The legacy of Nobel laureate John Steinbeck’s time in Sag Harbor was celebrated in a big way in the month of May, with a soft opening of the new writer’s retreat being planned for the author’s Bluff Point Road house and a grand opening for the John Steinbeck Memorial Park at the foot of the Sag Harbor Bridge.
Steinbeck spent his summers in Sag Harbor from the mid-1950s until his death in 1968, and it is said that he learned he had won the Nobel Prize while in the kitchen of his Sag Harbor fishing bungalow, where he summered with his third wife, Elaine, and his sons Thomas and John, from his second marriage to Gwyndolyn Conger.
Steinbeck, long a chronicler of the lives of working people, was drawn to Sag Harbor by its rough, working class nature at the time. His novel “The Winter of Our Discontent” is a study of class dynamics in a fictional bayside town drawn on his experiences here, and he set off to see America in “Travels with Charley” after making sure his boat, the Fair Elaine, weathered Hurricane Donna in the Sag Harbor Cove.
Steinbeck was one of the founders of Sag Harbor’s Old Whalers Festival in September, now known as HarborFest, but he agreed to participate with one caveat — that no one tell the public where he lived, said Susan Mead, a co-president of the Sag Harbor Partnership, who was giving some of the first tours of “Steinbeck House,” the new writers center, on Memorial Day Weekend.
People are bound to find out now where he lived.
The Steinbeck House was purchased March of this year for $13.5 million in a deal that involved community donations gathered by the Sag Harbor Partnership, in collaboration with the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, which will select writers to live in residence at the house while working on projects, and an $11.2 million conservation and use easement purchased by Southampton Town through the Community Preservation Fund. The property was for sale, with an original asking price of $17 million, by the estate of Elaine Steinbeck, who died in 2003.
The public will be allowed to tour the property on three-day holiday weekends (Memorial Day, Labor Day and Columbus Day) and on two Saturdays per month in the months of June, July and August.
The opening weekend tours departed on a Hampton Hopper minibus from in front of the Baron’s Cove Inn, winding down the small back roads to the house, a Depression-era bungalow on a peninsula surrounded on three side by the Sag Harbor Cove.
Bill Richmond, a docent who is giving tours of the property with his wife, Lori Raimondo (she’s a better storyteller, he said), urged tourgoers to stop by Canio’s Books to pick up a book of Steinbeck’s essays, “America and Americans,” two of which talk about his time at the property — “My War With The Osprey,” about the author’s chagrin when a nesting pair of ospreys vacated his property for a better nesting site, and “Conversations at Sag Harbor,” a series of discussions with his sons.
The opening pages of “Travels with Charley” share a tale of the author trying heroically to protect his boat, which had been pushed onto his dock by other loosely moored boats in the cove.
Mr. Richmond said people who had come through on tours earlier in the weekend remembered Steinbeck’s gun collection, kept near the massive fireplace in the center of the small house.
Nina Tobier, a neighbor who had played with Steinbeck’s sons as a child, was on the Sunday morning tour. She said she remembered Thomas Steinbeck showing up at her house with a javelin from his father’s collection, which he struck down into the ground next to her cocker spaniel, who was eating a bowl of food.
The dog leapt forward and bit Steinbeck’s son, she said, after which her father, a doctor, called the author and asked him to come over to care for his son. Ms. Tobier said she remembered Steinbeck admonishing Thomas for playing with the javelin.
Steinbeck’s presence in Sag Harbor is not particularly distant, and many who came through on opening weekend had stories to tell.
Ms. Mead said Nada Barry, owner of The Wharf Shop, whose husband, Bob, had been a close friend of Steinbeck, had already given an interview about her recollections of the place that will be edited and put up on the Steinbeck House website.
Many original features of the house have been obscured by renovations over the years, including the door molding where Steinbeck kept track of the heights of his sons (and Charley). Family photographs that had lined the walls of a hallway have been removed to be digitized and preserved, and will be remounted in the house.
Built-in bookshelves abound throughout the two-bedroom house and Joyous Gard, the octagonal writing studio where Steinbeck carried a canvas director’s chair, yellow legal pads and Number 2 pencils to go about his craft.
Spelled out in stones embedded in the cement at the entrance to the writing studio is the Old English word “AROYNT,” which roughly translates to “go away.”
Steinbeck’s workshop in a separate outbuilding also abounds with literary touches. He loved to use a label maker to label things, said Ms. Mead and Mr. Richmond, including drawers full of tools with titles like “blader things.”
A sign on the wall of the workshop reads “Trespassers Will Be Eaten,” though the Steinbeck House has not yet been able to verify whether that sign, or a bag of golf clubs and a bocce set in the workshop belonged to the author.
Their stewardship of the site, they said, is a work in progress that appears to be off to a sensitive and respectful start. The next group of hourly tours is slated for June 10 and reservations can be made at steinbeckhouse.org.
Meanwhile, far more publicly, Sag Harbor Village held a ribbon-cutting for the John Steinbeck Memorial Park in the center of the village on May 25.
The Sag Harbor Partnership first conceived of the park in 2016, after a long-fought effort to keep condominiums from being built there. Southampton Town spent $10.5 million in CPF funds to purchase that property in 2018, and Landscape Architect Ed Hollander donated his services and funding for the project, as well as getting other landscape professionals on board with donating their services.
The project is part of a larger effort to provide walkers with access to the majority of the waterfront surrounding Sag Harbor Village, as proposed in the village’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan decades ago. —BHY