The Sag Harbor home where Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck spent the later years of his life is on the brink of preservation this month, as Southampton Town, the Sag Harbor Partnership and the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas work out the final details to make the property a place where writers can work for generations to come.
Praise for the effort was nearly unanimous at a public hearing Jan. 24 before the Southampton Town Board on using $11.2 million of Community Preservation Fund money to buy the development rights on the property, which was first listed with Sotheby’s Realty by the Elaine Steinbeck Trust for $17.9 million in early 2021. The asking price has since been reduced to $14.5 million.
The Town Board held open the public hearing until its next meeting Feb. 14 while awaiting final details on the public access agreement between the town, the Sag Harbor Partnership and the Michener Center over public access to the property during the wintertime.
If an agreement is reached, the University of Texas Foundation would enter into a long-term lease with the local sponsors of the project, and would select writing fellows who would establish seasonal residencies in the 1,200-square-foot cottage, where they would also have the use of Steinbeck’s octagonal outbuilding overlooking the cove where he did much of his writing in Sag Harbor. The author had dubbed the building “Joyous Gard,” after the castle of Sir Lancelot in the Arthurian legends.
It was here in Sag Harbor where Steinbeck wrote “The Winter of Our Discontent,” published in 1961, about a grocery store clerk who is descended from early settlers in a seaside New England town upset about his lot as the employee of a recent Italian immigrant. It’s a project that is deeply steeped in local Sag Harbor lore, and it was also the novel he had published just before receiving the 1962 Nobel Prize for his body of work.
Sag Harbor is also depicted in Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley,” and it’s the port from which he set off with his standard poodle Charley to talk with regular people all over America in an RV named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse.
As Steinbeck honored the writers who influenced him, other notable writers shared their feelings about preserving the property at the Southampton Town hearing.
“There’s a parade of authors who have made Sag Harbor home, but none more distinguished than John Steinbeck,” Jay McInerney, author of “Bright Lights, Big City,” told the town board. “It’s impossible to overstate his position in American letters.
He added that he had had the opportunity to visit the property and “couldn’t believe what a magical spot it was” as he imagined Steinbeck writing in Joyous Gard, perched at the end of a peninsula overlooking Sag Harbor Cove and Morris Cove. “I feared I would some day read that a McMansion was being built on this beautiful spot.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead, whose work often incorporates his boyhood in Sag Harbor, serves as the honorary chairman of the group looking to preserve Steinbeck’s home. He said in a letter read by Canio’s Books co-owner Kathryn Szoka that he hopes “a new generation will be inspired and create work that will move us all to a greater understanding of each other.”
Ms. Szoka, who gathered 33,000 signatures on a petition to preserve Steinbeck’s Sag Harbor home, added that there are three notable eras in Sag Harbor history — the whaling era, the factory era, and, since the 1950s, the literary era. She added that the committee that had awarded Steinbeck the Nobel Prize said the author was an “independent expounder of truth, with an unbiased instinct for what was genuinely American, good or bad.”
She added that Mr. Steinbeck’s wife, Elaine Steinbeck, who lived in the house until her death in 2003, was a University of Texas alumnus who also had a notable career as the first female stage manager on Broadway. Mrs. Steinbeck was also a founding board member of Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater.
Nada Barry, who owns The Wharf Shop in Sag Harbor, said her husband, Bob Barry, “was John’s best friend.”
“The only thing I have to say is, having known John, there is nothing he would have wanted more than to have his property be a writer’s retreat,” she said.
Sag Harbor Partnership Treasurer Diana Howard said the organizers were compelled by the University of Texas’s proposal because they were the keepers of a large collection of Steinbeck papers, including the journal he kept while writing “The Grapes of Wrath.” She added that the Mitchener Center, at UT-Austin, draws a pool of exemplary writers from throughout the United States and internationally, and has an existing program in New York City.
The University of Texas Foundation has also promised a $10 million endowment for “maintenance of the property and robust programming,” she said, adding that, while the organizers had contacted Stony Brook University, Stony Brook representatives said they were not in a financial position to support this project now.
Mitchener Center Director Bret Johnston said that Steinbeck had once given a fellow writer a $1,000 check he’d received when he won an award, in order to give the writer some breathing room to finish a project. When that proved to not buy him enough time, Steinbeck let him stay at the house in Sag Harbor to complete the work.
He said that, in addition to the fellowship inspiring writers, “those writers are also going to go into the community and inspire all of your neighbors, teachers, librarians and students. We all have the ability to benefit from writers coming into this community…. Writing does not happen in isolation. It happens in solitude and in community.”
Political journalist and author John Avlon, who lives around the corner from the Steinbeck property, said that “as a writer as well as a resident, this place is a really sacred place.”
“It would be a real tragedy if we lost it on our watch,” he said. “The community rallying to save it is something I think we’ll look back on with enormous pride.”
Robert Remkus of Sag Harbor, the one person who spoke who expressed reservations, said “the price of the property seems to be overvalued for the comps in the area.”
“Since you’re in a giving mood, the former 7-Eleven (in Sag Harbor) is on the market. The board should consider acquiring that to expand the Steinbeck Park” in the center of Sag Harbor, he said.
Kathryn Szoka of Canio’s also read a letter from Donnamarie Barnes of the Sag Harbor neighborhood of Ninevah, who’s been working on The Plain Sight Project to tell the stories of the historically enslaved people who lived on the East End.
“One summer day, when I was very young, six or seven years old, my dad took me to town for an ice cream at Paradise,” she wrote. “Those of us old enough knew Paradise (now Lulu Kitchen on Main Street) had the very best ice cream in Sag Harbor. My dad was staring at a white man ahead of us online, and he was awestruck.”
After the man walked out with his ice cream, her father would tell her “that’s the greatest living American author, John Steinbeck, and one day when you’re older, you’ll read all his books. He’s a terrific writer.”
Ms. Barnes said that even though she would later see Steinbeck around Sag Harbor always wearing the same clothes — khakis and a wrinkled button-down shirt, “my dad said he was special and I saw him as that.” He also, she knew, had great taste in ice cream.
Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni, who is from Sag Harbor (and whose relatives’ grocery store is believed to be the basis for “The Winter of Our Discontent”), said he’d asked the community two years ago to find a local entity to oversee the property, a major national institution be involved and that public access be preserved, said he was impressed with the project the community delivered.
Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said the property will be open to the public on Memorial Day, Labor Day and Columbus Day Weekends, and by appointment on Saturdays in the spring and fall and every other Saturday in the summer. He added that an idea has also been floated by Councilman Rick Martel to have an annual writers workshop there for local students. The parties are currently hashing out some details of how the public would have access to the property in the winter before the Town Board votes to purchase the development rights. Board members said that could happen as soon as the board’s next meeting, Feb. 14 at 1 p.m.