Menu Bar

 

xxiv: "The Right Way of Life"

O'Neill and Carlotta decided to build once more. Their new home, thirty-five miles from San Francisco, was located on 158 acres of woodland halfway up a mountain overlooking the San Ramon Valley in Contra Costa County. From the building site one could look across Walnut Creek at Mount Diablo, which rose like a spire above the Pacific Ocean. They called their new home "Tao House." O'Neill explained that the name signified the peace, restfulness, and contentment of the Taoist religion. Roughly translated, Tao means "the right way of life."

The house was Chinese in inspiration, and Carlotta, who had been partial to Chinese things ever since her trip to the Far East, was both architect and decorator on the project. Prohibitive costs made it impractical to build with authentic Oriental materials, but the concrete blocks which were substituted had been specially designed to resemble Chinese earthen blocks. The result was not an accurate re-creation of a Chinese house, but it was quite charming.

Before it was completed, O'Neill told a friend that this would be "a final home and harbor" for him. The view from the house was the most beautiful he had ever seen. He loved California, and the climate was one in which he was sure he could work and keep healthy. There was one compromise.

Tao House was not within easy reach of water to swim in, and swimming was O'Neill's only athletic activity. (Langner once said that Gene would be content only when he moved to a place that afforded swimming all year round.) To repair the deficiency, the O'Neills built a swimming pool. From its rim one could look down over the whole valley; but from within the pool one could see only the empty space above the valley. O'Neill found the effect disconcerting; he complained to friends that it gave him an eerie feeling to have this wide stretch of nothing alongside when he swam.

Gene and Carlotta had collected many beautiful Oriental objets d'art, and after they moved into Tao House they bought still more. They also furnished the house throughout with Chinese-style furniture. The interior walls were left rough and unpainted, and against them the delicate pieces of ornament and furniture created an impressive contrast. To complete the décor, Carlotta, who loved gardening, set to work making a Chinese garden. O'Neill added a bucolic touch by installing a flock of chickens.

The O'Neill estate became a rather large establishment, and Carlotta assumed the burden of management. She and Gene enjoyed their home more than any they had had. But when war came to the United States and defense industries claimed all the manpower that was not taken by the armed forces, the job of running Tao House became too great a burden for the couple. Nevertheless, they lived there longer than they lived at any other home, and when they quit it, it wasn't discontent that motivated either of them.

Although O'Neill began to feel better after he moved into Tao House, he was able only to "flirt" with his cycle again. His trembling continued. Then there came a new illlness -- neuritis -- which afflicted his right arm. All through the winter of 1937-38 he found it virtually impossible to get a night's sleep. He told friends he had spent "a rotten bad winter." Despite his illness, he and Carlotta did some entertaining. The artist, Miguel Covarrubias, and his wife, two of their most intimate friends, came to stay. Covarrubias made ink caricatures of both, which were immediately framed and hung in the upper hall of Tao House.

When he resumed work on his cycle, O'Neill followed the same writing schedule as at Casa Genotta from eight-thirty in the morning until one-thirty in the afternoon, seven days a week. He wrote in pencil and, although each letter was perfectly formed, his trembling caused him to make his writing smaller and smaller. Carlotta, at a separate desk, served as his secretary and typed his copy; she had to use a magnifying glass to read his script. For each play, O'Neill made drawings of the sets and a complicated diagram representing the development of the plot.

O'Neill and his wife had long since given up trying to have lunch together. Like most writers, he would very often just be hitting his stride when lunch hour arrived. He would be absorbed in the play on which he was working, in dialogue problems, in timing, in themes. Naturally, he did not feel talkative. Carlotta, wanting to make sure not to interrupt the creative process, would remain silent. The result was that she was made nervous and he became nervous seeing her nervous. The problem was solved by having the maid bring a tray to O'Neill's study. He could nibble or not, as he saw fit. Sometimes after his lunch he would lie down.

By dinnertime, O'Neill was generally ready to stop working; sometimes he was free in the middle of the afternoon. Usually, he did not work after dinner. If, however, he was in the middle of some speech or scene and was afraid he would lose the feeling, he would return to his study and work.

More often, in the evening, O'Neill liked to sit by the fire and read. Both he and Carlotta were avid readers. Sometimes, he would read aloud something he particularly liked. Like many good prose writers, he continually read poetry -- good poetry. He was particularly partial to the Irish poets; Yeats was his favorite.

At times, O'Neill was extremely funny. Apparently he had inherited more than he thought from his actor father because he could be a first-rate mimic. And yet when he was ill or depressed, his silence was almost oppressive as he brooded in darkness.

Carlotta took pride in caring for O'Neill and their homes. As Brooks Atkinson has said, one of Carlotta's great contributions to the work of O'Neill was that she "kept a good house." Carlotta was particularly proud of the manner of life to which she believed she had introduced him. As she told friends, she made it possible for him to "live like a duke." However, Agnes Boulton told this writer that O'Neill lived rather well during the later years of their marriage, and, to prove her point, she has shown tailor bills, hotel bills, and bills from stores that are generally known for their expensive wares. In any case, O'Neill's life with Carlotta was far different from anything he had experienced previously. And occasionally O'Neill would talk to Carlotta of his former life and comment almost ruefully upon how far he had come.

O'Neill and Carlotta were well settled in the routine of their new life when Shane came to visit them during his spring vacation. Shane left Golden, Colorado, on Friday, April 8. Herbert Freeman, the O'Neill chauffeur, met him at the station in Oakland in a big new Lincoln limousine. Shane was amazed to learn that he was driving on a mile of his father's own private road leading to the house. He was delighted to see, on the way, that his father was raising white Brahma chickens. Freeman let Shane out at the brown wooden gate adorned with metal characters spelling out Tao House in Chinese. He heard a dog barking and twelve-year-old Blemie came bounding up to him to be petted. A Negro couple looked after the O'Neills, and the man took Shane's bags. Besides Freeman and the Negro couple, there was a laundress, a house maid and a gardener.

When O'Neill came down from his study to greet him, Shane saw at once how much his father had aged since he had last seen him in Georgia. He looked fit but he also looked fragile. His shy smile still "lighted up his face and he seemed completely happy." As he said, he was "full of hope" despite the fact that he had noted "the way the world wags." It looked to him as if man had decided to destroy himself. This would be the only wise decision, O'Neill commented, man had ever made.

Father and son talked of the news which was filling the papers. There was fighting between the Japanese and Mongolian troops on the border of Manchukuo. Hitler and Mussolini were signing a military alliance. Nazi troops had begun to occupy Czechoslovakia. But though there was plenty that was impersonal to talk about, as always O'Neill was an uneasy father. Shane tried to talk about attempting to write, but he got the impression his father didn't want him to be a writer. With Carlotta, things were different. She had lots of things to say to him, especially urging him to study hard and go to college.

"It will help you in many ways," she told him, "later on in life. Learn all you can about any and all things. You never know what branch of learning might be your bread and butter in the future." She talked a good deal about being independent, about "standing on your own feet."

"I got to know Carlotta on this trip," Shane has said. "I liked her. I still like her."

But he came away from his visit with the same familiar loneliness. Once more, his verse reflected this:

Loneliness makes geniuses
And idiots
All men -- good men, bad men
But never
Happy men
Beware it lurks
And seeks you out
You shout, see it approach
But it has you
You can't escape.

 

Kismet in the Valley of the Moon
 

© Copyright 1999-2009 eOneill.com