The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Days 35 – 38

Thursday, Oct. 27 to Oct. 30, 1960 – San Francisco

According to famed city columnist Herb Caen, the Steinbecks arrived in San Francisco on Wednesday evening, Oct. 26. They socialized with John’s friends and stayed at the posh St. Francis Hotel downtown through Oct. 30. He was interviewed in his suite on Oct. 28 by Curt Gentry, a freelancer for the San Francisco Chronicle’s book section. On Sunday Oct. 30, John, Elaine and Charley move down the coast to the Steinbeck family cottage in Pacific Grove. Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip was Sept. 23, 1960.


The ‘pure grandeur’ of the St. Francis

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The Westin St. Francis in 2010.

Steinbeck had no intention of zipping past his favorite city without partaking of its pleasures. He spent four busy days downtown, staying at the handsome St. Francis Hotel in Union Square.

Apparently, booking a room in San Francisco had been difficult even for him because of conventions. If scenes cut from the book’s first draft can be believed, Elaine made several fruitless calls ahead to hotels from roadside pay phones before they landed a suite at the St. Francis, where Caruso, Fatty Arbuckle and Hemingway had once been regulars and Steinbeck was a familiar face.

In the deleted scenes, Steinbeck described arriving with Elaine via U.S. Route 101 and the Golden Gate Bridge. After getting lost for a while, he found his way to the St. Francis downtown. Now the Westin St. Francis, it has undergone many cosmetic changes since 1960. But in 2010, when I prowled its halls and stairways, it still had dark wood, heavy rugs, mirrored ceilings, monstrous chandeliers and a two-ton shoeshine stand. Everything else – the floors, the back steps, walls – was made of marble.


Curt Gentry wrote a long article for the San Francisco Chronicle after his meeting with Steinbeck at the St. Francis during his five-day rest stop.

Steinbeck wrote that he parked Rocinante at the luxury hotel’s entrance – and just left it there, where it was in the way and attracting the wrong class of attention. He went straight to his hotel room and jumped in the bathtub with a whisky and soda at his side. He really enjoyed sitting in bathtubs with whiskies and sodas.

In the cut scenes Steinbeck purred that the spacious suite was “pure grandeur.” He was pleased to find no Formica, no plastic, no cheap ashtrays in the St. Francis, which in 1960 was already old, prestigious and, as he admitted, “outmoded” and “trapped in an ancient and primitive way of doing things.” He wasn’t complaining about the hotel’s old ways. Eating in the living room on white linen, he was pleased in his first draft to report being attacked by an army of servants – “valet, waiters, maids, pressers, housekeeper.”

Apparently, after her punishing ride in Rocinante and a week’s worth of rustic resorts, Elaine was back in her idea of lodging heaven. She preferred well-staffed English country inns to the “do-it-yourself” style of the modern American motel, where you had to fetch your own ice at the end of the hall and lug your own luggage. “My lady wife was very pleased,” Steinbeck wrote.

As he sat in his bathtub “like a sunburned Buddha,” Steinbeck wrote, the phone rang. It was the doorman. Rocinante was blocking traffic and it didn’t fit in the underground parking garage across the street under Union Square. What should be done with it? The unsightly pickup truck was moved to a parking lot and the hotel scenes end with Elaine calling the hairdresser. It’s not hard to understand why this glimpse of the Steinbecks indulging themselves on the road was purged from the book. And where was faithful Charley in these dropped scenes? His presence at the St. Francis was never mentioned. Apparently he’d already been checked into a kennel.


Portrait of an Immortal


During his stay in San Francisco, Steinbeck was filmed along the Pacific Coast doing a brief stand-up introduction for a movie made from his short story “Flight.”

The great columnist Herb Caen, who in 1958 coined the word “beatnik” to describe the Beat Generation, also captured a sharp, mid-trip portrait of John Steinbeck. Caen’s breezy, literate daily column of insider gossip and smart-alecky opinion about the city he called “Baghdad by the Bay” was a must-read for decades until his death in 1997. In his Oct. 30 column he detailed the recent afternoon encounter he had with Steinbeck at Enrico’s sidewalk cafe, where Caen ate lunch nearly every day.

“John Steinbeck, well-nigh immortal writer, was there, looking distinguished, like/as a writer should. Pinstriped suit. Black hat. Silver-topped cane. And a handsome beard.” Caen quoted Steinbeck’s explanation for the beard: “‘Hemingway wears a beard because he has skin cancer. My reason is pure vanity. The cane? I broke my kneecap four times.’”

Steinbeck, pushing away his lunch and ordering a beer, told Caen what he was up to:

“‘I drove across the country in a campwagon. Alone. My wife met me in Seattle. I’ve been living in New York – that’s not America – and Europe. I hadn’t seen my own country in twenty years. I wanted to get to know the people again, hear how they talk and feel. You can’t live on memories.’ ”

Steinbeck also told Caen that the American people “‘are disturbed, plenty. They feel nobody in Washington has been telling them what’s going on. I think Kennedy will win. It’s like writing a play – you can’t fool people. You can get away with a sensational play, maybe, but not a bad one. Nixon is a bad play, the kind you don’t believe.’”

Caen said Steinbeck “lit a cigarette with a lighter strung around his neck on a black cord” and raved about the “magnificent” beauty of the country, especially Montana. Other topics included Steinbeck’s upcoming novel about America’s lack of morality and a few semi-humorous asides. Charley and Elaine were not mentioned, though they were probably there.

Caen’s brief detailed depiction of Steinbeck, like Gentry’s longer portrait, is telling. It also almost single-handedly destroys the “Travels With Charley” Myth. The “well-nigh immortal writer” Caen met – dressed flamboyantly for lunch in one of the hottest eateries in town – was not the grizzled romantic road warrior of “Travels With Charley.” Nor was he lonely, depressed or sickly. Nor was he roughing it, trying to lay low or searching very hard for America.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”