Menu Bar

 

xxvii: Exit Oona

Throughout 1942 O'Neill continued working on A Moon for the Misbegotten, the story of his brother, Jamie. Lawrence Langner came to visit that summer, but most of O'Neill's talk concerned plans for producing his plays after the war was over. His sharply developed sense of timing told him that The Iceman Cometh should be done a year or so after the war, so as to reflect the disillusionment that was sure to set in. He thought that Eddie Dowling, who was at that time playing in William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life in San Francisco, should play the role of Harry Hope, the saloonkeeper in The Iceman.

In the course of his visit, Langner noted how ill O'Neill seemed and what "mental suffering he was undergoing." He and his wife left Tao House feeling "quite depressed about Gene's health. Nevertheless, O'Neill continued to work and before the year ended he had completed his final draft of A Moon for the Misbegotten and had sent it off to his editor, Saxe Commins. Like Long Day's Journey into Night, which Commins had put into the Random House vault, the new play gave an intimate view into the privacy of the O'Neill family, but Jamie, its central character, was dead and Eugene himself was only very slightly represented; the play was, therefore approved for publication. In Long Day's Journey O'Neill himself was more fully represented and the play was a more complete exposure of the interrelationship of all the members of the family.

There was something troubling O'Neill during 1942, other than the strain of the war and living at Tao House without servants, and other than the anxieties and distress of his ill health and Carlotta's arthritis. Whether he was fully conscious of it or not, he was in the process of alienating himself from his only daughter. The history of this rejection -- if rejection it was -- has never been made entirely clear. The situation between Oona and the Eugene O'Neill household was complicated by Carlotta's attitude.

The real rift between O'Neill and his daughter had begun in the spring of 1942, when pictures and items about the photogenic Oona began appearing in the newspapers. She was now moving prominently in café society and taking part in war work. Pictures of her at the Stage Door Canteen for servicemen appeared in the newspapers. She was photographed at a Russian War Relief benefit held at the old Lafayette Hotel in Greenwich Village, and the picture was nationally syndicated. This upset Carlotta, who was violent on the subject of anything Russian.

Then, before school was out Oona suddenly decided that she wanted to go on the stage. The publicity she had been receiving brought her many offers from film studios, modeling agencies, press agents, and picture magazines. Perfect strangers wanted to be her business manager. A night club wanted to underwrite a thirty-thousand-dollar coming-out party for her. Agnes resisted all this as much as she could. O'Neill, in correspondence with Oona, objected vigorously to her notoriety, and both he and Agnes insisted that she should go on to college. Oona stayed in school but she had to take her biology examination twice before she received her diploma. She refused, however, to go to college. O'Neill told her that he still held some parental authority and reminded her that he was her legal guardian until she was eighteen. He said that she was not to embark on a movie career at her age. But the tempting offers continued. Max Reinhardt wanted her to try out for his Repertory Theatre. M-G-M was casting a film of the South Sea islands in technicolor and wanted a bronzed girl whom they could photograph without make-up. Jerry Levin, a press agent, proceeded to go after the job for Oona and promised to get her into the Screen Actors Guild. According to Ruth Reynolds of the New York Daily News, Oona was offered parts in other films, but O'Neill spoke to his friend Hunt Stromberg, a film producer, and arranged for Oona's movie career to come to a sudden end.

She turned to the theater, with her mother's reluctant consent. "If you want to go on the stage," Agnes finally agreed, "I suppose it's all right." She herself was going to Hollywood to do the adaptation of her novel, The Road Is Before Us.

Oona got a small part in Pal Joey, then in rehearsal, with Vivienne Segalin the lead. She made her stage debut on July 17 at the Maplewood Theatre in Maplewood, New Jersey, but this version of Pal Joey was a failure and Oona left New York to join her mother in Hollywood. Miss Segal later recalled Oona at this period. "She was a delightful, friendly child. I remember she insisted on going barefoot. She was like some wild Irish sprite. Her charm, her smile, her lovely teeth and hair made her a remarkably beautiful girl. We all loved her."

Later that summer, Oona and her friend Carol Marcus, Wlliam Saroyan's wife, were in San Francisco with Saroyan's play The Time of Your Life, and Oona got a small part in it. She telephoned Tao House but was unable to reach her father. With Carol she drove out there, but they were refused admittance. Oona was given to believe that her father wanted nothing to do with her.

In October, the Daily News in New York published a double-page feature under the headline:

OONA O'NEILL GOES HOME
TO HER FAMOUS FATHER --
TO GET MOVIE JOB OKAY

The writer, again Ruth Reynolds, had talked extensively with Oona, who said that her father had definitely decided he did not want her to be an actress; then, smiling enigmatically, Oona added. "He's my guardian until I'm eighteen. I'll be eighteen next May. A girl ought to earn her own living."

To Carlotta, who frequently talked of what she called "cheap publicity," all these articles must have been infuriating.

"When Oona got older and started getting publicity as a debutante," Agnes has said, "and when she indicated she wanted to go into show business and started associating with show people, O'Neill cooled toward her." Agnes also thought O'Neill was under the illusion that "Oona was trading on his name."

Oona was welcomed into the most interesting Hollywood circles. Clifford Odets, who knew Oona well at this period, has said that he "scented something very vindictive" in O'Neill's rejection of Oona. It seemed to Odets"as if O'Neill could not forgive his children because he had abandoned them! All around, it was very sad and murky, not human. And yet one could not help feeling that if one or two or three little moves had been made, O'Neill and his children would have come together."

During the winter of 1942-43, Oona was much in the company of Charles Chaplin, and it was generally believed that the great comedian was courting her. At this time Agnes, who had received word that her mother had suffered a stroke, had to travel back east. Oona seemed to be getting on well in Hollywood, and Agnes did not demand that she go back east with her. But before she left Agnes had a long and serious talk with her about Chaplin. Agnes reports that "when she told me of her plans to marry him, I asked her if she realized what she was letting herself in for. After all, Chaplin was fifty-four -- three times as old as she. She was a very popular girl, you know, and had many young men interested in her -- some far, far wealthier than Charlie.

"I'll never forget how she answered me. Looking me straight in the eyes, she replied, 'Mother, I will never love another man in my life.' "

Agnes has expressed a view which has occurred to many others. "Perhaps her love for an older man developed because she missed growing up with a father. She was just a baby when Gene and I separated in 1927."

Shortly after her eighteenth birthday Oona signed for a part in The Girl from Leningrad. A month later, on June 16, 1943, Oona and Chaplin were married in the greatest secrecy. They turned up at the County Clerk's office at Santa Barbara a half hour before the official opening at 9 A.M. It was Chaplin's fourth marriage; his previous wives, all actresses, were Mildred Harris, Lita Grey, and Paulette Goddard. He had grown-up sons older than Oona. One of the reasons for the secrecy of the marriage was that public attention had recently been focused on Chaplin as a result of a protracted paternity suit brought against him by a twenty-three-year-old aspirant to a film career.

After receiving their license to marry, Chaplin and Oona drove several miles to the home of Justice of the Peace Linton P. Moore. Their only attendants were a local newspaper columnist, Harry Crocker, and Chaplin's publicity representative, Mrs. Catherine Hunter, who served as best man and matron of honor. Reporters telephoned Agnes at Point Pleasant and asked her for her comment.

"I am very happy about it," she said. "The only reason I was not present at the ceremony is that it was necessary for me to be in New York." Out on the Coast, reporters tried to reach Tao House by telephone to ask Oona's father for comment. O'Neill refused to come to the phone. Eventually he did comment, but only in a letter to his daughter. According to a friend of Oona's who was with her when she received it, O'Neill wrote his daughter "a very harsh and severing letter on her marriage to Chaplin." Oona never heard from her father again.

According to Nathan, O'Neill was bitter about Oona's marriage and resented any reference by his friends or acquaintances to his only daughter and his new son-in-law. "There is enough wry comedy in life as it is," O'Neill remarked.

He told Nathan that he understood it was "Chaplin's supreme wish to play Hamlet. That's all right with me, but I would not want to play in the same cast, whatever the role." But Saxe Commins has expressed the opinion that O'Neill had nothing particularly personal in his resentment of Chaplin as a husband for his daughter, and that O'Neill "just disliked everything about Hollywood, in general."

Talking to his friends, O'Neill liked to refer to Hollywood as "the City of Dreadful Nonsense." He had received many offers to write for the movies. One producer offered to let O'Neill name his own price if he would write a scenario for Jean Harlow. O'Neill's reply to the overture was a telegram consisting of the word "no" repeated twenty times. A year after Oona married Chaplin, O'Neill gave a friend a more reasoned view of why he had refused to write for the movies.

"I have never been in Hollywood or Los Angeles," he said. "This doesn't mean I have any prejudice against pictures. It merely means that the screen has never interested me as a medium. So why work at something which doesn't interest me when I have always had work on my hands which does interest me and has always paid me well? It is as simple as that -- common sense -- although some people seem to regard it as a mad -- even inexcusable -- eccentricity."

It seems a pity that O'Neill and Chaplin never met. Chaplin, too, was contemptuous of the nonsense that most Hollywood producers turn out in the name of entertainment or with the excuse that "it's what the public wants."

O'Neill's letters refer only indirectly to his distress following Oona's marriage, and he steadfastly refused to make any comment for the newspapers. He told friends that he was "on the nerve-ridden ragged edge." During most of August, he was laid up in bed with the flu, and Carlotta's severe arthritis distressed O'Neill almost as much as it did Carlotta. He found it impossible "to write letters or do anything else." More and more at this time of trouble he looked backward with nostalgia.

Oona, living in Hollywood, appeared happily married and soon became pregnant. The Chaplins dined a great deal with the Clifford Odetses. On several occasions, the short-story writer, Katherine Anne Porter, was present. "I remember her [Oona] only as a very small, young-looking creature," Miss Porter has said, "in a jet-black Chinese coat, knitting away steadily on a baby jacket, in the deepest silence and stillness. Now and then she glanced around and took in the scene with an expression that seemed to me to be full of acute observation, some instinctive malice, and natural wit-an interesting face."

The end of O'Neill's and Carlotta's life at Tao House came late in 1943. Both he and Carlotta were in increasingly poor health. Then Herbert Freeman, their chauffeur, went off to war. Because of the shaking of his hands, O'Neill had not driven a car in years and Freeman's departure stranded them. They stored their furnishings in San Francisco and put Tao House on the market.

The O'Neills sold their home with great reluctance; they had been very happy there, but without servants or staff Carlotta simply had been unable to maintain the place. The house contained twenty-two rooms, and the estate covered 158 acres. There were O'Neill's swimming pool and his chickens; Carlotta had to take care of them and O'Neill and cook the meals. It became impossible for her. She was not completely well herself, and they were running low on money. They had been living on her savings.

In San Francisco, O'Neill and Carlotta settled in a three-room apartment in a family hotel known as Huntington Arms, located on Nob Hill.

Although O'Neill was unable to do any writing in San Francisco, he kept up some of his correspondence. In discussing a possible production of Lazarus Laughed, he pointed out that the play contained a "spiritual warning and hope" which could be "important today." He talked with Barrett Clark about Clark's children, who were thinking of embarking on theatrical careers. O'Neill said that he wished that at least one of his own children would turn out to be a bacteriologist or anything else. If one did have a theatrical career, the principal thing was to stay away from the City of Dreadful Nonsense in the southern part of the State of California. He was keeping his San Francisco address a guarded secret because the newspapers were trying "to get me cornered for comment [which] would be embarrassing, to put it mildly." O'Neill and Carlotta were prepared to leave for the East at any time. Both of them, O'Neill said bitterly, had had enough of the Coast.

Then Carlotta fell "seriously ill." She had not been well before the moving began but "the packing and getting out were the last straw for her, and the reaction was that she went to pieces," O'Neill said.

Carlotta had hardly begun to recover when O'Neill suffered a paralytic stroke. He not only was laid up in bed for six months but required around-the-clock nursing. The stroke left him with "an increasing and uncurable palsy."

Carlotta said, some years later, "He couldn't write at all. He couldn't dictate, and he simply -- well, he died when he could no longer work -- spiritually died and was dragging the poor diseased body along for a few more years until it too died."

Thus Eugene O'Neill had suffered two crippling deprivations. He lost, in a very real and physical sense, his ability to write, perhaps his only reason for living, and he lost his only daughter. Sadly, O'Neill had never established a close relationship with Oona. Actually there was no relationship at all. In its way, this was the real tragedy for O'Neill. He did not lose a daughter, for he had never really had one.
 

Return to the City
 

© Copyright 1999-2009 eOneill.com