'He is already your slave. This would make him mine.'
John Steinbeck writes to Marilyn Monroe, and others.
It’s the anniversary of John Steinbeck’s death, so I’m sending you a few gems from his letters1: an autograph request he once sent to Marilyn Monroe; proof that the “my dog ate my homework” excuse has been used even by those at the top of their game; a timeless slice of advice he once gave to his lovesick son; and an also timeless but far less heartwarming observation from New Year’s Day, 1941.
In my whole experience I have never known anyone to ask for an autograph of himself. It is always for a child or an ancient aunt, which gets very tiresome, as you know better than I. It is therefore, with a certain nausea that I tell you that I have a nephew in-law who lives in Austin, Texas, whose name is Jon Atkinson. He has his foot in the door of puberty, but that is only one of his problems. You are the other.
I know that you are not made of celestial ether, but he doesn’t. A suggestion that you have normal functions would shock him deeply and I’m not going to be the one to tell him.
On a recent trip to Texas, my wife made the fatal error of telling Jon that I had met you. He doesn’t really believe it, but his respect for me has gone up even for lying about it.
Now, I get asked for all kind of silly favors, so I have no hesitation in asking one of you. Would you send him, in my care, a picture of yourself, perhaps in pensive, girlish mood, inscribed to him by name and indicating that you are aware of his existence. He is already your slave. This would make him mine.
If you will do this, I will send you a guest key to the ladies’ entrance of Fort Knox and, furthermore, I will like you very much.
John Steinbeck | Letter to Marilyn Monroe, 28 Apr 1955
Minor tragedy stalked. I don’t know whether I told you. My setter pup, left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my book [Of Mice and Men]. Two months work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically. I didn’t want to ruin a good dog for a ms. I’m not sure it is good at all. He only got an ordinary spanking with his punishment flyswatter. But there’s the work to do over from the start.
John Steinbeck | Letter to his editor, Elizabeth Otis, 27 May 1936
There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you—of kindness and consideration and respect—not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had. . .
If it is right, it happens—The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.
John Steinbeck | Letter to his lovesick son, Thom, 10 Nov 1958
So we go into this happy new year, knowing that our species has learned nothing, can, as a race, learn nothing — that the experience of ten thousand years has made no impression on the instincts of the million years that proceeded. Maybe you can find some vague theology that will give you hope. Not that I have lost any hope. All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die. I don’t know why we should expect it to. It seems fairly obvious that two sides of a mirror are required before one has a mirror, that two forces are necessary in man before he is man. I asked Paul de Kruif once if he would like to cure all disease and he said yes. Then I suggested that the man he loved and wanted to cure was a product of all his filth and disease and meanness, his hunger and cruelty. Cure those and you would have not man but an entirely new species you wouldn’t recognize and probably wouldn’t like.
John Steinbeck | Letter to Pascal Covici, 1 Jan 1941
Not all of these are from the magnificent book, Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, but I strongly recommend grabbing a copy. It’s up there with the very best.