The Muckraker How the Radical Lincoln Steffens Won the Hearts (If Not the Minds) of Carmel

Lincoln Steffens

By Joe Livernois

It might be difficult to imagine, in times such as these, that a radical, agitating vocal advocate for revolution could thrive in the United States — much less in a place like Carmel.

Lincoln Steffens and his scandalously young wife, wild-eyed radicals both, crashed the neighborhood in the mid-1920s, just as the city was recovering from the libertine antics of Bohemians like poet George Sterling and Jack London. Carmel was settling down, but now the famous muckraker came to town with revolution and reform on his mind.

The story of his life in Carmel is an example of how neighbors with wildly different approaches to politics and the social construct can still develop abiding friendships if they spend the time to actually know one another. This all happened decades ago, but Steffens in Carmel is an inspiration for today’s divided society.

Steffens was a California native, born in San Francisco. He died in Carmel at the age of 70, in 1936. In between, he was a writer and a journalist who asked impertinent questions and reached insolent conclusions. He knew and chatted with the giants of his time, including Teddy Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, Clarence Darrow, Lenin and Mussolini. He lived now and again in Europe, and he witnessed revolutions in Russia and Mexico. He got involved in labor wars wherever he could, including one in Los Angeles — where some alleged he had been too involved in the defense of domestic terrorists.

As a reporter, his beat was greed, corruption and institutional dysfunction. His seminal book, The Shame of the Cities, was a collection of articles he wrote for McClure’s magazine, which he edited. His collective work is a pioneering example that activist, investigative journalism can result in great civic and social change.

His view of America was of a Great Swindle, a place where power-mad and insatiable money changers corrupted each of its esteemed institutions. His philosophy about the cultural politics of the United States might best be summarized in a line from Shame: “The spirit of graft and lawlessness is the American spirit.”

Lincoln Steffens was an original muckraker: part reporter, part civic investigator, part agitator, part reformer, and mostly crusader. The genesis of the job description came from President Theodore Roosevelt, who once referred to any reformed-minded journalist as a man with “a muck-rake in his hand.” In today’s world, a guy like Steffens might be regarded by the status quo as an “enemy of the people,” or cynically as a purveyor of “fake news.”

He was unabashedly defiant, a true believer, and he implored fellow journalists to take their jobs seriously. “Care like hell!,” he would tell them. “Sit around the bars and drink, and pose, and pretend, all you want to, but in reality, deep down underneath, care like hell.”

And yet, behind all that hell-raising, Steffens’ gregarious spirit won friends wherever he went, from Wall Street to the county jails, even as he was regarded as a Satan across the land.

Lincoln Steffens landed in Carmel at the age of 60 with his wife, Ella Winter, who was a 26-year-old socialist writer when they married three years earlier, in 1924. During their first two years of marriage, they lived in San Remo and had a son they named Pete.

In Carmel, Steffens could settle into domestic life with his first and only child. The Steffens found an “indigenous-looking wooden house on the corner of Ocean Avenue and San Antonio Street, about a hundred yards from the beach,” according to a biographer, Justin Kaplan. The Steffens referred to the house as The Getaway.

Steffens’ reputation as a firebrand preceded him; by then he had witnessed and reported on a lifetime of corruption and revolution across the planet. He had also been a presence in Carmel some years earlier, when Bohemian culture was ripe and loopy. Rumor had it that he and the novelist and playwright Mary Austin were romantically entangled. Austin, a rather large and larger-than-life presence in Carmel, wore long priestess robes and was given to meditating in a tree house.

But now, two decades later, he and Ella were hunkered down to raise Pete, while Steffens wrote his autobiography in the twilight of his life.

Steffens was not about to retire quietly. Where once he had been a furious citizen of the world, he now brought that intensity to the affairs of Carmel. He delved into politics and the operations of the schools. He and Ella started a weekly newspaper they called The Carmelite, which operated in direct competition to The Pine Cone, then the stodgy defender of the status quo.

The Steffens family

The Steffenses wrote stinging editorials about local injustices, but they also published left-leaning correspondences from wherever revolutions were popping up around the world. Steffens seemed especially interested in Mexico, and The Carmelite published many stories about conditions there from a correspondent pseudonymously known as “Nuto Mondini.”

Lincoln Steffens was constantly quarreling with The Pine Cone, which referred to The Carmelite and its staff variously as reds, Bolsheviks and pro-German socialists.

By the time the Steffens settled in, the days of Austin, George Sterling and Jack London were wearing down. The city was practically founded on the alt culture of its time; its savvy founders and developes practically donated property to artists, poets and avant garde notables, so as to attract status purchasers who reveled in the remnant glory and congratulatory satisfaction of owning a prestigious address. When the Steffens arrived decades later, the community had “succumbed to listlessness, beach-combing and a generalized postcoital tristesse,” Kaplan wrote. “The cult of the great god Pan had declined into gossip, artiness, and a taste for peasant crafts, dirndl outfits, picnics, psychic phenomena and visitations from swamis who attempted to explain the inexplicable in a language nobody could understand.”

Steffens himself noted that Carmel had become a thriving community of plutocrats, socialites, sportsmen, comfortably retired geriatrics and others who had “died and gone to heaven.” He might have been speaking of himself.

And then, in June of 1929, word spread around Carmel that Ella had left Steffens. She sued for divorce, alleging extreme cruelty. The New York Times picked up the story and it was the talk of Carmel. Ella fled to England with their son.

But, as sometimes happens, Lincoln and Ella remained friendly. They exchanged long-distance correspondence. Love letters, actually. And she returned to the United States in October, the day the banks crashed, and they remained together until he died, even after the final divorce decree was granted in 1931.

Through it all, and even before his marriage to Ella and while he had been married to his first wife, Josephine, Steffens “carried on a quasi-engagement and then a quasi-marriage with Gussie Burgess,” according to Thomas Leonard, who wrote the foreword in the 2005 reprint of Steffens’ autobiography. Steffens’ love life seemed to have been a succession of intense, confusing and awkward encounters, including his relationship with Mary Austin, who apparently ended up stalking him across the country. He had earlier been married to the tragically un-functional Josephine, and Gussie seemed to remain fixed in his orbit.

But now Ella was back. Their marriage dissolved, yet they still lived together. It was all quite mysterious, and Lincoln gleefully played up the mystery. Ella was in on the game.

Were they living in sin? Or merely in Carmel?

Meanwhile, the Steffens kept up their running duel with The Pine Cone. They kept making noise and upsetting the hoi polloi in town and then endearing themselves to most everyone. He kept working on his autobiography. He even starred in a local production of a play written by a friend, Martin Flavin, called “Amaco.”

The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens was published in 1931. Salesmen for the publisher, Harcourt, Brace, grumbled because the book was too thick and too expensive — $7.50 when times were tough. Most people hadn’t heard of him, or they had forgotten who Steffens was. He hadn’t been living in New York City for years by then, and the West Coast was regarded as a cultural wasteland.

But then The New York Times Book Review offered a ringing, front-page endorsement of Autobiography, calling it “extraordinary.” Carl Sandburg referred to it as “one of those peculiar books which we know in our time is destined to be a classic.”

Within 10 days, Harcourt ordered a second printing. By 1932, the autobiography had become assigned reading in colleges around the country, in courses ranging from English and journalism to government and history. He seemed always to be on tour, plugging the book and lecturing. He was considered some sort of prophet, according to Kaplan, the biographer.  Indeed, the penultimate chapter of Autobiography was titled “Prophecy.”

He was as sardonic and cynical about the United States as ever. And people loved it. This, for instance, is a passage from “Prophecy:”

The good people whom I have found to be ‘no good,’ who carry through no reforms, who oppose all change as soon as they understand it — these, the great obstacle to all progress, whose incomes are a wasteful graft on business, in which they are a useless hindrance, whose ‘moral’ influence in art, literature, education, cultural, and business is as ‘bad’ as it is in politics, these people are doomed outside as they are in — Russia.

Steffens was stunned by the triumph of his book. “I guess I am a success,” he told Ella. “I guess I’ll go down in history now.”

It was an odd position to be in; the story he wrote about his own life became more impactful than anything he had done in that life.

His renewed celebrity was much noticed in Carmel, which embraced him now as a native son. At one point at the Carmel Public Library, 36 people were on the waiting list for Autobiography.

Then, oddly, The Carmel Pine Cone, the stodgy weekly and the Steffens’ foe, devoted an entire edition in praise of him. The newspaper feud was now behind them, it seemed, perhaps owing to the fact that Steffens had been in ill health. The Carmelite no longer existed, but Steffens and Ella edited other local weeklies, Controversy, followed by Pacific Weekly.

The tribute edition, which included a succession of praises, acclaim, compliments and good cheer written by dozens of Carmel citizens, reads almost like eulogies, as if the people in town wanted Steffens to read his own flattering obituary and the nice things they remembered of him.

And it wasn’t as if Steffens had muzzled his radical thinking and thus mollified the citizenry. That year, he issued a ringing endorsement for the Communist Party’s nominee for California governor by issuing a lengthy dissertation asserting that only communism could save Americans from the betrayal of capitalists. He referred to his manifesto as his “muckraker’s proclamation.”

Jo Mora’s cartoon

And yet The Pine Cone opened its pages to like-minded agitators, along with staid and conservative townsfolk, all unanimous in their embrace of Steffens, in its Feb. 16, 1934 tribute edition.

“Lincoln Steffens is a dangerous man,” wrote Charles Erskine Scott Wood, the author and civil liberties advocate. It was the highest compliment anyone could pay a muckraker. “He would, if he could, embrace the pillars of Society only to pull down the Sacred Temple in ruins.”

Robinson Jeffers’ contribution to The Pine Cone tribute was an open letter to his friend. Readers couldn’t possibly know the real Lincoln Steffens, Jeffers remarked, because the printed word is limited in its ability to describe the integrity of a man. “(T)hey can hardly realize as your neighbors do, how warmly tolerant you are, how universally sympathetic — toward criminals, millionaires, artists, even writers of verse — how rapid as well as active your mind is, and how humane with its kindness.”

Somehow Steffens had offended almost everyone in town, but they loved him anyway.

In summer of 1936, Steffens’ health got bad. He was diagnosed with arteriosclerosis, but he refused to leave the Getaway. He reportedly told his doctor that he’d “rather die sooner than leave my home.” Steffens died of a heart  attack at The Getaway on Aug. 9, 1936, some 17 months after the special edition.

Ella was with him when he died. She reported his last words were, “No, no. I can’t.”

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SOUNDTRACK |  Anything Goes by Cole Porter

Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.