate, compromising the ability of farmers and rural communities across the Central Valley to access critical irrigation and drinking water. Visalia Times-Delta

Giant sequoias are succumbing to climate-driven wildfires. The trees were once thought to be unflappable fixtures of the forest and largely resistant to fire. San Francisco Chronicle

A Cal State San Bernardino student has active tuberculosis and may have exposed 400 to the illness. San Bernardino Sun

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Kern County is really two distinct places: The Kern of the Central Valley and the Kern of the Mojave Desert. This column outlines those differences and looks at how the Ridgecrest earthquake brought the disparate halves together. Bakersfield Californian

Filipino fast-food giant Jollibee will set up its North American headquarters in West Covina. “We want to be to West Covina what In-N-Out is to Baldwin Park and what Panda Express is to Rosemead,” a company official said. Pasadena Star-News

Two Northern California architects rebuilt their home to withstand potential utility power outages. They incorporated a Tesla Powerwall battery. Architectural Digest

A Lodi-area winery that refused to host a lesbian wedding has apologized and reversed policy. Merced Sun-Star

Six stops on your California desert literary road trip (dinosaurs and suggested reading included). Los Angeles Times

“This ain’t ‘Sons of Anarchy’ ”: The Savage Assassins, a Fresno motorcycle club, say that deputies trashed their party. Los Angeles Times

News moves fast: Yesterday, we told you that Aaron Persky, the former judge who presided over the Brock Turner sexual assault trial was now a JV girls tennis coach in San Jose. He has since been let go. Los Angeles Times

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: sunny, 90. San Diego: sunny, 82. San Francisco: sunny, 85. San Jose: sunny, 97. Sacramento: sunny, 99. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

“We are a coast people. There is nothing but ocean out beyond us.”
-Jack Spicer

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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