xxxiii: Death of the O'Neill
Toward the middle of April, Carlotta, at the Shelton Hotel in Boston, was able to reach O'Neill by telephone. A friend of O'Neill's has recalled that one afternoon he arrived at his hospital room and "Gene was all smiles."
"Carlotta has called," O'Neill said, "and everything is all right. She wants to take me back."
Carlotta told a reporter for a national magazine that O'Neill was writing love letters to her and sending her red roses. She said that she loved him and felt that he needed her more than anything else. Both Dr. Kozol and Carlotta were confident that there would be a reconciliation within three weeks. They were eager to tell the story which would "set the public straight on what all the trouble was about."
The deadline for the legal skirmishing which had been going on between O'Neill and Carlotta was set for April 23.Carlotta's lawyer told reporters that she might sue if the "Guardianship of Insane" action were not withdrawn; she would charge O'Neill, his lawyer, and Dr. Moore with conspiracy against her.
In New York, O'Neill told his friends he would be going back to Carlotta. She would take care of him. He had nobody else but her. Legal threats were stilled, and an agreement was reached.
The week of May 14, O'Neill began saying good-by to the old friends he had not seen for so long and whom he knew he would never see again. One of his most difficult good-bys was with Saxe Commins -- who had named his son after O'Neill. Commins wanted to take his old friend to the train but O'Neill insisted on saying good-by in the hospital room. When the time came for Commins to leave, O'Neill made only this explanation. "It is my destiny that I go back," he said.
Then, as the two men embraced, O'Neill said, "Good-by, my brother."
Aronberg, O'Neill's attorney, went to the station with him. "We never talked literature and stuff like that," Aronberg has said. "Gene and I liked to go out and have a good time together. 'Way back, we went to the six-day bike races. We used to go to tracks. Gene was a two-dollar bettor. It was the fun of the races he liked. Lots of evenings we went to swing spots together. I have an entirely different view of O'Neill than writers and people like that have. He was a friend, a pleasant companion. He was a swell guy. He liked a good time."
"Well Gene" Aronberg said when he and his friend parted, "this is the last I'll see of you."
"What do you mean, Bill?" O'Neill said. "Of course I'll be seeing you again. Why do you say that, Bill?"
"Because Carlotta doesn't like me, that's why," Aronberg said.
O'Neill said banteringly, "she doesn't like anybody. That doesn't mean anything."
"You wait and see," Aronberg said, "after you get up to Boston, I won't be your attorney any more. She'll fire me!"
"Over my dead body," O'Neill said. "You'll always be my attorney. You're my friend."
"No," Aronberg said as he put out his hand, "this is the last I'll be seeing of you, Gene. The best of luck."
O'Neill's nurse, a Canadian girl, wheeled his 117 pounds aboard the Yankee Clipper. He would never again return to the city of his birth.
Newspaper accounts said that Carlotta was disposing of their "$100,000 home at Marblehead" and the couple would move into a Boston apartment hotel to "avoid the servant problems that contributed to their difficulties." Aronberg announced that "all legal actions brought by the couple have been dropped."
Several days later Aronberg received a letter, signed by O'Neill, that told him he was no longer to serve as his attorney.
Eleven days after O'Neill left Doctors Hospital he signed a new will. It was far different from the will he had previously signed when Aronberg was his attorney. Carlotta was "nominated and appointed" executrix. All of his estate "of whatever nature" he gave, devised and bequeathed to Carlotta. His burial instructions ignored the O'Neill family plot in New London, where he had erected an imposing stone. The document was signed in a very shaky hand by O'Neill. Dr. Kozol, the psychiatrist, was a witness.
Shane and Cathy had moved back into Spithead, which had been rented for a while. Shane was not working; in fact, he again was drinking heavily and smoking marijuana. They were out of money by this time, and it was abruptly decided that Shane should leave the island. He arrived in New York early in June, 1951, just one jump ahead of a proposed newspaper story in Bermuda which would have said that he and Cathy were holding marijuana parties at Spithead. Shane did not send any money back to Cathy and she had to sell the entire contents of Spithead to a secondhand-furniture dealer. Cathy and the children arrived in New York in July.
Cathy had gone to Florida to stay with her mother and Shane later joined her. There, early in 1952, she gave birth to another baby, a boy, who was named Ted. By the summer of 1952, Shane and Cathy and their children were settled on the top floor of an apartment building on Twenty-second Street near Lexington Avenue, in New York.
One afternoon, in the middle of September, Oona and Charlie Chaplin, on their way to Europe for a six-week visit, came to see them. The première of Chaplin's new film, Limelight, was being held while they were in New York, and Shane and Cathy were asked to attend and come to a party afterwards. It had been almost seven years since Oona and Shane had seen each other.
The party after the opening was given by Lillian Ross, a writer for The New Yorker, in her apartment on the upper East Side. Oona asked her to include, besides Cathy and Shane, Agnes and her husband, Mac Kaufman, and some of her friends from her school days. Miss Ross was at that time working on a profile of Chaplin.
The party's gaiety was somewhat marred by the news from Washington that the Attorney General was going to look into Chaplin's alleged subversive activities before allowing him to return to the United States. Chaplin told some of the guests that he had always loved the United States, and he pointed out that he had sold millions of dollars worth of war bonds in order to aid the war effort.
The next afternoon, Cathy took her three children to the Chaplin suite in the Hotel Sherry Netherlands. Oona had arranged a children's party with ice cream and cake and presents. She gave Maura and Sheila beautiful fairy princess dresses and there was a Teddy bear for little Ted.
The Chaplin family sailed on September 23, 1952, aboard the Queen Elizabeth, traveling in style with a large entourage of servants. An enthusiastic crowd greeted them at Waterloo Station. Oona heard a cockney news vendor call out, "Hello Charlie boy." Chaplin cheered up considerably. At the Savoy Hotel, where he took his family, seventeen policemen had to hold back the cheering admirers. Tears came to Chaplin's eyes, according to Clifton Daniel, correspondent for The New York Times.
"It's wonderful," Daniel heard Oona say, "it's wonderful. I had no idea it would be like this. It's really marvelous."
It was her first trip abroad and Chaplin took her to the roof of the Savoy and pointed out the sights of London, where he had been born in poverty. It was also the city to which her father had come nearly a quarter century before, when he had left her and Shane and Agnes in Bermuda.
Seven months later, when Chaplin changed his plans and announced that he would not return to the United States, Oona dropped her United States citizenship and became a British subject.
In the summer of 1952, O'Neill allowed A Moon for the Misbegotten to be published, because he was hard pressed for cash. He had to have a trained nurse eight hours each day. Carlotta told the widow of Barrett Clark that she was nursing O'Neill the other sixteen hours. She said she only hoped her money and her strength held out.
In publishing A Moon before it appeared on Broadway, O'Neill broke a precedent he had set for himself. In a prefatory note he said, "I cannot presently give it the attention required for appropriate presentation." He said there were no plans for its production.
Reporters tried to reach O'Neill for comment. Carlotta turned them away. "We do not want to be bothered by any more cheap publicity," she told them. She was bitter about the stories which had reported their troubles and separation and charged that more space was given to the separation than to the reconciliation.
For two winters after leaving New York, O'Neill stayed in his room at the Shelton, living in a hotel room, as in his childhood. Carlotta has said that she had to bathe and dress him and then carry him piggy-back to the window so he could look out on the Charles River. In good weather he could see the Harvard oarsmen rowing their sculls. He would stay up a few hours, and then she would put him back to bed.
During the winter of 1952-53, Agnes and her husband went to Mexico to live. Both were writing. In the late winter they received word that somebody had broken into Old House at Point Pleasant. The police investigated and found that Cathy and Shane and the children had moved in; they had run completely out of money in New York. Shane had sold everything he owned. The $15,000 from the sale of Spithead was all gone. Once again Shane and Cathy and the children, seemingly destined to wander like gypsies, never staying in any place long, always poverty-stricken, were without a place to live.
On June 25, 1953, the police in Point Pleasant, acting under a New Jersey State law, registered Shane as a convicted narcotic addict. He gave his age as thirty-three, his permanent address as 30 East Twenty-second Street, in New York, and said that he was employed as an assembler at the Edison Price Electric Company on Center Street in New York. He told the police that he no longer used drugs.
Almost two months later, Cathy and Shane received a letter from Oona, telling that she had had her fifth child and second son on August 24, 1953. She said she was naming him Eugene, but she did not otherwise refer to her father.
Shane spent his time wandering back and forth between Point Pleasant and New York. Often he walked around Manhattan all night long. Sometimes he was picked up by police and, because he seemed confused and unable to explain where he lived, was sent to Bellevue.
O'Neill's distress over the things that were happening to his children was apparent only to those who knew him best. He expressed neither complaint nor criticism, and though he became more and more ill and more and more unhappy, he said nothing.
In the last year of his life, during their stay at the Shelton Hotel in Boston, he and Carlotta destroyed at least six of his cycle plays. He had devoted a part of his life to these plays and had completed at least a second draft of each, but apparently he knew that he would not live to finish them.
"It isn't that I don't trust you," Carlotta has quoted O'Neill as saying to her, "but you might drop dead or get run over or something, and I don't want anybody else finishing up a play of mine." All of the plays had been completely written, Carlotta has said, but they still required some cutting and revising.
"We tore them up bit by bit, together," she later revealed. "I helped him because his hands -- he had this terrific tremor, he could tear just a few pages at a time. It was awful. It was like tearing up children."
When she was asked whether she had tried to dissuade O'Neill, Carlotta emphatically replied that she had not. To have done so, she said, would have been presumptuous. Then, as if to clarify, in her own mind as well as her listeners', her unique relationship with O'Neill, she said with finality that he was a writer and he was the man -- as if nothing more could be said.
There was no advance warning late in November, 1953, that Eugene O'Neill was about to die. He began to sink on the evening of Thursday, November 26. His nurse stayed at his bedside. Carlotta sent for Dr. Kozol Toward three o'clock, his pulse grew weaker, his breathing more troubled. Finally, a little after three, in the morning of November 27, 1953, his pulse stopped altogether. His tired heart was at last at rest. At his bedside were his wife, his nurse and his wife's psychiatrist.
Joseph Heidt, the Theatre Guild press agent, was asleep at his Long Island home early that morning when his telephone rang; it was Doctor Kozol. Carlotta had asked him to call Heidt and tell him that O'Neill was dead. The doctor told Heidt some of the details of O'Neill's condition at the end. The official cause of death, the doctor said, was bronchial pneumonia. "But you know, Heidt," Dr. Kozol said, "O'Neill didn't have to die. But he didn't seem to want to live. He just lay down and died. He stopped trying."
O'Neill's children were not notified. They learned the news from radio broadcasts and the newspapers.
The obituaries and the tributes said little that had not already been printed in his lifetime. Perhaps his best epitaph was written by John Mason Brown, who said that "If O'Neill wrote tragedies, he lived them, too. . . the loneliness of his last years and his ultimate inability to write at all. . . [he] had something of the titan in him."
Carlotta ordered an autopsy performed on O'Neill's body at Massachusetts General Hospital. Not only Carlotta, but the scores of doctors who had treated O'Neill for so-called Parkinson's Disease wanted to know the exact nature of his illness. Carlotta clung to her belief that the hardships he endured as a young man were responsible for his illness. "He drank too much an inferior liquor, and wore his body and soul out, without proper food or even a bed at night." The autopsy was not made public but Carlotta has said that the findings indicated a hereditary nervous disease.
Actually, Parkinson's is not a disease that has an entity itself, like smallpox or measles. It is a syndrome, a combination of symptoms, given the title Parkinson's. O'Neill had the classic symptoms: the "pill-rolling tremor," his basal ganglia were affected. He also had arteriosclerosis. One of the physicians who treated him still insists it was Parkinson's Disease. O'Neill himself seemed to prefer to believe it was a hereditary nervous disease and told Hamilton Basso of this diagnosis six years before his death. One physician also noted that O'Neill had a certain mystic view of his illness, that he somehow felt it was a part of his fate, his own peculiar destiny. Perhaps it was.
Carlotta announced that funeral plans would be kept "a family secret." She said it was her husband's wish that neither the time nor place of his funeral be announced. She issued strict instructions at the hotel, at the funeral home, to servants, to friends, to doctors and nurses, that no information whatsoever was to be given to anyone. On the following Wednesday, Shane read an Associated Press dispatch from Boston, in which a Dr. Harry L. Kozol, "physician to Mr. O'Neill's widow" said that he had attended the funeral with Mrs. O'Neill.
"Mrs. O'Neill wishes you to know," the doctor said in a prepared statement, "her husband was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in exact accordance with his wishes and instructions to the very end."
Later, in an interview, Carlotta hed some light on the mystery that had enveloped the death and burial of her husband. It had been O'Neill's wish, she explained, that there be no publicity or public ceremony at his funeral. In fact, he had specified that at his death no newspaper or person was to be informed what funeral parlor he was in or where he was to be buried. "He wished nobody to be at his funeral," she said, "but me and his nurse. And he wished no religious representative of any kind."
Apparently O'Neill had decided not to be buried in the family plot in New London. Carlotta and her lawyer selected a cemetery near Boston. It was the playwright's wish that his wife be buried beside him, and some time before his death he drew a design for their gravestone. On this design were only the dates and places of their births, two lines left open for the dates of their deaths, and lastly the words, "Rest In Peace."
Carlotta described the cemetery in which her husband is buried and where she will rest some day; it is a beautiful place, with great old trees, large rhododendron and blooming dogwood. She finds it a comforting place and, like many other widows, she feels a little less lonely when she visits there. Carlotta continues to observe the anniversary of her husband's death.
On Christmas Day, Friday, December 25, 1953, Shane opened The New York Times and read a headline that said:
AND DAUGHTER CUT OFF
O'Neill's will, which had been signed by him in Boston on May 28, 1951, just eleven days after he was released from Doctors Hospital in New York, named Carlotta as executrix and sole beneficiary. The fourth paragraph of the page-and-a-half will stated:
"I purposely exclude for any interest in my estate under this will my son, Shane O'Neill, and my daughter, Oona O'Neill Chaplin, and I exclude their issue now or hereafter born."
Shane was not surprised. He said to Cathy, "My father told me he felt he had provided for me and Oona when he left Spithead to us at the time of the separation. He told me that he didn't think he would have much to leave anybody.
"You know," Shane added, almost to himself, "he had that wonderful collection of jazz records. I wonder what will become of them. I would like some of the records."
The following year, Agnes and Mac returned from Mexico. They moved into Old House with Shane and Cathy and the children. For a time, things worked out. Mac got a job on a fishing boat. He persuaded the skipper to give Shane a job, too. After a few voyages, the skipper didn't rehire Shane He thought Shane acted "kind of queer." Shane had insisted on growing a beard while at sea and sporting a red stocking cap with a tassle.
Agnes helped Shane and his family out. Oona sent on a hundred dollars a month to Cathy. Shane continued to look for jobs, but he would hold them only for a few days. It was becoming known in Point Pleasant that he had been a drug addict. His eccentric behavior, although normal for him, convinced people that he still was an addict.
By a great effort of the will, he was managing to stay away from heroin, but, like so many former addicts, he took a great many Benzedrine pills every day. "Benzedrine," Shane has said, "makes life just bearable. You can get by. I was sorry to give up taking heroin because taking it gives you something to live for."
Late in the winter, Shane finally received formal word regarding his father's death. It was in the form of a letter from Carlotta's attorneys which informed Shane that he had been "purposely excluded" from the will of his late father, that the will had been filed for probate in the Suffolk County Court in Boston, and that the deadline for any objection was February 4, 1954. Shane read the letter and tossed it aside. He seemed indifferent. A number of his friends suggested that he contest the will. In some states, he was told, a father cannot cut off his children. Shane would listen and nod, but he did nothing. Lawyers wrote suggesting this and that course of procedure in the matter of claiming his inheritance. Sometimes he would cut someone short when the matter was brought up. "It is my business," he snapped. "It can be of no interest to anyone but me. It is a family matter."
On October 2, 1954, a Point Pleasant police officer found Shane lying in a ditch in the hot sun and dressed in a heavy overcoat. When questioned, he seemed dazed and was unable to give a satisfactory account of himself. He was arrested, found guilty of being a disorderly person, and placed in the county jail in Toms River where he was held for a time "under observation." Authorities concluded that he had taken too much Benzedrine.
The living arrangements at Old House proved less than satisfactory, and later in the fall Cathy and Shane and the children took an apartment over a store in the downtown section of Point Pleasant.
Cathy had her fifth baby, her third girl, on Washington's Birthday, February 22, 1955, and the O'Neill's named her Kathleen. She had very blue eyes and very blond hair. There were now four children at the Shane O'Neills'.
On a hot night the following
summer, the chief of the Point Pleasant police drove to Cathy and
Shane's apartment. He had bad news to deliver. Word had come over
the state police teletype that Cathy's mother, Charlotte De Oca, had
been murdered in Saint Cloud, Florida. Cathy knew that her mother
had married a fourth husband a year or so before but that lately she
had been separated from him. His name was Robert Nonts De Oca and he
was said to possess both Spanish and Indian blood. He was given to
violent bursts of temper and was irrationally jealous. Arrested, he
was judged insane and was sentenced to life imprisonment in the
state penitentiary for the criminally insane at Chatahootchie. Cathy
was sole beneficiary of her mother's estate. It amounted to a trust
fund of sixty thousand dollars. And so, still another footnote of
violence, sudden death and grinding tragedy was written into the
tale of the house of O'Neill.
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