xvi: Interlude in Manhattan
When O'Neill arrived in New York in the fall of 1927, he stayed for two weeks with the Lawrence Langners on Eleventh Street. The purpose of the visit was "to go into all phases of" Marco Millions and Strange Interlude, which were about to be produced by the Theatre Guild. Langner has said that O'Neill, contrary to popular belief, was often willing to cut his plays. For example, he told Langner that he was "always on the lookout for helpful cuts right up to the last week of rehearsals."
The Langners had wanted to entertain O'Neill, but he was a reluctant guest. "I avoid parties," he told Langner, "because I'm extremely bashful. In my younger days I used to drink in order to get up the nerve to meet people. Since I've quit drinking, it's become worse. When I once started [drinking] I was like a sailor on shore leave -- a holdover from my seafaring days."
He said he had been thinking a lot about the matter of drinking. A doctor had told him that the effect of alcohol was "just like turning the albumin in your brain into the white of a poached egg." He was so convincing about the evils of alcohol that Langner was never able, thereafter, to take a drink without feeling uneasy.
O'Neill was unhappy about his reputation as a drunkard. He told Langner that once, in the Provincetown Playhouse, he had heard a woman say to her escort, "Do you know that Eugene O'Neill, the author of this play, is a terrible drunkard?" The young man said, "No!" "Yes," the woman said, "and not only does he drink to excess but he takes drugs, too."
"Excuse me, Miss," O'Neill had interrupted, "you are wrong there. I do not take drugs."
There are a number of explanations for O'Neill's giving up drinking -- which he did at about this time. He told Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant that the fact that his mother had been able to overcome her addiction to drugs was a big factor. There is also reason to suppose that his psychoanalytic sessions with Dr. Hamilton were a factor, although the sessions were not extensive and there is no direct word from O'Neill himself on the effects of his experience with analysis.
After leaving the home of the Langners, O'Neill moved into the Hotel Wentworth, an inexpensive hotel just off the Broadway district, on Forty-sixth Street. Shane wrote him there about the usual activities: He had caught eight yellow grunts; Bowser had wandered off again but had come home on his own; but most important, Shane reported, he had been diving off the springboard!
"Your Daddy," O'Neill replied to Shane, "meaning myself, was certainly tickled to death to get your nice letter!
"It is lonely for me, living in this hotel where I don't know anyone, and I often think of you and Oona -- and I miss you both like the devil! You mustn't tell Oona this, though -- at least, when you tell her you must say 'like the deuce' instead of 'like the devil' to ladies, and Oona, let us hope, is a perfect lady!"
In unconsciously prophetic words, O'Neill bestowed on his son the mantle of the household: "You take good care of Mother and Oona while I'm away. You're the only O'Neill man down there now and I'm relying on you to see that none of those fool women get into trouble! However, they can't help being that way because it isn't their fault they are born girls -- so I guess you better kiss all three of them for me because they really are nice to have around! Even if they are crazy! And you realize that when you're far away from them and all alone in a big city and exposed to temptations like I am now!"
Although this part of the letter was not clear to Shane at the time, later he realized that there was more to his father's secret than was revealed in this letter. O'Neill must have been aware that Agnes would take a dim view of his "temptations" and he added: "But maybe you better not read Mother this part of my letter. She might get mad and raise hell with me when I get back. Remember, us men has got to stick together!"
Shane had no inkling that Daddy might never come back. In fact, it sounded as if he were very, very anxious to come back home as soon as possible. "I'm terribly homesick," O'Neill told his son, "and I hope it won't be long before I can get back to Spithead again. Write to me again." At that time, O'Neill was also writing Agnes how much he loved Spithead and how anxious he was to return. "Like the hairy ape," he said, "at last I can belong."
Shane wanted his own boat, but O'Neill took the view that Shane must earn his right to it. "Keep on with your lessons," O'Neill wrote him. "What I saw in your copybook was fine. If you keep on that way it won't be long before you can learn to typewrite and be my secretary and write down all my plays and I'll pay you a big salary and you'll be able to buy a big boat of your own or anything you like."
There was a long time in the fall months when Shane did not hear from his father. His mother bought him some chickens to raise, helped him set them up in a hen house and showed him how to feed and care for them. Shane asked Peggy Ann to come over to Spithead to admire them. He did not know that that fall Daddy was writing to Agnes that she was not to take seriously any rumor she might have heard about his having an "affair." "It is as innocent," he told Agnes, "as Shane kissing Peggy Ann."
There are several explanations of exactly how it happened that O'Neill resumed his acquaintance with Carlotta Monterey that fall. One is that they were both scheduled to have their photographs taken at the studio of Nicholas Muray, a leading magazine photographer, and some mix-up developed about the exact times of the sittings. After both of them had been photographed, O'Neill, Muray and Carlotta went out to lunch. At the restaurant it was obvious to those who saw them together that O'Neill was much taken with Carlotta.
Carlotta had known little about O'Neill, she has said, except that he was a successful dramatist. "He asked me if he could come to tea. I hardly knew the man. He came up on three afternoons. And he never said to me, 'I love you, I think you are wonderful.' He kept saying, 'I need you. I need you.' And he did need me, I discovered. He was never in good health. He talked about his early life -- that he had had no real home, no mother in the real sense, or father, no one to treat him as a child should be treated -- and his face became sadder and sadder."
O'Neill's courtship of Carlotta -- if it is rightly considered a courtship -- was certainly unique. Evidently he saw in her (among other things) a protecting mother, a woman who could understand and requite his desperate need for maternal affection. And so, as Carlotta listened in amazement and compassion, O'Neill talked the afternoons away, telling about his life, his work, and his dreams. Then, as evening fell, he would suddenly leave off, ask what time it was, and rush away. The next day he would return and continue his pensive self-revelation.
To Carlotta's credit, she understood what he was trying to tell her. Although she herself was an actress, she respected the poet of the theater far more than the player. She believed that a man like O'Neill had a rightful claim to special protection from the world, and she soon was prepared to afford him that protection. As she frequently told her intimate friends, O'Neill at that time appealed primarily to her maternal instinct. She also added half seriously that that was how it had all started.
In a rather metaphorical but nevertheless real sense, Carlotta was knowingly flinging herself upon the burning fires of O'Neill's genius. She was also throwing away an already well-established career as a dramatic actress.
Late one chill evening that fall, the doorbell rang in the Greenwich Village apartment of a couple who had been close friends of O'Neill's from the old Provincetown Playhouse days. The couple opened their front door and saw a tall figure dressed in a black furlined greatcoat with a mink collar and a black Homburg hat. On his face was a wide little-boy grin. He wanted to know how they thought he looked in his fancy coat. It had been given to him, he said, by Carlotta Monterey, the rich and beautiful actress.
It was not long before most of O'Neill's friends knew all about his seeing Carlotta. Soon all of New York knew it. It was said he had fallen desperately in love, that he was torn between his love for Agnes and the children and his love for the actress.
"Everybody was worried about Gene," Susan Jenkins Brown, one of his old group, remembers. "The idea was that the great man could do no wrong." Whatever was decided, everyone seemed to agree, nothing should interfere with his genius.
By December, O'Neill was busy attending rehearsals for both Marco Millions and Strange Interlude. He said he was "so crowded" that he didn't know where he was at. He was still being sought after for interviews and photographs, but he put off all such requests. He was so tired at night, he told friends, that he went straight back to his hotel room and went to bed.
Marco Millions, with Alfred Lunt in the lead, opened at the Guild Theatre on January 9, 1928. The play makes fun of a big businessman. Marco is a Babbitt, and in his travels in the Orient all the beauty and excitement of the East are lost on him. The trip is merely an opportunity to amass a fortune. George Jean Nathan called the play "the sourest and most magnificent poke in the jaw that American big business and the American big businessman have ever got." Nevertheless, the comedy is thin and the satire is almost belligerently obvious, relying heavily upon costumes and stage trickery for its effect.
The Theatre Guild gave Marco a most ambitious and elaborate production. Like so many O'Neill plays, Marco Millions contained a most unusual bit of stage direction. After the last act, a man rises from his seat in the first row of the audience. He is dressed in the robes of a thirteenth-century Venetian merchant. He takes his hat, walks to the lobby, looks around, bored, and then hails his limousine and is driven away by his chauffeur. The man emits "a satisfied sigh at the sheer comfort of it all." It is Marco. In a program note, O'Neill said his purpose in writing the play was to show that Polo was "really a man of brass tacks [who] became celebrated as an extravagant romancer."
The critics were somewhat enthusiastic, but when the subscribers had used up their tickets the play closed. Strange Interlude, featuring Lynn Fontanne, Earle Larimore, Glenn Anders and Tom Powers, opened three weeks after Marco, at the John Golden Theatre. It was a fabulous success; seats were sold out all spring. Road companies were soon formed; the play was duly banned in Boston, and arrangements had to be made to have it performed in nearby Quincy. Seeing Strange Interlude became the thing to do in New York, but it achieved only a mild success in London. In May Strange Interlude won O'Neill his third Pulitzer Prize. Although it was widely reported to have made O'Neill a million dollars, he actually netted, according to his own figures, only $275,000.
During the opening performance, Langner went to the telephone and reported to O'Neill in his hotel room how things were going. Later, he told O'Neill that all the reviews were raves. A single untoward incident had to do with Alexander Woollcott, the caustic and petulant drama critic for the World. Woollcott had obtained a copy of the script from a member of the cast and wrote an advance review of the play for Vanity Fair in which he made fun of the asides O'Neill had used, as well as of the play in general. Vanity Fair came out several days before Interlude opened. The late Herbert Bayard Swope, editor of the World, was furious. He assigned Dudley Nichols, one of his best reporters, to review the play. Nichols was delighted with the play and said so in print. Woollcott resigned from the World in anger.
Strange Interlude was one of the longest plays ever produced. It lasted from five-thirty in the afternoon until eleven at night, with eighty minutes' intermission for supper. Restaurants in the neighborhood of the theater did a thriving business. One of them named a multilayered sandwich "Strange Interlude."
With both his plays launched, O'Neill took time to see something of Eugene junior and to write to Shane in Bermuda.
"I saw Eugene the other night," he wrote Shane. "He had dinner with me here at the hotel and then I took him and Jimmy Light to see a prize fight -- or I ought to say prize fights because there were four of them and they were all very exciting although none got knocked out.
"Eugene is even bigger than when he was down this summer. He weighs 165 now. He told me to give you and Oona his love when I wrote to you."
On February 7 the Guild announced that O'Neill was going to California for rehearsals of Lazarus Laughed at the Pasadena Community Playhouse. Just before he was scheduled to leave, he realized that he hadn't written to Shane "for a long, long time."
I have been meaning to write you [O'Neill told his son], but I have been so busy going to daily rehearsals of my two new plays that have just opened that I honestly haven't had a chance. Or when I did have a few minutes to spare I was always so tired out that all I could do was to lie down and rest. So I know that you will forgive me. And now, just when I get through with those two plays, I have to travel way across America to California to watch them putting on another play of mine called "Lazarus Laughed" in the city of Pasadena.
I will go in swimming out there in an ocean I have never been in before -- the Pacific. I hope it is as beautiful water as the water in Bermuda.
Do you go in swimming every day now? Or is it too cold for you? But you are such a big boy now that you shouldn't mind water that is 60 degrees and you really ought to get Mother to let you swim every day because that's the only way you can get good practice and be able to swim the crawl as well as Eugene does. It may be too cold for Oona to go in now but it shouldn't be for you.
In February, 1928, O'Neill went to London. He had made his decision to leave his wife and children. Agnes received the news in Bermuda in a wire from the New York World which asked her about reports of a divorce between herself and O'Neill.
In his farewell words to Shane, who was asked to pass them on to Oona, then only four, O'Neill asked him to
write me a long letter sometime soon and tell me everything that you and Oona are doing because it will probably be a long, long time before I will be able to see you both again. But I will often think of you and I will miss you both very much. I often lie in bed before I go to sleep -- or when I can't go to sleep -and I picture to myself all about Spithead and what you both have been doing all day and I wonder how you are -- and then I feel very sad and life seems to me a silly, stupid thing, even at best, when one lives it according to the truth that is in one.
But you are not old enough to know what that feeling isand I hope to God you never will know, but that your life will always be simple and contented!
But always remember that I love you and Oona an awful lot -- and please don't ever forget your Daddy.
I am enclosing a check for fifteen dollars. Ten of it is to buy you a present with and five is to buy Oona a present. You must both go to town with Mother and pick out whatever you want most.
Don't forget your Daddy!
To Shane, this letter was a shattering experience, perhaps as cruel a letter, for all its expressions of affection, as any child has ever received from a father fleeing from his responsibilities. To adult eyes its self-pity is somewhat transparent. And yet, when all this has been said, it is perhaps necessary to add that O'Neill, like any lesser man in a similar situation, was not only a husband and a father, but also himself, an individual fulfilling, somewhat painfully, his own destiny.
O'Neill tarried in London a while and then fled to France. He kept his whereabouts a secret. Naturally, the newspapers wanted to know why he had left his wife. And for whom.
"The scent after me here in France," he told Benjamin De Casseres, "has been getting pretty hot and I'm afraid every day of being smoked out -- which would be fatal, under the circumstances, and playing right into my wife's hands, to say nothing of the scandal which would injure the last person in the world I want to hurt."
O'Neill asked De Casseres to
"give my old group the report that you've heard from me in Prague
and that I was planning to go to Russia for ' Laz' and then back to
Italy to finish ' Dynamo.' I want the boys thrown as completely off
the scent as possible." The false report was duly spread and printed
in the papers. Actually, O'Neill was spending the summer in France
and was to make a trip to the Far East in the fall.
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