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The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 5

Sept. 27, 1960 Deer Isle, Maine

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Steinbeck spent two nights at Eleanor Brace’s spectacular house on Deer Isle, Maine, where his agent Elizabeth Otis rented a cottage each year.

Steinbeck and Charley continue their stay on beautiful Deer Isle, Maine, at the fabulous home of Eleanor Brace. He wrote in a letter to his wife from Deer Isle that on Tuesday he “saw the island and talked to people.”

He visited the quaint fishing port of Stonington, where he buys a kerosene lamp at a nautical hardware store on Main Street. He ate a lobster dinner at Brace’s house with Brace and her woman friend and went to bed early, sleeping another night in his camper Rocinante.
In a letter he mailed from Deer Isle to his friend and political hero Adlai Stevenson, Steinbeck said he had heard part of the first televised presidential debate between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy on Monday, Sept. 26. He was distressed that both candidates were so courteous toward each other.

Steinbeck’s Partisan Politics

By today’s definitions, Steinbeck was a ball of political contradictions. He was a highly partisan FDR big-government Democrat who went ape for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s and became a White House-sleepover friend of LBJ and frequent weekend guest at Camp David. Like most of his New Deal generation, he had a naïve trust in the federal government to solve massive social and economic problems.

But Steinbeck was never close to being the true-believing commie or socialist both his rightwing enemies and leftwing friends liked to claim he was. He was what we call today “a Cold War liberal.” He supported labor unions, the civil rights movement and LBJ’s war on poverty. He was also a staunch anti-communist who believed in containing the Soviet Union and what then was so impolitely called “Red China.”

He was a sincere patriot, which, along with becoming too friendly with LBJ, may have blinded him to the folly of Vietnam and the fallacy of the Domino Theory. He was a loud public hawk on Vietnam in its early stages, but became a quiet dove when he realized the war was unwinnable. Intolerant of anti-war protesters, whom he thought were stupid and cowardly, he despised hippies and the ‘60s youth culture.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Days 12-17

Tuesday, Oct. 4 to Oct. 9, 1960 – Chicago

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The Ambassador East Hotel’s famed Pump Room was done up in dark wood and leather and plastered to the ceiling with glossy photos of the celebrities who stayed there.

Steinbeck traveled fast from Buffalo to Chicago, a distance of about 550 miles. He left Buffalo on Monday morning and arrived at Chicago’s famous Ambassador East Hotel sometime Tuesday or Wednesday. His wife Elaine jetted out from New York.

Steinbeck describes this leg of his road trip in “Charley,” but given his haste to see his wife, his account is not plausible. He writes that he camped Monday night on private land by a lake along U.S. 20 in northern Ohio or southern Michigan and went fishing the next morning with the young man who had let him stay there. He writes that at noon (on what would have been Tuesday, Oct. 4), “growing increasingly anxious” to meet Elaine, he climbed on the Indiana Toll Road and drove almost all night, arriving at the Ambassador East early the next morning before his room was ready.

No one will ever know what Steinbeck really did between Buffalo and Chicago or what he made up. He could have covered the entire distance in one hellish day/night drive, or rented a motel room somewhere or, least likely of all, really camped overnight by a private lake and gone fishing. Steinbeck and his wife were together in Chicago until Monday, Oct. 10, and stayed at least one night with Adlai Stevenson at his farm in nearby Libertyville, Ill. (Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip.)

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The lobby of the Ambassador East, as it looked in October 2010.

In my quixotic travels with Charley about America I paused five times, in Chicago, in Seattle, in California and twice in Texas. Then I saw and felt beloved people who knew me as I knew them. It would be quite easy to recount every moment of these steps but it would be out of drawing with the rest. A book has to be one thing, just as a poem does or a chair or a table.

– Cut from first draft of “Travels With Charley”

 

 

Sleeping over at Adlai’s Farm

Steinbeck and Adlai Stevenson were more than contemporaries and pen pals. They had several interests in common – liberal/New Deal politics, agriculture, dogs and the legend of King Arthur and the Round Table. Politically, Steinbeck was a Stevenson Man, 110 percent. He helped the former Illinois governor during the 1950s with some speeches and desperately wanted him to become the president in ’52 and ’56 and to win the Democrat nomination again in 1960. He was still pulling for Stevenson long after it was clear that his days as the Democrats’ standard-bearer were over.

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Adlai Stevenson, former Illinois governor and Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, was Steinbeck’s political hero, friend and pen pal. Stevenson lived on a 70 acre farm outside Chicago in Libertyville. Steinbeck and his wife Elaine spent a night their during his layover in Chicago.

Stevenson’s white, squared-off house at “The Farm” was simple, practical and smartly designed, with airy rooms, huge windows, a wild Art Deco bathroom and a long back deck looking out at the lawn and blazing oak trees that stretched to the Des Plaines River. The house (owned by the Lake County Forest Preserve), had been restored for tours in 2008 and was used for meetings but still needed several rooms of furniture. Only Stevenson’s study – the most important room in the house, said my guide Nicole Stocker – was completely furnished. It had his old desk, his books and his address book – which happened to be opened to “S.” Steinbeck’s name and Sag Harbor phone number were there.

In 1960 Stevenson’s place was still a working farm. He grew corn and soybeans, and had horses, sheep and a pack of Dalmatians, all named after characters from King Arthur’s Court. He, like Steinbeck, lived relatively frugally for a wealthy man, but Nicole said a housekeeper and a caretaker were on the premises.

DSC_0095One of Stevenson’s near neighbors was Marshall Field, who owned a little department store in Chicago. Many historic figures of the era came to talk politics with Adlai in his ample living room – from Senator Robert “Mr. Republican” Taft of Ohio to a young, ambitious rogue with the initials JFK. Nicole said the three Steinbecks probably slept in the guest suite, where Eleanor Roosevelt would crash whenever she dropped by.

Steinbeck says nothing in “Travels With Charley” or his road letters about his visit to Stevenson’s farm, which is 35 miles north of downtown Chicago. Biographer Jackson Benson mentions Steinbeck’s visit in “John Steinbeck, Writer.” And a Steinbeck letter to Stevenson that I read at Princeton alludes to their walk together in Stevenson’s “blazing” woods in the fall of 1960. Exactly when the Steinbeck family stayed in Libertyville is not known and doesn’t matter.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

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On Sept. 23, 1960,  John Steinbeck set out alone on the cross-country road trip that he would turn into his best-selling 1962 nonfiction book “Travels With Charley in Search of America.”

Exactly 50 years later, on Sept. 23, 2010, I left Steinbeck’s summer house on the eastern end of Long Island and followed his cold trail as faithfully as possible as a journalist.

Steinbeck’s journey was much tougher and braver than mine.  In 1960 America’s cars were like tanks and its two-lane highways were narrow, thick with traffic and deadly.

The world famous writer drove 10,000 hard and furious miles in his uncomfortable and primitive 1960 GMC pickup truck/camper.

Touching the top of Maine and speeding across the top of the USA to Seattle, he drove back to New York City by way of California, Texas and New Orleans. His trip, which included long layovers on the West Coast and in Texas, took about 75 days. He took no notes or photos.

I had originally set out to retrace Steinbeck’s tire tracks as a serious act of journalism. I simply hoped to write a book comparing the America of 1960 he saw on “The Steinbeck Highway” with the America of 2010 I saw.

My circumnavigation of the USA was even more fast and furious than his. As I traveled doglessly for 11,276 miles, I blogged to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette web site, interviewed dozens of Americans and took thousands of photos. As I drove I wrote about 10 travel stories for the PG’s Sunday paper.

I got lucky and during my research on and off the road I discovered new or “forgotten” information about Steinbeck, his actual trip and the devious editing and publishing of his iconic book.

My discoveries about the major discrepancies between Steinbeck’s actual trip and the one he described in “Charley” got me written up in the New York Times and ultimately changed the way Steinbeck’s classic will be read forever.

I didn’t get a New York publishing deal — or a Hollywood movie deal. But I have no regrets. As I detail in my book “Dogging Steinbeck,” chasing Steinbeck’s ghost around the country for 43 days at age 63 was a trip of a lifetime. Here are two great reviews of “DS” from Robert Dean Laurie in The Daily Caller and Shawn Macomber in  the Weekly Standard.

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A Steinbeck & Charley Timeline

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This fine illustration by Stacey Innerst accurately shows where Steinbeck and Charley were on various dates in the fall of 1960.

Below are excerpts from my book “Dogging Steinbeck” and a timeline of where I believe John Steinbeck was each day during his trip in the fall of 1960. Many photos have video links.

It’s based on “Travels With Charley,” the unedited  first draft of the book, letters Steinbeck wrote from the road to his wife Elaine and others, biographies of Steinbeck, newspaper articles, interviews and best-guesses.

It’s as accurate as I could make it.