Lovers in Two Trees (Carol Henning 2)

 Lovers and the Tree of Life, sourced from Deviant Art

Lovers and the Tree of Life, sourced from Deviant Art

Carol Henning was not always so compliant. No, no! While her husband John Steinbeck preferred to remain celibate (and shunning) when immersed in writing, on at least one occasion Carol’s heart was stolen by a more attentive man…

In the Spring of 1932 a handsome young Joseph Campbell found himself relocated in the Monterey Peninsula, passionately contributing to a small group of literary philosophers called The Lab, of which both Carol and John were members.

Joe spent many a night drinking into the wee hours with John, deliberating the details of their mutual concept of a literary phalanx. Could they spread their ideas more effectively as a group?  Could they merge...?

Over time Joe found himself talking at greater length and with greater ease to Carol. Their spirits meshed. As there were no boundaries in The Lab, and no prescribed social norms, they went with it.

Then one night, while John was typing away indoors, Carol and Joe found themselves climbing up in two side-by-side oak trees. They got lost in a fantasy of being together and even acknowledged the idea that they were meant for each other but alas, had met each other too late. “In Joe’s mind, the separate trees symbolized their impossible situation.” (Shillinglaw, p 110)

Joseph Campbell recorded his interludes with Carol in his Grampus Journal, and their up-a-tree episode was recorded like this:

“Carol,” I said, “there’s a bastard who sits around outside me, and I’ve got to get drunk like this to make him melt away.”
“I know!” she said. “I know! I’m that way too.”...
Carol reached again and took my foot.
“You beautiful thing!” I said.
“Oh Joe! Only to touch you!”
Her glass fell from her hand and thumped to the ground.
“I’m going to get down, Carol. I’m going to get out of this tree now.”
I twisted and struggled, and got down to the stoop. Then I walked around to Carol’s tree, and I kissed her ankle. I kissed her ankle twice, and then I got down on my knees to find her glass. “Where is the blasted thing? Oh, here it is!” And I picked it up. I scrambled up the stoop and set the glass upon the parapet. Then the door opened and John appeared with a thunderous look in his eye.
“Shut up,” he snapped. “Quit shouting. You’re making too much noise. - I could hear every word you said in the house.”
That sent a chill through me and I soberly straightened up.
“Getting a lady down out of a tree,” I explained.
Carol began to stir, and I tried to help her out of the oak tree. She slipped and barked her shins; groaned; and I helped her to the ground. Then she staggered into the house and flung herself into a chair beside the table, took her face in her arms and wept - and I knew she wasn’t weeping about the barked shins.”
— Joseph Campbell, The Grampus Journal , 1932

But that wasn’t the end of it. Later that same night, after talking with John, Joe found himself in the bedroom where Carol was sleeping (at The Lab). “He kissed her, once, then again and again, declaring, “Do you realize that in all our lives, this is probably the only hour we’ll ever have together?” (Shillinglaw, p 111)  And again, his Grampus Journal gives us their dialogue:

“Kiss me just once, Joe. Crucify me with a kiss.”
I kissed her a long time. “Jesus Christ!” she moaned. “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ.”
Before we only felt it,” I said. “Now it is explicit.”
We were both feeling pretty awful.
“I hope that this is hurting you as much as it’s hurting me,” she said.
“It is. It is, by God,” I said.
— Joseph Campbell, The Grampus Journal, 1932

Over the next month Joe and Carol and John tried to work out what had happened. They decided that because of the intimate nature of The Lab, “everyone in the the group was more or less in love with each other. It was like a little fugue of loves.” (Shillinglaw, p 112)

Things cooled down for a time, but then reheated. This time John wasn’t so philosophical about it.  He gave Joseph Campbell an ultimatum to leave the peninsula, and the ultimatum was issued at gunpoint. (Shillinglaw, p 113) Joseph Campbell complied, and was never to spend time with Carol again.

The pain of Carol’s betrayal would stay with John for years, even though he had also had infidelities. I believe Carol held her time with Joe as sacred in her heart, especially when John was emotionally unavailable to her.

Oh, to have loved with passion! But at what cost?....

(more to come)

reference: Carol and John Steinbeck by Susan Shillinglaw, 2013

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