iii: The First Marriage and Divorce
O'Neill made little or no impression on Princeton. And, conversely, Princeton made little or no impression on him. Eugene chose to do as little studying as possible and to engage in heavy drinking with his classmates, who nicknamed him "Ego" because he took himself so seriously. O'Neill was restless and temperamentally unfit for settling down and studying.
Only one major incident emerges from O'Neill's freshman year at Princeton. He had gone to Trenton with a group of undergraduates to spend an evening in the taverns there. Shortly after midnight, while walking the trolley tracks back to college, the students amused themselves by throwing stones at the glass insulators on telegraph poles. Evidence suggests that they were not drunk, certainly not very drunk, for along their ten-mile route they managed to hit a great number of the insulators. But, despite his apparent innocence -- of drunkenness -- Eugene was suspended for two weeks. He had just about made up his mind to withdraw from the university and, despite the dean's urging that he reconsider, he submitted his resignation.
Out of this episode a legend grew, apparently fostered by O'Neill himself, who had such a flair for publicity that he got it even when he didn't want it. He told the poet John V. A. Weaver, a fellow student at Harvard in 1914, that his exodus from Princeton was caused by his "shying a beer bottle through Prexy Wilson's dormer window." O'Neill told much the same story to his old friend George Jean Nathan and then spent the rest of his life denying it. Over the years, the beer bottle was turned into a whisky bottle, psychiatrists and Time magazine pondered the significance of it all, and Princeton University issued an official denial. O'Neill's final denial came in 1947, six years before his death. "I wouldn't have done anything like that for anything in the world even if I'd been swimming in a sea of vodka," he said. "I liked President Wilson."
Years later, O'Neill said of his brief stay at Princeton, "I am perhaps excusing myself for the way I loafed and fooled and got as much fun and as little work as I could out of my one year at Princeton, but I think that I felt there, instinctively, that we were not in touch with life or on the trail of the real thing, and that was one consideration that drove me out. Or perhaps I was merely lazy."
At the end of his freshman year, in 1907, Eugene took an apartment on West Eighty-fifth Street in New York City with his friend Frank Best. O'Neill's parents were staying nearby, at the Lucerne Hotel on Amsterdam Avenue and Seventy-eighth Street.
The elder O'Neill said it was now up to his son to settle down and go to work. He arranged for him to take a job in a mail-order house in which he had invested some of his wife's money -- the New York-Chicago Supply Company. Eugene was given the courtesy title of secretary to the president. The firm sold, he recalled, "ten-cent jewelry, giving an alleged phonograph record as a premium to children and seminary girls who disposed of the shabby baubles." Eugene hated the job. His salary was very small. In later years he admitted he hadn't worked very hard. He was reading -- now it was everything by Jack London, and his dream was to be a soldier of fortune in faraway places.
Suddenly he fell in love. The girl, who was living with her divorced mother on the upper West Side, was named Kathleen Jenkins. Her mother was a member of an old New York family, one of her grandfathers having been among the founders of the New York Stock Exchange. Mrs. Jenkins also claimed descent from a long line of Corsican aristocrats, and one of her ancestors, she said, was the first white girl to live on Manhattan Island.
Kathleen was an extraordinarily beautiful girl. She was tall and well-proportioned and "had a complexion that was like honey. Her hair was dark, she had beautiful eyes." In fact, Kathleen was so attractive that she worked as an artist's model before she met O'Neill. This was rather unusual for a girl who had attended a fashionable finishing school, but the family was no longer rich.
Eugene went around with a set of boys from Princeton and other Ivy League colleges and some "nice" girls in New York. He met Kathleen through his roommate, Frank Best. Eugene was known for his wildness, and Frank and other friends urged him to marry Kathleen because "she was a nice girl and we felt it might make him settle down." Apparently O'Neill wanted very much to marry her, but when he told his parents they objected vigorously. He was not making enough money to support a wife, the girl was not a Catholic, and her parents were divorced. Jamie, too, was against the marriage on the grounds of Eugene's youth.
Although Mrs. Jenkins strongly disapproved of a marriage, the very handsome Eugene evidently was irresistible to Kathleen, for in the summer of 1909 they went across the river to Hoboken, New Jersey, the Gretna Green of the day, and were married by the Reverend William Bernard Gilpin at Trinity Episcopal Church on Washington Street. When they returned to New York and told their parents of the marriage, James and Ella and Mrs. Jenkins were all furious. If the children lived together in marriage they did not do so for many weeks, for not long afterward Eugene left on a gold-mining expedition to Honduras. It is not really known whether this was his scheme or his father's. Gene hoped to make his fortune and then come back and settle down. At any rate, whether intended or not, this Right signaled the end of his first attempt at marriage.
Eugene O'Neill sailed for Central America from San Francisco early in October, 1909, with a Mr. and Mrs. Earl C. Stevens. Apparently he had a very nebulous financial arrangement with them, for he later wrote to his father to ask if the Stevenses were going to pay him, adding that he hoped he wasn't enduring the hardships of the trip for love. O'Neill was to say of Stevens, a mining engineer, that "this chap had the grant of a river from the Honduran Government. He was going to boom [dynamite] it -- something they don't allow in civilized countries. It was my first trip on my own. I expected to do a lot of jungle shooting. I wore a bandoleer slung from my right shoulder and carried a 30-30 Winchester and a machete."
When Eugene left the United States his father had gone on tour with a production of The White Sister. Jamie, too, was on tour, starring in a play; and, as usual, he was drinking heavily. From time to time he sent his younger brother a postcard. Eugene was homesick and wrote his parents many letters. He said he had never known how much he could miss his mother, his father, and home. In one of his letters he asked his father to thank John, a barkeeper of his acquaintance, for writing to him.
O'Neill found the life of a soldier of fortune something of a disappointment. He suffered intensely from flea bites. He hated the food, which was largely fried rice and salty dried meat -- also fried, and as tough as leather. He liked to say, later on, that he was sure God got his inspiration for hell after He created Honduras. The natives, he said, were the laziest, lowest, most ignorant bunch of two-footed animals who ever polluted a land. He spent Christmas Day in the town of Guahuiniquil and termed it the most depressing and dismal day he had ever endured. His Christmas dinner consisted of beans, fried tortillas, one egg, and tea brewed from lemon leaves.
Nevertheless, it turned out to be an adventurous trip. Eugene and the Stevens couple went into parts of the country that few white men had ever visited before. They traveled by muleback into the interior for more than a hundred miles, living on iguana, wild pig, monkey, and "hope." Then they started prospecting.
"All I bagged was a lizard -- no gold," Eugene has said with a smile. But on that expedition the smell and feel and taste of the jungle were caught and were preserved in his memory so that when he came to write the stage directions for The Emperor Jones he was able to re-create the tropical background:
After six months of brooding, implacable silence with only the Stevens couple and a few friendly Indian guides, Eugene tired of the Central American wilderness. He also came down with malaria. With one of the guides, Eugene rode muleback for ten miles through the jungle to Tegucigalpa, the capital. When the bedraggled pair arrived in town they found that there was a fiesta scheduled for the next day and that all the hotels were full. Eugene, behaving like any American tourist, made for the United States consulate. The consul insisted that he go to bed immediately in his own house, where he underwent the usual violent malarial chills and fevers. The chills were difficult to withstand because Tegucigalpa is at an altitude of more than 3,000 feet, making the nights extremely cold. As the consul didn't have enough blankets, he covered his young patient with American flags.
"I looked just like George M. Cohan," O'Neill recalled later.
On May 5, 1910, while Eugene was in Honduras, Kathleen bore him a son, whom she named Eugene Gladstone O'Neill, Jr. According to Mrs. Jenkins, Ella and James O'Neill came up to her apartment and held their first grandchild in their arms. But, whatever their emotions over the baby were, they did not relent. When they had first heard about the marriage they tried to have it annulled. Because they were such ardent Catholics, it is quite possible that they felt their son's Episcopal ceremony did not constitute a real wedding. But Kathleen's mother has reported that the elder O'Neill presented a different argument in a heated talk with his daughter-in-law. "What do you want to be married to Eugene for, anyhow? He's nothing but a no-good drunken bum!"
A few weeks after his son was born, Eugene returned to New York. He was completely broke and his father, mother and brother were all on tour. He was twenty-one and he had failed at everything -- Princeton, his New York job, his gold-prospecting adventure, even his recent marriage. Completely down and out, he took a room at "Jimmy the Priest's," a waterfront saloon at Fulton Street and the North River. According to a story his grandmother told Eugene junior, his father came uptown when Kathleen was out and asked Mrs. Jenkins if he could see his son. O'Neill held the child in his arms and cried. But he did not try to see Kathleen.
Eugene junior was also to hear this story from his father, who amplified it. O'Neill told him that he left the Jenkins apartment and walked all the way down to the Battery. There he sat on a bench trying to decide what he should do. He could not support his wife, and his family was against the marriage. "It was the lowest moment of my life," he told his son. He contemplated suicide. Finally he bought some veronal, went to his room at Jimmy the Priest's, took an overdose of the sleeping medicine and lay down to die.
O'Neill apparently told the same story to his friend Nathan. "Certain emotional misfortunes in an encounter with Cupid," Nathan wrote, "weighed on O'Neill's mind and -- now it may be told -- a month or so after James Beith (a friend of O'Neill's) took his life, the man who was to become the first of American dramatists attempted, with an overdose of veronal, to follow suit." The next afternoon, when O'Neill did not turn up at the bar, some of his friends went to his room. Failing in their attempts to rouse him, they summoned an ambulance. He was taken to Bellevue Hospital and, while his friends looked on solicitously, two interns worked over him for an hour until he showed signs of life. When it appeared that O'Neill would recover, his friends left, saying that they would return.
Some time later, according to Nathan's version, they reappeared, hilariously drunk. They had wired James O'Neill that his son was ill and fifty dollars was needed to pay his hospital bill.
"You dirty bums," Eugene said. "How much have you got left?"
"Thirty-two dollars," they admitted.
"All right, divide," O'Neill ordered. His pals complied. Then, Nathan wrote, he tucked his sixteen dollars under the covers, rolled over, and went to sleep. Nathan reported the incident some years after the event, and he put it in a humorous light; but that period must have been one of the most wretched in O'Neill's life. In this suicide attempt O'Neill was giving positive expression to an inner drive that was to be noted by others at many stages in his life, a drive which Freudian analysts have called the "death instinct" and which Brooks Atkinson, a few years after O'Neill's death, so nicely described as an "infatuation with oblivion."
It is reasonably certain that Eugene did not see Kathleen after his return from Honduras. His parents, as well as Kathleen's mother, were bitter about the marriage, and everyone wanted to end it. Mrs. Jenkins financed the divorce.
Since adultery was the only ground for divorce in New York State, O'Neill agreed to be caught in flagrante delicto. The time chosen for the little divorce playlet, an often-repeated judicial joke played on New York State's Supreme Court, was the evening of December 29, 1911. Edward Ireland, a Princeton friend, and O'Neill had dinner together at Ireland's studio at 120 West 104th Street. Afterward they went to the Campus, a nearby barroom, where they met James Warren, a friend of Kathleen's and her mother's, and two other men, Edward Mullen and Frank Archibold. After a few drinks Ireland made his exit, leaving O'Neill with the others. The four went downtown to the Garden Restaurant on Fiftieth Street, then to two bars on Forty-fifth Street, having a few drinks at each one. Finally O'Neill and his three companions went to a house at 140 West Forty-fifth Street.
"We were in there for a short time," Mullen later testified in court, "and Mr. O'Neill saw some girl there that attracted him, and he left us and went upstairs with this girl."
After some time, Mullen and Archibold sent word up to O'Neill that they were leaving. O'Neill sent a maid downstairs to tell them "to come up and have a drink before we departed. And we went upstairs into this room and saw Mr. O'Neill and this woman in bed together. They were both undressed." The three men and "a woman whose name is unknown to the plaintiff," as the court record puts it, had a drink together and then the men went on their way, leaving O'Neill and the unknown woman in bed.
Sufficient evidence of O'Neill's alleged act of adultery having been obtained by Kathleen's lawyers, they arranged to have O'Neill served with a summons to answer an "action for absolute divorce on the grounds of adultery." He did not appear at the divorce suit hearing, which was held in the Supreme Court at White Plains on June 10, 1912, nor did he contest the action.
The divorce was granted, and it became final October 11, 1912. Kathleen was to have "exclusive care, custody and control of Eugene O'Neill, Jr." No provision was made for his support by O'Neill. Kathleen did not ask for alimony and received none.
Thus ended one of the strangest and least understood episodes in the life of Eugene O'Neill. One can only conjecture why Eugene and Kathleen were ever married at all. Were they really in love or was the whole thing a "mistake," as O'Neill once said years later? Certainly Eugene was ill equipped for marriage. He was a very handsome, restless, unstable young man, not ready to settle down. In fact, Eugene O'Neill was never to settle down. And of the Kathleen of this period? All one knows is that she was beautiful, patrician and "a nice girl."
In 1915 Kathleen married George
Pitt-Smith, an accountant in a large New York advertising agency,
and moved to Douglaston, Long Island. Eugene junior was brought up
in the belief that he was Pitt-Smith's son. He also believed that
his stepbrother, George Pitt-Smith, his stepfather's child by a
previous marriage, was his blood brother. They were devoted to each
other. It was not until 1921, when Eugene junior was eleven, that
the dramatist and his son met.
© Copyright 1999-2009 eOneill.com