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A Meeting of Minds: John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts at the Lab in Monterey

by Victor A. Walsh

In the gray light of early morning, the weathered, batten board building stands like a phantom from an earlier time when Monterey’s Cannery Row was a vast, sprawling complex of sardine factories and warehouses. It is quiet now before the tourists descend on the upscale boutiques, T-shirt stores, and restaurants that line the row. No cannery whistles or rivers of silvery fish pouring out of the boats or hollering men or clangor from the giant turbine pumps.

In the ’30s and ’40s, a bearded maverick marine biologist by the name of Edward F. Ricketts lived and worked here at his Pacific Biological Laboratories amid the noise and smell of the Sardine Capital of the World. Ricketts, who was John Steinbeck’s closest friend, confidant and collaborator, is perhaps best remembered as the prototype for the lovable, freewheeling character “Doc” in Steinbeck’s celebrated novel Cannery Row and its sequel Sweet Thursday.

But Ricketts’ relationship with the Nobel Laureate writer is not the purpose of my visit. If anything, I want to disentangle that relationship, to see Ricketts for himself, free from that legendary association, to envision and imagine what this building at 800 Cannery Row, a few steps away from the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium, can tell us about his life and times. Unfortunately, it is closed to the public except by special arrangement with the city of Monterey’s Museum and Cultural Arts Division or during special events such as the annual Steinbeck Festival in August.

I walk up the old wooden stairwell. The steps creak with age. Standing on the tiny platform, I see in my mind what Ed Ricketts saw every morning: the empty lots of weeds and cannery debris, the intersecting dirt roads, the fishermen’s cabins on the sandy hills, and directly across the street, the Lone Star cafe and bordello hidden in the shadows of the massive, three-story Del Mar Canning Company.

“Excuse me, are you, Mr. Walsh?” a voice asks. “Yes,” I blurt out, somewhat startled. Standing at the bottom of the stairwell is an older man dressed in a cardigan sweater. He is my tour guide, Jim Conway, the city’s well-respected and likeable historian.

Jim escorts our small group through the small dark entrance area into the front room on the left. Sunlight fills the windows, brightening the old wood floor.  There is a worn couch, several chairs, a phonograph, and a reproduction of Ellwood Graham’s 1941 portrait of Steinbeck on the side wall. None of the furniture belonged to Ricketts.

The rear room has a bar, which was installed by Harlan Watkins, a Monterey High School teacher, after he had bought the place in 1956. The vertical-slatted wood walls are dimly lit by a rear window and plastered with jazz posters from the era and photos of musicians, a sexy Sophia Loren, and a young Fidel Castro.

Jim tells us that the city acquired the run-down building in 1993.  After rehabilitating it, they decided not to refurnish it.  As a result, the two rooms have been left largely bare, as though Ricketts had just stepped out.  There are no signs here that he has been dead for more than half a century.  In a way, this is a liberating concept,  one that allows my mind to drift more freely into his world.

The lab was “a magical place back then,” says Jim. “The door and his safe were never locked, and the place was opened to just about anyone who wanted to come in and talk.” Despite its unusual location, it was the gathering place for an amazing collection of people, including writers like Steinbeck and Henry Miller, the budding mythologist Joseph Campbell, journalist Lincoln Steffens, local madam Flora Woods and her “girls,” plus many unnamed musicians, drifters, fishermen, cannery workers, kids, and out-of-town visitors. Ricketts’ all-night parties were legendary.

The magnet was the man, himself a philosopher, writer, explorer, lover of music, poetry and art, womanizer and bohemian who embraced life and befriended everyone.  “Everyone near him was influenced by him, deeply and permanently,” recalled Steinbeck.

The rooms are silent now. No clanking of glasses, marathon sessions of philosophizing, or Gregorian chants or Leadbelly’s robust country voice echo off the walls. In their uncluttered state, they reveal things that we might not otherwise see. They are small, but in Ricketts’ day, before several walls were knocked down, the rooms were tiny.

The entrance was Ed’s office. Somehow he managed to squeeze a desk, file cabinet and safe into this cracker-box space. The desk was piled high with stacks of letters and unopened mail. According to Steinbeck, Ed believed completely in the theory that a letter unanswered for a week requires no answer, but he went even farther. A letter unopened for a month does not require opening.

In the front room where the parties were held, there was a large phonograph and hundreds of classical and jazz records. Under the far window was Ed’s snug redwood, hemp-rope-suspended bed. On the opposite wall near the doorway to the kitchenette, there was a china cabinet with a tiny fold-down table. Small prints of paintings by Leonardo de Vinci, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali were pinned to the wood walls.  An L-shaped, ceiling-high bookcase partly separated the front room from the office in the entrance.

Ricketts was not a private person. Looking around, I cannot imagine how he was able to hold  dinner parties here, let alone all-night bashes.  He was known for involving anyone and everyone in these events; whoever stopped by was made welcome.   He must have been well-organized — with the exception of his mail — to fit so much, including hundreds of books and records, into such a confined space. “His mind had no horizons. He was interested in everything,” Steinbeck exclaimed.

The back room served as a living room, workroom and bedroom for his son, Ed. Jr. Behind the office, Ricketts kept his laboratory cases, aquarium tank, work benches, chemicals, microscopes and slides. It smelled heavily of chemicals like chloroform and acetic acid and dissected animals. To air the rooms out, he often opened the back door to catch the spray and scent of the sea.

Ricketts made his living collecting specimens from the intertidal shore zone, which he sold to schools and laboratories. The basement was his storeroom and laboratory as well as a garage for his old Buick. Dark and empty today, it is a relic of its former self. The storage jars and sections of the wood shelving and countertop that once enclosed much of the room are all that remain.

The shelves once extended clear to the ceiling. They were loaded with jars of preserved animals and glass tanks filled with sponges, anemones, snails, jellyfish, starfish, barnacles, urchins, crabs, shrimp, turtles, sea snails and worms.  Others held frogs, spiders, rats, rattlesnakes, and even honey bees.  In the backyard, concrete holding tanks, which still exist, were used to keep larger animals, like sharks, rays, and octopi.

After visiting the basement, I walk outside to the holding tanks to listen to the small waves breaking beneath the piers.  I think about Ricketts, both his impact upon this place and its impact upon him. He was a free spirit, an outcast from the academia with no degrees or honors, and yet he found his place in the midst of a heavily mechanized, small fishing port surrounded by unspoiled tide pools, marshlands, beaches and shoreline crags.

Ricketts was a serious scientist whose role as such remains overshadowed by the fictional fun-loving Doc. He learned by participating in the world around him, and through that process saw marine species and most other forms of life as members of inter-connected, holistic communities.

“The lab’s location, as well as Ricketts himself, was a perfect unity,” says his biographer Katie Rodger. Living in the middle of an industrialized cannery setting helped shape his direction as a pioneering ecologist and conservationist. Here, he was in contact with the leading marine biologists of his day, and met, almost daily, fellow scientists from Stanford University’s nearby Hopkins Marine Station. Here, he saw firsthand the industry’s use of new technology, like diesel-powered purse seiners, to increase catches. It alarmed him no end, and by the late 1930s, he forewarned that sardine populations up and down the coast would decline due to overfishing, changing ocean temperatures, and plankton availability. And that is exactly what happened in the late 1940s, signifying the end of an era.

In 1939, he published Between Pacific Tides, the most complete biological record at that time of intertidal invertebrate life on the Pacific Coast.  Now a classic, it has been reprinted four times and remains one of Stanford University Press’s most successful books.

Ricketts and Steinbeck in 1940, with a crew of four, sailed to the Gulf of Mexico on the Western Flyer, a wooden sardine purse seiner. The six-week voyage to this remote, half-mythical and largely uninvestigated coastline resulted in the discovery of 35 new marine species. The Sea of Cortez, a truly collaborative effort, was published the following year.

Seven years later, this remarkable individual was tragically killed when his car, apparently stalled on the tracks, was struck by an oncoming freight train. Word of his friend’s death numbed Steinbeck. The author, then living in New York, returned to the lab and, like other grieving friends, retrieved some personal items, including their correspondence.

In his 1951 tribute, Steinbeck explained why Ricketts’ death had such a searing impact on him and so many others:

He was different from anyone and yet so like that everyone found himself in Ed, and that might be one of the reasons his death had such an impact. It wasn’t Ed who had died but a large and important part of oneself.