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About the Sheaffer-O'Neill Collection

Louis Slung was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. He spent one year as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, in the footsteps of his hero Thomas Wolfe, but soon moved north to New York where he worked in a succession of odd jobs before shipping out to sea for a trip to Seattle via the Panama Canal. From 1934 he worked as a newspaperman and drama critic for the Brooklyn Eagle until the demise of the newspaper in 1955, with a hiatus for service during World War II. Somewhere along the line he changed his surname from Slung to Sheaffer, which he amusingly called his “pen” name, referring to the famous fountain pen company. Finding himself unemployed and calling upon the experience and connections from his years as a drama critic, Sheaffer became the press agent for José Quintero’s production of The Iceman Cometh at the Circle in the Square in 1956, which launched the revival of interest in the plays of Eugene O’Neill. He was also the press agent for the first New York production of Long Day’s Journey into Night, at the Helen Hayes Theatre, starring Fredric March, Florence Eldridge and Jason Robards, Jr. These events provided the galvanizing impetus for Sheaffer’s decision to write a biography of Eugene O’Neill.

When Louis Sheaffer began the research for his book about O’Neill and his work, the playwright had been dead for three years and many of the people who knew him were still alive. Sheaffer spent the next sixteen years of his life researching and writing the book. He later said that he researched for nine years before he ever wrote a line. Sheaffer’s research was exhaustive. For example, he spent nearly half a year examining every issue of the New London newspapers, the Telegraph and the Day, from the mid-1880s to the 1920s, roughly the period during which the O’Neill family lived or owned property in New London. In order to investigate O’Neill’s freshman year at Princeton in 1910, Sheaffer wrote to all 179 surviving members of his class to solicit their recollections nearly fifty years later.

Louis Sheaffer must have had an extraordinary ability to get people to talk. His research files include the records of interviews with and letters from hundreds of people who knew O’Neill personally or professionally, including many who had been very close to him. But Sheaffer recognized that even his two-volume work was not the last word on the subject since so much material was still closed to researchers during the period when he was writing his biography. Nevertheless, new information about the life of O’Neill has not substantially changed the portrait of the playwright that Sheaffer wrote in which he captured his subject with so much sympathy and insight. In that sense Sheaffer’s O’Neill remains the definitive biography.

The first volume, O’Neill, Son and Playwright, which takes the reader to 1920 and the New York premiere of Beyond the Horizon, was published in 1968 by Little, Brown & Company. It won the George Freedley Award from the Theater Library Association. The second volume, O’Neill, Son and Artist, was published in 1973 and was awarded the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for biography. During the period of his research, Sheaffer was supported by three Guggenheim Fellowships, grants-in-aid from the American Council of Learned Societies, a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, residencies at Yaddo and the McDowell Colony, as well as financial support from his parents and brother.

Louis Sheaffer lived modestly in his small apartment in Brooklyn Heights, working with extraordinary dedication and concentration for sixteen years on his biography of O’Neill. It is therefore not surprising that something went out of his life when he finished his project. Sheaffer later wrote about this period:

Although I’d heard that writers often, if not generally, go through a low period when they finish a book, I hadn’t expected it to happen to me. For sixteen years there were few waking hours when I wasn’t preoccupied with O’Neill, some phase of his history or of people close to him. With only occasional exceptions, in all those years, I used to work seven days a week. It wasn’t just a book I working on, it was practically a way of life. I had little time for friends or social activities, even the theater, which I’d always liked so much. So I more or less took it for granted that the completion of my biography would bring me a tremendous sense of relief.

Well, for a few months I was too busy with various things to be aware of my emotional and mental state, but once I had some leisure time, I realized that I felt empty, at loose ends, rather disorganized. My life lacked shape, a commanding, over-all goal, something I’d had all the time I worked on O’Neill. Another thing is that I had felt part of the O’Neill family, involved in their lives, and now the connection was broken. I felt almost as though I’d been orphaned.

To his biography of Eugene O’Neill Louis Sheaffer brought the investigative skills, thoroughness and persistence in the pursuit of facts and sources of a good newspaperman, the insights and knowledge of the theater acquired during years of experience as a drama critic, and something else as well . William Phillips, the editor-in-chief at Little, Brown, and the last of a series of editors who worked with Sheaffer during the long project, wrote about him:

I am no literary critic and no psychotherapist, but there has to have been a much greater affinity and similarity between Lou and our greatest playwright than anyone suspected. Make no mistake, the author of O’Neill, Son and Playwright and O’Neill, Son and Artist was like his subject, some kind of rare genius.

By the time he had published his biography of Eugene O’Neill, Louis Sheaffer’s enormous mass of documents, photographs and books accumulated during the course of his research had long outgrown the space available in his small apartment on Montague Terrace and other rented storage places. He realized that his collection would be a treasure trove for other writers because his research had been so exhaustive. Originally, it had been his hope that the papers would go to the New York Public Library, or to the research libraries of one of the large universities, and for many years he tried to sell the collection. In 1991 he wrote to Brian Rogers, at that time the Librarian of the College, with the proposal that Connecticut College buy his O’Neill collection, the most important one in private hands.

In his letter to Brian Rogers, Sheaffer regretted that his financial circumstances prevented him from donating the papers and he recalled his friendship with Hazel A. Johnson, Librarian of the College from 1943 to 1968, who had assisted him in many ways during his research trips to New London. He also pointed out the appropriateness of having the papers end up in the city that left such a large imprint on O’Neill’s plays, some of which are set partly or in their entirety in the New London area. After a period of negotiation and several trips by Brian Rogers to Brooklyn to bring the thirty-seven cartons of papers back to New London, the collection became one of the library’s “special collections” shortly before Sheaffer’s death in 1993.

The Sheaffer-O'Neill collection is an archive of the life and works of Eugene O'Neill formed by Sheaffer's work on his two-volume biography.  The success of Sheaffer's biography derives in large part from the extensive research he carried out over some twenty years, and the detailed picture of O'Neill that emerged. All reviews referred to the wealth of information presented in both volumes. The voluminous documentary evidence comprising the Collection fills over 40 archive boxes.

A unique and notable feature of the Collection is the author's typewritten notes from the hundreds of interviews he conducted with individuals who knew O'Neill personally, or knew his relatives, friends or associates. Among the important figures in the O'Neill story with whom Sheaffer became friends and corresponded are the playwright's second wife, Agnes Boulton O'Neill, his third wife, Carlotta Monterey O'Neill, Agnes' daughter Barbara Burton and sister Margery Colman, Lady Oona O'Neill Chaplin (O'Neill's daughter), Jessica Rippin (one of the young O'Neill's New London friends), Beatrice Ashe Maher (O'Neill's most serious New London-era girlfriend), Dorothy Commins (the wife of O'Neill's editor, Saxe Commins), and Cynthia Chapman Stram (Carlotta O'Neill's daughter by an earlier marriage), as well as Mrs. Stram's husband and son.

In addition to 53 of Eugene O'Neill's original letters, the Collection includes several hundred copies or transcripts of important O'Neill letters held by other libraries. There are copies or transcripts of many letters written by Carlotta O'Neill, chiefly to friends, and several from Agnes O'Neill to Eugene. A complete set of Eugene's letters to Beatrice Ashe were copied by Sheaffer from the originals in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library.

Alphabetical name files contain documents and clippings pertaining to most of the principal figures in the O'Neill story and many of the lesser ones: school classmates, New London-era friends, the Provincetown and Greenwich Village crowd, and those who were personally or professionally associated with him as he rose to the height of his fame in the 1930's. There are extensive clippings files on the plays and a collection of playbills. Several files are devoted to the Provincetown Players and the Theatre Guild.

A picture collection of about 400 prints and negatives includes many formal portraits and informal snapshots of O'Neill at all ages; his wives, children and friends, pictures of the places where they lived, and scenes from productions of his plays.

An extensive O'Neill book collection was formed at Connecticut College before the acquisition of the Sheaffer papers and includes first or limited editions of the plays, scholarly monographs on O'Neill and his works, article offprints, and complete files of the Eugene O'Neill Review and the Eugene O'Neill Newsletter


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