xviii: The Rejected Family
On June 22, 1928, The New York Times reported that O'Neill's wife would seek a divorce. Though terribly hurt and disillusioned, she had remained the idealist; if O'Neill no longer needed or wanted her, he had the right to go, and she would not stand in his way. She remembered something that Mary Pyne had observed when Gene was courting her. "I sometimes think that Gene enjoys being tortured," Mary had said. "What you give him is something else, but he may someday want to go back to the pleasre of being tortured."
Well, Agnes would let him go but, for her, there remained a responsibility for her children, a responsibility that Eugene did not seem to share. What would she do about the support of her family? Where would they live? She simply did not know what to do. Gaga, too, was wondering; she wrote to Shane, "I have been watching to get some news from you and Mother but seems that I am disappointed each time to ask Mother to write to Gaga and tell Gaga when she is coming back to the States."
As hot summer descended on Bermuda, Agnes decided to take her brood -- and her problems -- back to the mainland. Shane put away his fishing gear, walked along the shore around Spithead, and went to say good-by to Peggy Ann. Agnes closed up the house and said good-by to a part of her life, and the rejected family sailed for New York, where Gaga joined them. All together, then, they proceeded to Old House, at West Point Pleasant, where Agnes might plan her future course, and do what must be done.
Harry Weinberger, O'Neill's friend and lawyer, had assured her that he would gladly represent her as well as her husband, and Agnes went into New York frequently to get his advice on her problems. She also discussed her affairs with a few friends, and they strongly urged her to find her own lawyer, who would be able to concern himself more exclusively with the interests of herself and her children. Apparently they made their point well, for she retained Charles Driscoll, of New York, to represent her.
At West Point Pleasant, Gaga tried to make up to Shane for his mother's frequent absences and for the loss of his father. Gaga was important to Shane, and he loved her very much, especially when she took him to nearby Frog's Neck, where there was a wonderful merry-go-round, imported from Germany. He always rode a horse on the rim so he could reach for the brass ring. Since his father's departure he had felt very lonely. Now, with Gaga, he was happier. He has ever since associated happiness with the music and the lights and the marvelously carved heads of the horses.
After two weeks at Old House, Gaga took Shane and Oona to Agnes' mother's farm at Upper Merryall, in Connecticut. Except for visits from her daughters, Mrs. Boulton was now alone, her husband having died two years before. Gaga stayed on at the Boulton place to look after Oona. Shane quickly found a stream, and sat quietly all day long on the bank waiting for a fish to bite.
"Shane caught more fish that summer," one of the people who knew him then has said, "than all the rest of us combined. I remember him as a beautiful child with golden ringlets and beautiful eyes and extraordinary long eyelashes which brought forth 'oohs' and 'ahs' from grownups. He was extraordinarily generous. It was not a thought-out or learned kind of generosity. Whatever was his belonged also to those around him. He was such a beautiful human being."
At the end of the summer, Gaga took Oona and Shane back to Point Pleasant, and Agnes' sister Cecil, a painter, came along. Agnes still had to go to New York frequently for conferences with lawyers. Not until the following February did the lawyers finally reach a separation agreement. O'Neill was still complaining in letters to his friends that Agnes was "trying to take me for all I've got" and that he was going to have his "whole future mortgaged to the ears." That summer he was still in Guéthary, France, not yet embarked on his trip to the Orient. His whereabouts were kept secret from the world, and especially from Agnes.
There were endless matters yet to be decided between them. There were piles of house furnishings from the Ridgefield house stored in Manhattan, and all of O'Neill's personal belongings, including manuscripts, letters and papers, were still at Spithead; but the main concern, at least for Agnes, was about the children. O'Neill was for putting them in boarding schools. Agnes remembered that several years earlier O'Neill had held the view that children should be sent to boarding schools as early as possible. "The English send their children away when they're very young and they turn out all right," he had said; he also had reminded her that he had been sent off to school when he was five. When he had proposed sending Shane away at seven, Agnes refused and said that the boy was much too young.
Now Agnes found herself in a situation that left her little choice. Oona, too young to be sent away, could stay at Old House with Cecil and Gaga, but Shane would have to go to a small progressive boarding school at Lenox, Massachusetts. In the fall Shane, feeling that lots of things were happening awfully fast, said good-by to his mother and Oona and Gaga and the rest. He was a shy little boy who would be reaching his ninth birthday in a few weeks.
The long, rasping letters between Agnes and Gene had increased in bitterness and misunderstanding; then all communication had to be channeled through Weinberger -- an arrangement that continued through the years. But the separation agreement was eventually settled. It had taken more than a year. Agnes suggested a Connecticut divorce, but Weinberger persuaded her that by going to Reno she would attract less attention and the grounds could be simple incompatibility. The separation agreement and details of the divorce were to be kept secret, and Agnes agreed to leave for Reno at the end of March, 1929.
That March, Shane recalls, he heard the grownups at his school whispering that his mother was getting a divorce. Details of the negotiation had leaked out and were published in the New York World, March 25. A reporter had somehow obtained copies of some of O'Neill's letters to Agnes. The story purported to have been based on the letters, but the reporter's interpretation of them set in motion another O'Neill legend. The headline read: TILL LOVE DO US PART/ O'Neill'S WEDDING PACT. A subhead said: "And when husband wrote of another woman, wife kept agreement, started for Reno."
The story stated flatly that the phrase, "until love do us part" was "a codicil to the marriage ceremony privately agreed upon by Eugene O'Neill, playwright, and his wife, Agnes Boulton O'Neill." According to the World, O'Neill had sent word to Agnes from London that "I love someone else deeply. There is no possible doubt of this. And the someone loves me. Of that I am as deeply certain. We have often promised each other that if one ever came to the other and said they loved someone else that we would understand -- that we would know that love is something which cannot be denied or argued with." He also urged Agnes to go back to work. "You are never" he said, "going to amount to a damn so long as you depend on me for everything. . . my happiness cannot be complete until I know that you have gone back to work."
It was a far cry from the sentiments of a husband who had written at Peaked Hill in the flyleaf of the first edition of his play, Gold: "To the Treasure who is Real Gold this bit of my gold which glittered not on Broadway. GENE."
The story went on to suggest that O'Neill no longer cared about Spithead. He gave Agnes a lifetime interest in the Bermuda estate because, he said, he "never intended to live there again anyhow," and he justified not giving it to her outright on the grounds that "You can scarcely expect me to furnish a beautiful home for any possibly broke and grafting husband." If and when Agnes remarried, the agreement stipulated, she would lose Spithead.
As for Shane and Oona, their destinies had been spelled out in a document of some three dozen pages to be incorporated into Agnes' divorce papers. "The husband and wife," the agreement stated, "shall have equal control of the said children and equal rights of visitation and right to sole custody at various times, to be arranged; but said arrangement shall not interfere with the health, welfare, or schooling of said children. When said children are attending school, the husband may have custody one-half of their vacation time." Should O'Neill or Agnes die, the survivor would have sole custody of the children. As to their schooling, it stated that "at the age of 13 years, Shane and Oona shall enter a first-class American preparatory boarding school, these schools to be chosen by mutual agreement." O'Neill had insisted on this clause.
Agnes was to receive $6,000 a year plus certain amounts varying in accordance with O'Neill's income. But the top figure she could receive was $10,000 a year, and she could receive this only if O'Neill's income reached $30,000 a year. "All school or college fees of the children" were to be paid by Agnes as long as she received $8,000 a year. If her alimony payments went under that, O'Neill would pay the tuition. In the event of O'Neill's death, payments would continue from his estate but they were not to exceed half of the entire income from the estate.
These divorce terms could hardly be construed as excessive. If anything, Agnes settled for too little. O'Neill lost many friends who felt that he was treating Agnes and the children very shabbily indeed.
Shane wrote to his father all during the fall of 1928. The letters went to Shanghai, where they arrived after O'Neill had sailed, then chased him, as O'Neill put it, all the way back to London. In his letters to Shane, he went into some detail about his wonderful trip through the East. Sumatra impressed him very much. He said it was a wild tropic colony owned by the Dutch and one of the most interesting places he'd ever been to. "There are lots of wild animals there," he wrote, "and it is one of the places where the people go who catch them and sell them to the zoos." He said he had been sick the last part of the voyage to the East and most of the time he was in Shanghai, but he wouldn't have missed the trip for a million dollars.
"I saw all kinds of strange places and met so many different kinds of people on the boats I was on, and ashore in the towns, that I feel as if I'd added a whole new world to my experience," O'Neill wrote to his son. He would have stayed away longer, but he had had trouble working in the Far East. The heat had taken away all his strength and ambition. He was back in Europe to get on with the job of writing a new play. He had already started it, although he had been back only ten days.
Shane wrote to his father about what Oona was doing, and Oona wrote about Shane. O'Neill was delighted to hear all the news. In his letters, he speculated on how much they had grown in the year and a half since he had last seen them. He was thinking about them a lot, he wrote, and wanted to see them so much that he often thought of taking the first boat back to America. But, he added, he had such important business to attend to in Europe that he had to stay for a while longer.
Harry Weinberger had written O'Neill that Gaga was quite ill and O'Neill had cabled money for her. He asked Shane if Gaga got the money, a question Shane could hardly have answered since he was not at Point Pleasant with Gaga. Apparently Weinberger had told O'Neill that Agnes was sick, for O'Neill asked Shane to tell Agnes he was sincerely sorry to learn about it. O'Neill seemed to live in terror that his children would forget him -- even forget what he looked like. Don't forget me, he said over and over again, in his letters to his son.
While Shane was still away at boarding school in Massachusetts, he received word that Gaga had died at Point Pleasant. His whole world seemed to be collapsing. When he left school for his summer vacation and returned home -- which was now at Old House -- his mother was still in Reno awaiting her divorce, for which she was suing on the grounds of desertion. Agnes' sister and Oona's nurse were there when Shane arrived. He didn't talk at all about Gaga's death, but they noticed that he wouldn't go into the room where Gaga had died.
O'Neill knew in March, while he was at Cap d'Ail, that Agnes had agreed to go to Reno to get a divorce. He was not particularly gracious in talking to his friends about it. He said he couldn't come home until Agnes "deigns to grant me my liberty and I can marry again." Then, he would return and live in California, he said, and make the West his "stamping ground for the future." He said his "release" had been postponed until July.
His curiosity as to what the future held for him kept mounting all spring. He asked Bio De Casseres to conduct a long-distance reading of his palm. She was to imagine looking at his palm at 11: 30 P.M. on April 1, which was 6:30 P.M., New York time. When, he mainly wanted to know, was he going to have the peace for which he craved with all his heart and mind? In May Bio told him that everything would be all right. She repeated what she had told him in New York -- that when he reached the age of forty-one he would have a new life. O'Neill seemed to set great store by this. He was going to have his inner self freed from the dead at forty-one and be consciously alive in his new self. He would be, as he had once told Dr. Lyman, "liberated and reborn."
Agnes was granted her divorce on the afternoon of July 2. Three weeks later, on July 22, 1929, Eugene O'Neill and Carlotta Monterey Barton were married in a civil ceremony in Paris. "Grand news!" he cabled Lawrence Langner of the Theatre Guild. Later, he told him that the "French civil ceremony proved to be quite impressive -- we like it, felt it meant something -- not like our buy-a-dog-license variety in U.S." He wrote Benjamin De Casseres on July 26 that the peace that De Casseres' wife, Bio, had promised him was now due to set in. He wrote Horace Liveright that now that the excitement was over he'd be getting down to hard work again.
For the next two years, Shane and Oona lived in Point Pleasant. The elder Boultons had bought Old House in 1892 and had used it off and on over the years. They had never made any effort to have a social life with what they called "the natives." The natives, in turn, regarded the Boultons as not only city people but, worse, eccentric artists. This fact tended to set Shane apart from the children of the town.
Late in August, 1929, an incident occurred which entailed unpleasant repercussions for the O'Neill family in Point Pleasant. Agnes was giving a party for some of her out-of-town friends, one of whom was James J. Delaney, an Albany newspaperman. After the party had begun Agnes discovered there was not enough ginger ale. She asked Delaney to go to the store for some, suggesting that he use her car, not realizing that he was somewhat under the weather. Driving into the town of Toms River, Delaney struck three cars in succession and was immediately arrested for reckless driving and for driving while intoxicated. He was arraigned before a justice of the peace, who gave him his choice of jail or paying a fine of $451. Since he was unable to pay the fine, Agnes had to put up the money to keep him from going to jail.
The incident caused a stir in Point Pleasant. Because she was known as the "divorced wife of Eugene O'Neill," details of the story were carried on the wires of the Associated Press and printed in papers throughout the country. Shane became known in the community not only as "the son of that fellow who writes plays and deserted his family for an actress" but also as the son of "that writer who was involved in a drunken automobile accident."
Shane continued to write to his father, but the answers became less and less frequent. O'Neill urged his son to write to his half brother, who had just completed his freshman year at Yale. He told Shane that Eugene junior was rowing a lot and was on the freshman crew. Although O'Neill was only trying to keep some kind of family brother was doing in sports and in his studies tended further to destroy Shane's already shattered view of his own importance.
Shane's loss of his father and of
Gaga was somewhat assuaged by his proximity to the ocean. The big
waves lapping the beach, the fishing boats anchored at the quays,
brought back memories of Provincetown and Spithead. Sometimes, at
dusk, he looked at the beautiful carouse! on which Gaga had given
him rides, the organ that played the German waltzes, the bright
lights, the prancing colored horses. Sometimes he fished in the
creeks that emptied into the ocean near Point Pleasant. He stayed
alone a great deal, just sitting on the banks of the melancholy
marshes, identifying the different species of ducks and geese that
swooped down from the skies on their way south.
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