Toward the end of 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression, a young, brilliant but out-of-work academic named Joseph Campbell turned up in Pacific Grove, California, a bohemian hillside community on the tip of the Monterey Peninsula. Campbell soon fell in with a group of lusty, hard-drinking writers, artists, and amateur philosophers that included the struggling author John Steinbeck and his great friend Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist. Campbell decided to stay and join the party, which never stopped.

Steinbeck and Campbell were immediately drawn to one another. Both were six feet tall and commanding presences. But where Steinbeck was blunt-featured and stout, Campbell was a lithe former college track star and electrifyingly handsome. Wherever they went—often it was to Ricketts’s waterfront lab on nearby Cannery Row—a celebration erupted. If anyone, including Steinbeck, noticed Campbell’s interest in Steinbeck’s wife Carol, nothing was said.