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Apr-10-2016 17:38printcomments

The Grace and Charm of Crystal Eastin Brown Remembered

Crystal Eastin Brown, Dec. 2, 1939-April 1, 2016

Crystal Eastin
Roger Steffens, John Steinbeck IV, Crystal Eastin and Sean Flynn on another trip to the Island of the Coconut Monk.
Vietnam, January 1969. Photo courtesy: Roger Steffens

(SALEM, Ore.) - I was sad to hear of the passing of Crystal Eastin Brown. I was honored to have the opportunity to visit with her on one occasion, as I've been captivated by her story for many years.

During the Vietnam War, Crystal had a relationship with John Steinbeck IV, the son of the famous US author. Both journalists, they had adventures beyond compare, and Crystal gave birth to their child while living in Vietnam, a girl they named Blake. She is the only biological grandchild of author John Steinbeck.

Blake Smyle only lived in Vietnam for a short time, but she has great interest in that period of her mother's life and in John Steinbeck IV, her biological father.

I traveled to Shepherdstown, West Virginia during the summer of 2013 for a rare chance to see Blake, and Crystal- a former journalist whose life was inextricably tied to the bloodiest aspect of the war in Vietnam.

John Steinbeck IV was a writer, like his father. His work brought fear and reality to Americans, also like his father, yet they were extremely different. The younger John Steinbeck worked with noted journalists like Walter Cronkite and will always be remembered for the article he wrote titled, "The Importance of Being Stoned in Vietnam" for Washingtonian Magazine.

The younger John Steinbeck struggled for many years with drug and alcohol addiction, and died on 07 February 1991, during a routine surgery after gaining his sobriety.

Crystal and John lived in Saigon while he covered combat in Vietnam with his friends Sean Flynn, Dana Stone, Tim Page, and others who were connected to the news teams reporting on the war. They all lived in a Saigon home known as "Frankie's House" which would become famous through the Australian movie of the same name.

Sean Flynn was the son of actor Errol Flynn. He and Dana Stone were captured and killed, following a story on the Cambodian border. Tim Page is perhaps the most famous journalist of the Vietnam War.

Another, even more fascinating aspect of the life John Steinbeck and Crystal Eastin was their relationship with a man known as "The Coconut Monk", Ông Đạo Dừa, whose real name was Nguyễn Thành Nam. This noble tree sitting monk lived along the Mekong River on "Phoenix Island".

The frail Buddhist spiritual leader believed that if he could bring the different sides of the Vietnam conflict together, he could help them find resolve through his complex understanding of the relationships between religions.

Crystal Brown, Tim King and Blake Smyle, 2013

Many believed in the power of this man, including John Steinbeck IV whom the Monk regarded as his spiritual son. Today, Phoenix island is connected to the river bank by bridge, during the time of the Coconut Monk it was adorned with hundreds of feet of bright yellow steel walkways and immense statues of Jesus and Buddha.

Crystal's eyes danced with adventure when she recalled those radical years of her young adult life. I was happy and amazed that she was willing and able to discuss these tumultuous times after so many years. Crystal said to me, as we strolled down a sidewalk in her historic Revolutionary War town, "The really fun part about it, you get to tell everybody the stories over again."

For perspective, Blake's 1759 home in Shepherdstown was bordered by an ancient alley that contains the graves of two Americans killed during the Revolution. American history in this region gives one the undeniable feeling that you are walking among the shadows of this nation's earliest participants.

During my visit with Crystal, she related a story that I never could have imagined. The news agency she was involved in was founded by Steinbeck, Michael Morrow, Dan Derby, Emerson Manawis, and actor Richard Hughes. It was called "Dispatch News Service".

I remarked to Crystal, "Dispatch News broke many stories, many important stories," to which she replied, "Yes, My Lai was one of them."

My Lai, perhaps one of the darkest moments in American military history, was the name of a Vietnamese village where US soldiers murdered nearly all of the inhabitants, who numbered in the hundreds, on 16 March 1968. The act would be ultimately attributed to a US Army lieutenant named William Calley of "Charlie Company", though so many soldiers took part in the wanton slaughter.

Calley, the only man charged with a war crime in relation to My Lai, got little more than a slap on the wrist before being fully pardoned by former US President Richard Nixon.

One of the few survivors, my friend Duc Tran Van, who resides in Germany today, was a seven-year old boy in My Lai when Lt. William Calley's boys swept through his village.

There was a great deal of confusion for young Duc Tran Van on that historic day. U.S. soldiers shot his mother and he became photographically immortalized as the little boy laying in the dirt road protecting his infant sister from the marauding, murderous soldiers. He shared his thoughts about the massacre in a previous article titled, "Calley Vs Manning: Which Army 'Criminal' Would You Convict?" that I wrote in March 2012 for Salem-News.com.

"Despite her injuries in her leg and stomach, my mother dragged herself to the street to see us running away. So she had to see her other two daughters lying dead on the other roadside. I ran away from this place, carrying my sister," Duc Tran Van shared.

The photos of his mother's corpse, so ungraciously gunned down in the dirt with her eyes still open, along with the photos of her son, were some of the central images carried by U.S. news magazines that historically represent this terrible war. Only when a US soldier named Ron Ridenhour released these photos after being discharged, would the story of My Lai rise to the surface, horrifying people the world over.

Crystal told me a story at that moment that I never could have imagined. She said, "I went to see the movie, 'Woodstock' with Ron Ridenhour in Saigon."

Ridenhour, the very man who would later shock the world with his photographs of American soldiers laying waste to the people of My Lai, wrestled with the idea of sharing these photos with the public when he was still in Vietnam.

"So we went, I think Louise went as well. We went to see the movie Woodstock on the military base in Saigon! During the intermission I just broke down and cried and cried and cried because this was America and I was an American and this was happening as I was in Vietnam and I didn't want... I hated the war and so the irony of going there with Ron Ridenhour... his fellow soldiers were begging him to make My Lai public."

Louise Smizer was the devoted partner of (then disappeared) war photographer Dana Stone. Zalin Grant wrote about this amazing woman in an article titled, "She Tried to Save Her Husband" published by Pythia Press.

"She thought he was invincible. It never occurred to her that something like this (Dana's disappearance) might happen. She was at a hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, waiting for him to return from filming a battlefield scene for CBS.

"He and Time photographer Sean Flynn, son of actor Errol Flynn, were covering the story on motorbikes. They were captured on a road near the Vietnam border, April 6, 1970. Dana was wearing a braided necklace from Louise’s hair," Grant wrote.

When I met Crystal Brown, the sun was shining and her words were captivating. Crystal also clarified to me that the movie "Frankie's House" by Tim Page was part fiction. "Tim Page suggested in that movie that he and I were having an affair, that is completely untrue, it didn't happen".

Tim Page is famously portrayed at the end of the movie "Apocalypse Now" as the crazed journalist played by Dennis Hopper, who has become friendly with the murderous senior officer portrayed by Marlon Brando.

These individuals played their part during a war that was hugely unpopular with the American public.

An avid peace activist who was born in the Bay Area of California, Crystal Brown was delightful person and my regret is not having spent more time with her when I had traveled so far to meet her. Nonetheless, my short time with Crystal was a pleasure and little time passes without those memories revisiting.

Her daughter Blake contacted me to let me know, Crystal passed at the age of 76 after a battle with Parkinson's. She was a lovely and gracious human being who loved peace and she will be missed.

Crystal was preceded in death by her mother and father, Florence and Blake Eastin. She is survived by her husband, Jimmie Brown; her daughter, Blake Smyle; her son, Grayson Brown; her grandchildren, Nicholas Moreland and Hannah Smyle; granddaughter-in-law, Katherine Moreland, and great-grandson, Maverick Moreland. A memorial service to honor Crystal was held Saturday, April 9, 2016, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, in Sharpsburg, Md.

A previous version of this article was published by American Herald Tribune: Saying goodbye to Crystal Brown


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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.

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