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John Steinbeck’s fellow author son, Thomas Steinbeck, dies

John Steinbeck's fellow author son, Thomas Steinbeck, dies

Thomas Steinbeck, the eldest son of Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck and a prominent author and screenwriter in his own right, has died at his Santa Barbara, California, home.

The 72-year-old son of The Grapes Of Wrath author, who was working on an autobiography at the time of his death, died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his family said.

In addition to being a writer, Steinbeck fiercely defended his father’s work, adapting several John Steinbeck books for movies and launching legal efforts to protect the copyrights of his father and others.

“Until the end, Thom worked to protect his father’s name and legacy, as well as the rights of creative individuals everywhere,” his wife Gail said in a statement.

She called her Vietnam War veteran husband a patriot as well as a “wonderful, loving husband and son”.

After years as a documentary film-maker and screenwriter, Steinbeck launched his own career as an author relatively late in life. At 58 in 2002, he published his first book, a collection of stories called Down To A Soundless Sea, to positive reviews.

He followed it with the novels In The Shadow Of The Cypress in 2010 and The Silver Lotus in 2011.

Like his father’s works, many of the younger Steinbeck’s stories were set along California’s picturesque coastline.

Down To The Soundless Sea recounts tales of early settlers in Big Sur while In The Shadow Of The Cypress was set in Monterey, the same coastal city Steinbeck’s father used as settings for the novels Sweet Thursday, ‘Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat.

Steinbeck, who bore a striking resemblance to his father, launched a nearly decade-long battle in 2004 to claim intellectual property rights to written works he said should have been passed on to him and his family upon his father’s death. In 2009 he and folk singer Arlo Guthrie brought a copyright infringement case against Google that was eventually settled.

“Thom was friend and family,” Guthrie said. “And despite our different life experiences, we shared many things – survived having famous fathers whose line of work we continued, the 60’s, well-told stories and other experiences that made us feel like brothers.”

Thomas Myles Steinbeck, known to friends as Thom, was born in New York City on August 2, 1944, to the East Of Eden author and his second wife, singer-composer Gwyndolyn Steinbeck. The couple divorced four years later and he was raised mainly in East Coast boarding schools.

He often spent summers and holidays with his father, travelling through Europe, Greece and North Africa or holidaying in Pacific Grove, California, and Sag Harbour, New York.

It was during those times, he said, that his father imparted in him a passion for writing. From his mother, he said, he gained a deep appreciation for art.

Steinbeck’s mother drank heavily and he thought that influenced his becoming an alcoholic. He said taking up the painting, sculpture and drawing she taught him to love eventually led him to stop.

After graduating from high school, Steinbeck attended California Institute of the Arts, studying animation, and UCLA, where he studied film before joining the US Army during the Vietnam War.

Sent to Vietnam as an Armed Forces Radio and Television journalist, he was reassigned for several months as a helicopter gunman when the war intensified in 1968.

Returning to civilian life, he dedicated many of the following years to maintaining his father’s legacy.

He wrote the screenplays for movies based on the Steinbeck novels In Dubious Battle, The Pearl and Travels With Charley, producing the latter two as well.

Steinbeck was preceded in death by his parents and younger brother, John.

His family is planning a private funeral service at Big Sur.


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About the author

Sydney Chesterfield

Poet, Playwright, Philosopher, Humanitarian, mad lover of children and unflinching fighter for equality on all grounds viz. Women's rights, child rights, sine die.

Twitter: @syd_field