John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr. was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He was of German, English, and Irish descent. Johann Adolf Großsteinbeck, Steinbeck's paternal grandfather, had shortened the family name to Steinbeck when he emigrated to the United States. The family farm in Heiligenhaus, Mettmann, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, is still today named "Großsteinbeck."
His father, John Ernst Steinbeck, served as Monterey County treasurer. John's mother, Olive Hamilton, a former school teacher, shared Steinbeck's passion of reading and writing. The Steinbecks were members of the Episcopal Church. Steinbeck lived in a small rural town that was essentially a frontier settlement, set amid some of the world's most fertile land. He spent his summers working on nearby ranches and later with migrant workers on Spreckels ranch. He became aware of the harsher aspects of migrant life and the darker side of human nature, which supplied him with material expressed in such works as Of Mice and Men. He also explored his surroundings, walking across local forests, fields, and farms.
Steinbeck graduated from Salinas High School in 1919 and went from there to Stanford University in Palo Alto where he stayed for five years until 1925, leaving without a degree. He traveled to New York City where he took odd jobs while trying to write. When he failed to have his work published, he returned to California and worked in 1928 as a tour guide and caretaker at the fish hatchery in Tahoe City, where he met Carol Henning, his first wife. Steinbeck and Henning were married in January 1930. For most of the Great Depression and during his marriage to Carol, Steinbeck lived in a cottage owned by his father in Pacific Grove, California, on the Monterey Peninsula a few blocks from the border of the city of Monterey, California. The elder Steinbecks gave him free housing, paper for his manuscripts, and beginning in 1928, loans that allowed him to give up a warehouse job in San Francisco, and focus on writing.
After the publication of Tortilla Flat—a novel set in Monterey—in 1935, he built a summer ranch-home in Los Gatos. In 1940, Steinbeck went on a voyage around the Gulf of California with his friend Ed Ricketts, to collect biological specimens, described in The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Although Carol accompanied Steinbeck on the trip, their marriage was beginning to suffer, and would end in 1941, even as Steinbeck worked on the manuscript for the book. In 1942, Steinbeck's divorce from Carol became final and later that month he married Gwyndolyn "Gwyn" Conger. With his second wife Steinbeck had his only children—Thomas ("Thom") Myles Steinbeck (born 1944) and John Steinbeck IV (1946–1991).
In 1943, Steinbeck served as a World War II war correspondent. Steinbeck accompanied the commando raids of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s Beach Jumpers program, which launched small-unit diversion operations against German-held islands in the Mediterranean. In 1944, wounded by a close munitions explosion in North Africa, the war-weary author resigned from his work and returned home.
In 1947, Steinbeck made the first of many trips to the Soviet Union, this one with renowned photographer Robert Capa. They visited Moscow, Kiev, Tbilisi, Batumi and Stalingrad, becoming some of the first Westerners to visit many parts of the USSR since the communist revolution. Steinbeck's book about their experiences, A Russian Journal, was illustrated with Capa's photos. In 1948, the year the book was published, Steinbeck was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In May 1948 Steinbeck traveled to California on an emergency trip to be with his friend Ed Ricketts, who had been seriously injured when his car was struck by a train. Ricketts died hours before Steinbeck arrived. On returning home from this devastating trip, Steinbeck was confronted by Gwyn, who told him she wanted a divorce for various reasons related to estrangement. She could not be dissuaded, and the divorce became final in August. Steinbeck spent the year after Ricketts' death in deep depression, by his own account.
In June 1949, Steinbeck met stage-manager Elaine Scott at a restaurant in Carmel, California. Steinbeck and Scott eventually began a relationship and in December, 1950, Steinbeck and Scott married, within a week of the finalizing of Scott's own divorce from actor Zachary Scott. This third marriage for Steinbeck lasted until his death in 1968.
In 1966, Steinbeck traveled to Tel Aviv to visit the site of Mount Hope, a farm community established in Israel by his grandfather, whose brother, Friedrich Grosssteinbeck, was murdered by Arab marauders in 1858.
John Steinbeck died in New York City on December 20, 1968 of heart disease and congestive heart failure. He was 66, and had been a lifelong smoker. An autopsy showed nearly complete occlusion of the main coronary arteries.
In accordance with his wishes, his body was cremated, and an urn containing his ashes was eventually interred (March 4, 1969) at the Hamilton family gravesite at Garden of Memories Memorial Park in Salinas, with those of his parents and maternal grandparents. His third wife, Elaine, was buried in the plot in 2004. He had earlier written to his doctor that he felt deeply "in his flesh" that he would not survive his physical death, and that the biological end of his life was the final end to it.
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