xxxii: The Vultures in Full Flight
The image of O'Neill that emerges at this time is that of a man isolated from his children and insulated from the world. How much of this was due to his own desires, and how much to the maneuvers of those who wished to guard him from further shocks, may never be known. One thing is certain: He was a sick man, without hope or belief that he would get well. It seemed that he was yielding himself completely to his lifelong, if sometimes dormant, "infatuation with oblivion." It may be, too, that he did not wish to get well if it meant survival with his affliction and, in consequence, inability to resume his career.
He once told this writer why he had always sought solitude: "I kept writing because I had such a love of it. I was highly introspective, intensely nervous and serf-conscious. I was very tense. I drank to overcome my shyness. I could scarcely write, if at all, and live in the city. I would pick a place out of the ordinary run of places to do my writing. When I was writing, I was alive."
In 1948 he had once again begun to dream of finding a permanent home, and the first prospective new location he had looked at was Provincetown. What might have moved him in that direction, he never said; but evidently he did not find it, and he did not stay there long. The Provincetown he knew no longer existed; the fishing village he once loved had become a seaside resort, it seemed to him.
By midsummer he and Carlotta had found a modest, one-and-a-half-story white clapboard summer house in an exclusive section of Marblehead, on the Massachusetts coast. It was right on the sea-"with my feet in the Atlantic," O'Neill reported. Carlotta, who bought the place out of her "reserve fund" was less enthusiastic and referred to it as "dinky. . . one of those summer cottages." Nevertheless she put the house, which was located on Point o' Rocks Lane, in her name and proceeded to do it over at considerable expense.
O'Neill said that he felt as if he was coming home at last. He was even hopeful for a little while that he was going to write again. He told Bill Aronberg, who came up to see him, that this was the first piece of waterfront property to be sold in this neighborhood in years. The house was built in 1880 and was like the house his father had bought his mother in New London. Here in New England beside the sea, O'Neill said, he felt that he had roots. Perhaps that had been his mistake -- leaving the edge of the sea. Spithead, too, had been at the very edge of the sea, but it was a safe sea protected by Hamilton Harbor. He spoke of Point o' Rocks to Saxe Commins as "our last home."
(Bessie Breuer, O'Neill's old friend, has suggested that if he had lived he would have ended up right back in New London."It was as if, like a bird, he had been circling the whole world," she has said, "each time coming closer and closer to the town in which he and his family had lived for so long.")
Soon O'Neill was feeling well enough to write letters to friends in New York. The words, though distinguishable, still looked as if they were made by a seismograph. He said he guessed he was stuck with some kind of tremor for the rest of his life. But the world, too, was in a tremor, so he supposed he shouldn't mind.
But when he was not writing, he was not "alive." In 1948 he joined the Euthanasia Society of America, whose purpose was to legalize the "act or practice of mercifully ending the life of an incurable sufferer." Later, he became so convinced of the importance of the work of this society, founded by the aristocratic Boston divine, Charles Francis Potter, that he accepted membership on its "American Advisory Council."
During the winter of 1948-49, O'Neill and Carlotta seemed to find peace again. "I made that place into a beautiful little house," Carlotta has said. The privacy that O'Neill said he wanted was readily available. It is a tradition in the little New England town that "Marbleheaders keep to themselves." The O'Neill neighbors remained close-mouthed about them. The Yankee postman allowed that the O'Neill mail was "very heavy."
O'Neill actually seemed to be getting better in 1949. Drugs appeared to alleviate the trembling of his hands, and visitors at Point o' Rocks reported that he was showing "remarkable improvement." He even went occasionally to the local movies with Carlotta. He had started to work on a new play which had nothing to do with his cycle. Richard Madden, his agent, said that the dramatist "was very much improved. Furthermore his whole tone and attitude over the phone are very bright indeed." Madden corroborated the report that O'Neill was able to write again in longhand.
But the optimistic reports of O'Neill's recovery turned out to have been premature. On November 4, 1949, when Carlotta was asked how he was making out with his writing, she replied, "He hasn't worked for three years, and God knows if he ever will be able to." She said he had tried to compose a play by dictating to a secretary but "discovered he couldn't work that way. It's terrible. It gets worse. The hands tremble and then the feet." Once, about this time, when he was told that a friend had died, he commented, "There's a lot to be said for being dead."
In June, 1950, Aronberg called O'Neill and told him that some of his early plays, deposited in the Library of Congress, had been discovered and, being without copyright, were regarded as in the public domain and publishable by anyone. O'Neill did not want them published, but he was too ill to do anything about it. He said he didn't think the plays were any good and were "not worthy of publication."
When Langner came to visit again in Marblehead, he begged to be allowed to produce A Touch of the Poet with "a certain director of whom O'Neill approved."
"I don't believe," O'Neill said, "I could live through a production of a new play right now." When Langner presented new arguments, O'Neill said, "No! That's my last word on the subject."
Neighbors now reported that O'Neill had stopped going to the movies. It was gossiped that "even old friends who come from far away rarely get to see him." Dr. Frederick B. Mayo, a Swampscott physician, was said to be making repeated visits, and rumor had it that both O'Neill and Carlotta were very ill.
In Hollywood, Oona had had her third baby, ONeill's fifth grandchild. But he was estranged from Oona, as he was from Shane. Shortly after Shane's release from Lexington, he and Cathy and Maura had flown down to Bermuda where they stayed two years, at first living with Agnes and Mac at Spithead, then later in a small cottage on the hillside. Cathy was pregnant again and, when Agnes and Mac returned to the United States to look after Agnes' mother, the Shane O'Neills were left alone. On the evening of December 20, 1949, one hour after the doctor had said that the baby was not due for six hours, Cathy gave birth to a girl, whom they later named Sheila. The doctor had gone, and Shane assisted in the delivery. "I was really flustered," he has said. "Fortunately, Cathy directed me what to do."
As for Eugene junior, his life had been out of control for some years now. Along with his teaching schedule, young Eugene had continued to pursue his career in radio and television, and also did readings for "Talking Books" for the blind. He was a regular panel member of CBS's "Invitation to Learning," chairman of a series called "Children's Classics," and from time to time he was a panelist on "Author Meets the Critics." Martin Stone, the producer, remembers that Eugene was generally broke during this period. They used to meet late in the afternoon at the Yale Club taproom. "I remember in particular that he never talked about his father," Stone has said. "He was always worried about money. He used to order a beer and let the cocktail hour tidbits serve as his dinner -- that's how broke he was. I figured he had a great future. He was talented and I was glad to put him on the show."
Early in March, 1947, Eugene destroyed in a few minutes all hope of a successful career in television. At first, he would carefully prepare for each of his appearances. He was well-informed, articulate; his resonant voice and his clear diction were impressive. Whatever the subject under discussion, he was able to comment intelligently. His beard, his good looks, his lively intelligent eyes, his agreeable manner, gave him a unique, almost unforgettable appearance.
The night Eugene O'Neill, Jr., wrecked his career, he was scheduled to appear as a critic of a book, It Took Nine Tailors, by Adolphe Menjou. Several days before the program, Stone had asked Ruth Lander, a close friend of Eugene, to make sure to have Eugene dress reasonably well for this appearance. Ruth knew that getting Eugene to dress well for anything was a matter to be handled with care, and she worked hard at it.
On Sunday evening, March 23, Eugene turned to Ruth and said, "Let's see. Tonight we're reviewing the movie actor's book." He stressed the word movie. "He is the best-dressed man in America, they say. Well, then, I shall be the worst-dressed." Eugene carefully picked out a rumpled suit and a shirt with a frayed collar. At dinner, he drank two Martinis. He complained of a cold.
"He felt terrible," Ruth has said. "He was getting some kind of flu. I think he had taken a lot of aspirin or something. The Martinis seemed to go straight to his head."
When they arrived at the studio, Martin Stone took one look at him and said, "Oh, God!" It was too late to do anything about replacing him. Word flashed around among the studio executives, "O'Neill junior is drunk." Menjou was smooth and polished. Eugene scowled at him. The cameraman kept the camera off Eugene as much as possible. Only once or twice was he able to get in a comment. He was thick-tongued. Menjou put on a brilliant performance as did the other panelists, and a minimum amount of damage was done. But in television a performer appears drunk only once.
In 1947, Eugene adequately filled his teaching post at Princeton for the first term. During the second term, he failed to appear for some of his lectures. When he did turn up for classes he often looked unwashed, unshaved and generally disheveled; he was either drunk or suffering from a terrible hang-over. He was not asked to return.
For the next two years, he tried to make a life for himself and Ruth Lander. In Woodstock he set himself a regular writing schedule, by which he rose at six in the morning, cooked his own breakfast, and then chopped wood for two hours. "Then I put in four or five hours of intellectual work in my study," he once told Mary Braggiotti. "My desk faces a large window and the minute I lift my eyes I have one of the most beautiful views in New York State before me -- green valleys and wooded mountains. It is always relaxing and, somehow, reassuring." He worked at one of his father's old desks and had in his library two thousand books, many of them signed copies of his father's works.
His major income came from teaching or lecturing at several small colleges. On Tuesdays he went to Rutherford, New Jersey, to lecture at Fairleigh Dickinson College. He taught a course called "Sources of Reason and Unreason" at the New School for Social Research in New York. Another subject on which he lectured was titled, "Is Peace of Mind Necessary or Is Guilt Necessary?"
But, as the fall of 1950 approached, Eugene enjoyed less and less peace. Ruth was finding him increasingly difficult. He was drinking heavily. At times, he was quite violent. One evening, when she was making arrangements for her separation, he noticed that she had picked up a copy of The Iceman Cometh which O'Neill had given her. It was inscribed "To Ruth Lander with all the best of good wishes. Eugene O'Neill." Eugene junior snatched the book away and scribbled in it, "My father wrote this in ignorance of the real nature of this woman. Eugene O'Neill, Jr."
During the summer of 1950 he saw much of a teacher and writer from New York named Flora Rheta Schriber, and also of Elyse Whitney, an art collector. Both women tried to help him. Miss Whitney tried to straighten out his hopelessly entangled checkbook. She insisted that he write checks at once for the most pressing bills, including electricity and telephone, which were in danger of being turned off. Miss Schriber, a successful magazine writer, tried to help him apply his talents to making the money which he so badly needed. They talked about marriage in August. She introduced him to her parents. At times, she felt, "his main interest in me was in acquiring a mother and father."
Sometimes, in discussing his family with her, Eugene was bitter. "You might as well know," he said, "what it's like to be a member of this family." He spoke of his being cut off from his father. Even now, he had a note coming due at the bank and he was afraid of losing his precious piece of woodland on which he had hoped to build a home. He had written to his father, asking if he could come up to Marblehead for a visit, and O'Neill had replied that he would be glad to see his son but that "under the circumstances" he thought it would be advisable that "we meet in Salem." Perhaps O'Neill senior did not feel up to risking another conflict between stepson and stepmother. Whatever the reason, Eugene junior was furious. "If I do not see my father in my father's house," he wrote him, "then I do not see my father."
He told Miss Schriber of Shane's going to Lexington for drug addiction and how his father had apparently done nothing for him. He spoke of Oona, rejected by her father because of her marriage to a man three times her age and now an expatriate. He spoke of his own mother who faced old age with no funds in reserve, no pension, nobody but her only living son to care for her.
One pleasure remained to him that summer. He acted in several amateur theatricals in Woodstock; in one, he was the narrator in Thornton Wilder Our Town. On Monday, September 18, he and Miss Schriber agreed to meet again the following Monday. During the ensuing week, however, he talked with Ruth Lander and begged her to marry him and resume their life together. On Friday night he took Ruth and some friends to a roadhouse on the outskirts of Woodstock. He ordered champagne for his party and announced that he and Ruth were to be married. Ruth had not agreed to this, but she knew it was futile to argue. His talk became increasingly irrational during the weekend. He kept declaiming, from Shakespeare, "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will."
Ruth talked with him again on Saturday. He talked wildly. "I was frightened by a certain look in his eye," she has said. "I told him that we should wait and see how things were. That look I saw terrified me."
On Saturday night, Eugene had dinner with old friends, Frank Meyer and his wife, Elsie. They felt he was not himself, not well. At nine Sunday morning he called Ruth and told her to feet free to come up and take any of her things that she had left in the house.
On Monday morning, Elsie Meyer saw his jeep still parked outside his house; she knew that he would ordinarily be on his way to New York to meet with his classes that night at the New School. He also was scheduled to meet his mother for dinner. Mrs. Meyer called Ruth Lander nd asked her if she had heard from Gene. Both women became anxious. Mrs. Meyer said she would not go into the house alone. At one-forty-five in the afternoon, accompanied by friends, she pushed open the front door of Eugene's house. They saw his lifeless body lying just inside. His hand was stretched out as though he had been trying to reach for the doorknob or asking for the help that had eluded him all his life. He had bled to death. Later, a state trooper found a note under an empty whisky bottle in the bathroom. It read: "Never let it be said of an O'Neill that he failed to empty a bottle. Ave Atque Vale [Hail and Farewell]."
It was not too difficult to piece together what had taken place on the morning of his death. Eugene junior shaved with a straight razor. Knowing that it is easier to bleed to death when one is immersed in hot water -- an ancient Roman custom -- he stepped into the bathtub and cut his wrists and ankles. Then, perhaps, he changed his mind about dying. He got out of the tub and went to the telephone; it had been cut off. Blood was on it and on the furnishings and on many of his books. He didn't make it to the front door.
On Monday evening, September 25, 1950, Saxe Commins received word that Eugene junior was dead. He immediately called Aronberg and asked him what he thought should be done. Commins, who loved O'Neill, was terribly distressed. He was a close friend of Eugene junior and he was the editor of Eugene O'Neill and Whitney Oates's volume of Greek plays.
Aronberg sensed at once that Commins did not want to call his old friend. "I'll telephone Gene," he said. "This is a matter that should be handled by a lawyer."
Accounts of the ensuing telephone conversation differ widely. Naturally, Carlotta was deeply disturbed. Although O'Neill was sitting in the same room, she did not have him come to the phone; she thought he was too ill to take the news. But somehow the playwright knew that Eugene junior was dead. He asked, with pathetic and awful simplicity, when and how his eldest son had died. It was almost as if he knew and had expected the terrible event. After Carlotta told him what she knew, O'Neill remained silent. He never mentioned his son's name again -- except to say that now that Eugene was dead, Long Day's Journey into Night could be published.
If O'Neill ever blamed himself for the death of his son or for any of the things that happened to his children, he blamed himself in silence; he never spoke of them to anyone.
In Bermuda, the next morning, a friend told Shane about young Eugene. Shane was stunned, and yet he seemed almost to have expected the news. "I wonder what was troubling him?" Shane mused. "He seemed so strong, so able to take care of himself. He was a nice fellow. He liked to give us advice. But I liked him."
O'Neill remained unavailable to reporters who tried to reach him for comment. Carlotta said that she was taking him on an automobile trip, with their physician, through New England. Meanwhile, at Campbell's funeral parlor on Madison Avenue, New York City, Eugene junior's fellow Skull and Bones members took charge. The only blood relative present was his mother, Kathleen. O'Neill had sent a floral piece with a card attached reading, "Father." There was a separate piece from Carlotta.
Eugene O'Neill lived three years and two months after the death of his eldest son. They were the most wretched years of his tragedy-scarred life. It was "on or about the first of February, 1951," to quote the bitter words of a legal document, that Carlotta charged O'Neill with being "guilty of cruel and abusive treatment" at that time, as well as on "divers occasions."
It was generally known in the neighborhood of Point o' Rocks, as the winter of 1951 wore on, that both O'Neill and Carlotta were unwell and that dissension had split their household. Dr. Mayo made continued visits to the frame house and was keeping both husband and wife under sedation. On Monday evening, February 5, Dr. Mayo was scheduled to drop by the O'Neill home after dinner. His arrival was delayed. When he did reach the house, he found O'Neill lying on the rocks outside in the front yard. His right knee was fractured and he was unable to rise.
Dr. Mayo called an ambulance and O'Neill was carried on a stretcher to Salem Hospital. Carlotta went along. When he had been put to bed, with no one allowed in his room, she began shouting in the lobby. Hospital attendants were alarmed, and they called the police. Later Dr. Merrill Moore, a psychiatrist (who by an odd coincidence, was a cousin of Ralph Barton) was summoned to attend to Carlotta at the Salem Police Station. After medical examination by the physician, she was admitted to McLean Hospital, a state institution for the mentally ill at Belmont, Massachusetts.
Word of the illnesses of O'Neill and Carlotta spread through Boston. Reporters besieged Salem Hospital for news. Hospital officials referred them to Dr. Mayo who refused comment except to say that O'Neill was a "medical patient" and was "not on the hospital's danger list." He added that both O'Neill and Carlotta "have been adamant about refusing to disclose his ailment." The next day, February 7, Dr. Mayo revealed that O'Neill was suffering from Parkinson's Disease in addition to a fractured leg." He said that "O'Neill's wife is under treatment," but would not reveal the nature of her illness. Dr. Mayo called Saxe Commins, and Bill Aronberg in New York and both came at once to Salem.
Carlotta, in her account of the events leading up to O'Neill's hospitalization, has said that he broke his leg as a result of his insistence on going out of the house into the darkness. Apparently there had been a disagreement between them, and O'Neill had thrown an overcoat over his lounging clothes and had stalked out of the house. In his haste to get out he had neglected to take his cane, and on the sharp protruding rocks at the front of the house he slipped and fen. It appears that he lay there a long time before he was discovered, for, in addition to suffering a fractured kneecap, he developed pneumonia, according to the physician who attended him. Versions of the detailed circumstances vary.
Dr. Moore advised O'Neill, as well as O'Neill's friends Aronberg and Commins, that the dramatist and his wife should be separated. He believed that Carlotta was not at all well. On March 23, O'Neill signed a petition in which he contended that Carlotta was "incapable of taking care of herself." (At the time the petition was signed O'Neill was convalescing from his illness.)
At McLean Hospital, authorities decided that Carlotta was capable of taking care of herself. They agreed, however, that she was upset. They retained Dr. Harry Kozol, an expert in legal psychiatry, to examine Carlotta and to protect her rights. He concluded that her behavior was the result of "delirium from bromides." Released, she took a room in a Boston hotel and filed a petition for separate support. Carlotta said, through her attorney, Robert W. Merserve, that "on or about the first day of February, 1951, and at divers other times prior thereto my husband has been guilty of cruel and abusive treatment of your petitioner." She added that O'Neill had failed to support her and that she was now living apart from him for "justifiable cause." O'Neill's attorney answered by contesting the petition "for want of jurisdiction."
On March 31, 1951, O'Neill accompanied by a trained nurse, came to New York by train. Saxe Commins, Bill Aronberg and Lawrence Langner brought O'Neill to Doctors Hospital. Although an effort was made to keep his arrival and hospitalization a secret, Earl Wilson learned that O'Neill was in "a New York hospital" and stated that he weighed only eighty-four pounds. Wilson added that O'Neill was not in a critical condition, not sad, but ate very little, and was confined to his bed. He had requested "pretty nurses" and told hospital attendants, "I don't want to be taken care of by any old witches." His right leg was still in a cast.
Old friends from OíNeillís Provincetown Players days and from the Broadway theater began coming to see him. When Jimmy Light, who loved him perhaps more than any of the others, arrived, the two men looked at each other for a long time unable to say anything. O'Neill took a cigarette and with great effort lit it himself despite the terrible trembling of his hands. Light took this to mean O'Neill wanted Light to know he was not helpless. O'Neill insisted on being brought up to date on all the things Light had been doing. He wanted to know what had happened to all his old friends. Why had they not kept in touch with him? Light did not tell him that most of them had tried without success. Several pretty Broadway actresses visited him. O'Neill enjoyed seeing them but, as he told Bill Aronberg, "What can I do about them? Look at me. My hands shaking. My leg in a cast. I am too old. I'm not a young man any longer."
Aronberg sent his secretary, Jane Burnside, who was in her twenties and was very pretty, to visit with O'Neill on a number of afternoons. Miss Burnside has recalled that some of the time O'Neill talked, but sometimes he remained silent and seemed far away. She let the direction of the conversation come from him. O'Neill was talking at random about things in the past. Some of the things he spoke of were sad things. Some of his memories made both of them smile.
Then all at once he said, "I had three children." He was looking directly into her eyes. "I lost the one son," O'Neill said, "my eldest." He talked at length about Eugene. He told about how brilliant he had been, how he had done so well at Yale, and how he had become a great Greek scholar.
"He seemed to be so proud of Eugene junior," Miss Burnside said. "But he seemed completely puzzled as to why he had committed suicide, although he did not talk directly about what had happened. Then he said, 'And there is Shane.' It is hard to remember his exact words. He said he felt awfully sorry for Shane. He thought Shane was a mixed-up kid and didn't seem to know what he wanted to do. O'Neill said he didn't know what he, his father, could do about it, though."
Then Miss Burnside made an observation that has been made by others who have talked with O'Neill at this time: "I could tell that he loved his children very much. It was just that he felt helpless to do anything about them."
One night, Bill Aronberg and Merrill Moore took Ruth Lander to dinner; afterward, all three went to Doctors Hospital. Moore went into O'Neill's room and talked with him alone for a while. When he came out he told Ruth that O'Neill remembered meeting her at the time of The Iceman. "He thinks you were married to Eugene." Moore said. He took Ruth into O'Neill's room.
"He was standing there," Ruth has said, "looking at me with those big eyes. His arms were outstretched to me and he was saying, 'I remember you, Ruth, when we met backstage at The Iceman. I loved you then and I love you now.' Ruth took O'Neill in her arms and he sobbed on her breast.
"I know," Ruth has said, "that it
was not really me that he cared about. I felt that in embracing me
he was saying good-by to Gene. It was his way of saying farewell. He
was weeping for his dead son."
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