Steinbeck’s time in Tahoe remains largely a mystery
Although John Steinbeck moved to Lake Tahoe in 1925 at age 23, wrote many letters and finished his first novel there, none of his literary works reflect the area.
It’s hard to find any evidence of Steinbeck in Tahoe. The Lake Tahoe Historical Society knows he worked as a caretaker at Cascade Estates and was a bus driver at Fallen Leaf Lake, but doesn’t have details. The Steinbeck Center in Salinas confirmed he’d been there, but refers you to a professor for more accurate information.
Harold Ebright was 7 when Steinbeck was his summer tutor at Cascade Estates.
“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, recalls.
Ebright and his brother are the grandsons of the Brighams, who owned the estate. Ebright still lives part time at the secluded property. He remembers little of Steinbeck, but does know the Stanford dropout didn’t take his job too seriously.
Steinbeck “wasn’t much into doing the work around here. He had other things on his mind,” Ebright recalls. “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 cannot give a detailed time line of Steinbeck’s stay, but knows he spent at least one winter as caretaker and a couple summers as tutor and handyman.
To preserve its privacy, the Ebright family does not allow visits to or photographs of the Steinbeck cabin. The family has no pictures of the author.
The Google search engine has a few details on the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s time in Tahoe, although the facts are sometimes conflicting. Carlton A. Sheffield, Steinbeck’s roommate at Stanford, saved his many letters from then and has 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 time line says Steinbeck stayed from 1926 to 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, in Tahoe City.
What seems clear is that Steinbeck first came to Tahoe after dropping out of Stanford.
He initially stayed at Stanford Camp at Fallen Leaf Lake, where he drove the bus Sheffield mentions. He met the Brigham family, who asked him to be a caretaker and tutor.
The Web site of the Tahoe Research Group at the University of California at Davis concludes “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 casts a jaundiced eye on the writer:
“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 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 from John Steinbeck to Elizabeth Otis.”