On Collecting O'Neill
Harley J Hammerman, MD
Wanda Bowers. White hair pulled back into a bun...high-necked black dresses...riding to school on her bicycle. Wanda Bowers is to blame for my obsession with Eugene O'Neill. Miss Bowers was my tenth grade English teacher. Rumor had it that Tennessee Williams received an "F" in her class. I received an "A" -- so much for high school English! But in spite of Tennessee's problems, Miss Bowers was an extraordinary teacher. She taught me how to write -- and she introduced me to O'Neill. We studied The Emperor Jones in her class, and she read the play aloud. When the stage directions called for the beating of a tom-tom, she beat her hand on her desk -- louder and louder and faster and faster. I was hooked.
But why an O'Neill collection? I am a COLLECTOR. One is either a COLLECTOR or one is not, and those of you who are not will never understand those of us who are.
As a child I collected rocks and stamps and coins. I also collected books. The Greater St. Louis Book Fair was held annually in a big red and white checkered tent pitched on a department store parking lot. I attended religiously every year, and was often first in line on "preview" night. The same year that I discovered Brutus Jones in Wanda Bowers' English class, I found a first edition of Ah, Wilderness! on the "rare book" table at the Book Fair. So began my O'Neill collection.
It soon became apparent that my collection would die in infancy if forced to rely on St. Louis used book stores for sustenance. However, the U.S. Postal Service came to the rescue. I began receiving AB Bookman's Weekly -- a magazine which publishes articles about the antiquarian book trade, as well as lists of "Books Wanted" and "Books For Sale" by dealers and collectors. Naively, I ordered any and all O'Neill first editions offered; but I soon learned the importance of condition, replacing tattered editions with pristine copies in dust wrappers. I also pursued books in dealers' catalogues, and before long, dealers were pursuing me. They wrote and called from all parts of the country, offering O'Neill items for sale. In addition to collecting books by O'Neill, I began to read and collect books about O'Neill. I became as fascinated by the man as I was with his plays, and my collection broadened to include letters, photographs, and other ephemera.
Early in 1982, an ad appeared in AB that would vault my collection into the major leagues. Five Quail Books offered an "O'Neill Collection" for sale. I called, and was told that the collection was in the process of being catalogued. Over the next year, I wrote numerous times, but received no reply. Finally, in February of 1983, I received a letter from C. D. Hellyer of Five Quail Books:
The collection had belonged to Robert Sisk, publicity agent for the Theatre Guild and a close friend of O'Neill. There were 115 items, including numerous inscribed first editions, inscribed galley proofs, letters, photographs, theatre programs, scenarios, and screen treatments. I trembled with excitement as I grasped the collection's significance. However, my spirits sagged when I saw the price tag. The collection was to be sold as a lot, and regrettably, I could not afford it. I explained this to Hellyer, and thanked him for the opportunity he had given me.
One of the items I purchased was a first edition of The Moon of the Caribbees and Six Other Plays of the Sea. The book was inscribed on the front free endpaper, "For Bob Sisk / All friendship! / Eugene O'Neill." But the book had had a prior owner. It bore the bookplate of David Belasco and annotations by Belasco on the first few pages of the play In the Zone.
David Belasco's attraction to In the Zone might at first appear paradoxical. Belasco, the dean of the old-time Broadway managers, resented the attention being paid to the new breed of playwrights like O'Neill. On January 7, 1917, the New York Herald ran the headline, "David Belasco sees a menace to true art of the stage in toy playhouses and little repertory theatres." He stated that the "so-called new art of the theatre (was) but a flash in the pan of inexperience," and that it was "the wail of the incompetent and the degenerate." However, Belasco's interest in O'Neill's one-act play is not as strange as it might seem.
In the Zone was first presented by the Washington Square Players on October 31, 1917. The play received good reviews, and it was booked on the Orpheum Circuit, for which O'Neill received a $200 advance and $70 a week in royalties. In the Zone was an immediate success and toured for thirty-four weeks. It was the first "big" money that O'Neill had made. While his play had started out as "new art" in a "toy playhouse," it ended up on an "old-time" tour making "old-time" money -- an item that would not have escaped David Belasco. In fact, In the Zone toured the Orpheum Circuit at the same time that a Belasco production was touring the country. The play was The Wanderer, and it starred an aging actor in his last role -- James O'Neill, Sr., O'Neill's father.
But the book that had belonged to Belasco, and then Sisk, contained yet another surprise. On the "cast of characters" page of In the Zone was a pencil drawing of the set. The drawing had been made by O'Neill. It may have been sketched for Belasco when O'Neill spent an afternoon with the manager early in the summer of 1925. (O'Neill was hoping to talk Belasco into producing Marco Millions.) The drawing includes a table surrounded by six stools or chairs. However, the stage directions for In the Zone do not describe a table, and a table does not appear in a photograph of the original Washington Square Players production!
In October of 1988, I attended a local college production of In the Zone. To my surprise, the set included a table. The director believed the action of the play flowed more naturally with this addition. O'Neill must have agreed.
While most of my collecting energy has been focused on O'Neill, I sometimes stray to other American playwrights. Early in 1984, I acquired a first edition of Our Town that had been inscribed by Thornton Wilder to Barbara Burton, one of the "People of the Town" in the original production. Also included were the words and music for three hymns sung in the play which Wilder had written out in pencil for Burton. These were accompanied by a letter from Burton, dated January 21, 1984, documenting their provenance.
I could lie and say that I was aware of the added significance of the Wilder materials at the time I purchased them. But it wasn't until after I had received them that it dawned on me that Barbara Burton was more than just a member of the original cast of Our Town. Barbara Burton was the stepdaughter of Eugene O'Neill -- the daughter of O'Neill's second wife, Agnes Boulton, by a prior marriage.
Not only was I pleased with this added association, but I was smitten with the realization that Barbara Burton was still living and would, perhaps, be willing to correspond with me. I wrote her a letter, sending it in care of Steven Lupack, the dealer from whom I had purchased the Wilder materials, and received the following reply:
The letter was from Louis Sheaffer, author of the definitive two-volume O'Neill biography, O'Neill, Son and Playwright and O'Neill, Son and Artist. Sheaffer went on to ask for copies of the O'Neill letters in my collection. I gratefully complied. And I did indeed receive a wonderful letter from Barbara Burton in which she reminisced about both O'Neill and Thornton Wilder.
But the story does not end here. I wrote to Sheaffer several times over the next year, sending him a listing of my O'Neill collection. He responded with the following offer:
The manuscript had been found among Agnes Boulton's effects after her death. The latest it could have been written was 1927, the last year O'Neill and his second wife lived together. Sheaffer believes the document was written in 1926 in Bermuda while O'Neill was under the care of psychiatrist Gilbert V. Hamilton. Sheaffer speculates that it was O'Neill's first step toward writing, some fifteen years later, the autobiographical Long Day's Journey Into Night.
With all due respect to Mr. Sheaffer, O'Neill may have had a more specific reason for composing this summary of his family and early childhood. It appears to have been written for "The Sea-Mother's Son," a series of plays he never completed. O'Neill likely composed the document on March 8, 1927 while in Bermuda, as suggested by a reference in his Work Diary: "Worked doping out preliminary outline for 'The Sea-Mother's Son' -- series of plays based on autobiographical material."
The connection between the manuscript and the plays is further supported by O'Neill's scenario for "The Sea-Mother's Son," written in 1928, which includes the following: "Scheme for doing the opus founded on autobiographical material...(the man) begins to examine his old life from the beginnings of his childhood -- he lies back and (life's) important episodes, the influences that moulded him, are enacted before him..." I purchased the remarkable manuscript from Sheaffer -- and gave thanks to Thornton Wilder.
On September 8, 1934, Leon Mirlas, an Argentine essayist and playwright, wrote a letter to Richard Madden, O'Neill's agent, describing the production of his translation of The Great God Brown in Buenos Aires. This initiated a correspondence between first, O'Neill and Mirlas, and then Carlotta and Mirlas, which was to last for many years. Mirlas eventually translated most of O'Neill's plays into Spanish, and his translations were performed in both Argentina and Spain. In 1987, Leon Mirlas was alive and well and living in Buenos Aires. He contacted O'Neill scholar Jackson Bryer, who was co-editing an edition of selected O'Neill letters to be published by Yale. Mirlas wished to sell Bryer his letters from O'Neill. Bryer contacted me, and I wrote to Mirlas in Buenos Aires expressing my desire to purchase the letters.
Mirlas wrote back, stating that in addition to the letters from O'Neill, he also had letters from Carlotta and photographs of O'Neill inscribed by Carlotta. He wished to sell the entire lot -- at an inflated price! I attempted to negotiate with Mirlas by mail, but this proved quite frustrating -- the Argentine postal service was anything but efficient. I then obtained Mirlas' telephone number from an intermediary in Buenos Aires, called, and was greeted by a Spanish speaking woman. I could not speak Spanish -- she could not speak English -- end of conversation.
Then, one cold Saturday afternoon in the fall of 1987, I received a telephone call from Buenos Aires. The caller introduced himself as Leonard Guralnik, Leon Mirlas' son-in-law. Guralnik was calling to negotiate for Mirlas who, at the age of eighty, was hard of hearing and found it difficult to converse on the telephone. We quickly agreed upon a fair price for the group of letters and photographs. However, two major obstacles confronted us. The first was a money problem, caused by the Argentine government's practice of taking a healthy cut when U.S. currency was exchanged for Argentine currency. It appeared that the only satisfactory method for me to compensate Mirlas was to wire funds directly into his account in U.S. dollars. However, this required a good deal of trust on my part -- once the money was wired out of my account, I had no control of it. But once Mirlas had the money, how would I receive the O'Neill materials? Neither of us was willing to trust the Argentine postal service. Federal Express had an "agent" in Buenos Aires, but the Argentine affiliate would only insure the letters and photographs for a maximum value of fifty dollars!
After weeks of telephone negotiations, we arrived at a solution. I would trust Mirlas and wire the funds directly to him in Buenos Aires -- and Guralnik would fly to St. Louis and personally deliver the O'Neill materials to me.
On the afternoon of January 23, 1988, I was ripe with anticipation as I drove to the airport to pick up Guralnik. He was to stay with us overnight and then fly on to New York in the morning. I arrived at the airport and spotted a somewhat disheveled man with a small suitcase and a package under his arm. He wore a wrinkled trench coat, was in need of a shave, and looked in danger of being picked up by DEA agents for illicit drug trafficking! It was Leonard Guralnik. How could I take this man home to my wife and children?
My misgivings were unfounded. Guralnik had just spent thirteen hours on an airplane! When he had showered, shaved, and changed clothes, he looked like a member of the Argentine aristocracy. He was intelligent, articulate, and charming. We spent a stimulating evening dining and conversing. And Guralnik delivered, as promised, twelve letters from O'Neill to Mirlas, twenty-nine letter from Carlotta to Mirlas, and seven photographs of O'Neill inscribed by Carlotta to Mirlas!
One final story. On the morning of October 16, 1988, I arose early and retrieved the Sunday edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from my front yard. Its only mention of the O'Neill centennial was a single sentence in "On This Day." Undaunted, I drove to a nearby grocery store and purchased a copy of the Sunday New York Times. There was not a single reference to O'Neill in the Times!
However, my layout for the day was apropos. That afternoon, my family was to attend a college production of Ah, Wilderness! -- my children's first "non-musical" theatre experience. We arrived early at the intimate theatre and were able to obtain front row seats. The performance began, and I was delighted to see my children enthralled by the play. After the first act, Abby, my seven year old, said she hoped the play would go on forever! At the second intermission, Adam, my thirteen year old, was surprised to learn the play had first been performed in 1933. Identifying with the trials and tribulations of Richard Miller, he felt the play "could have been written yesterday!" The afternoon was an obvious success. At home, the kids continued to discuss the play. I explained that Ah, Wilderness! portrayed the family O'Neill wished he had had -- and weren't we lucky to be as close and happy as the Miller family.
Zachary, my ten year old, wanted a copy of the play to read. We all went into my study -- its walls adorned with photographs of O'Neill, its bookshelves lined with volumes by and about the playwright. I showed them my first edition of Ah, Wilderness!, as well as programs and photographs from the original production. And as we stood comparing these images with the production we had just seen, I knew the indifference shown by the Post-Dispatch and the Times was unimportant. This was how O'Neill would have wanted his one hundredth birthday celebrated -- and this was why I collected, and continue to collect, O'Neill.
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