After ten days of traipsing around England and Belgium, I returned home to the Napa Valley. In just the short time I was away, the orange leaves of the vines had disappeared, leaving bare, haunting vineyards. As I unpacked my bags, I came across a scrap of paper on which I had scribbled the name “Betty Guy.” The image of the woman in the red coat flashed through my mind’s eye and I sat down at my computer to begin another phase of research. Search engines returned several references to this painter, including one which struck me as yet another fitting coincidence. It turned out that Betty was the resident artist for San Francisco Opera. As the marketing director for the Napa Valley Opera House, I had a good connection to my counterpart in San Francisco.
I e-mailed her directly and asked if she could pass on Betty’s contact information. The next day an e-mail popped into my Inbox with a San Francisco address. For some reason, I was nervous to send a proper letter to this woman who may care less about the connection that I so treasured. I chose a Monet greeting card from my collection and wrote the letter that would re-open the door to the thesis project that I had completed nearly a year prior.
Three days later I returned from work to find an envelope waiting for me, with Betty Guy’s return address. I couldn’t have been more excited. The card featured a watercolor rendering of the San Francisco Opera House. She had scribbled inside: “That was a surprise opening your envelope with my photo . . . yes, lots of coincidences.” She left me with her phone number and an invitation: “Call me and we can meet.” Interestingly enough, I had planned to attend a party in San Francisco the following weekend, at a home just four blocks from her own.
I called her that Wednesday morning and as I explained who I was, she exclaimed, “Oh, the girl in the red jacket!” She welcomed my visit and we agreed on a meeting time.
That Saturday afternoon I took BART out to the 24th Street Mission station and waited on the corner for a cab to take me to Betty’s home. I was nervously excited to finally meet her in person after such a long journey. The cab dropped me off and I walked up to the door, which felt strangely familiar. Betty answered and the connection was immediately obvious. Of course the years had altered her appearance since the photo with Steinbeck half a century prior. But the bright smile remained and I felt instantly welcome.
“Where’s the red jacket?” she asked. I had considered wearing it for just this reason, but switched to a wool coat when the weather didn’t call for rain. Now I wished I had brought it.
Betty’s house was an eclectic mix of her personal artwork, photographs, antiques and collected treasures from her many travels. While she made us a pot of tea, I looked through a pile of watercolor paintings of European scenes piled up on the living room floor.
She gathered together pieces from her “fancy” tea set and I helped her carry the tea cups and saucers to a cozy spot in the living area. She put a few little cakes on a plate and, realizing a shortage of loose tea, mixed together two different types of tea leaves admitting that it might be looked upon as improper by a tea connoisseur. Betty struck me as a free spirit, so this tea mélange was a fitting beginning.
We sat on her flowered couch and shared stories of our lives, hers being much more interesting than my own. She related tales of dinner parties with poets, authors and artists; stories of traveling by ship across the Atlantic from the time she was 20 years old, meeting friends – like Steinbeck’s editor Pat Covici – who would be a part of her life forever. She laughed as she shared the memories of times spent with legends like Arthur Miller and Saul Bellow, and even a narrowly missed meeting with Marilyn Monroe. She showed me watercolors she had painted of scenes throughout Europe. One elaborate theater scene featured an interesting signature, “Oh,” she exclaimed with a matter of fact air. “That’s Luciano Pavarotti.”
I had not yet read Betty’s account, so I begged her to tell me the story of how she became connected with Steinbeck. It was Pat Covici who provided the key to Betty’s connection with the Steinbecks. The two became acquainted on a ship while traveling through the Mediterranean in 1954. When Betty came down with a headache, Pat and his wife (who were traveling to visit poet W.H. Auden in Naples) offered her an aspirin and the trio spent the evening chatting and cementing a life-long friendship. Before parting ways, Betty offered the Covicis one of her sketches, which they cherished.
Years later, during the Spring of 1959, Betty stayed as a guest of the Covicis while preparing to leave for her annual painting trip to Europe. Pat received a letter from Steinbeck describing the cottage in England and expressing his intense fondness for the place. At that moment, he commissioned Betty to go to England and paint this cottage as a surprise Christmas gift for the Steinbecks. And so it began.
I asked Betty specifically about the Steinbeck connection and she presented me with my own copy of “Surprise for Steinbeck,” the same book I had held in my hands on that blustery day before visiting the cottage. We looked at our photos side by side and laughed at the similarities. She shared the story of her experience at Discove Cottage, meeting Steinbeck himself (whom she admitted feeling quite intimidated by), spending meals together chatting over wine, becoming close friends.
The details of her memories are recorded in the beige cloth-bound book that she had published in 1992, but listening to her relate her personal memories is the real treasure. In another twist of fate, shortly after the book’s publication, Betty coincidentally encountered Steinbeck’s widow, Elaine. While on a ship approaching Sydney, Australia, Betty became acquainted with a friend of Elaine’s, George Whitfield Cook, who was on board from San Francisco. After realizing that Betty knew Elaine, “Whit,” as she calls him, brought the two together at the Sydney harbor. It was the first time since their time together in Bruton – 33 years prior – that the two had been face to face. Betty was quite unexpectedly able to present her book to Elaine and express her gratitude for their kindness. A few years later, Betty visited Elaine in New York City and found that her “little Steinbeck book” was displayed prominently with Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize for Literature. “Talk about feeling honored,” she wrote under a photo that she later sent of herself in Elaine’s home seated beside the book and medal.
During that first visit we reminisced for hours, talked about the different paths of life, chatted about our favorite books, and shared our amazement about the coincidences that brought us together. Sitting in her armchair, sharing stories of her amazing experiences, tears came to her eyes. I felt immensely lucky to be in the presence of such honesty and depth of memory.
She signed my “Surprise for Steinbeck” book, “As Ever – Betty Guy.” And she requested to keep the copy of my final thesis project that I had brought to show her. As I packed up my things to depart, she asked me if I would like a gift. Of course I accepted and she proceeded into a back room where I listened to her rummage through papers while I took another look around at her paintings hanging on the walls. She emerged with a large print of a beautiful watercolor, painted from the window at the rear of her home, looking out onto a vast view of San Francisco. The painting perfectly captured the foggy comfort of the city. She rolled it in paper, tied a red bow around it and handed it to me with a warm smile.
Outside, we took a photo together near her white picket fence and laughed as we tried numerous times to get the self timer on my camera to function correctly and take a photo that was acceptable to both of us. Finally, an acceptable shot was captured and we continued on our way.
Letters and e-mail messages continue to float between Betty and myself. Her letters clutter my desk and I relish the arrival of new one in the mail. A few weeks ago I visited Betty for a second time. I brought her lilies that we displayed in a vase in her kitchen. We again had tea and cake and sat in her main living area with its remarkable view of the San Francisco skyline. She showed me another stack of sketchbooks that she had carried with her throughout her many travels through Europe. As I thumbed through the colorful pages, I actually gasped as I looked upon the rendering of an exact image from my memory (and a photograph I had taken myself years ago). It was a view of the Grand Lagoon in Venice, Italy taken from a room at the Hotel Wildner. I confirmed with Betty that it was indeed the same view. We chuckled at the unveiling of yet another remarkable coincidence. It astounds me how one chance meeting on a ship on the Atlantic Ocean decades ago could bring two people together in such a profound way… a connection 50 years in the making.
As I write this, Betty is on her annual painting tour through Europe. She went alone and told me she knew she would spend the first and last three days of her month-long journey in Paris. The rest was “up in the air.” Oh, to posses such a sense of spontaneity and freedom.
Steinbeck would be proud.