Inside the Raging Court Battle Over John Steinbeck’s Classics ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘East of Eden’

The battle between the legendary author’s daughter-in-law and stepdaughter over the adaptation rights to ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘East of Eden’ has its day(s) in court.


LOS ANGELES — Thom Steinbeck’s widow, Gail Knight Steinbeck, daughter-in-law of Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, cried on the witness stand in federal court in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday as she opened up about her husband, who died last year. Steinbeck and her husband (and their company) were sued in November 2014 by Waverly Scott Kaffaga, John Steinbeck’s stepdaughter and executor of her mother (and John’s third wife) Elaine Steinbeck’s estate, for allegedly interfering with contract negotiations for film adaptations of Steinbeck books East of Eden (which was to be directed by Gary Ross of The Hunger Games and star Jennifer Lawrence), and a DreamWorks version of The Grapes of Wrath (to be directed by Steven Spielberg) among others.

The film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath is said to be still moving forward, however court papers filed by Kaffaga say the East of Eden film adaptation was abandoned by Universal Pictures due to worries over the “constant threat of litigation.”

On the second day (and a tense one at that) of the trial, expected to last for a week before it is to be decided by a six-member jury, the remaining issues in the litigation are whether or not Gail (and Thom) Steinbeck intentionally interfered with film negotiations of The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden for economic benefit. 

Previous issues in the lawsuit were decided last year by Judge Terry Hatter Jr. in a summary judgment that found Gail and Thom Steinbeck to be in breach of a 1983 settlement agreement (stating that control of Steinbeck’s “early works,” including The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, belongs solely to Kaffaga, to whom the rights were bequeathed from her mother)—which is said to have harmed and continues to harm the value of the entire Steinbeck catalogue. The summary judgment also found that the pair had slandered the titles by having represented themselves as having the rights to control those works. 

Waverly Scott Kaffaga was seated in the courtroom gallery, wearing a blue and white plaid butto- down shirt, gray track pants and white running shoes while Gail Knight Steinbeck, dressed in a lavender sweater, blue scarf, and white pants, sat with her lawyers at her counsel’s table. 

Steinbeck was called to the witness stand by Kaffaga’s attorney, Susan Kohlmann. Emphasizing that the 1983 agreement gives “unfettered control” to Kaffaga, Kohlmann said to Steinbeck, “But that won’t stop you.” Steinbeck, who seemed flustered, replied, “In most places a ruling like that won’t stand,” before describing the ruling as “nebulous.”

Kaffaga had been offered a deal for The Grapes of Wrath film adaptation in June 2013. Kaffaga claims in court papers that Gail and Thom Steinbeck began to interfere with negotiations approximately one month later. When Steinbeck initially found out about The Grapes of Wrath film adaptation, via an announcement in Deadline, on July 2, 2013, she was upset. In emails displayed on the court monitor, Steinbeck had written, “I’m just pissed. Now I have to get my lawyers involved and it’s so damn expensive.” Asked by Kohlmann why she was upset by the film’s announcement, Steinbeck responded, “I was angry that they were attempting to negotiate something that they had no rights to negotiate.” Within an email, she also wrote, “This movie will never get made... This will end up in the courts and is not likely to be made into a film.”

Queried by Kohlmann as to how Steinbeck knew there would be litigation, Steinbeck said she knew that she’d be sued by Kaffaga. Asked why she had written that “the deal will fall apart” in another email brought up on a courtroom monitor, Steinbeck offered, “We knew it would fall apart.” “So you wanted it to fall apart?” asked Kohlmann. “No way. Are you kidding?” said Steinbeck. “It’s Steven Spielberg. He’s a genius. We wanted this deal to happen.” She said she tried to reach Spielberg, however she was told that he was in the south of France, so she connected with DreamWorks executive Chris Floyd. In an email sent to Chris Floyd, in October 2013, Steinbeck wrote, “The Steinbeck family goal is to give you the chain of title you need.”

Trying to demonstrate the importance of including Thom Steinbeck in projects connected to his father’s writings, when Kohlmann’s questioning turned to confidential negotiations that Gail and Thom Steinbeck had entered into with DreamWorks that resulted in a “side deal” consisting of an executive-producer contract, Steinbeck said that Thom knew everything about his father’s work and that he knows more about classic The Grapes of Wrath than anyone. Kaffaga claims that the “side deal” likely reduced how much money she received for her film deal. Asked why she kept her DreamWorks negotiations confidential, Steinbeck said that DreamWorks likes to keep things confidential, she was worried that Kaffaga would want to step up as a producer, and she was concerned she’d be sued by Kaffaga.  

Kaffaga watched the courtroom proceedings completely stone-faced.

Steinbeck became choked up and sobbed while talking about her husband who, like his father, was an author. “He [Thom] was amazing,” said Steinbeck, who described him as “brilliant” several times throughout her testimony. “It was in John Steinbeck’s blood and it was in Thom’s DNA. He became a writer because of his dad.”

She explained how the book The Grapes of Wrath remains “such a glaring, brilliant shining light in the Steinbeck library,” and said that Thom, then a “kid,” was in the room when Eleanor Roosevelt first called John Steinbeck to talk about his book. “The Grapes of Wrath is really what made John Steinbeck famous,” said Steinbeck. “It caused a lot of trouble for him, but it became required reading.”

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To show the intellectual atmosphere of growing up with John Steinbeck, Gail Steinbeck said that dinner at the Steinbeck house meant that if one wanted someone to pass the salt and pepper, one would also need to demonstrate one’s literary prowess by quoting, for example, “John Milton’s Paradise Lost, poetry, or a limerick.”

According to Steinbeck, the The Grapes of Wrath film adaptation is on its third draft of the script and it’s “moving forward swimmingly.”

“Everybody got paid,” she said. “Everybody’s happy.”

When questioned by her own lawyer, Robert Graham, Steinbeck said that she “absolutely” wanted DreamWorks to produce a film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath and added that Thom Steinbeck had originally sent a letter to Steven Spielberg about East of Eden, but Spielberg responded that he’d prefer to do The Grapes of Wrath. Thom Steinbeck, she said, then informed a Hollywood agent, “Do whatever it takes to get the deal done.” 

Steinbeck will be called back to the witness stand Friday. 

John Steinbeck died in 1968. He had two sons, Thom and John IV (who died in 1991). John IV’s daughter, Blake Smyle, is John Steinbeck’s only living blood-related descendant.

Jury deliberations as to whether or not Gail Steinbeck intentionally interfered with film negotiations for economic gain will begin next week.