THE LIVES of great writers, like the lives of great athletes, are sometimes most understandable in terms of the women to whom they were attracted. If you don't know the kind of woman for whom the writer cared, you don't know the writer. John Steinbeck was past middle age before he found, in his third marriage, a woman more caring than competing.

Steinbeck was born in 1902 in Salinas, California, to a family of moderate affluence and heavy Puritanism. At 15, he lost his virginity to a Portuguese cleaning girl for the fee of $10. Additional fees came later, not charged by cleaning girls, but first by a woman whose passion for security came into conflict with his priorities as a writer. Although, early on, his first wife, Carol Henning Steinbeck, worked to support them while Steinbeck wrote, and performed acts of support ranging from typing his manuscripts to nursing his dying mother, a change came over her when fame and fortune followed the Broadway premiere of Mice and Men.

Thomas Kiernan writes in his competent biography. The Intricate Music, "Carol had greeted her unexpected financial prosperity with a burst of domesticity that had at first perplexed and then amused John. Where before she had been content to live in the plainest of conditions and in the simplest of surroundings, now she seemed to aspire more and more to all those middle-class values that he had long despised." Finally, she became so concerned with wallpaper patterns-- and associated domestic problems-- that she resented his concern for migrant laborers.

Steinbeck fared even worse with his second wife, Gwendolyn Conger Steinbeck, an aspiring actress-singer. He needed to live in the big outdoor country around Salinas; she was determined that they should live among a circle of celebrities in New York, and she won. Her triumph marked the beginning of the agonizing end of their four-year marriage. The end came when his close friend and mentor, Ed Ricketts, was killed in a car crash, and Gwendolyn, "out of some perverse sense of spite, and in a drunken state, had cheered the news of Ricketts' death, declaring that John would no longer have his friend to lean on. She accused him of having been a parasite on Ricketts' mind and having appropriated Ricketts' ideas as his own. 'Now your public will see you as you really are,' she is said to have hissed at John in inexplicable fury, or words to that effect. 'Without him you are nothing. You will now be the failure you were before you met him, and I don't want to be married to a failure.'"

Steinbeck did not contest a divorce settlement which granted him little more than a month a year of access to his two sons. Subsequently he developed a dark contempt for women-- until he met Elaine Scott, the wife of actor Zachary Scott. Ann Sothern introduced them and helped along by Joan Crawford, they fell immediately in love. Between marriages he had found it difficult to work, but after Elaine divorced her husband and married Steinbeck, he began to work steadily on what was to become East of Eden. Elaine proved to be of immense support to his for the last 18 years of his life. Among other things, she took in his two teen-age sons by Gwendolyn, who had thrown them out of her house. "This served as a serious complication in Steinbeck's life," Kiernan writes, "for now he had to become a full-time father. Close to sixty, he was ill-prepared and ill-equipped for the task. As a result, Elaine bore most of the burden for reordering the boys' confused lives."

Although he was generally unlucky in love, he was uniquely fortunate in friendship. Ed Ricketts was a biologist who ran a marine laboratory and biological-supply firm on Cannery Row, the Monterey waterfront. Kiernan writes, "An extremely articulate, almost glib man who both wrote and spoke on almost any topic imaginable with the authority and originality of superior intelligence, [Ricketts] was also a hard drinker, a womanizer and an adventurous, sharp-eyed cynic with a trenchant wit. All of these traits instantly attracted Steinbeck to him in a combination of wonder and envy. Ricketts found in Steinbeck something of a kindred spirit-- a man of intelligence and curiosity who was basically shy like himself; a loner, seeking the independent life, who masked his shyness with an outspoken if sometimes naive intellectualism."

Ed Ricketts turned out to be the wisest of teachers. In Elizabeth Otis, Steinbeck had the most loyal of agents. And no American writer ever had a firmer friend than Steinbeck had in his editor, Pascal Covici. Thomas Fensch's Steinbeck and Covici, based on their correspondence, is a documentary revelation of trust between two men.

"Pat stood rather alone" playwright Arthur Miller remembers of Covici, "superbly himself, eager to be moved by something true . . . He was the slave of an appetite for excellence, and while he could set forth all the right reasons for his judgments, his real calculus was that of the heart. He loved best whatever lifted up the human possibility; what really made him slap the table and roar out his laugh was the outbreak of light over the passionate dark."

John Steinbeck possessed nothing of the poetry of Scott Fitzgerald, nothing of the profundity of Faulkner. He lacked the tension of Hemingway. His contribution to American writing was a biblical simplicity, as shown in this passage from The Grapes of Wrath:

"They were in flight out of Oklahoma and across Texas. The land turtles crawled through the dust and the sun whipped the earth, and in the evening the heat went out of the sky and the earth sent up a wave of heat from itself . . . In the far distance, waved up against the sky, the mountains stood. And the wheels of the cars creaked around, and the engines were hot, and the steam spurted around the radiator caps. They crawled to the Pecos River, and crossed at Santa Rosa. And they went on for twenty miles."

The Knights of King Arthur, riding out of the Morte d'Arthur, made the earliest literary impact upon John Steinbeck. The mounted warrior who challenges the dragon holding a countryside in terror became the writer who challenged the great Greedheads of the California fruitlands.

The world of the 1930s fitted into his simplifications. The American peasantry was wearing white hats that season and the Greedheads were wearing black. When the war in Indochina later turned the world gray, Steinbeck became confused. He began, like Richard Wright toward the end of his career, to fancy himself a political sage. How badly blunted his political perceptions had become he demonstrated by writing speeches for Lyndon Johnson and being flattered by invitations to attend the Big Con from Texas at White House evenings.

Steinbeck wrote so clearly, so simply, of the powerless Mexican and Okie fruit pickers that he caught the world's attention. But there was a backlash to The Grapes of Wrath, which isolated him and Carol Steinbeck from the middle-class people of Monterey. This was another of the fees he had to pay, but not the worst.

The worst was the price Steinbeck paid for his great commerical success: It swung him from being a defender of human rights to being a defender of property. Now he spoke for Greedhead and Dragon (and with Carol and Gwendolyn).

"In achieving financial security, in aspiring to wide social and political acceptance," Kiernan assures us, "in settling comfortably into the sophisticated and often artificial environment that was New York, he had betrayed his own fiery artistic principles . . . to compromise his youthful ideas in order to live comfortably in it."

He had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, but by the time of his return from Indochina, in 1967, he wrote to Elizabeth Otis: "'I have nothing I can or want to communicate-- a dry-as-dust, worked out feeling . . . my fingers have avoided the pencil as though it were an old and poisoned tool.'"

Steinbeck's disillusionment killed his spirit. He died, of a massive heart attack, on a wintry afternoon of his 66th year, in New York City.