John Steinbeck and Me
Why an unexpected encounter with literary history was more than a simple matter of mice and men.
I had never heard of the guy. I believe that’s why we hit it off.
Ernest Martin was one-half of the multi-Tony Award-winning Broadway producing duo known as Feuer and Martin. With his partner Cy (Feuer), the tandem were responsible for such theatrical classics as Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Can-Can, Silk Stockings, and many others. They produced the eight-time Oscar-winning 1972 film adaptation of Cabaret, and the film version of A Chorus Line.
Ernest was a Vice-President of CBS at 23 years old.
To me, he was “Ernie.” I had no idea about any of this when I met him.
Cy Feuer (sitting) and Ernest Martin
I was working for collection company for hire. My current assignment was to collect due receivables owed to a wedding gown designer.
The husband of the owner? Ernest Martin.
The owner understood that I was a writer by passion, and I did have a couple of produced low-budget projects behind me.
“My husband’s had some experience,” she deadpanned. “You should meet him.”
“Would I know him?” I asked.
“Ernie Martin. Ring a bell?”
My car was being repaired, and I had taken a two-hour bus ride to arrive to work on time.
“That’s nice,“ she said. I wasn’t sure if she heard me, but nonetheless. “He’s going to drive you to the shop to pick up your car — “
“Thanks, but not necessary. I was going to take a cab.”
“Well, you’re not,” she said. “And you may want to talk to him.”
The truth is, I didn’t have money to take a cab, so this favor would at least veer on the side of convenience.
Suddenly, a voice emanating from behind the owner startled me.
”What? You don’t want to talk to me?” asked the older man, approaching his mid-70s at the time. I noticed he had been wandering the office for maybe a half-hour, speaking to some of the employees, and I thought he was a customer. He wasn’t. “I’m Ernie,“ he said.
The ride to the mechanic was memorable. Ernie picked me up in a Rolls Royce when I could barely afford mass transit. He admitted to me that his wife wanted us to meet, and he arrived at the office solely for that reason.
He waited until my shift was over.
“Showgirls,” Ernie said. “The secret of every good script is more showgirls.” I had no idea if he was pulling my leg. So I asked him. “What do you think?” is all I received in return.
Minutes later …
I picked up my car, and thanked him. “No,“ he said. “This will cost you.”
”What do you mean?”
“I’m taking you to lunch,” he said.
“Shouldn’t that be the other way around?” I asked.
“What do you think?” he repeated.
“My wife thinks I need to surround myself with young people,” he said over lunch. “So I don’t rest on my laurels.”
”Inspiration?” I asked.
“Something like that. How’s your spaghetti?”
”The best. How’s yours?”
”The sauce stinks.”
We discussed his background, and I found him to be a fascinating character. Tall and stately, with bushy eyebrows and an easy smile, I liked him immediately. Lunch was successful, he agreed to read one of my screenplays, and we further agreed to meet again the following week for our second lunch date.
”I read it,” he said.
”Remember what I said about more showgirls?” All too well. “Watch Cabaret. You’ll see.”
That night, I drove to Hollywood Video, and did as he requested. I rented the film, and loved it. I had no idea what it had to do with my screenplay, which was based loosely on the life and death of The Adventures of Superman’s George Reeves, but I was certain he’d explain it to me.
“I loved it,” I said. “Hadn’t seen it before.”
”It was made all the stronger by the visuals, don’t you think?” So that was it. “Fosse did a magnificent job. We were all very happy with that film. Be visual in your scripts. Lesson number one.”
I took the lesson to heart. I revisited the script, which I had written several years prior, and revised it. One month later, I had optioned it.
I had Ernie to thank. The next time, I would take him to lunch.
Over the subsequent months, Ernie or his wife drove me to the office. I lived blocks from them, in Hollywood, so the offer to carpool was always appreciated.
Ernie began losing patience with me. I was somewhat obsessed with Disney’s animated version of Beauty and the Beast, that had been released four years prior, and told Ernie he “needed” to see it. “As a Broadway guy …” I began.
“Enough with that damn Beauty and the Beast already,” he said. “I’ll get around to it, okay?”
He didn’t seem right to me. He was short-tempered and impatient. He appeared to me to be in pain, though I didn’t want to ask. I found out later that Ernie was ill. He would pass away in May of 1995, of liver cancer that was diagnosed just two weeks earlier.
We did not know each other long, but I came to love the man. I developed a deep respect for him both professionally, and personally. I regret that I had never told him I considered him my “adopted California grandfather.”
I attended Ernie’s funeral, and a gathering at his home after. Though he was Jewish (he was born Ernest Harold Markowitz), the gathering was no staid Shiva call. It was a celebration of his life. I met Cy Feuer that day, and was flattered that Ernie had spoken to him about me.
I asked Cy about the cane in the display case near the front door. “Oh, that was John Steinbeck’s,” he said.
I was, and still am, a John Steinbeck fan. He had been one of my favorite authors for many years. “You’re kidding?” I asked.
“You didn’t know?” Cy asked.
”John Steinbeck was one of Ernie’s closest friends. We worked on a few projects together.”
I was blindsided. I knew Ernest Martin for barely a year. In that time, he said nothing to me about John Steinbeck.
I lost touch with his wife as the year went on. I left the job, and accepted a position at my local PBS station.
Nearly a decade later, I had an idea for a book. I would call it How to Survive a Day Job. The tome would be an inspirational guide for creatives and (other) entrepreneurs. I had often thought of Ernie over the years, and I still had his wife’s home phone number.
I called her, and asked if she would be interested in interviewing for the book. She was happy to hear from me, and invited me over for dinner.
I interviewed Ernie’s widow for my book, and then we discussed Ernie. We both missed him a great deal.
“How’s your back?” she asked.
”My back?” I found the question strange, and out of the blue.
”There’s a big brown box that’s been sitting in the closet,” she explained. “I haven’t been able to move it and have no idea what‘s in it. Can you help me while you’re here?”
I entered the walk-in closet, moved some things around and managed to remove the well-wedged box. I placed it on the table.
“Let’s talk a look,” she said.
I opened the box. Atop of whatever was inside was an approximately four-inch folded stack of browning New York Times newspapers from the 1950s. I removed the stack. Underneath were several hundred handwritten and typed pages of various sizes. Stories, letters, articles.
And then I noticed the signature on several of the papers: John Steinbeck.
“You do know what you have here?” I asked, following the initial shock.
“I figured it was some Steinbeck writing,” she said. “Think it’s worth anything?”
”Do I think it’s worth anything?” I responded. “Probably a small fortune.” I was a book collector, and what rested before me was the equivalent of a literary Fort Knox. Not so much in terms of financial worth — which I assumed to be substantial — but in terms of importance.
“Why don’t you take the box home,” she said, “and figure it out.”
”You’re kidding, right?”
”I trust you. Take as much time as you need, and get back to me when you’re done.”
I brought the work home. Over seven months, usually at night, I scupuously reviewed every piece of paper. Most of the archive was brittle to the touch. I would carefully copy them, and then place the originals in Mylar bags.
I would work with the copies.
One of the difficulties was that there was no order in the stack. The pages went from personal letters to parts of a story, to another story, to an article, to what seemed to be fragments, to back to the original story … and so on.
My kitchen table was reserved for the sorting effort. I had kept a separate stack of Steinbeck paperbacks alongside me, while trying to identify what I had in front of me. To add to the difficulty, some of the papers were marked, some were not.
The letters from John to Ernie were readily identifiable. A tabloid-sized handwritten copy of The Log of the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck’s 1951 non-fiction classic detailing his 1940 boat expedition with marine biologist Ed Ricketts, was titled and marked. I could barely believe my fortune.
My ah-ha! moment came, however, just after midnight on a chilly Southern California evening. My heater was not working. I couldn’t sleep and figured I’d work through the night while sitting on my chair covered in blankets. The paperback of Sweet Thursday was bookmarked to a page containing words I thought I had read earlier on one of the handwritten pages. I found the handwritten page in question and matched it. A few minutes later, and I realized what I also had in front of me: the entire handwritten manuscript of John Steinbeck’s novel, Sweet Thursday.
But there was still more. Once I managed to order all the pages, I noticed certain other similarities, and matches, as if some of the remaining papers were earlier drafts of a final product. Specifically, they bore a resemblance to Sweet Thursday.
The following morning, my suspicions were validated. I was not only in possession of the original Sweet Thursday manuscript among the pages, but the entire construct of the novel. Specifically, per one of the letters therein, Steinbeck had been working with Feuer and Martin to create a musical sequel to his famed Cannery Row, entitled The Bear Flag Cafe. Based on information from another letter, Steinbeck was unhappy with the progress. He returned to Feuer and Martin, and said he preferred to write a dramatic sequel. The Broadway tandem relented. Steinbeck wrote the dramatic sequel … and he was not happy with that version either.
The trio would discard the effort entirely. The novel, Sweet Thursday, was born from those remains.
Every piece of this progression was presently on my kitchen table. Now I had to disclose my findings. For a brief moment, I considered returning to my native New York and disconnecting my phone. I so wanted to keep this material.
Alas, I was raised better than that. Bully for me.
Copy of a handwritten letter from Steinbeck to Feuer and Martin
Copy of a page of “The Bear Flag Cafe”
I scheduled to return the material to its rightful owner. She was equally stunned with the results. I asked what she was going to do with the material.
“I’ll put it up for auction, and will cut you in for a piece.”
I was disappointed, believing the work belonged to a museum. But the archive did not belong to me, and I had no real say in the matter.
”When do you need it back?” I asked.
”Hold on to it for awhile if you don’t mind. I’m reorganizing here.”
About a year later, we agreed on a gallery to handle the material. I had since met the woman I would marry, and she and I moved into a house. I still held the material. I received permission from the archive owner to contact the local news. The Los Angeles Daily News was the first to cover the work. Once published, the block outside of my new home was lined with local and national news trucks.
It was a heck of a period. For a minute, I became a celebrity to my new wife. And my new neighbors.
Life was good.
The auction was set. I returned the material.
Ultimately, the bulk of the archive did not sell. We were all surprised. The Log of the Sea of Cortez did sell, for $90,000. I was in touch with the Steinbeck estate during this process, and I understand much of the work was later donated.
I have lost contact with most of the parties involved, and have not spoken with my old client in nearly 15 years. Beginning a new life with my new bride became my priority. I remain, however, forever grateful for the singular privilege of once being asked to remove a certain big brown box from an old friend’s closet.
Originally published at letterpile.com.