Searching for Steinbeck
Writer’s time in Tahoe remains largely a mystery
By Amanda Fehd
Tribune staff writer
If you look for Lake Tahoe in John Steinbeck’s novels, you won’t find it. Although at the age of 23 he moved here in 1925, wrote many letters and finished his first novel here, none of his literary works reflect Tahoe as they do other places in California where he spent time.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to find Steinbeck in Tahoe. The Lake Tahoe Historical Society knew he worked as a caretaker at the Cascade Estates and a bus driver at Fallen Leaf Lake, but didn’t have any details. The Steinbeck Center in Salinas confirmed he’d been here, but had to refer to a professor for more accurate information.
No one had a photo in Tahoe of the gangly, shy man who wrote rural California life into literary history.
But there is one person here who remembers him.
Harold Ebright was all of 7 years old when Steinbeck was employed as his tutor during the summer.
“He lived in a small cabin, very primitive. It had one wall, no running water, electricity, no way to get anywhere except by boat or walking, or by snowshoe in the winter,” Ebright, 84, recalled.
Ebright and his brother were the grandchildren of the Brighams, who owned the estate. He still lives part time at the secluded property and remembers little of Steinbeck, but Ebright did know the Stanford dropout didn’t take his jobs too seriously.
Not a tough tutor
Steinbeck “wasn’t much into doing the work around here, he had other things on his mind,” Ebright recalled. “We got along with him, so he must not have been a very sincere tutor. He didn’t bust our tails on the studying.”
Ebright could not give a detailed timeline of Steinbeck’s stay, but knew he spent at least one winter as caretaker and a couple summers as tutor and handyman.
Ultimately, the Google search engine offered up a few nice details on the Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning author’s time in Tahoe, although the facts were sometimes conflicting. Carlton A. Sheffield, a roommate of his at Stanford, saved Steinbeck’s many letters from then and had this summary:
“When he left school permanently and made his several extended stays at Lake Tahoe, his activities were irregularly but often brilliantly documented as he drove a bus for the Fallen Leaf Lodge, worked in two fish hatcheries (where he described himself as a piscatorial obstetrician), and finally spent an entire winter as caretaker for an estate at lakeside, where he finished at least one of his several ‘final’ versions of ‘Cup of Gold’ … .”
One timeline says Steinbeck stayed from 1926-1928, while another says he left Tahoe in 1930. Many mention that he was a caretaker, other accounts only acknowledge his hatchery stint in Tahoe City in 1928. Many say Steinbeck met his first wife, Carol Henning, while in Tahoe City.
What seems clear is that Steinbeck first came to Tahoe after dropping out of Stanford, where he didn’t want to take classes required for graduation, only those which could make him a better writer.
He initially stayed at Stanford Camp at Fallen Leaf Lake, where he drove the bus Sheffield mentions. He soon met the Brigham family, who asked him to be a caretaker and tutor. He would later return again to Stanford, taking writing and literature courses, but would never graduate.
Its absence from his writing leaves it a mystery today about what effect Tahoe had on Steinbeck’s development as a writer. While he completed his first novel, “Cup of Gold,” living at the lake, it’s the story of a pirate, not exactly a wintry tale.
But the Web site of the Tahoe Research Group at UC Davis goes so far as to conclude that “the author’s seedling struggles with his own artistic powers and those of the natural world first took form in the Lake Tahoe region.”
The site also offers a couple of amusing anecdotes:
“Steinbeck was a romantic about living in the semi-wild and loved to exaggerate the hardships he faced at Tahoe, sometimes bragging about being snowed in eight months of the year.
“Some friends knew him as lazy, however. One anecdote describes long winter nights in which he was too cold to get out of bed to heat the house. Steinbeck, the story goes, would rig up a can of kerosene over the wood stove – the contraption attached to his bed by a long string. When he’d wake up cold, Steinbeck would pull the string and topple the fuel into the stove. Then he’d lie in bed and throw lit matches the 14 feet to what he hoped would become a warming fire.”
Steinbeck’s letters to Sheffield told of a fistfight with a lumberjack at a dance, lonely winter nights and odd occurrences:
“He wrote of a visit by Carl Wilhelmson, one of his friends from Stanford, who was furious when a wild gust of wind whirled away the outdoor privy in which he was meditating, leaving him exposed to the elements.”
A few of Steinbeck’s letters to Sheffield were published in “Steinbeck: A Life in Letters,” but Steinbeck insisted many of them be destroyed. Sheffield sums up the Tahoe days in an introduction to another set of published letters, “Letters to Elizabeth: A selection of Letters form John Steinbeck to Elizabeth Otis.”
To preserve their privacy, the Ebright family does not allow visitors to or photographs of the Steinbeck cabin. They have no pictures of the author. After all, he was just a kid with only a dream of being a great writer when they met him.
In the end, his presence here exists only in letters, faint memories and mixed accounts. The search remains for a remnant of this great storyteller in Tahoe.