The Faster Master Plaster Casters:
Adventures of John Steinbeck in Eagle Rock
In the 1920s and 30s, young British and American men and women with literary or artistic aspirations flocked to France, Paris in particular, seeking adventure and inspiration. A remarkable number of them became leading writers, artists and intellectuals during the decades that followed. They included not only such eminents as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Ford Maddox-Ford, but also a number of Occidental College alumni -- for example, Lawrence Clark Powell, M. F. K. Fisher, Ward Ritchie and Gordon Newell.
It is often forgotten, however, that the southwest of the United States was at that time also exotic and appealing to future literary, artistic and intellectual luminaries. Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico, San Francisco, and certainly Los Angeles, for example, were strong magnets. And for a few, Occidental College and its Eagle Rock neighborhood proved irresistible.
Just as in Paris, not all who came gained international or even national fame. The arrival of a future Nobel Laureate or Pulitzer winner sometimes depended critically on the earlier arrival of a friend or colleague whose life would be far less visible to the world, yet in its own way would have an important effect on the cultural milieu of a generation. Just such a catalyst brought John Steinbeck to Eagle Rock in 1925, 1929 and 1932; he was a young Occidental College instructor and assistant professor, Carlton A. Sheffield. Years later Steinbeck would reminisce of those times, "Remember the days when we were all living in Eagle Rock? As starved and happy a group as ever robbed an orange grove. I can still remember the dinners of hamburgers and stolen avocados."
Sheffield, whom Steinbeck affectionately called "Dook," came to Occidental to teach English and Journalism in the fall of 1925, two years after having received a bachelor's degree from Stanford. He took up residence at 1501 Campus Rd., which then was a rooming house (and now is the College's Cultural Resource Center). In November his closest college friend and sometimes roommate, John Steinbeck, arrived from San Francisco to visit for a few days before boarding a New York-bound freighter, the Katrina, at Long Beach. New York, he thought, would be a more fertile setting for his growth as a writer, and would present opportunities for fruitful contacts with prospective publishers. No doubt the trip also was intended to serve as an escape from his sense of a faltering career. While writing in the environs of San Francisco, Salinas and Pacific Grove his attempts to sell his work had met with little success, and he felt the need for a drastic change of venue. Spending time with Dook in Eagle Rock for a few days before the ship arrived in port had the additional appeal of re-igniting the fires of intellectual discourse and of taking up again the kind of carousing they had richly enjoyed together while friends and roommates both at Stanford and as laborers at various jobs during time off from school.
And carouse they did, all over Los Angeles. The local social and entertainment geography had already become familiar, even intimate, to Dook. By the time Steinbeck arrived he knew esoteric sources of hooch, colorful watering places, and the loci of other sensual delights. It is a wonder, in fact, that during their few days together Dook was in fit condition to teach his courses. Steinbeck, of course, with no regimen of classes to attend to, nor other work obligations, was in no better shape. On one occasion Dook brow-beat John into speaking to his class on advanced journalism "as a practicing writer." The result was disastrous. The twenty-three year old aspiring novelist, addressing a bare handful of aspiring journalism students not much younger than he, was able only to put together a few hesitating sentences. The bumbling soliloquy, dense with silences, ended suddenly when after ten minutes or so he blurted, "That's all," and hurried out the door.
Later, two days before Katrina was to sail, as if to give the visit a suitable punctuation, they launched a scheme for the seduction of an acquaintance, now living in Inglewood, and her roommate. After an encouraging start, Murphy's Law asserted itself and almost everything that could go wrong, short of mayhem, did so. During the escapade they lost contact with one another in different parts of the city, and all four wound up lonely and frightened through the night and into the next morning. On the day of John's departure from Campus Road, all parties to the affair were bitterly reproachful, and perhaps it was well that John was soon aboard a freighter headed for the Panama Canal, Cuba and the Big City on the East Coast.
Four years had elapsed when John again came to Eagle Rock to stay with Dook, this time for much longer. By the time Steinbeck arrived, near the end of December in 1929, Sheffield had been married twice and had lived in at least five locations in and around Eagle Rock. But finally he and his second wife Maryon were settled comfortably in a cottage on Rock Glen St., south of Colorado Boulevard, just up Round Top hill from what is now the Westfield Eagle Rock mall. During the preceding summer Dook and Maryon had urged John and his steady girlfriend, Carol Henning, to stay with them in their newly acquired home, which could nicely accommodate the four of them. In November John and Carol became engaged, and wishing to have their prospective wedding and the start of their married life at some distance from their parents, hers in San Jose and his in Salinas, they finally accepted the Sheffields' offer.
A further motivation for the move from their haunts in the San Francisco Bay area and Pacific Grove (Steinbeck had returned from New York after a generally dismal eighteen months) was the prospect of financial reward from an entrepreneurial project, namely making exceptionally accurate plaster casts of living people, particularly of their heads. Their plans for the enterprise were vague at best, but they seem to have felt that Los Angeles and Hollywood would supply a sufficient population of inflated or inflatable egos to insure a demand for plaster likenesses adequate to make the project profitable. What would make their approach special and salable, they thought, were their ideas for perfecting the application of a moulage process using Negacol, a Swiss product apparently capable of making facial molds with less discomfort to the subject and with greater precision of reproduction than other then-conventional materials. They learned of the substance and its promising properties from a San Francisco friend named Ritchie Lovejoy, and his wife Tal (née Natalya Kashevaroff, originally from Alaska, the daughter of a Russian Orthodox bishop), who would join the project and also would need to be housed at the Sheffields' modest digs in Eagle Rock.
The open invitation to John and Carol now had produced four visitors rather than two, and had also yielded a demand for space and facilities for research and development on casting with Negacol, as well as for possible manufacturing, marketing and sales on a commercial scale. Further, Dook's homemade beer production would have to grow accordingly, in order to keep the Faster Master Plaster Casters, as they called themselves, happy and properly lubricated for the work that was now before them. All this, while Dook had to meet teaching and other faculty obligations at the College.
The first of the crew to arrive was in fact unknown to the Sheffields, and was completely unexpected; Tal's sister Nadja (Nadjezda) had made her way to the Sheffield address by taxi from the train station. She managed to get inside the house while Dook and Maryon were on a wild-goose-chase to the same station, expecting to pick up Ritchie and Tal (whom they knew only by description through correspondence with John) and had found no one there who matched the couple's description. Arriving home without their quarry, they found themselves locked out; Nadja believed them to be intruders. Of course they viewed her, an absolute stranger to them, as the interloper. The result was a remarkable scene, at first alarming then comical, that was a portent of things to come.
Over the ensuing few days the Lovejoys arrived, then John and Carol, and eventually all of them (now totaling seven) settled into a cramped and chaotic domicile. John and Carol dwelt on a porch except when it rained, in which event they slept on the floor in the large living room where Nadja occupied a couch; Ritchie and Tal were in a small bedroom with a wall bed; Dook and Maryon inhabited their usual quarters in an enclosed sleeping porch. A dugout cellar was occupied by the soon-to-be-expanded beer production and storage facilities that increasingly occupied Dook's attention and efforts. (He reported a production quota of 18 gallons every five days for the residents and their guests). Behind the house was a flat area on the hill, screened from the neighborhood by trees and burlap, where uninhibited sunbathing and consumption of Dook's beer was a frequent preoccupation during warm weather.
A week or so into the new year, Maryon Sheffield grew tired of John and Carol's -- especially Carol's -- persistent dallying over marriage, and took matters into her own hands. When Carol could not be persuaded to accompany John to Glendale to get a marriage license, Maryon went to the courthouse, posing as Carol, and signed Carol's name to the license application. Three days later John was ferried by the Sheffields back to the courthouse to pick up the license, this time with Carol at least in attendance in the car. Still, neither John nor Carol was willing even to talk of a ceremony except in vowing refusal to enter any church for the purpose. Again Maryon stepped in, making an appointment with a justice of the peace to perform the wedding. Even at the appointed time they were recalcitrant; the Sheffields effectively kidnapped them on January 14, 1930, physically dragged them into the office of the waiting judge, and stood with them as the sole witnesses to the ceremony.
The newlywed Steinbecks found an unoccupied house on El Roble Drive a block up the hill from the Sheffields, and though it was a disaster scene when they agreed to rent it, they could see its possibilities as a pleasant cottage and quiet place for John to write. They set to work renovating it. With energy and ingenuity and what little money they could scrape together they converted it from what Dook described as "a small barn that had been abandoned as hopeless after having been hit by a cyclone, with holes in the walls, ceiling and floor, with broken windows, inadequate plumbing and ankle deep in dirt and filth," into a charming dwelling. Here John was able to complete the manuscript for a novel, To the Unknown God, which he then submitted to publishers without success. (A few years later, after drastic revision, it was retitled and published as To a God Unknown, and is still in print.) The separate household had made it possible for John to concentrate on his writing, avoiding much of the daily chaos of the casting crew at the Sheffields.
Apparently around this time Sheffield and some of his young colleagues at Oxy attempted to gain John a teaching position at the College. It was an unlikely prospect; John did not possess even a bachelor's degree. In six years at Stanford he had accumulated barely more than half the number of credits required for graduation, and his grades had been far from recommending. And neither had his "lecture" to Dook's journalism class during the 1925 visit been encouraging. Not surprisingly, the effort came to nought.
The Faster Master Plaster Casters in the meantime were needing additional talent. Mahlon Blaine, a many-faceted young artist and writer whom John had met on board the Katrina soon after leaving Eagle Rock in 1925, and Arjun "Archie" Strayer, a former student of Dook's at Occidental, joined the unpaid staff -- Blaine to provide artistic advice and services, and Strayer to manage the limited finances of the project, which were provided primarily by Dook from his $2,000 annual teaching salary. Technically, the group was making halting but genuine progress in developing a molding process that promised to be reliable and at the same time tolerable to the subjects being cast, while faithfully replicating their features. The Faster Master Plaster Casters made masks of one another, correcting flaws and inventing techniques for avoiding them as they went. Finally they made practice masks of others, including Oxy and USC students.
However, the staff had been assembled on the basis of acquaintance and friendship rather than on a record of relevant accomplishment. Their spirited social life, no doubt facilitated by Dook's brew and the inclination of the company to consume it (especially the Russian sisters) was intermingled with the work at hand. Furthermore, the venture capital supporting the operation, namely whatever Dook could provide from his meager salary as an instructor, could not survive much inefficiency. At length, Ritchie and Mahlon grew fractious, Archie argued with the group about money and left when his financial management was brought into question, and disputes became more abundant than funds. Soon after that the entire effort was dissolved.
Another setback was in store at the Steinbeck cottage. A few months after the Steinbeck's conversion of the abandoned "barn," the owner was so affected by the substance and attractiveness of his property's new incarnation that he now saw it as a perfect home for his son and daughter-in-law (or daughter and son-in-law; biographers disagree). Forthwith he retook possession of the house. John and Carol felt devastated and betrayed, having invested much of their own resources, time and effort in the restoration. However, they were able to locate another suitable place not far away in Tujunga, thus ending their Eagle Rock sojourn of 1930. Even their stay in Tujunga was short-lived, supposedly terminated by their sense that the house was haunted, but more convincingly brought to an end by growing financial stringencies and the availability of rent-free lodgings at the elder Steinbecks' summer cottage in Pacific Grove.
In the summer of 1932, Steinbeck returned Eagle Rock, where he again sought the literary companionship of Sheffield and other friends. Since Monterey biologist and close comrade Ed Ricketts could no longer afford to pay Carol for her assistance at his laboratory, the Steinbecks' financial situation seemed likely to be no worse in the south, if she could find work there, than in Pacific Grove even with the rent-free family cottage. Besides, there would be good fellowship and thoughtful conversation in the comfortable company of the Sheffields and other southern California acquaintances.
Indeed, good -- at least frivolous -- times were at hand when they returned to the Sheffields. In one episode, John was induced to have his hair dyed by Maryon and Carol, who were experimenting with peroxide and ammonia (we forgo here some titillating details). His hair tuned bright pink and salmon, which seemed to charm him more than it did the others. He insisted on leaving it that way when on a warm Sunday he drove an open convertible, with Carol, Dook and Maryon aboard, along Sunset Boulevard to Santa Monica where they would meet John's sister Mary and her family at the beach. On the way across town the brilliant pink hair waving above the roadster full of happy travelers in the summer sun was cause for frequent bystander comment. But when Mary saw it she refused to acknowledge them as acquaintances and had them move to another part of the strand, away from her.
On another occasion their newly acquired but formerly owned Chevrolet, dubbed the "bathtub," began to leak water from the radiator. Having heard that cornmeal was an effective additive for plugging small radiator leaks, John dosed the cooling system with quantities of the substance before setting out along Wilshire Boulevard for the beach. The day was hot and traffic slow. Eventually the engine overheated, blowing off the radiator cap and spewing large quantities of boiling cornmeal mush over the car, its occupants, and other nearby cars, again with dramatic but this time less benevolent comment from affected bystanders.
The Steinbecks eventually found a suitable rental house in Montrose, where they were able to live satisfactorily for several months, interrupted by Christmas spent in the north. On that Christmas visit to Salinas John became aware of the serious degree to which his mother's heart condition had deteriorated, which greatly diminished the pleasure of living and working so far from his parents.
And the depression was upon southern California. Neither could Carol, even with her extensive and respectable secretarial and administrative experience, find a job, nor did any of John's proposed money-earning writing projects pan out. One of them was to gain the Mexican government's permission to ride horseback in Mexico, presumably in order to generate a saleable journalistic piece or series. The ride did not materialize.
In February of 1933 John and Carol gave up on their Montrose domicile, which they realized they could not sustain in their financial condition, and headed south, stopping at the southern end of Laguna Beach where they found a shack to rent for two dollars a month. But by March John's mother's condition and their desperate finances brought their final Southland adventure to an end, and the Steinbecks again moved north.
At about the same time, Dook Sheffield's situation at Occidental had become perilous. The College was retrenching because of the depression, and some faculty members were not being rehired. Indeed, the Department of English already had shrunk somewhat through attrition at the higher ranks. Aside from annually hired assistants and fellows, Dook (or Carlton, as he of course appeared in College records) was one of the most junior of the English faculty and still had only a master's degree, earned in 1930 after five or six years of summer work. But in terminating Dook's employment, Professor Benjamin Stelter, who chaired the Department, and College President Remsen Bird vigorously sought to obtain a fellowship for him at Stanford so that he might weather the financial storm as a graduate student and teacher there. He would be working toward finally obtaining his doctorate, thus improving his future academic employment prospects. President Bird wrote more than once to Stanford President Ray Lyman Wilbur and, in an exceptional and generous effort, met with Wilbur on the Palo Alto campus. Stanford too was suffering from the depression, but Bird's intercession was successful and Sheffield became a doctoral candidate there when he left Occidental in 1933 or 34. (He is listed as a member of the Oxy English faculty for the 1933-34 academic year, but it seems unlikely that he taught the courses for which the catalog showed him to be responsible.)
There may have been other brief visits of Steinbeck with Sheffield in Eagle Rock, but the ones cited here are those that are reasonably faithfully recorded in the biographical literature.. The extended 1929-30 and 1932-33 visits, when the Steinbecks had their own houses in the area, were certainly important in John's development as a writer, and it is likely that it was in Eagle Rock that he conceived his lifelong method of writing with a particular listener in mind; that Dook was his prototype listener is well documented, including in a manuscript that was his gift to Dook.
Steinbeck worked hard at his writing while with his friends in Eagle Rock; these visits were not vacations for him. His role in the Faster Master Plaster Casters was largely peripheral, primarily as idea-man and moral supporter; his powers of concentration kept him fully engaged in his determined efforts to produce literature of worth. John, Dook and Carol, though they were full partners in the high times the group had together, almost certainly were working hardest, though they were less engaged in the casting project than some of the others.
Individually and collectively they were close to poverty. Though not excusable, the purloining of oranges and avocados was not merely a product of excess youthful exuberance; it was also a device for extending wholly inadequate financial resources. Dook reported that John and Carol's "lack of money was acute," and John himself wrote to a friend, Apparently we are headed for the rocks. "The light company is going to turn off the power in a few days, but we don't care much." Still, their time in southern California, and certainly in Eagle Rock, was personally rich; while living in their El Roble home, John wrote, "...we do not suffer. Indeed we enjoy it. ... It is much better than living in a city."
It had not been Paris, but there was sunshine and good conversation and space for some youthful wildness to accompany earnest endeavor and artistic struggle at the edge of poverty. Eagle Rock in the >20s and >30s served Steinbeck and his life as a writer in much the same way that the fabled European city served Hemingway, Fitzgerald and other expatriates, and their subsequent artistic lives. When Occidental College and Dook came to terms in 1925 on his joining the English department, events were set in train that eventually would change the course of American letters, and with it the meaning of real estate in Steinbeck's birth city of Salinas.
John and Dook remained in contact with one another, except for lacunae of varying lengths, throughout their lives. Theirs was not always a happy connection. Steinbeck even said of Sheffield in a letter to his editor in late 1948, "...His is a very little mind. In many ways he has the qualities of a medieval schoolman....I find that I don't like him. Perhaps I never did." Dook learned of this only after Steinbeck's death, but the latter's loyal, though at times perfunctory communications and visits with him gave testimony to a persistent personal appreciation that went far deeper than any annoyance with Dook's habitual fastidiousness, and touched qualities of intellect, comradery, fidelity, and yes, rebellion, that were essential to John's own artistic development..
Their time together in Eagle Rock, recounted above in only the most cursory terms, cemented for their lifetimes an already lively intellectual and personal relationship that bears at least figurative comparison with that of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. One without the other seems even more improbable than the two together.
In October of 2004 the author received an email from John Lovejoy, the son of Ritchie Lovejoy and Natalya Kashevaroff, that corrected misspellings of his mother’s name. In a subsequent email exchange he generously provided additional information about his parents, including an account of an amusing episode directly relevant to the Faster Master Plaster Caster story. It is recounted verbatim below:
>So, there they all are, the Faster MPC crew, waiting for their first celebrity customer wanting his or her head cast in plaster. And then the phone rang‑‑ it was an almost‑celebrity ‑‑ the brother of Adolph Menjou. Maybe you never heard of Adolph Menjou. He was a star in several movies about show biz. Why he was a star, I could never figure out. He was a ridiculous fop. I have no idea what his brother's name was. But anyway...
The FMPC crew got their story all ready. Our dad, Ritch Lovejoy, was going to be Luboff, the famous Russian artist (Luboff means "love" in Russian).
Ah, but first, what to do with the perpetually drunk landlord, who happened to be on the premises again? Somebody got the bright idea of locking him in the bathroom after first stripping him naked so he wouldn't dare escape. So that's what they did.
Adolph's brother shows up to have his mug cast, and he's the same sort of fop as his brother, same little mustache and everything. While "Luboff" prepared the casting materials, Menjou made small talk.
When he heard that the master Faster Master Plaster Caster was Russian, he started (gasp!) speaking Russian to him.
Our mom [Natalya], who could understand Russian, but wasn't fluent, intervened. She told Menjou that Luboff had undergone a very traumatic experience that had left him mute. Ah, poor man...
So Menjou turned to cute Xenia [one of Natalya's sisters].
"And where [do] you reside?" he asked her.
The front door suddenly flew open, hitting the wall loudly. There, on the front porch stood the naked, drunk landlord, who had crawled out the bathroom window..
"I _RESENT_ that 'RESIDE'," he said, swaying dangerously.
Menjou, who was mortified, grabbed his hat and left. And that, as they say, was all she wrote. The FMPC never had another celebrity customer. In fact, they never had another customer at all.
Somewhere, we have a photo of a whole shelf covered with plaster heads, and they all look like one Natalya Kashevaroff. [Italics added.]
Comments on biography
Assembling this information on Steinbeck's Eagle Rock periods was greatly facilitated by the existence of published biographies, but relying on one, even the most detailed of them, would have perpetuated clearly erroneous anecdotes and claims. Indeed, there may remain here significant errors, although I have tried to minimize the probabilities; for those that persist, I apologize. But in the main biographies, obvious inaccuracies such as the geographical description of their residence ("a small cottage [in Eagle Rock] southeast of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley, near Occidental College"), and clearly contradictory assertions within and between the several works, inevitably raise suspicions about the reliability of the texts' declarative statements in general. Fortunately a volume of Steinbeck's letters is available to help resolve some ambiguities, and the Special Collections and Archives departments at Occidental College and Stanford University, as well as the alumni office at Stanford, have been invaluable in the filling of gaps and the mediating of conflicting claims.
Biographical narratives are not the same thing as biographical data. They may raise as many unanswered -- and often unanswerable -- questions of fact as they provide information about the subject's personal development. While extraordinarily interesting and valuable, they must be taken with a grain of salt and a spirit of curiosity and skepticism. Still, each has to be read as a coherent story, as if true, at least for the moment. The six volumes of Steinbeck biography that I have consulted (but did not peruse nor exhaustively cross-check), along with selected biographical essays and interviews that came to my attention, were surely more fun to follow with the attitude of a detective than with that of a purely casual reader. Each text provided clues that another would refute or at least put into question, thus laying out new and intriguing paths to explore.
An Assignment: And what of Professor Sheffield?
Sheffield himself, though his name is richly entwined with Steinbeck's in every meaningful biography of the latter, remains largely a mystery. For example, his first marriage, to Ruth Carpenter, ended in divorce, or her suicide, or her death from unspecified causes, or is simply ignored, depending on which author is consulted. A famous dramatic letter from Steinbeck to her before the marriage, combined with Dook's having a different wife three years later, would seem to make the question an interesting one to Steinbeck's biographers, yet it is left in limbo. (The most plausible answer appears as an endnote by the editor of a 2002 republication of Dook's 1982 short memoir on Steinbeck. Ruth seems to have been hospitalized as a result of an emotional disorder and to have committed suicide, but I have found no corroboration of this version.)
Equally interesting is Dook's eight years or so at Occidental College. How, for example, did he come across the job, and why was he hired with only a recent bachelor's degree? What happened after he left Eagle Rock? Some clues can be found in the standard Steinbeck biographies, but the strands of evidence are few and weak. There is an intriguing life here, full of joys and tragedies, that drew Steinbeck to Eagle Rock and brought him tangentially to the College at a time when both men were launching their life's work. The quest for the historical Carlton A. Sheffield, or the Dook of Occidental, would seem a tantalizing challenge to students of American literary history, creative writing, psychohistory, local history, College history and English Department history. Here is a ripe project for an intrepid scholar with a taste for local color and literary intrigue.
Benson, Jackson J. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Viking, 1984
Kiernan, Thomas, The Intricate Music: A Biography of John Steinbeck. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979
Parini, Jay, John Steinbeck: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 1995
Sheffield, Carlton A., John Steinbeck, the Good Companion: His Friend Dook's Memoir. Berkeley: Creative Arts Book Company, 2002
Steinbeck, Elaine and Robert Wallsten, ed., Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. New York: Viking, 1975
Valjean, Nelson, John Steinbeck, the Errant Knight: An intimate biography of his California years. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1975
I am very grateful for the gracious assistance of Jean Paule, Occidental College Archivist, and for the always effective and friendly help of Dennis Johnson at the Occidental College Bookstore. I appreciate also the very generous help and pleasant facilities provided by Sharon Abbey Hoffman, Associate Director of Development Research at the Frances C. Arrillaga Alumni Center at Stanford University, and by the staff of the Department of Special Collections and University Archives of the Stanford Libraries. And to Jane Sanders, who shared with me the adventure of finding Steinbeck and Sheffield in Eagle Rock, and in libraries and archives, and in the manuscripts and letters they contain, and whose aid rendering this report readable was indispensable, I owe a special appreciation, for which the word "gratitude" is inadequate.
Known Sheffield/Steinbeck Addresses in Eagle Rock and Vicinity
1925-27 Sheffield/Steinbeck 1501 Campus Rd. [click address to see photo]
1927-28 Sheffield 2219 Laverna Ave. (across from GLAD) [click address to see photo]
1928-29 Sheffield 2028 No. Catalina St. (Los Feliz)
1929-30 Sheffield 5244-1/2 Hermosa Ave. [click address to see photo]
1930-34 Sheffield/Steinbeck 2814 Rock Glen Ave. [click address to see photo]
1930 Steinbeck 2741 El Roble Drive [click address to see photo]
June 1, 2002
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