About Croswell Bowen (1905-1971)
By his daughters,
Croswell Bowen recited Edmund’s lines from Long Day’s Journey Into Night so often that we, his children, could chime in at the end. At the height of his career as a crime reporter, Bowen took to heart the comment of his friend, fellow New Yorker writer, Niccolo Tucci: “To write well about a scoundrel, you must really love him.” He had developed an ability to probe and profile criminals: robbers, murderers, neo-Nazis and crooked cops. He had come to believe in rehabilitation through psychological analysis. In fact, Bowen corresponded with one of the criminals he’d written about, Bob Brown, until his parole. Through writing, reading and psychological assistance Brown emerged from prison a permanently changed man. Bowen professed affection for the bad boys he wrote about. Dramatists may wish their plays not be confused with the police blotter, but Eugene O’Neill’s transgressions in life captured Bowen’s interest almost as much as O’Neill’s plays.
As Bowen explains in the preface to Curse of the Misbegotten: A Tale of the House of O’Neill, he first encountered O’Neill at rehearsals for The Iceman Cometh in 1946 at the offices of the Theatre Guild. That fall Bowen was a staff reporter for the liberal newspaper PM’s Picture News. His profile of O’Neill carried the title “Black Irishman.” (Black here, refers to a “gloomy type Irishman, brooding” rather than color of hair.) Bowen writes that by 1956, “perhaps because of my Irish blood” he was obsessed with the idea that a curse rested on the O’Neill family.
In the contemporary era of multiculturalism and whiteness studies, one might be baffled at Bowen’s claim that Irish blood defined him. Croswell Bowen graduated from the Choate School, attended Yale and married a 6th generation Yankee. True, his grandmother was born Elizabeth McCarthy in Limerick, but both she and her daughter married Methodists, from families long established in the American south. Elizabeth McCarthy telegraphed her Irish heritage to Croswell Bowen through her Catholic religion, the maintenance of ties to those of her family who remained in Ireland, and in her hagiography of her father, the Immigrant James McCarthy.
Like Ella O’Neill, Bowen’s grandmother was convent educated. She, in turn, sent her daughter Louise to the Sacred Heart Convent in Dallas, Texas. A devout Catholic all her life, Louise convinced her husband to convert, and died among the Carmelite Sisters at the Mary Manning Walsh Home in New York City. She sent 12 year old Croswell to the nuns in Cincinnati and to the Newman School in New Jersey.
Elizabeth McCarthy maintained contact with cousins who lived in Dublin, the Boyd-Barretts. Her daughter Louise continued this tie, and when Jack Boyd-Barrett, a Jesuit, came to the United States, it was renewed. Boyd-Barrett was a fascinating figure. Trained as a psychologist, he wrote dozens of books. Expelled by the Jesuits, he wrote an expose of their history, and his Shepherds in the Mist, about defrocked priests, was a best seller. In the late 1930s, he returned to Ireland and researched the last of the Great O’Neills, Shane. In Jack Boyd-Barrett the romance of the Irish was transplanted: he named his Soquel, CA ranch “Benburb” after the Great O’Neill’s castle in the north of Ireland.
Elizabeth McCarthy’s father, James McCarthy, was, in her stories, a brilliant and rebellious Irishman. One of the first Catholics to attend Trinity College, Dublin, he taught school and contributed to one of the few newspapers controlled by Catholics. She believed he wrote intemperate criticism of British rule and had to flee suddenly, to New Orleans.
Croswell Bowen may have passed as a WASP, but between Elizabeth McCarthy, the errant Jesuit Boyd-Barrett and his mother, Louise, he was raised with some sense that he shared the Irish blood of James and Eugene O’Neill. It is when he went out into the wider world that this social identity was fixed. At the Choate School in 1923, Croswell Bowen felt himself an outsider, an observer. He asked his parents if he had always been different, if he had always gotten attention by being bad. Like O’Neill’s Princeton of 1906, Bowen’s Yale of 1925 was a temple of conformity. These institutions functioned for certifying membership in the American upper middle class at the expense of adherence to the WASP view of things.
Croswell Bowen’s sense of being bad may have come by way of Catholicism. Perhaps it came with his awareness of his anti-social, anti-authoritarian tendencies. He became notorious for these. H. Allen Smith described Bowen’s confrontation with Sinclair Lewis when Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930. Defying press conference protocol, Bowen marched right up to Lewis at the podium and asked what he was going to expose next. The discomfited novelist had to reply that he wasn’t in the exposing business. When Bowen traveled to North Africa he irritated the British officers with his disregard for rank and regulation. He fraternized with common recruits and “Wogs,” photographed sacred temples and offered his lighter to a priest igniting a pyre on the ghats of the Godavari River. Fellow New Yorker columnist Brendan Gill seems to have skewered him posthumously but publicly for sleeping in his office and washing his clothes in the men’s room.
By 1956, Croswell Bowen had reason to feel cursed. His father died in 1931, ruined by the Depression’s effect on real estate and mortgage bankers. There was a whiff of scandal. In 1942, serving in the American Field Service Ambulance Corps in Tobruk, North Africa, Bowen contracted polio and was lamed. His brother, a talented screenwriter and painter, descended into alcoholism. Worst of all, Bowen had, in a tragic automobile accident, caused the death of his infant son, Peter. That death was killing his marriage, and leading his wife into alcoholism.
A freelance writer, especially one with a family to support, considers the economic viability of writing projects. Bowen had published a book of photographs and prose, a collection of his New Yorker crime pieces and a full-length biography of a Tammany Hall politician. O’Neill’s death in 1953 and the O’Neill revival of the mid-1950s meant a publisher would be interested in a popular biography of him, especially one that could be quickly completed. So, following his instinct developed in that ten year old interview, Dad immersed himself in O’Neill. It’s difficult to sort out whether his black moods came from his experiences or O’Neill, but they came. During this period, Shane O’Neill visited our home in Chappaqua, New York, a quiet but disturbing figure amidst the suburban greenery. Bowen wrangled over deadlines with his editor, Ed Kuhn, a Chappaqua neighbor. The book was finally finished. It was nominated for the National Book Award in 1960, but Bowen moved out a year later. Another Chappaqua resident, Mary Aronberg, wife of O’Neill’s lawyer, Bill Aronberg, drew up the divorce papers. It was then that Dad told us about the blessing “May the road rise before you…” and the Wexford Curse that begins “May the grass grow at your door and the fox build his nest on your hearthstone…”
With an additional daughter, his youngest, Molly, and college tuition payments looming for his older daughters, Bowen went to work writing profiles of famous advertising pitchmen for Madison Avenue Magazine. He worked for the Compton Advertising agency, and ghost wrote an autobiography of an insurance executive. He knew doing this work was the choice James O’Neill had made. After a few years of this, he wrote, “I hated it and the people. Advertising and public relations is being a paid liar for corporations-being paid to lie to the public.”He could not serve as a surrogate father to the addict Shane O’Neill, and felt he failed to provide proper support for his own children. In the last years of his life, he wrote his first fiction, attempting a novel. Here, his kinship with O’Neill was not based on Irish blood, but on Freud and the ancient Greek myths. Bowen applied his investigative techniques, developed for profiling criminals, to his own disappointments and tragedies. Although incomplete, it is a work suffused with forgiveness, with a sense that reform and rehabilitation are possible. To believe in curses and blessings is to believe in the power of words. He dedicated Curse of the Misbegotten: a Tale of the House of O’Neill to Eugene O’Neill’s ten grandchildren, “with the sure knowledge they have all escaped the curse of the misbegotten.” If he had completed his novel, perhaps he would have dedicated it to his own daughters, with the same knowledge.
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