The author Curt Gentry was a big Steinbeck fan and he went out of his way to kindly help me with my book “Dogging Steinbeck.”  Here’s the beginning of his obit from the San Francisco Chronicle today:

Curt Gentry, a San Francisco author who wrote or co-wrote 13 books including best-sellers “Helter Skelter” about the Charles Manson case and a harshly critical biography of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, died July 10 in a San Francisco hospital.

Gentry was incredibly kind to me when I met him in the spring of 2010 while doing research for what became “Dogging Steinbeck.” He bought me lunch twice and gave me his notes and the draft of his Chronicle article (see below) from his encounter/interview with Steinbeck in the fall of 1960, when Steinbeck and wife Elaine stopped at the St. Francis Hotel on Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley” trip.

Gentry was one of the first to read my book and he wrote a wonderful blurb about it. When I read it at my book store/library appearances, I can hardly keep from choking up.

He was a great guy with great stories. I’ll always be sorry he was too sick to meet with me the last time I was in San Francisco.

The article the late, great Curt Gentry wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about his encounter with John Steinbeck in 1960.

The article the late, great Curt Gentry wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about his encounter with  Steinbeck in 1960.

The blurb Gentry wrote for my book, which was perfect and fair:

I still believe John Steinbeck is one of America’s greatest writers and I still love “Travels With Charley,” be it fact or fiction or, as Bill Steigerwald doggedly proved, both.  While I disagree with a number of Steigerwald’s conclusions, I don’t dispute his facts. He greatly broadened my understanding of Steinbeck the man and the author, particularly during his last years. And, whether Steigerwald intended it or not, in tracking down the original draft of “Travels With Charley” he made a significant contribution to Steinbeck’s legacy. “Dogging Steinbeck” is a good honest book.

– Curt Gentry

Author of “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders” (with Vincent Bugliosi)

The great travel writer Paul Theroux is done with the continents of Asia, Africa and South America and is now working on North America.

He’s written a long article in Smithsonian magazine, “the Soul of the South,” that will be part of the book he’s writing about the American South.

He was also interviewed by NPR’s midday news program “Here and Now,” so you can listen to him. Here’s a previous interview with him from NPR, before he took off on his Southern trip.

Here are some pull quotes taken from WBUR’s interview:

 

Interview Highlights: Paul Theroux

On reactions to being a Northerner traveling through the American South

“I stuck to the rural areas. And rural America has its deep roots, and, I think, great values. I said to a man in Aiken, South Carolina, ‘I’m a stranger.’ He said, ‘You’re not a stranger, there ain’t no strangers here.’ And a woman said the same thing to me in Tuscaloosa [Alabama]. ‘I’m a stranger.’ She said ‘You’re not a stranger, there are no strangers here.’”

On visiting the infamous Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Miss.

“Bryant’s Store where Emmett Till met his doom, is still standing. It’s on a crossroads. Money, Mississippi, is a back road, there’s a railway running through it. Train doesn’t stop. The walls are crumbling, there are vines and roots sort of holding it together. They don’t know whether it’s a monument, a horror — it’s a haunted building. And Money, Mississippi, is a very tiny place. I doubt there are two dozen people who live there.”

On unexpected encounters in the Delta

“I was in the Delta, in the town of Greenville [Mississippi] in the Delta. And I must say, the Delta is a very poor place — poor in money, great in spirit. I was asking a lady about the B.B. King Museum and this woman’s colleague said, ‘Should we tell him?’And she said, ‘I don’t know.’ And the [colleague] said, ‘This is B.B. King’s ex-wife.’ His last wife! Most recent wife. So we talked about B.B. King.”

 

And here’s quote from Theroux about how helpful people are when you travel — alone.

 

THEROUX: When you’re traveling in the South, you get a warm welcome. I mean you, I go from New England, rather chilly and, you know, people barely say hello to each other in the post office. They kind of stare and think, you know, you look – they look at you as though you might be asking them not to pay their taxes or something. And, you know, in the South, I mean one of my earlier experiences was I was stuck.

I was looking in a map in my car and the woman in the car next to me said: You lost, baby? I said, yeah, I’m looking for this church. And she said: Well, I can tell you – I told her the church – she said I can take you there. Follow me. She drove three miles out of her way. I mean, we had been in a parking lot and she was going to church that morning too but not there and took me to the church. And I thought, this is wonderful, I like this.

And afterwards, I thanked her profusely. And she said: Be blessed. And I thought that’s the South: Be blessed.

I had a handful of encounters during my road trip in 2010. A guy in Minnesota drove across town to lead me to a diner and the women of New England took great pity on me, as I recount in this excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck”:

 

I had my first face-to-face encounter with a human on state Route 11 when I drove through the sad little burg of Patten.

I had doubled back to photograph a bush-choked old house on Main Street that was obviously inhabited when Steinbeck hurried by 50 years ago. As I got out of my car, a young woman stopped, rolled her passenger window down and asked if I needed any help. She thought I was lost, which it looked like I was. But I was just driving as if traffic laws didn’t apply to journalists. When I told her I was chasing Steinbeck, she gave me a quick history of her town of 1,200 mid-Mainers.

The future didn’t sound too promising for Patten. It owed its existence to the lumber boom of the 1800s and still relied on forestry, hunting, fishing and the wood products industries for a disproportionate share of its jobs. Before the woman drove off she suggested I take a picture of the Patten General Store down the road. “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s going to be torn down tomorrow.”

She wasn’t the first woman in timeless/spaceless/changeless Maine to think I was a helpless man in distress. She was the fourth in less than 24 hours. The first time was in Calais. After I left Karen’s Main Street diner and the Calais Book Shop, I stopped by the side of the road on my way out of town to write what I thought would be a quick blog item.

It was a pleasant spot by the St. Croix River, but mainly I wanted to take advantage of the sudden surge in Verizon’s cell phone signal. (Three weeks later, when my wife got our bill, I’d learn the strong signal had been coming from across the river in Canada. Two days of cross-border roaming charges in upper Maine would cost $900. In Billings, Montana, I’d waste an afternoon at a Verizon store getting the charges reduced to zero.) I wrote a blog entry about Calais and its people while sitting in the driver’s position, but because my laptop was on my “bed” in the back I had to twist around between the front seats to type. Because I am journalism’s slowest writer, the blog, which was really more like a long newspaper feature story, took almost two hours to write.

The first visitor was a U.S. Customs and Border Control officer, who pulled up behind me in her patrol car.  She had passed me three times and seen me in the same strange position, so she naturally thought I had a heart attack or had been the victim of a Canadian mob hit. Apologizing as abjectly as possible, I assured her I was fine and explained what I was doing. She was as sweet as any police person could legally be and with a smile left me to my pathetic, contorted typing.

Ten minutes later, I looked up from my keyboard to see two cars parked behind my RAV4 and a pair of women with worried faces hurrying toward me. They too thought I was dead or dying and were genuinely relieved, and not the least bit annoyed, to be told I was physically fine, just mentally challenged. I finally drove across the road to a parking lot, feeling like a jerk.

Maine people – Mainers? Manians? Mainsters? – of both sexes couldn’t have been more pleasant and they obviously had been brought up to be kind to strangers. But it was comforting to know the good women of The Pine/Potato State were looking out for me.  I’d meet dozens of other women on my trip who were unnecessarily sweet or went out of their way to help me – waitresses, motel managers, county government officials, mothers at home. Whether they were just doing their job or answering my fool questions when I appeared unannounced at their front door, not a one was sour or unfriendly or even wary. When you are old and scraggly and alone, as I was, you’re an object of pity and a threat to no one.

John Steinbeck set out to do his “Travels With Charley” trip the right way — alone and like a serious journalist. But it quickly unraveled and he had to resort to fiction and fibs to tell his tale. A free excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck,” an Amazon ebook that’s the antidote of truth to “Charley.”

A Good Trip Gone Bad

A stranger passing like a bullet through his own heartland, Steinbeck spent twice as much time relaxing on his 11-week journey than driving. He discovered no new facts or insights about the USA or its citizens, mainly because he did no real journalism and spent relatively little time with ordinary people. Yet he deserved a lot of credit just for taking the road trip.

Despite his shaky health and age, not to mention his princely lifestyle and celebrity social circle, he had the balls to roll up his sleeves and take on what was essentially a major journalism project. What other great American writer would have even considered traveling the rough way he did?

Initially, he fully intended to do his trip the right way and the only way it would work – solo and at the grassroots level. His ambitious plan – going alone, taking photos, writing dispatches to newspapers or magazines from the road, going to a different church every Sunday, spending quality time in the Jim Crow South – was basic, sound journalism and a perfect vehicle for his talents.

A nonfiction book based on his original plan wouldn’t have been as popular with readers or kept its romantic appeal for 50 years, but it would have made a better, more substantive book. It would have slowed him down, forced him to meet hundreds of other real people and given him a chance to discover more of the America he went searching for.

But Steinbeck’s great exploration never materialized. He never learned to use a camera, didn’t take notes or keep a journal and never wrote a word for publication during his 75 days away from New York. His grand plan was unraveled by the reality of his lifestyle, health and the punishment of the open road. He quickly got lonely and tired and no doubt bored.

Ironically, in one sense he may have been lucky he lost heart so early. The daily pressure and logistical nightmares of trying to do real journalism on the back roads of America in 1960 could have killed him. What’s more, in the Analog Age it was an unrealistic mission even for a man in good health to circumnavigate America alone. Transcontinental car travel was still an adventure, not the smooth ride it is today. As Steinbeck learned, just finding a public pay phone so he could call his wife every three days was a major accomplishment.

Before he left Maine he had already realized the obvious – the country was too damn big and diverse to pin down or sum up. No one person, not even a Steinbeck, could discover the real America in 11 weeks or 11 months. Anyway, as he wisely said, there was no single “real” America. As he knew and advised his readers, every traveler must take his own trip and find his own version of America.  Trouble was, his was largely a 50 mph blur interrupted by luxurious vacations with his wife. And when his journey ended, he had to sit down and make up a nonfiction book about a real country he never found, never really looked for and didn’t really like much.

Pulling a libertarian quote from John Steinbeck out of my book and tying it into the 4th of July, Alak Mehta of the Blaze.com gives me a priceless plug and alerts the folks in Glen Beck Land to the existence of “Dogging Steinbeck,” which he kindly — and accurately — calls “a hilarious, exuberant read that reveals much about John Steinbeck and the diversity of people, places, and attitudes that is America.”

For anyone who wants to see and hear the John Steinbeck of 1961, here’s your chance.

Steinbeck and his wife Elaine were invited to JFK’s inaugural address in DC on January 20, 1961.

They went to the speech on a bitter cold day with JFK insider John Kenneth Galbraith and his wife Catherine, but skipped the inaugural ball that night and watched it on TV.

It was about six weeks after John Steinbeck returned to New York following his 1960 “Travels With Charley” road trip. Steinbeck, 58 but looking 70-something, shared a limo ride with the Galbraiths to and from the speech. On board with them was a camera crew that was shooting a Robert Drew  documentary produced for an ABC “Close Up” TV program called “Adventures on the New Frontier.”

In the documentary footage the Steinbecks and the Galbraiths are seen praising Kennedy’s inauguration speech and making jokes. The Galbraiths went to the inaugural ball in Washington that night, which is where the video ends.

The original chapter Steinbeck wrote for “Charley” was entitled “L’Envoi” and was about his trip to the inaugural. Never seen publicly until 2002, it was cut from the book for good reason — it didn’t fit with the rest of  “Charley’ and it was pretty boring.

photo

John and Elaine Steinbeck take a limo ride with John Kenneth Galbraith and his wife after the JFK inaugural speech of Jan. 20, 1961.