v: New London, 1912: the "Long Day"
Eugene O'Neill chose an August day in the summer of 1912 for the time of Long Day's Journey into Night, his autobiographical play. All four members of his family were together that summer in their home at 325 Pequot Avenue facing the New London waterfront. An old resident has described the location as "on the fringe of the exclusive Pequot summer colony." The house itself, still standing, is a boxlike, white frame dwelling of cheap construction.
Most of the biographical details of his life at this time Eugene had told to his intimate friends. His life with his parents and brother preyed so insistently on his mind that, at times, he would even recount some of the most painful details to strangers in bars.
The mood of that summer of 1912 was created mainly by the drug addiction of Eugene's mother, who was then fifty-five.
Mrs. Samuel Green, who was a friend of Eugene's in New London, remembers Ella O'Neill as "a sweet-looking woman. Few of us got to know her. The O'Neills kept very much to themselves." But it was generally known that his mother took drugs, and it was very well known that her husband and her two sons drank heavily.
Ella O'Neill was pretty rather than beautiful, and in time inclined to be plump. Her nose was long and straight, her mouth wide, her forehead high and her hair, in 1912, white. Her eyes were dark brown and large, with dark eyebrows and curling lashes. Her voice was soft and she spoke with a slight Irish lilt. She had had no children since the birth of Eugene almost a quarter of a century before.
Ever since Betts Academy, Eugene had known that his mother was a drug addict and that she had acquired her habit as a result of the illness she suffered following his birth. There is some question as to how serious her addiction was. Addicts often overestimate the amount of drugs they think is required to sustain them. Most of the drugs to which they have access are heavily diluted. She may have depended on patent medicines, which in 1912 often contained morphine or cocaine. Long Day's Journey suggests that James O'Neill spent thousands of dollars sending his wife to sanatoriums to be cured.
Ella's drug addiction was not the only factor which isolated her from social groups in New London. She had never fully got over her feeling that she should have been a nun, and in consequence she had not adjusted well to the role of wife and mother; her picture of what she might have been contrasted sharply with what she was. She had never got over the cruel hurt she suffered when convent schoolmates from wealthy or socially ambitious Irish Catholic families would cut her for the sin of marrying an actor; and she had never got over her deep conviction that theater people were not her equals.
There is an echo of her regret at not belonging to the world of the "respectabilities" in what Mary Tyrone tells her sons in Long Day's Journey: "The Chatfields and people like them stand for something. I mean they have decent, presentable homes they don't have to be ashamed of. They have friends who entertain them and whom they entertain. They're not cut off from everyone."
Ella O'Neill knew that her actor husband and the reputation her sons had acquired for drinking and going around with "fast girls" were serious drawbacks to her being accepted socially.
There was in New London a theatrical colony, to which she probably would have been admitted had she been willing to make the effort. This group included Richard Mansfield, Edmund Breese, Nance O'Neil (no relation), Tyrone Power, Mark Ellsworth and Frederick Develleville. The Mansfields held large soirees, to which the O'Neills were not invited. Some of the "respectabilities" who attended tittered about the social pretensions of the Mansfields. The actor had created his own family crest, a pair of clasped hands with the word Maintenant (Now) underneath. It adorned the mantelpiece in his living room.
Still another barrier between Ella and people like the "Chatfields" was the contempt with which so many native-born Anglo-Saxon Americans regarded the recently arrived Irish-Americans at that time.
Jamie and Eugene O'Neill were well aware of this. Jamie took a cynical, or typically bitter, view of what his mother called "nice people." Such people bored him to death, he said. Whores were infinitely superior to "nice girls." On the other hand, he often called his own father "an Irish bogtrotter."
James O'Neill was, in 1912, a big-chested, heavy-featured man who looked much younger than his actual age, sixty-seven. He walked erect, with an almost military carriage. He had a fine profile and light-brown, fairly deep-set eyes. His hair was iron gray. When he was not playing a role, there was a good deal of the Irish peasant about him.
One of his advisers on New London real estate was a friend who called himself Colonel Thomas Fortune D'Orsey. To D'Orsey, "James O'Neill was a softhearted man, always good for a touch. He was a great Irishman, a great Democrat and a good Catholic. He was one of the leading figures in the town."
Jamie was thirty-four that summer of 1912 and well on his way to becoming a hopeless alcoholic. Physically Jamie resembled his mother more than his father. He had what his brother called "irresponsible Irish charm." He was humorous, romantic, sentimentally poetic, and well liked by both men and women. His favorite poet was Ernest Dowson, and he liked especially to recite Dowson's famous line, "I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion." He found perverse amusement in teaching his younger brother to drink and to be a "heller" with women. In moments of drunken confidence he told Eugene than he had done this because he realized how talented his brother was and that Eugene's success in the world would show him, Jamie, up for what he was -- "a bum." Jamie was inordinately attached to his mother and never married.
A view of the two brothers that summer of 1912 is given by one of the "nice girls" whom Eugene courted. She said, "Eugene was a sweet boy, but I didn't like Jamie. Jamie was bitter and cynical, and drank terribly."
To judge by the recollections of those who knew Eugene in 1912, the impression emerges of a charming young man whose interests were all centered in literature. But he managed to find other interests, maintaining friendships with a number of girls, slightly younger than himself, from proper New London families. He had the capacity for genuine intellectual friendships with girls. "He was not a particularly sexy person," one of them has said. "He was loving, but not aggressive about making love."
The girl he saw the most of that summer he made the heroine of Ah, Wilderness! -- the play of adolescence which he wrote in 1932. He called her Muriel McComber, a teen-age girl with whom Richard Miller (Eugene's characterization of himself) was in love. Because the real Muriel prefers not to have her name used, she will be called Muriel McComber here.
"Our engagement lasted about three years," she has said, "until about a year after he went into the sanatorium in the winter of 1912. I remember he read aloud a great deal to me -- Oscar Wilde, Friedrich Nietzsche, Schopenhauer. I had just graduated from high school."
Eugene and Muriel saw each other almost every day for several years. He liked to recite to her from the Rubáiyát, especially the lines:
Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
And the lines from Swinburne "Anastasia," which he used in Ah, Wilderness!:
let us walk from fire unto fire
Muriel was regarded as one of the prettiest girls in New London. She was somewhat plump, but she had a graceful figure; she had light-brown hair and big, searching dark eyes and a roundish face with dimples, and she spoke with a slight drawl.
Although they lived only a few blocks apart, Eugene and Muriel wrote to each other almost every day, and he wrote to her when he was away from New London. Muriel has recalled that he was forever talking about the books and plays and short stories he was going to write. She said that their more or less platonic romance was fairly closely followed in the relationship between Richard and his girl in Ah, Wilderness!
The family of the real Muriel objected to Eugene first of all because he had been married and had a child. They felt that he was too old for her. They also objected to the O'Neills because they were a theatrical family and because of the generally poor reputation of its members. Muriel has recalled that she was not aware that Eugene drank. Furthermore, to her, he never seemed gloomy or depressing.
"He was delightful, lots of fun, and we had good times together," she said. "I didn't get to know his mother. Eugene never discussed his family with me. I had heard that his mother was a drug addict but naturally never discussed it with him. I remember James O'Neill, Gene's father, very well. He was a nice man. I liked him very much. He thought I was much too young for his son, much too sweet and simple."
For the family of the adolescent boy in Ah, Wilderness! Eugene chose that of one of his close friends, Arthur B. McGinley. That summer of 1912 both Eugene and Arthur were working for the New London Telegraph. Arthur McGinley's father, John McGinley, was editor of the rival New London Day. When the son saw Ah, Wilderness! he commented, "I can identify every character in the play, including myself and my brothers."
In the play, Nat Miller, father of the adolescent boy, is the editor and publisher of the town paper. (The part of Nat Miller was played by the late George M. Cohan). Eugene endowed the character of Nat Miller with an attribute of his own father. James O'Neill had always said he could not eat bluefish because it contained a certain oil that poisoned him. After many years, his wife confessed that she had been serving him bluefish right along. She had called it whitefish, and he never knew the difference.
The elder McGinley was something like the father Eugene dreamed of having -- he was wise, understanding, compassionate. Many people thought, when Ah, Wilderness! was produced, that Eugene had written about his own family when he was a youth. "The truth is," he said in reply, "Ah, Wilderness! was a nostalgia for a youth I never had." James O'Neill and p were good friends. McGinley, as a young reporter, had met James in New York. When James began to make money in Monte Cristo and wanted to buy a house, it was McGinley who persuaded him to settle in New London.
It was in May, 1912, that Eugene O'Neill went to work for the New London Telegraph. The publisher of the paper was Judge Frederick P. Latimer, who lived at Groton, Connecticut, across the river from New London. Eugene was the first reporter he hired after buying the paper.
Latimer was an interesting and versatile man. He had been graduated from Yale in 1898, had later studied at the Yale Law School, and was for a time a probate judge in Groton. He liked good conversation, good books, and fishing. He and Eugene became close friends. "I suspect my father and Eugene O'Neill were two of a kind," Latimer's daughter, Helen, has said. "My father was an unusual man and did many different things in his life." Latimer's son has said that his father and Eugene used to go off fishing together "when they felt like it, and my father had a way of liking it rather often all his life."
Of Judge Latimer, Eugene has said, "He was the first one who really thought I had something to say and believed I could say it." The judge told the elder O'Neill that he thought Eugene not only had talent but possessed a high order of genius. It was fortunate that Latimer regarded his protégé with such affection. Often in his excitement at the real-life drama he saw when he was sent to cover a story, Eugene would neglect to note down the names and addresses of the people involved.
"If I sent Eugene out to cover a fire," Frederick Latimer, Jr., has recalled his father saying, "he would come back with a lengthy and dramatic account of the fire, which was wonderful reading but might lack such prosaic but journalistically required details as who occupied the premises, when and how the fire started, and so forth."
His city editor, Malcolm Mollan, often had to upbraid the young reporter for failing to get all the facts. Once he sent him to cover a knife fight on Bradley Street, a tough section of New London. When Eugene returned Mollan read his copy. "This is a lovely story about the Bradley Street cutting!" he told his cub reporter. "The smell of the rooms is made convincing; the amount of blood on the floor is precisely measured; you have drawn a nice picture of the squalor and stupidity and degradation of that household. But would you mind finding out the name of the gentleman who carved the lady and whether the lady is his wife or daughter or who? And phone the hospital for a hint as to whether she is dead or discharged or what. Then put the facts into a hundred and fifty words and send this literary batik to the picture framer's!"
O'Neill never entertained any illusions about his abilities as a journalist. "I was a bum reporter," he has said, "but I gained a wonderful insight into small-town life."
Mollan later went to work for the Philadelphia Public Ledger and once interviewed O'Neill when the latter had become a famous playwright.
Latimer watched the sensitive cub reporter with great interest. He felt that the young man had "a literary style and that it gave evidence that this was no ordinary boy." In August he let Eugene try his hand at verse for an editorial-page column called "Laconics." He still helped cover the waterfront, fires, and the police beat, but twice a week Eugene wrote "Laconics." He signed twenty-four pieces of his newspaper verse, some as E. O'Neill or Eugene O'Neill and some as Tigean Te Oa'Neil. He liked this much better than writing routine newspaper stories. He wrote of the "sullen vessel straining at its chain" and the "bright green lawns that lean down to the bay." He also wrote parodies of Kipling, Robert Burns and Robert W. Service. The rhythms of Kipling rang loudest in his ears:
have eaten my share of stock fish,
have swung through the rain and dark;
it's back to the sea, my brother
And these lines:
it's grand to lie on the hatches
He showed some humor about himself as a reporter when he wrote:
my dreams come true all my comments wise and sage
Getting into print in "Laconics" gave him confidence, and he began to send his verses to publications in New York. He was published in the Masses, the New York Call, and F.P.A.'s "Conning Tower," then in the New York Tribune. His first appearance in book form was in the Pleiades Club Year Book published in 1912, with a poem called "Free." In later years, he did not enjoy having his early verse resurrected. I was trying," he explained, "to write popular humorous journalistic verse for a small-town paper and the stuff should be judged -- nearly all of it -- by that intent."
Some of his verse reflected his relationship with Muriel, and it is not without humor. In October he asked:
all off twixt I and you?
things I done, I'd fain undo,
At the end of November, he composed a long poem for "Laconics" called "The Lay of the Singer's Fall." In it he expressed his general disillusionment with life and with love:
the singer was sad and he turned to Love
On December 9, 1912, Eugene published his last verse in the New London Telegraph. It was called "To Winter."
eyes are red, my lips are blue,
Eight days after this verse was printed, a doctor told him he had tuberculosis and would have to go to a sanatorium.
It had started the previous October. About the middle of that month he began to suffer spells of nausea accompanied by loss of appetite. By the first of November he had a dry cough and at night cold sweats. A New London doctor diagnosed his ailment as pleurisy with effusion and treated it by tapping 1,000 cc. of fluid from his right lung. In Long Day's Journey, the son charges his father with calling on a quack instead of paying for a real doctor; O'Neill himself told a friend that his experience at the time of his illness had not been calculated to instill respect for his doctor's insight.
On November 1 he gave up his job on the Telegraph. He was now so ill that his family provided a nurse for him. Confined to his bed at home, he was unable to continue his secret meetings with Muriel. Another friend, Mildred Culver, has recalled that O'Neill's nurse asked her to come and visit Eugene on Thanksgiving Day.
"He mainly wanted to talk about Muriel," Miss Culver has said. "I was one of her best friends, and also a friend of Gene's."
For some time, it would appear, there was confusion about the exact nature of his illness. After several weeks it was diagnosed as tuberculosis, and the question arose, where to send him to be cured? The painful and tragic conflict in the family as to whether he should go to the "state farm" for consumptives or to a private sanatorium became an important aspect of Long Day's Journey.
In 1912, poor people with tuberculosis were sent to the Connecticut "state farm" at Laurel Heights, where they usually died. In the play, Jamie says that his father is for sending Edmund there because he has the "bogtrotter idea that consumption is fatal" and therefore regards money spent on the boy as money wasted. James Tyrone justifies his position on the ground that he pays taxes and might as well get the benefit of the state institution. Later, he is shamed into admitting "there was another sanatorium the specialist recommended." This one was "endowed by a group of millionaire factory owners for their workers. But you're eligible. . . . It's only seven dollars a week," he added.
This description fits Gaylord Farm Sanatorium at Wallingford, Connecticut, located high on a wind-swept hill overlooking the Housatonic Valley. It cost a dollar a day, plus twenty-five cents a week for laundry. There were private sanatoriums at the time but they were much more expensive.
About the middle of December, 1912, Eugene was taken to New York and examined by an eminent lung specialist, who diagnosed O'Neill's ailment definitely as tuberculosis. It was he who recommended Gaylord, which preferred cases with good chances of recovery. The name of the specialist, later to become one of the leading tuberculosis authorities in the country, was Dr. James Alexander Miller. On December 17, 1912, Dr. Miller wrote his friend Dr. David Russell Lyman, founder of the ten-year-old Gaylord Farm Sanatorium:
"I have just seen a young man who I think is a good case for your sanatorium. His home is in New London. His name is O'Neil [sic] and he is stopping here in New York until I get him located permanently." He hoped that Lyman would take the patient "immediately."
It was a frightening prospect that faced Eugene O'Neill as the year 1912 drew to a close. There was more than the physical pain and discomfort of the disease itself, more than the uncertainties it raised in relation to his future. For O'Neill there was the hereditary terror of the "white plague." This dread was reinforced by the general belief that tuberculosis could be inherited -- and Eugene had heard that both his grandfathers had died of it. Then, too, because the disease was considered so highly contagious, its victims were subjected to almost total ostracism.
It has been suggested that the picture was rendered still more hopeless by the special attitude of those Irish who were conscientious members of the Roman Catholic Church. "Treating an Irishman for t.b.," a specialist has said, "is extremely complicated. You are not only dealing with the disease and the fear of it, normal in any patient, but you have to deal with a patient who thinks he has the disease because God is punishing him for something he has done. Often the patient is ready to accept it as fatal and is ready to lie down and die, right then and there. You can't convince him he is not doomed."
O'Neill entered Gaylord on
Christmas Eve, 1912.
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