John Steinbeck’s Heirs Face Off in Trial Over Movie Adaptations

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The latest round in a bitterly fought dispute over John Steinbeck’s estate began Tuesday as the author’s step-daughter told a trial court that Steinbeck’s late son and his widow tried to scare studios away from movie adaptations of “Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden.”

In 2014, Waverly Scott Kaffaga, the daughter of Steinbeck’s wife Elaine Steinbeck, filed a lawsuit as executor of her mother’s estate. She claims that Thomas Steinbeck, his wife Gail and their company Palladin Group interfered in negotiations between the estate and Dreamworks Studios to make a “Grapes of Wrath” adaptation and an “East of Eden” movie at Universal Studios.

Steinbeck left all his intellectual property rights to Kaffaga’s mother and set up a $50,000 trust for Thomas and John Steinbeck IV, his sons from a previous marriage. Kaffaga is the daughter of the late movie star Zachary Scott and took control of the copyrights after her mother died in 2003.

Thomas, also a published author, died last year but became better known for a family feud that picked up steam in 1981 when he and his brother sued Elaine Steinbeck for a greater share of royalties from Steinbeck’s works.

Under a 1983 settlement agreement, the parties agreed to an even three-way split on the royalties from certain Steinbeck books. After Elaine died, Thomas again mounted a legal challenge against Kaffaga as her mother’s successor but was frustrated by a court of appeal.

The battle did not stop there. Kaffaga said in her lawsuit that Thomas Steinbeck his wife Gail Knight Steinbeck and their company The Palladin Group intentionally interfered in several Steinbeck projects, including audiobook versions of Steinbeck’s works at Penguin, a Steinbeck-inspired concert featuring Mumford & Sons, and a documentary film about “The Grapes of Wrath.”

The court already has granted summary judgment to Kaffaga on her claims of breach of contract and slander of title. Now a federal jury will decide a final claim of intentional interference and whether she is entitled to damages. The first day of trial began Tuesday.

Front and center at trial are the proposed adaptations at Dreamworks Studios for “The Grapes of Wrath” and at Universal for “East of Eden.” Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day Lewis were attached to the former and Jennifer Lawrence and writer-director Gary Ross to the latter.

In her opening argument, Kaffaga’s attorney Susan Kohlmann said Gail Knight Steinbeck contacted studios once she learned about a project and cast doubt over rights, to frustrate the estate.

Steinbeck had bequeathed the copyrights to his work to Elaine to protect and continue his legacy, Kohlmann said. She urged jurors to protect the author’s legacy for the “next 50 years.”

“At every turn, you will hear, they have been stopped,” Kohlmann told the four men and three women of the jury.

Gail Knight Steinbeck’s attorney Matthew Berger tried to downplay Kaffaga’s family ties to John Steinbeck, noting that she was not related to the author by blood.

“She is not one of his heirs,” he said.

He said that Gail inserted herself into the movie deals to make sure there was a clean chain of title and so that Thomas, the only living son of John Steinbeck, would be part of the “Grapes of Wrath” film.

“None of our clients intentionally interfered with anything. In fact, the opposite is true,” Berger said.

Waverly Scott Kaffaga sat in the courtroom during proceedings, while Gail Knight Steinbeck sat with her attorneys. Both women took the stand in the afternoon.

Kaffaga said her mother had taken the mission of protecting Steinbeck’s legacy “very seriously.”

When Kohlmann asked why she had filed suit, Kaffaga replied: “Because I haven’t been able to do what my mother would want me to do – what John would want me to do.”
“The catalog has been dirtied by these legalities,” Kaffaga said. “The whole Steinbeck canon has been put into doubt by this constant interference.”

Thomas died last year at 72 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Jurors watched Thomas in a video deposition. He made clear his disdain for prior court rulings and said he would keep fighting.

“I have no intention of stopping my challenge to all of those things,” he said.

When Gail Knight Steinbeck took the stand she testified that in the past 10 years she has received at least $120,000 a year in royalties from domestic sales of Steinbeck’s books, and probably more. In 2017, Thomas’ estate received $200,000 from book royalties, she said.

Kohlmann asked about the comment she made in a July 2012 email that appeared related to the ongoing dispute with Steinbeck’s estate. She wrote: “It isn’t over until I draw my last breath.”

Gail Knight Steinbeck brushed off the comment.

“Oh that’s silly,” she said.

U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter is presiding over the trial.

Director John Ford adapted “Grapes of Wrath” for the screen in 1940 with Henry Fonda starring in the Depression-era film. In 1955, Elia Kazan made “East of Eden” starring James Dean.

John Steinbeck died in 1968. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

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