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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 0
1999-2005


(CONTENTS)

“Our Home! Our Home!”:
Eugene O’Neill and Agnes Boulton
at Spithead

William Davies King
University of California, Santa Barbara

The following talk was given at the meeting of the Eugene O’Neill Society in Bermuda in January 1999. I am currently at work on a biographical study of Agnes Boulton, following up on my edition of the O’Neill-Boutlon correspondence.

Where is a marriage? Point to it on the map, and you’ll find the map is of an imaginary land, population two. The map highlights places where those two might be together, and places where they must be apart. This territory of a marriage, to which the map refers, is full of crossroads and chasms, and impossible to reach for any but those two. It is rich in detail, but you cannot be there, and reports received from the inhabitants make it obvious that the map is full of errors. Even the two people who live there cannot agree on the layout and must continually renegotiate boundaries and their crossings. A map of a marriage, which is all the historian ever has, is a document of infinite fascination and uncertain value. It is a text of continuous difference.

Love letters, the dedication of a book, an autobiographical play, an angry note, divorce papers, a nostalgic memoir: the accumulation of all these documents becomes the map, a device by which certain things seem to be known, such as when and where love was formed, what territory was covered, how and why the break eventually came. But these are deceptive effects, and the traveler would do well to hold the map up constantly to question. The marriage itself is ever elusive and leaves as little trace of itself as bodies intertwined on a steamer chair. A day later there is only an empty chair.

The historian, looking seventy or eighty years into the past at the marriage of Eugene O’Neill and Agnes Boulton, faces the task of locating a marriage that could not locate itself. The relationship began in New York, quickly fled to Provincetown, Massachusetts, later to West Point Pleasant, New Jersey, to Ridgefield, Connecticut, and to many other places over the next half decade. For both Gene and Agnes there was, through these years of roaming, the quest for home. The last of the homes they tested together was in Bermuda. Both Gene and Agnes wanted to believe that Spithead would become the locus amśnus, the amenable or conducive place, for their marriage, a home for all their desires and a source for that long-sought sense of belonging. It would also have to be the place where they could both leave behind the memory of Gene’s recent love affair with Carlotta Monterey. Here they would find isolation from the demands of the theatre world, a quiet environment for work, ample space for the children, and a context of comfort and natural beauty in which they could see each other to advantage and have love. In April of 1927 Gene wrote to Agnes just after seeing her embark for New York—where Agnes was returning to attend to her dying father—and what emerges is his effort to articulate location and relationship epitomizes that mapping of an imaginary land:

I drove right back to Our Home. Our Home! I feel that very much about Spithead, don’t you? That this place is in some strange symbolical fashion our reward, that it is the permanent seat of our family—like some old English family estate. I already feel like entailing it in my will so that it must always be background for our children! I love Spithead— and not with my old jealous, bitter possessiveness—my old man Cabotism!—but as ours, not mine except as mine is included in ours. The thought of the place is indissolubly intermingled with my love for you, with our nine years of marriage that, after much struggle, have finally won to this haven, this ultimate island where we may rest and live toward our dreams with a sense of permanence and security that here we do belong.1

Gene and Agnes had talked of moving to Bermuda as early as 1921 after hearing from Wilbur Daniel Steele and his wife Margaret that this was a land of beauty and isolation, comfort and freedom.2 It was also well outside the reach of US Prohibition laws. By 1927, that last point had diminished in importance, and O’Neill wrote of wanting to rechristen the house “Spithead Water Wagon Manor.”3 Still, the place was defining enough of the marriage that O’Neill imagined it as a legacy to future generations of O’Neills. And yet within seven months he would leave it for the last time. Perhaps it was, in part, the very ideality of this island that set off the fact that the foundation of the marriage was more fiction than reality. Bermuda became a touchstone which proved the metal not gold.

We are fortunate to have the letters that Agnes wrote from Spithead at the time when the decisive actions were being taken by Gene in New York to end the marriage. Those letters, as well as Gene’s alternatingly honest and deceptive replies, give form and detail to the map of this marriage. All marriages come to an end, one way or another, and so each marriage takes the form of a story. At any one time that story can be mapped, and that map can seem to take in all the landscape and tell the whole tale. But maps get redrawn through time, and each map evokes a different story of the end. You could, instead, say the marriage ended in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, where O’Neill encountered Carlotta Monterey once again, four years after she had acted in The Hairy Ape. That meeting initiated the affair which was the specific cause for the marriage to end. Some might argue that the end began to be written with the birth of Shane or of Oona.

The legal end came with Agnes Boulton in Reno and Eugene O’Neill in France; but the historian, who requires documents, notices that the terminating words, the determining words, were uttered and written both here in Bermuda and in New York. Letters figure prominently in this map of the marriage. What better document of private discourse could one desire? And yet it is obvious, when you think of it, that a letter already marks a point of separation, a stress point in the marriage. This is a prominent fact in the O’Neill-Boulton correspondence. Letters cover a distance, and they try to bridge a gap. Those who have read straight through Travis Bogard and Jackson Bryer’s expertly composed Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill will certainly have been struck by a startling juxtaposition on page 263. At the top of the page is the end of Gene’s ardent letter to Agnes, written from New York to Spithead, September 29, 1927, in which he voices his longing for her in quite explicit terms. A letter to Carlotta follows, written less than a month later, from Bermuda to New York, and it begins, “Dearest Shadow Eyes (which cannot go out): God how I long for you!”

This particular map of the marriage (in the Bogard and Bryer edition) figures the dramatic turning point as a point of contrast, a sudden veering. That is one sort of story that might be told about them. I have recently been working on an edition of the correspondence of Gene and Agnes, and the complete correspondence tends to show the break in the marriage more as a point of continuity than contrast, a gradual disintegration rather than a sudden veering. There is much in this edition to show the breakdown of communication long before the decisive rupture, and this edition will also show Agnes Boulton as a more active partner in the divorce. Late in her life, Agnes recalled to Louis Sheaffer that she had “let Carlotta have him.” She added, “I was bored with him, and I found him sexually unsatisfactory.”4 Here, it would seem, we have a clearly legible portion of the map, a causal narrative of the ending. And yet it is not simple to reconcile this bit with other bits of the map. When Gene left Bermuda in late August of 1927, the first wire he sent to Agnes, from the deck of the S.S. Fort St. George, read: “REMEMBER FRONT HOME CHAIR LOVE MISS YOU. GENE.”5 In a later letter he explained, “I wanted you to have pleasant longing thoughts of me my first night away as you remembered the night before!”6 The allusion, evidently, is to an episode of passion on a steamer chair on the front porch at Spithead. Agnes recalled that it was the children’s caretaker Gaga who received the wire over the telephone, and she writes to Gene of her embarrassment when Gaga commented, “It sounds as if something must have happened on a chair!”7 We can all visualize the front porch at Spithead and the act that must have taken place there: but this defined point on the map, which suggests that the passion persisted, at least on occasion, adds to the picture but in no way completes it.

On a Monday evening, four months later, Gene wrote Agnes from his room at the Hotel Wentworth on 46th Street:

Well, I will not beat about the bush but come to the point at once. I love someone else. Most deeply. There is no possible doubt of this. And the someone loves me. Of that I am deeply certain. And under these circumstances I feel it is impossible for me to live with you....

Later in the same letter, which I will call the “divorce letter,” he expands upon this matter of distance, both emotional and spatial:

This letter is merely to say that you must realize this decision is final, that we can never live together again, that I am never coming to Bermuda again, that when you come up we must live separately, that we must try to meet as friends who want to help each other, that we must avoid scenes and gossip and cheap publicity, that we must keep our mouths shut and make the world mind its business and not use our unhappiness for slimy copy, that we must remember our children will forgive us parting and understand it but won’t forgive or understand—and they would be right—if we let ourselves get dragged in the dirt.8

In this way O’Neill pronounced separation, and it is significant that he conceived of it as a textual matter, a matter of copy. Perhaps it is axiomatic that the worse a marriage is, the more tangled it will be in textuality; difference engenders meaning and leaves an unmistakeable trace. Despite O’Neill’s wishes, part of the map of his marriage would ultimately take the form of that “slimy copy” of the gossip-mongers—for a moment O’Neill and Boulton were the headlines of tabloid journalism—and part would take the form of this very letter, properly footnoted in a volume published by Yale University Press.9

Can O’Neill have wanted even this private statement to become part of the public record? Probably not, and yet the letter has been available to biographers and other researchers since the early 1960s, and it has often been quoted. It appears, of course, in Bogard and Bryer’s Selected Letters, where, with admirable tact and scholarly rigor, the editors have effected that transmission of private life into historical document. They treat it as a document that gives dimension to a personality of compelling interest in literary history. What doesn’t appear there, and has never appeared in print until now (or soon) is Agnes Boulton’s part of this correspondence—her threads in this text of relationship. Most of these letters to O’Neill, and most of all of his letters to her, were preserved in her house until the early 1960s when they were sold to Harvard. And so Agnes is the reason why this map of the marriage survives, including what I am calling the divorce letter.

Why? Perhaps Agnes held on to that part of her marriage for all those years because she had the idea of writing about her decade-long marriage to O’Neill. In his final letters to her he encourages her strongly to resume her career as a writer, which she was already doing. However, the terms of the divorce agreement, signed in 1929, specified that she not write about O’Neill or the marriage at all. O’Neill’s death in 1953 freed her to address that topic, and in 1958 she published Part of a Long Story, which was intended as just the first section of her memoir. The other parts were projected but never published. We can read now the story of how they were taken and probably destroyed by Oona after her mother’s death.10 But Part of a Long Story did get told to the world. It is a mythic book in all senses, a story that allows events to be read in terms of greater significances, deeper levels of meaning. It is also mythic in that it is laced with factual inaccuracies and ignores the historical significance of its subject. Little mention is made of O’Neill’s plays or ideas or inspirations. Instead the work concentrates on one thing we know O’Neill was unsuccessful at achieving, a sound and lasting marriage.

Part of a Long Story is also a map of the marriage, a text that coordinates, though it is decidedly from one point of view, and though it covers only the first two years of the marriage. It made use, for the first time in any book, of some of the letters she had written to O’Neill. Later, Louis Sheaffer, the Gelbs and Doris Alexander and others would study her letters, but only after she had made them available. Prior to that, the marriage remained mostly a private experience and unmapped, except, of course, as Alexander, Bogard and others have shown, in some of O’Neill’s plays, especially Welded.

Actually, the story of the marriage was more obscure than that, because Eugene and Carlotta had actively excised that portion of his life from historical memory, even discarding documents. For example, most of Gene’s letters from New York to Agnes at Spithead have survived because Agnes kept them. But Agnes’s letters to Gene survive only for the September-October period. Gene returned to Spithead during the middle of October, no doubt bringing with him the letters he had received from Agnes; but after his return to New York in November, no letters from Agnes survive. There are a few drafts of her letters, or copies, that remained in Agnes’ possession; but otherwise the only trace of her writing to him is found in his replies. Even at this late stage, his letters to her continue to sound the themes of his loneliness, his undying affection for her, and his jealousy of her relative comfort and satisfaction. The map is rich with complexity and contradiction, but much further enriched in the preceding months when Agnes’s responses to him survive, turning monologue into drama and providing another set of crucial coordinates with which to draw the map. At a certain point, in mid-September of 1927, after an especially plangent cry from him, which included an accusation that she must have taken a lover, she lashed back:

God damn it, if you knew how damned bored & lonely I was here— never mind, I think I’ll pack up & arrive in N.Y. next boat, kids & all—then we’ll see how this will work. I see through—of course you intended me to—your remarks about taking to drink—or love. Well, do it. (Love, not drink.) Remember your conversation with me, in which you told me you wanted to divorce me—remember the days & days of silent dislike & hatred on your part—remember the things you’ve said & done—Do you think I can forget all that—You love me & need me now, yes, because you’re bored and lonely—but that love speedily deteriorates into an intense irritation as soon as we’ve been together two weeks. And even now, your letters betray a resentment at me for not doing an absurd thing—leaving here in August with two children & opening up a big place [Ridgefield] which was likely to be sold any minute—Well, don’t worry about Spithead. I’ve lost all interest in it. It’s finished, as far as I am concerned—I really mean that.…

She closes this letter with especially caustic—and prophetic—words: “Goodby. I’m glad Carlotta’s nerves are gone. Do you think she would be interested in taking charge of Spithead? If so, tell her I’ve given up the job. She is certainly much more beautiful than I am. Yours, Agnes.”11

This letter expresses that “I let her have him” theme, but one can also discern a degree of intimidation—the prospect of wife and kids arriving in the hot city and making demands on him at just the time when we know, from his Work Diary, that Gene was meeting often with Carlotta.12 His next letter to Agnes struck quite a different note and made it clear that she need not think about making the trip. It seems much easier to discern the layers of manipulation and deception in these letters because both halves of this Strindbergian dialogue can be read. The marriage of Agnes Boulton and Eugene O’Neill was proposed, from the first, as a modern marriage, founded on love alone, not issues of property or convention. The theory was that if the love were to disappear then the marriage would also, despite what legal authorities might presume. Therefore, each letter can be read as a resolemnization of the marriage, an affirmation that the marriage still exists. Each correspondent’s declaration of need for the other, of continued affection and commitment, performs the speech act of marriage at a time when necessity keeps the correspondents apart. But after O’Neill’s return to New York in November, Agnes’s voice drops out of the dialogue. Her reply to the divorce letter does not survive.

Why not? One can only speculate, of course, but it seems likely that O’Neill either chose not to retain these letters or that someone else destroyed or withheld them. Carlotta Monterey came to replace Agnes Boulton as the wife of O’Neill, and also as chief map-maker and story-teller of O’Neill. It is clear from her letters to O’Neill’s lawyer, Harry Weinberger, that Carlotta sought to minimize the presence of Boulton in O’Neill’s life following the marriage. As Louis Sheaffer and others have shown, Carlotta came to the point where she identified any connection Gene might have to his life before their marriage as a danger; and Agnes occupied the most prominent position in her demonology. It appears that this process of protecting Gene began as early as the time when he wrote Agnes this letter asking for a divorce; and something of the emphasis in the letter itself seems to evoke the allegiance of Carlotta in his resistance to any appeal she might mount.

I have recently come across a fascinating letter written by Carlotta at four in the morning on a Thursday, but otherwise undated. I surmise that it was written in the period immediately following O’Neill’s divorce letter, and it therefore registers, like a seismometer, something of the impact of Gene’s letter to Agnes. Carlotta writes to Kenneth Macgowan:

Kenneth, my dear –

 

Agnes is arriving about eleven this morning. For God’s sake keep an eye on Gene. He needs all his strength for his work.—Women, to really love him, must eliminate themselves now & try to make life as simple as possible for him—Pacing the floor all night isn’t exactly a help

to him—but watch & tell me what I can do!—

 

We both love him unselfishly—that is why I write to you.—

 

Bless you dear—

 

Carlotta13

Once upon a time, Gene and Agnes had the idea that moving to Bermuda would make life as simple as possible for him; but Agnes Boulton, after all, was not a person to “eliminate” herself for him. She had desires and talents that also asked for attention, not to mention the children and some dependent relatives; and she was not one to pace the floor. It appears that on receiving Gene’s divorce letter Agnes immediately departed for New York and checked in at his hotel. All this is the usual. What’s remarkable about Carlotta’s letter is that she is kept awake late at night with the fixed idea that women must obliterate their presence in this man’s life—not the passive “be eliminated,” but the active “eliminate themselves.” That would be how to love him unselfishly. Carlotta begs Macgowan to let her know what she “can do” (the words are underlined and followed by an exclamation point). The elimination of Agnes’s letters from the latter end of this correspondence can be seen, therefore, as a distinctive feature of the map, and it is a mark of Carlotta’s presence in the newly redrawn map. Later on, Carlotta, with the earnest cooperation of Gene, worked even more intensively to erase all trace of Agnes in Gene’s experience, like a colonizer purging the land of its native culture. Unfortunately for her, the element she sought to eradicate might have been the very thing that had attracted her in the first place—here, again, the colonial metaphor might be apt. Some months later, in her first statement to the press, Agnes defined this paradox in terms that are adaptable to that metaphor:

I had attempted the experiment of giving an artist-husband the freedom he said was necessary for his dramatic success. Perhaps, from the standpoint of dramatic art and the American theater, my decision may be a success; matrimonially, it has already proved a failure. This illusion of freedom—so long maintained by the male sex, particularly by the artistic male—is very much an illusion. Now I know that the only way to give a man the freedom he wants is to open the door to captivity.14

She is said to have spoken these final words “with a sardonic smile,” perhaps implying that she had found herself in captivity in this marriage. But the opposite interpretation is stronger. That is, if she had truly wanted to give him the freedom he wanted, she should have taken him captive. Instead, she let Carlotta “have him,” and, as the biographers all show, they would prove cruel captors to each other for the rest of their lives. Features of the landscape might take new names on the redrawn map, but the deep contours would remain the same—like the heart of darkness.

The very last piece of correspondence in my edition is a postcard from Eugene, written from Biarritz, which features a picture of the tomb of Agnes Sorel, the legendary mistress of Charles VII (the first mistress of a king to be accorded official recognition), who was probably murdered by a jealous courtier.15 The text is innocuous, the usual postcard sentiment, but the picture seems to announce clearly that Agnes had become “dead” to him, which is what O’Neill actually told Macgowan. Agnes was not dead, but she had aborted the fetus that had probably been conceived by Gene and her in a hotel room a day or two after Carlotta wrote her late-night letter. (Carlotta’s wish to eliminate women from his life had clearly not come true.) By then, Gene had already fled to France with Carlotta.

Afterward, Agnes moved back to Spithead. A draft of a letter to Gene, possibly written around the time when he sent that postcard, speaks of her plans to get the house “into wonderful shape, make a real home of it.”16 She also speaks of her plans to resume her writing career. Neither the one nor the other happened quite as planned, and by 1961 Spithead was in disastrous shape (I’m told) and then sold, Agnes’s sputtering writing career was at an end, and virtually all that remained was a pile of letters. It has taken over forty years for those letters to get published, though the idea of publishing them was proposed as early as 1956. There is a long and tortuous story there. Meanwhile, Spithead has at last been put “into wonderful shape” and has become “a real home” for someone else, and now, briefly, for the O’Neill Society.17 The map can bring us mysteriously through time to this space in another sense, to the scenes of a troubled marriage and the desperate states of two writers who lived here in “this haven, this ultimate island where we may rest and live toward our dreams with a sense of permanence and security that here we do belong.”

NOTES

1 William Davies King, ed., “A Wind Is Rising”: The Correspondence of Agnes Boulton and Eugene O’Neill (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000), 229. This letter can also be found in Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer, eds., Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill, (New Haven: Yale University Press), 239.

 

2 See King, 136.

 

3 King, 229 (Bogard and Bryer, eds., 239).

 

4 Interview of Agnes Boulton, 15-20 July 1959 (Louis Sheaffer-Eugene O’Neill Collection, Connecticut College).

 

5 King, 239.

 

6 King, 240 (Bogard and Bryer, 251).

 

7 King, 246.

 

8 King, 294 (Bogard and Bryer, 270-271).

 

9 There is some irony in the fact that my reading of the manuscript of O’Neill’s letter gives the word as “slimy,” while Bogard and Bryer read “shiny.” The slimy/shiny dualism applies to much of the coverage of the O’Neill/Boulton marriage, both journalistic and biographical.

 

10 Jane Scovell, Oona: Living in the Shadows (New York: Warner Books, 1998), 217-219.

 

11 King, 261.

 

12 Eugene O’Neill, Work Diary: 1924-1943, transcribed by Donald Gallup (New Haven: Yale University Library, 1981).

 

13 This letter is in the possession of Kenneth Macgowan’s grand-daughter, Prudence Macgowan.

 

14 Quoted in Louis Sheaffer, O’Neill, Son and Artist (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1973): 302.

 

15 King, 320.

 

16 King, 320.

 

17 Spithead is now owned by Joy Bluck Waters, whose Eugene O’Neill and Family: The Bermuda Interlude (Warwick, Bermuda: Granaway Books, 1992) adds many details to the story of the O’Neills’ residence in Bermuda. She graciously opened her house for a beautiful reception for members of the O’Neill Society.

(CONTENTS)

 

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