By Joe Livernois
Ritchie Lovejoy wrote a novel more than 80 years ago, and he was able to do it because of John Steinbeck’s generous faith in his talent.
That novel, “Taku Wind,” was never accepted by a publishing house. For eight decades the original manuscript was nothing more than a Lovejoy family heirloom. Its 638 typewritten pages are bound crudely with two bolts and protected by a hard cover that Lovejoy himself designed.
It finally got published last month, albeit in a very limited edition — 24 copies — and distributed to a select few. The book bears the name of no publisher. There is no International Standard Book Number to identify it as a standard book. But getting it printed was a labor of love by Lovejoy’s son. It is the finishing touch to an intensely personal family story with deep connections to Monterey’s literary history.
“Taku Wind” is Ritch Lovejoy’s fictional account of an Alaskan fishing village, but the true story of the novel’s history and its author’s destiny is as bittersweet and as true as anything Steinbeck ever wrote.
Steinbeck plays a critical role in this human tragedy. The great American author should have been the protagonist in the Ritch Lovejoy biography. Instead, Steinbeck’s shadow only complicated Lovejoy’s life.
Steinbeck’s intentions were certainly good. He saw promise in Ritch Lovejoy, and he took him under his wing. They had been friends; Ritch and John horsed around as young adults in Southern California, where Ritch tried to make a living making plaster casts of people’s heads while John was falling in love with Carol Henning. Years later, Steinbeck offered his friend a unique opportunity to fulfill his dream. Steinbeck was an international sensation by then, and he bankrolled Lovejoy’s shot at publishing fame. He gave him $1,000 and let Ritchie and his wife live in the Steinbeck family’s Pacific Grove cottage, rent free, for a year.
And it wasn’t just any thousand dollars. Steinbeck signed over the check he received from the Pulitzer Prize committee after winning the Pulitzer for “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1940. News of this generous gift circulated all over the world, via the Associated Press and United Press International.
Steinbeck’s contribution afforded Lovejoy the leisure to write his own Great American Novel. It must have been an idyllic time for Ritchie and his wife, Tal. He was an author with a bright future, living the dream in Steinbeck’s own cottage. The Lovejoys gave birth to a son that year; they named him John, in honor of John Steinbeck, their friend and benefactor.
The year passed. Then came the stark reality. “Taku Wind” was rejected by three different publishers, and Lovejoy simply gave up on it. All that work and all of Steinbeck’s faith squandered.
The rejections followed him around like a ball and chain. But life went on as the Lovejoys tried to make do with their growing little family. After a few false starts in other ventures, Lovejoy took his writing career to journalism. He worked for the Monterey Peninsula Herald. Ritch’s deep friendship with the likes of Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts gave The Herald a unique proximity to the enchantment of Cannery Row.
Ritch Lovejoy was a quirky and colorful character in his own right. Jean Ariss, a local artist, remembered him as a “sensitive, suffering poetic type” who had married an uninhibited, hard-drinking woman named Natalya — known as Tal. (Tal was the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest named Kashervaroff and his Alaskan Tlingit/Aleut wife.)
Lovejoy wrote a column filled with whimsy and personality. He cranked out beautiful profiles and character studies about the people he met along the way. He wrote sweet mood pieces about the life and times of Monterey’s fabled waterfront.
He was also a talented artist. He might actually be best known for providing the drawings that illustrated “Between Pacific Tides,” the ground-breaking book about intertidal ecology co-written by Ricketts.
But he was haunted by the fact that he never lived up to Steinbeck’s expectations, by the knowledge that everyone in town knew of his failure. And after Ricketts died of injuries sustained when his car smashed into a train not far from his Pacific Biological Laboratories, Ritch Lovejoy was plagued with more heartbreak, more disappointment and constant grief until he died of a brain tumor in 1956, at age 48.
Last month, John Lovejoy published “Taku Wind.” Twenty-four printed copies, released to a limited audience. A tribute to his father.
“I felt the need to publish it because my dad couldn’t,” John Lovejoy told me. “My dad did not achieve what he wanted and I’m positive it bugged him for his whole short life.”
John Lovejoy’s childhood was thick in the myth of Cannery Row. The Lovejoys were at the center of it all, mixed up with the Steinbecks, Ed Ricketts and the periphery of larger-than-life characters. A constant orbit of artists, writers, girlfriends, scientists, misfits, actors, wives and philosophers spun around them. They formed a “rough kind of salon seared with a California brand,” wrote Susan Shillinglaw, a leading expert on Steinbeck’s life and times.
Ricketts and his marine research lab were the epicenter of it all. The place popped with boisterous discussions fueled by alcohol and music. Ritch Lovejoy told hilarious stories, while his exotic wife played the accordion, blew smoke rings and “drank vodka until she fell over.” While his parents partied at Ricketts’ lab well into the night, little John Lovejoy would fall asleep in a back bedroom. He drifted off to the sounds of lively banter, boozy laughter and the works of Vivaldi, Mozart and Bach. Beyond that, the Lovejoys joined the Steinbecks, Ricketts and Joseph Campbell for picnics at Point Lobos, hikes up Mount Toro and target shooting at the beach.
There was plenty of human drama mixed into the Cannery Row scene, of course, just as drama exists everywhere. But in Cannery Row it was amplified by the personalities involved. A churn of spouses, lovers and quiet infidelities moved in and out of the scene. Scholarly journals — books! — have been published about the comings and goings at Pacific Biological Laboratories.
These people weren’t famous to John Lovejoy while he grew up in the middle of it all. They were simply friends of the family. “From the time I was able to discern stuff, I didn’t know who these people were,” John said. “I just thought they were regular people, like everybody else.”
But troubles plagued the family. Ricketts’ death changed everything for those within his circle, and especially Steinbeck and the Lovejoys. Ritch Lovejoy was put in charge of the funeral, a sad and daunting task fraught with hard emotions. Ricketts’ shocking death put an end to the glamor of Cannery Row. It took a while for many of the survivors to regain their bearings; some of them never did.
Weeks after Ricketts’ death, Steinbeck sent a letter to Ritchie and Tal Lovejoy, urging them not to “tear yourselves to pieces” in despair. He made it clear in that letter, dated May 27, 1948, that Ricketts had been the life force that held his world together. He told the Lovejoys he had remained “drunk enough or withdrawn enough” to get through the first several weeks of his own grief, and he spent his days “sitting alone in my hotel room,” trying to make sense of it all.
“Wouldn’t it be interesting if Ed was us and that now there wasn’t any such thing or that he created out of his own mind something that went away with him?” he scribbled in his dispatch to the Lovejoys from his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y. “I’ve wondered a lot about that. How much was Ed and how much was me and which was which.”
Less than a year after Ricketts died, Ritch and Tal were devastated by an even deeper personal tragedy, the death of their 2-year-old daughter — John’s sister — who died after surgery to treat a cancer called retinoblastoma.
From then on, the family always seemed to be in grief. Good and loving friends were dying around them. Jan Goodwin died in childbirth; soon after that her widower crashed his car, killing his new lover. Peg Carroll died of tuberculosis. Londy Londall died suddenly. One hit after another.
And then, still in his 40s, Ritchie Lovejoy started losing his hearing.
One day at work, Ritchie turned in a story to editor Jimmy Costello that was pure gibberish. Costello walked over to his desk and asked if everything was okay. Why don’t you go home and get some rest. Ritch saw a doctor, who diagnosed a malignant brain tumor. He spent the rest of his days in and out of hospitals.
“I remember he seemed like an old man with a sad little smile,” John said. He was 15 at the time.
Ritchie died about four months after the diagnosis, at the age of 48.
“Everything he touched turned to tragedy, in health, in economics, in his work,” Steinbeck wrote, in a letter to a friend several years after Ritch Lovejoy’s death. “It was almost as if he called tragedy to him.”
After losing his father, John Lovejoy finished high school in Pacific Grove, went to Monterey Peninsula College for a couple of years and worked briefly in the photo-engraving department at The Monterey Peninsula Herald. He spent several years overseas with the U.S. Air Force. John also sort of followed his father’s tracks to Alaska, where he worked as a go-fer at a screwy little community newspaper. He finished college when he returned to California, earning a degree in creative writing at San Francisco State University.
After graduation, without job prospects, John applied for work at The Herald. Editor Ted Durien hired him, even though he had no real journalism experience.
He stayed for three months, working at his father’s old desk in the old Herald building on Pacific Avenue and Jefferson Street in Monterey. The editors made sure he used the Royal typewriter his father had used to write his columns.
John’s wife was offered a teaching position in Contra Costa County, and they moved there. John took a job as a journalist for a newspaper in Antioch, where he remained until his retirement in 2001. He now lives in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
John Lovejoy, now in his 80s, often thinks about his father’s legacy, and about his own unique childhood, the connections with Steinbeck and Ricketts.
The way he sees it, he owes his very existence to Steinbeck and “The Grapes of Wrath,” to the Pulitzer committee and the $1,000 Pulitzer payment that Steinbeck donated to his father. Without all that, he said, “I would not exist.” He certainly wouldn’t have been named John.
That’s an expansive cosmic perspective, to be sure.
John Lovejoy’s personal stories and his understanding of what happened within the Steinbeck-Ricketts orbit are uniquely his. But he’s also learned a lot from other authorities, from the legion of Steinbeck scholars who weren’t there but who have done the research. Occasionally John will come across something he’d never heard before, like the passing reference in a Steinbeck biography that mentioned an alleged sexual romp his mother had with Ricketts in a Carmel Valley forest.
John Lovejoy also wonders why his father couldn’t get “Taku Wind” published, why he didn’t try harder to promote the novel, why he didn’t make the changes suggested by the publishers. The book’s central character is its setting, a fishing village in Alaska named Karluk. Publishers apparently wanted it to concentrate on a human being instead, but his father was obstinate about how his story should be written. John also isn’t sure why his father gave up on the book after only three rejections. First-time novelists are rejected all the time. It’s the persistence that pays off.
Steinbeck wasn’t much of a help during that time, according to John. After his father finished the manuscript, Steinbeck apparently refused to look at it; he wasn’t interested in offering notes or advice, even after supporting Ritchie’s writing project for a year.
The only thing John can be certain of, all these years later, is this: Ritchie Lovejoy was a good man and a great father. And John knows that the burden of failure and the crush of personal tragedies weighed heavy on his life. “He was melancholy most of the time,” he said.
So John self-published “Taku Wind” last month as a labor of love.
John commissioned a press run of 24 books. He sent me one of the copies, and it felt like an honor to receive it. John and I have never met (we worked at The Herald in different eras), and we’ve only recently known of one another’s existence. He told me he sent the copy of “Taku Wind” because I mentioned his father in another story I wrote several months ago. He sent it because he wanted me to tell the story.
John set aside two copies of “Taku Wind” for himself. He keeps them in a cabinet in his bedroom, along with the original manuscript.
So “Taku Wind” is now published and in circulation, 80 years after Steinbeck gave Ritchie Lovejoy the chance of a lifetime.
The story has concluded.
- The Steinbeck Review. “The Man Who Became a Steinbeck Footnote,” John Lovejoy. Fall 2008
- Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage. Susan Shillinglaw. University of Nevada Press, 2013
- Steinbeck: A Life in Letters Paperback. John Steinbeck (Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, editors). Viking Adult, 1975
- Taku Wind. Ritchie Lovejoy. 2023
- John Lovejoy, interview.
- The Associated Press
- United Press International
- The Salinas Californian
- The Monterey County Herald
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