As Steinbeck House Hits Market, Fears In Sag Harbor That Literary Heritage Will Be Lost

John Steinbeck’s Sag Harbor home is on the market for $17.9M. Gavin Zeigler for Sotheby’s International Realty

The little waterfront cottage in Sag Harbor, where the Nobel-Prize-winning author John Steinbeck sought refuge from the hustle and bustle of New York City life, has gone on the market. The asking price for the 1,220-square-foot, two-bedroom house, which sits on 1.8 shady acres with nearly 600 feet of waterfront, is $17.9 million.

But some see the possible sale as something more than just another ho-hum, multi-million-dollar real estate deal in the making on the East End. Instead, they say the potential loss of the most famous literary haunt in a village with no shortage of them and its likely replacement with a sprawling mansion sealed off by tall privet hedges would be a tragedy for the village’s literary heritage.

“Steinbeck is one of the great American writers, one of the world’s great writers,” said Kathryn Szoka, a co-owner of Canio’s Books and a Steinbeck fan, who hopes every effort is made to preserve the property. “It’s a jewel in Sag Harbor’s literary crown. We have to go for it.”

Ms. Szoka said she understood the asking price for the whole property was high, but said she saw no reason why a concerted effort to buy the property could not be made, given the huge amounts of money that have made their way into Southampton Town’s Community Preservation Fund, thanks to a roaring real estate market that has helped inflate the asking price for Steinbeck’s home.

John and Elaine Steinbeck in 1950.

At a minimum, the octagonal gazebo-like building Steinbeck used as a writing studio and named Joyous Garde, after Sir Lancelot’s castle in the Arthurian legend, must be protected, she said.

“That is a literary chapel, and we need that to be available to the public,” she said.

Village Trustee James Larocca, a Steinbeck fan himself, who said he unsuccessfully tried to track the writer down when he was serving with the U.S. Navy in Vietnam and Steinbeck visited the country in 1967 to write dispatches from the front, said he doubted the town CPF would be able to come up with the kind of money needed to buy the whole property, given restrictions that prevent it from paying more than appraised value for a property, but he suggested that the village’s new John Steinbeck Waterfront Park might be a suitable home for the writing studio.

Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy held a conference call on Monday with representatives of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University in California and Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman to discuss options.

“I don’t think there is any way unless a Steinbeck angel comes out of the blue,” she said of the possibility of buying the entire property and turning it into a study center, writer’s residence, or museum.

Ms. Mulcahy said there were a number of challenges, starting with the fact the house is on a private road — although that has not stopped the steady stream of pilgrims who have made their way to the site over the years to peer over the fence or sneak onto the grounds. Plus, she said, the CPF does not buy developed property. “If anything, the CPF could buy an easement,” she said, “but even that would be a small part of the appraised value.”

Mr. Schneiderman agreed with the mayor’s assessment and suggested that even getting a new owner to agree to an historic easement might be difficult to achieve. If the effort was successful, he said he doubted more than $2 million of CPF money could be dedicated to the project.

“The pursuit is noble,” he said. “I think preserving Steinbeck’s home is almost something that should rise to national importance. Maybe some national entity could step in and acquire it as a national landmark.”

The mayor, who is a real estate agent when she is not working in her official capacity, said while she thought the asking price was high, she had little doubt “they will get a lot of money.” She pointed to a neighboring parcel that is smaller but had a larger house that recently sold for $7 million and a tiny cottage on Glover Street on a similar-sized parcel near the former home of the writer Betty Friedan that sold for more than $10 million after dueling would-be buyers set off a bidding war.

Steinbeck and his third wife, Elaine, bought the Sag Harbor property as a retreat from life in Manhattan in 1955. The writer was said to have been drawn to Sag Harbor, then a gritty, coastal factory town, because it reminded him of the California of his youth.

He wrote his last novel “The Winter of Our Discontent,” based on a small town resembling Sag Harbor, while living here, and set off in 1960 on his famous transcontinental journey with his standard poodle that was published in 1962 as “Travels with Charley.” That same year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Ms. Szoka said it was Steinbeck’s willing embrace of the local people that separates him from other great writers who have called the village home. “No other writer has been so immersed in Sag Harbor’s day-to-day life,” she said. “That, in combination with his stature as a literary giant — how many other villages can lay claim to a Nobel Prize winner? — is what makes this different.”

Susan Shillinglaw, a retired English professor and the former director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State, was friends with Elaine Steinbeck and has visited Sag Harbor several times, including in 2002 when she led a tour of the writer’s fans to the village and in 2018 when she was working on a film at the property and lectured on “The Winter of Our Discontent” in conjunction with a marathon reading of the book at Canio’s.

She agreed with Ms. Szoka that in a perfect world, the property would enter the public domain as a study center or museum. “As much as I want it to happen, I just don’t think there is a possibility,” she said. “But maybe the writing house could be saved.”

She said the modest house reflected Steinbeck’s modest taste and rejection of the trappings of wealth.

Ms. Shillinglaw said Elaine Steinbeck had given many important Steinbeck papers and other items to San Jose State, but she added, “There are a lot of Steinbeck artifacts there” that need to be protected.

Elaine Steinbeck continued to live in the house after her husband’s death in 1968, and she left it to her sister, Jean Boone, in a trust when she died in 2003. Over the years, there was legal wrangling between Elaine Steinbeck and her husband’s children from his first marriage that carried over to Ms. Boone. That trust, administered by Ms. Boone’s son, Clark Covert, who lives Austin, Texas, is the entity behind the sale.

Doreen Atkins, an associate broker with Sotheby’s International in Bridgehampton, has the listing. She did not return calls seeking comment or an opportunity to arrange an interview with Mr. Covert.

Besides the main house and writing studio, the property includes a tiny sleeping cottage, a 60-foot dock, a garage and a small swimming pool.