xxvi: The Curse of the Misbegotten
The Langners were on the West Coast in the spring of 1941, and Carlotta invited them to spend Decoration Day at Tao House. They were met at the garden gate. Langner noted that "Gene [was] thinner than he had been but he seemed to be working well although his spirits were definitely depressed." This was due not only to several personal factors, but also to the condition of the world. After lunch, O'Neill took Langner into his study, which was just off the drawing room, and showed him the manuscripts of the cycle. Langner noted that O'Neill's handwriting was getting smaller and smaller.
That summer Oona visited Tao House again. She had wanted to fly but had to go by train, she said, because "Daddy wanted me to see the country." Oona, who had just passed her sixteenth birthday, was proud of the fact that she had "been going to the Stork Club since I was fifteen." She had one more year to spend at Brearley before entering Vassar. In the words of an acquaintance that summer she was a "starry-eyed schoolgirl filled with giggling good humor."
In high heels she was five feet four inches tall, and she weighed 125 pounds. O'Neill had a professional photographer take pictures of himself and Oona in and around Tao House and took her on visits to San Francisco. He showed her one of his newly written plays; later Oona casually mentioned to friends that she had really noticed only the title, Long Day's Journey into Night. She was much more interested in Rosie, the player piano. Although Oona made a big hit with her father, she and Carlotta did not get on at all well. Carlotta felt that Oona was altogether too giddy.
Throughout 1941, O'Neill was again in a state of deep depression. He said that the early part of the year had been the worst period since his "crack-up in 1937." The times, he complained, were not auspicious for dramatists -- it just didn't seem to matter whether a play was produced or not. He wanted to stay on at Tao House; the thought of New York, he said, gave him "the pip." But the steady erosion of his way of life at Tao House disturbed him. His ivory tower was in the middle of what he called "the greatest war industry and armed-service sections in the United States." You "couldn't get help any more." One by one, his servants went to work in defense plants or were drafted or enlisted. Finally, the O'Neills were left alone. Carlotta had never cooked before, she has said; O'Neill told friends that she had to start from scratch and had proceeded to "do a grand job, and one thing I can't complain about is indigestion."
He tried to help with the dishes after the meals. But his trembling was getting worse and worse. Despite his difficulty, he boasted, he hadn't broken a single dish. Carlotta's arthritis kept pace with the terrible trembling and rigidity in O'Neill's hands and arms. When neighbors, probably friends of the help ("not the rich estate people of the countryside"), came in and helped the stranded couple, O'Neill was amazed. Overnight he became the champion of the small-town business men, small farmers, the in-between guys -- "the forgotten class." Barrett Clark is convinced that the contact O'Neill established with his neighbors in the Valley of the Moon "somehow helped restore the man's essential faith in a world which his reading and contemplation had, in a way, distorted." There was a kinship of quality, O'Neill discovered, between his neighbors around Danville and his old friends of the Hell Hole and Jimmy the Priest's. Money couldn't buy what these people were doing for him, he insisted.
Pearl Harbor came and went, but the impact of the war had already spent itself in O'Neill's mind. He was busily engaged in writing A Moon for the Misbegotten, the last thing he ever wrote.
In New York, Shane told Oona that he and Marjory Straight expected to get married. Oona was anxious to meet Marjory, not only because she was Shane's girl but because she was a real working artist. The two girls soon became good friends. Oona, not quite seventeen, and in her senior year at Brearley, was strictly an uptown girl at this time. She was strikingly beautiful; her hair was luxuriously black and very straight, her mouth was wide and her lips full, and her frequent smile displayed two rows of perfectly formed teeth. Her eyelashes were dark and her eyes had a slightly Oriental cast about them. She, like all the O'Neills, had the "black Irish" look. Physically, she had matured early. Not for her were the callow youths from Groton and St. Paul's and Choate already she was being squired about by "older men" in their thirties or even forties. She had wanted to go along with Shane and Marc Brandel to Mexico, but her mother wouldn't let her, insisting that she finish school. Now Shane was going out into the world and into the war, the greatest adventure of all. She wished she didn't have to go to Vassar.
Early in March, Shane received sailing orders. He made out his allotment and his insurance to Marjory. He also gave her a picture taken on the beach at Provincetown. It showed Shane as a child of three, standing naked beside his father in a bathing suit. On the back he wrote, "Look at my beautiful little savage self." Shane was well aware that his father had given Carlotta a photograph of himself as a newborn baby, inscribing it, "To my love and my life, Carlotta (who sometimes thinks this infant never grew up) from me, this above, her husband. . . ."
Shane's first voyage lasted two months. When he returned he walked into Marjory's studio early in the morning. He reached into his pocket and threw all his money on the kitchen table. The voyage had been a dangerous one and the crew had received extra pay. The trip, he told Margaret, had given him many short story ideas.
Uptown he found Oona more restless than ever about remaining in school; it looked as if she wouldn't go to Vassar. Shane told her that he had been teased by some of his friends about her being elected Number-One Debutante for the 1942-43 season. Stories had appeared in all the papers. At one big press conference Oona was handed a large bunch of red roses and a reporter, not knowing whose daughter she was, asked her what business her father was in. Oona had giggled, then said, "He writes." What view, she was asked, would her father take of her being elected Debutante Number-One? She said she didn't know and she wasn't going to ask; she would let her father find out for himself.
It was apparent that Oona was a girl who knew pretty much what she was doing and where she was going. She brushed off successfully, many who tried to probe how deeply she had read into her father's plays. Sometimes she'd say she had read only The Emperor Jones or Ah, Wilderness!; at others that The Great God Brown was her favorite. She would add, "I read them when I was very young." At her press conference, one of the reporters observed that obviously, she was as Irish as Paddy's pig. Did she, now, regard herself as lace curtain Irish or shanty Irish? Oona was caught off balance, but only for a moment. She had never heard the expressions. The reporters eagerly explained.
"Put me down as shanty Irish," Oona said. At the end of the interview, another reporter said, "Boys, we naturally got to ask her about world affairs. Miss O'Neill, what do you think of world affairs?" At the time, Corregidor was under bombardment by the Japanese.
"It would seem very funny," Oona said, with commendable taste, "for me to sit in the Stork Club and express my opinion of world affairs."
Actually, Oona found that being the daughter of Eugene O'Neill, the playwright, could be something of a drawback. Her teachers were annoyed at the fact that she was receiving publicity -- especially publicity in the Stork Club. This was unseemly for a Brearley girl, and some of Oona's schoolmates indicated they felt the same way. Oona was included in many of Manhattan's exclusive club dances, cotillions and junior assemblies, but she was included in spite of being O'Neill's daughter. Agnes had had to do a good deal of lunching with her Social Register friends and relatives to offset that.
Although going out with a college undergraduate was almost exceptional for Oona, who preferred older, more sophisticated men, in the spring she was asked to Yale's Junior Prom. Eugene junior was teaching at Yale that year, and one of his students tarried after a lecture to chat with him.
"Sir," he said. "I am having your sister, Oona, up for the Junior Prom. I thought you might like to see her. Would it be all right?"
Eugene didn't explain that Oona was his half sister, but he did say that he hadn't seen her since she was about two.
"Tell her," Eugene told the student, "that I'd love to see her again after so long. Tell her that I'll be at my apartment at five and would you, sir, be good enough to bring her around and join me for a drink?" The student said he would be pleased and honored. Eugene waited at his apartment all evening, but Oona never came. Later, he told friends that he was deeply hurt at what seemed to him a studied snub. He was never to see his half sister again.
It may have been Oona's salvation that she seemed to sail untouched and unperturbed through the maelstroms into which members of the O'Neill family were always being drawn. "Oona had a sharply developed sense of self-preservation," one of her friends who knew her from childhood has said. "Even as a child, she seemed to have an eye always alert for security." Another family friend has said, "Oona was born knowing how the world operated. When she's with a man of sixty, you'd think he was twenty-five and she was sixty, she manages things so well. She gives the orders."
Marjory Straight observed, with pained amazement, the sight of these lonely members of the same family, strangers to one another in some ways, charming yet disturbed, moving inevitably to their individual tragedies. One day, after she'd met Eugene junior, she told a friend, "That man has the look of a man who might kill himself."
Between voyages, Shane outdid, in drinking and being "on the bum," anything his father had ever done. Marjory always felt that his insecurity, only slightly assuaged by drink, was somehow bound up with his attitudes toward his father.
Shane's voyages were on ships that formed, in the war years, the great supply lines to England and Africa. On one trip, Shane became friendly with a member of the Navy gun crew stationed on his ship. One evening he noticed that there was an emergency medical kit provided for the crew. Included in the supplies were syringes; there were also morphine tablets. Shane tried one, "to see the effect on me," and found that it helped to "equalize the bitter world without."
Shane and Marjory had a regular routine when he returned from "out there," as he called being at sea. She'd show him the pictures she had painted and he would tell her which ones he liked best. It seemed to Marjory that most of the pictures she was painting were of Shane. Some were of herself and Shane.
Of this period in their lives, Miss Straight has said: "There was little ugliness in either of us, and there was no great strength or force, either. Even though Shane seemed to be doing all the things his father had done -- bumming through a foreign country as he had done in Mexico or going off to sea -- these things were not part of him."
Early in December, 1942, Shane was again, as he liked to put it, "on the beach." But his sailing orders came before Christmas. The holiday had never meant much to the O'Neills, he said, but maybe he ought to send presents to his mother and father and sister. He would surely hear from his father if he wrote.
"You do it for me, baby," Shane said to Marjory. "Send my father something and Carlotta, too. I haven't written to him in a long time." He gave her the money, and Marjory sent the presents. She took a certain pride in wrapping them.
At Tao House that year, O'Neill was talking to a friend, who had youngsters Shane's and Oona's ages, about raising children. O'Neill said that he had learned a great deal from his eldest child, and that young Eugene had knowledge of much about which he, O'Neill, was profoundly uneducated. "We learn from each other," O'Neill said, "and I think that is the most valuable asset in a father and son relationship." But he talked very little about Shane and Oona.
About two months after Christmas a letter addressed to Shane arrived from Tao House. Marjory forwarded it to Shane and then sat down and wrote O'Neill a long letter. She said she assumed the letter which had arrived was to thank Shane for the Christmas presents and she was forwarding it, unopened, to him. She said Shane had asked her to bring his father up to date on what he was doing, and she told of his trips to sea, into the war zones. Shane was growing up in the war into a fine man, she wrote.
A reply to Miss Straight's letter came almost immediately. The letter, addressed to her, was in Carlotta's handwriting. Miss Straight, it said, should know at once that it was Mr. Eugene O'Neill's wife who had written the letter thanking Shane for his Christmas gift. After considerable, and believe her, deep consideration, she felt that it would be all for the best if Mr. O'Neill did not have the letter Miss Straight had written about Shane's experiences at sea. She felt that it would be much better if Shane himself wrote to his father of such things. After all, it was wartime and such news, secondhand, might upset her husband and make him unable to work. She was sure that Marjory would agree that Mr. Eugene O'Neillís work was of the utmost importance to him, to her [Carlotta], and, indeed, to the whole world. She signed herself, Carlotta Monterey O'Neill.
When Shane arrived in New York, Marjory told him about the letter from Carlotta and said, "Who does she think she is -- Saint Peter opening and closing the gates? What's wrong with your father that he allows such a thing to happen? You are his son. Doesn't he have any moral responsibility for his children? Does she open all his mail? Can't your father speak for himself?"
Shane let her run on, smiling tolerantly. "That's the way Carlotta is," he said finally. "She's always been like that. Maybe it has something to do with her not liking Mother. Though she doesn't hate father's first wife, Kathleen. . . ." Shane began to chuckle, suddenly, almost to himself. "Your letter must have been a good one," he said, "so naturally she wouldn't give it to Father. God, I wonder how many of the letters that we, his children, have written to him, he has received."
In the fall of 1943, Shane made his last voyage to sea. He looked so bad and was in such a state of nerves that Marjory urged him to stay home and take it easy. The bombings, the sight of the sailors jumping from their sinking ships into the water and drowning or burning in the flaming oil had broken him. Once, off the coast of England, he had helped pull a Norwegian sailor aboard. "I can't get the words of the man out of my mind," Shane told Marjory when he returned from the voyage. "He kept repeating over and over again, 'I come from Flekkefjord. I come from Flekkefjord.' That was all he could say."
Perhaps, Marjory thought, he could do the writing that he had been wanting to do; she would work. Because she didn't want to miss the daylight painting hours, she worked at night, as a hat-check girl in a night club. Shane spent some days in a hospital for merchant seamen, being treated for shock. After he was discharged, he held various jobs -- in a button factory, with a little-theater group, moving scenery and doing other menial chores -- but he didn't keep them. Nothing seemed to interest him. Soon, he was back at the Old Colony, drinking steadily. The emptiness inside him gnawed deeper and deeper. He wrote:
Often, when Marjory came home in the early hours, she found him unconscious from drink. Sometimes he would not come home until morning, when she was up and working at her easel. There were times when he didn't come home for several days. Once, he borrowed her rent money and spent it at the bar. When they were threatened with eviction, Shane went to see his father's lawyer, to ask for a loan. He didn't get it. In telling Marjory about his failure to get the money, he said, "This is terrible. Don't ever let me have any money again."Twice, Marjory arrived home to find the gas jets all open. Both times, she was able to revive Shane by dragging him into the hallway. When he came to, he looked at her and said, "I've made a mess of everything." After the second try, she and friends prevailed on Shane to see a psychiatrist. He attended the sessions for a while and then took to arriving late for them. For each session he would arrive later and later, until soon he was arriving a minute before the session was supposed to end. After a while, he didn't go at all.
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