Bruce Ariss

Back in the 1980s I was the same bookseller that I am today, except that I was a lot dumber, I had fewer books, and I had no money.  Among my specialties was John Steinbeck and Steinbeckiana.  I didn’t have the money to pursue high-priced primary first editions by Steinbeck, but I could occasionally buy material related to him.

It was around this time that the Monterey Bay Aquarium was up and running. The aquarium is situated across the street from Pacific Biological Laboratories run by the famed marine biologist Ed Ricketts who also happened to be the best friend of Steinbeck. Ed’s lab was the meeting place for the cognoscente of Monterey and their friends. Thus, at any one time you might see Steinbeck, his wife, Carol, Tal and Ritchie Lovejoy, Carlton Sheffield or maybe Charlie Chaplin or Henry Miller or Joseph Campbell.

Campbell wrote of the Lab in 1932, “There is an absolute necessity for anybody today…to have a special place.  This is a place where you can simply experience what you are and what you might be.  This is a place of creative incubation. Ed Ricketts’ Pacific Biological Laboratory is one of those magical places.”

Two others who were part of the lab group were Jean and Bruce Ariss.  Jean was a published author.  Bruce was an accomplished writer, magazine editor, artist, and Monterey Peninsula icon.  Years later a theatre and a street would be named for him.  The pair lived on Huckleberry Hill in Monterey having moved there in 1936.  Bruce was big, tall, and had a full shock of white hair that looked like the plumage of an exotic bird.  He had a Barrymore-like face.

Bruce Ariss

Bruce Ariss

When I first made contact with him, he was writing his book, Inside Cannery Row, which Lexikos published in 1988. He had already painted several murals having to do with Cannery Row which hung in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. One of them was made into a poster issued by the Aquarium in 1986. It’s a busy mural showing the bustling activity of Cannery Row back in the day.  It shows some of the discarded pipes that some residents live in.  There is a man selling food out of his Blue Diner truck.  A boy rides his bike while delivering bread for Roma Bakery.  A dog follows him.  A Hovden Canning Co. truck is being loaded with boxes of canned sardines.  Several canneries are in full operation.  Ed’s lab is pictured right in the middle of this mural. Doc Ricketts is at the top of the stairs waving to Jean and Bruce Ariss as they walk by.  You can see the gigantic Packard owned by Ricketts sitting in the driveway.  And if you look closely, you can see that Steinbeck is sleeping in the back of the car.

Bustling Cannery Row as painted by Bruce Ariss

Bustling Cannery Row
as painted by Bruce Ariss

I purchased several of these posters and then asked Bruce if he would sign them for me.  He readily agreed, but even better than that, he suggested that he would take me to dinner at Doc’s lab after the signing at his house.  Seems that after Ricketts died in a train vs. car (the Packard) accident, some movers and shakers in Monterey acquired the Lab which they preserved and used as their meeting place for this loosely-assembled men’s club.  Ariss was a member, along with cartoonists Gus Arriola and Hank Ketchum, famed surgeon Ted Stottler, Frank Wright, and about 15 others.

I found that not only was Bruce a large man, he was larger than life.  I was in my 30s then, so anybody who had white hair was “old,” but Ariss was having nothing to do with being old. He was involved and, well, alive!  He suggested that we all have a drink or two before dinner. We each had two largely-filled whiskeys before we headed to the Lab for a prime rib dinner.  I had a good buzz going and was enjoying myself immensely.

At the Lab I was introduced to some of the club members, including Dr. Stottler who sat across the table from me.  He and I had struck up a conversation centering around my having just acquired some cassettes of Steinbeck reading two of is short stories.  One of those stories, The Snake, was based on an incident that took place in the Lab.  Dr. Stottler really wanted one of those cassettes and suggested that he would trade a copy of the Lab’s catalogue of specimens that Ricketts issued in 1929 for it.  I protested that his catalogue was worth a great deal more than one of my cassettes, but he insisted that he had a stack of the the catalogues, and that he was more than willing to make the trade.

Bruce chimed in that he had been there on the night when the incident involving the woman who had come to the Lab wanting to see a snake eat a mouse had taken place.

“In fact I was sitting right about there,” he said loudly, pointing directly at me.  I was practically giddy. Bruce had just highlighted the dinner. There I was sitting among big shots in Monterey, inside Doc’s Lab, for cryin’ out loud, after having drinks with Jean and Bruce Ariss. It was a wonderful experience for a rookie bookseller who had both a professional and a personal interest in John Steinbeck.

Years later I told this story to Steinbeck biographer Jack Benson who protested that Ariss had never been there on the night of the snake incident in question.

“Doesn’t matter,” I replied. “It was great theatre.”


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