Mystery of John Steinbeck’s ‘Fan Letter’ to Marilyn

American novelist John Steinbeck’s 1955 letter to Marilyn, requesting a signed photo for his nephew, has been an object of curiosity since it was sold for $3,520 at Julien’s Auctions in 2016. In 1952, Marilyn had appeared in O. Henry’s Full House, the portmanteau film featuring an introduction by Steinbeck; and in March 1955 – a month before the letter was written, she was a ‘celebrity usherette’ at the New York premiere for East for Eden, Elia Kazan’s adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel, starring James Dean. Marilyn also owned a few of Steinbeck’s books, and may have met him personally at least once with her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller (more info here.)

“In my whole experience I have never known anyone to ask for an autograph for himself. It is always for a child or an ancient aunt, which gets very tiresome as you know better than I. It is therefore, with a certain nausea that I tell you that I have a nephew-in-law … he has a foot in the door of puberty, but that is only one of his problems. You are the other. …  I know that you are not made of ether, but he doesn’t. … Would you send him, in my care, a picture of yourself, perhaps in pensive, girlish mood, inscribed to him by name and indicating that you are aware of his existence. He is already your slave. This would make him mine. If you will do this, I will send you a guest key to the ladies’ entrance of Fort Knox.”

The late John Steinbeck (top); and his surviving nephew Jon Atkinson, with wife Joan (bottom)

Now Michael Alberty has investigated the story for The Oregonian, making contact with Steinbeck’s nephew who is still living.

“Steinbeck’s typed letter is dated April 28, 1955. In it, Steinbeck tells Monroe about Jon Atkinson, the son of his wife’s sister in Austin, Texas. At the time the letter was written, Atkinson was a 17-year old high school student at Stephen F. Austin High School. Given that Steinbeck describes Atkinson as having ‘his foot in the door of puberty,’ the teenager was lucky the internet didn’t exist yet.

The letter was one of many that Monroe saved throughout her life. When Monroe died in 1962, she left most of her estate, including the Steinbeck letter, to her acting coach, Lee Strasberg. When Strasberg died in 1982, his wife, Anna, took control of Monroe’s estate.

Stories about the letter began in earnest in 2019. They flared up again a few weeks ago, with so much interest, Snopes’ chief executive officer weighed in on the matter. ‘Although we can’t say whether Steinbeck’s young relative ever received the asked-for photograph, we can verify that the letter is genuine,’ David Milliken wrote on the Snopes website on June 3.

I’m happy to report that Atkinson is alive and well, living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with Joan, his wife of 57 years. He’s a retired minister, and this commotion about his teenage preoccupation with Marilyn Monroe comes as a bit of a surprise. Atkinson vaguely remembers hearing about his famous in-law’s letter, but he’s not sure when. Amazingly, my phone call was the first time a newspaper or magazine has reached out to ask him if he received the Monroe photograph.

Joan Atkinson says she first found out about the Steinbeck letter a few weeks ago. That’s when a former student from her days teaching in the library school at the University of Alabama called to ask, ‘Have you seen this letter?’ As you may have guessed by now, Atkinson never received a photograph or anything else from Marilyn Monroe.

After the call from the former student, Jon Atkinson asked his wife if she thought the letter was a fake. ‘It was a good question because it’s definitely not his signature. It even has the typist’s little initials, “mf” underneath the signature,’ Joan Atkinson said. This is where the mystery deepens.

Joan Atkinson points out that Steinbeck almost exclusively wrote his letters in longhand with a pencil. ‘I could not imagine that John Steinbeck would have had a typist or secretary from the office sign a letter like that for him. As personal as this subject was, it seems strange,’ she said. Did Steinbeck write the letter for an assistant to type? All we can say with any degree of confidence is the letter was in Marilyn Monroe’s possession. Unless the typist “mf” can be located, this piece of the mystery may never be solved.

We do know young Jon Atkinson never received a photograph inscribed with a personal message from Marilyn Monroe. ‘That sure would have been nice, right?’ Atkinson said.”

Marilyn was probably tickled to receive such a letter from Steinbeck, though it appears that, being inundated with mail of all kinds, she may have forgotten to respond. (Or else perhaps she did, and Uncle John kept it for himself! Just kidding.) The letter is friendly in tone, but given that Steinbeck didn’t know Marilyn very well, a secretarial signature doesn’t seem implausible to me.

And as the letter comes from Marilyn’s own estate – via her heirs, the Strasbergs – I’m inclined to believe it authentic. Of course, it’s still possible that it was a hoax or prank, but Marilyn and her staff would surely have been alert to such ploys. (But then again, maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic …)