John Francis, Go-Between for
“My father was half Portuguese, his father was Portuguese but his mother was Irish. That could have had some bearing on his original interest in O’Neill. She had left Ireland at 16 for New York, was shipwrecked on the way over, lost all contact with her family, was rescued by a Boston Brig and in that way met my grandfather.” The source of this information was Celia Francis and she provided it to set the record straight for Louis Sheaffer, then writing his richly detailed biography of the great American playwright Eugene O’Neill. Sheaffer replied: “Thank you for setting me straight about your father’s progenitors—I’ll make the correction. Not only as an Irishman but as one who loved the sea, O’Neill must have been much intrigued by the romantic manner in which your father’s parents met.”
Celia Francis kept a scrapbook of clippings, most of them memorializing her half-Portuguese father, John Francis, who died in 1937 at the age of sixty-four. One such obituary was sent to O’Neill by his friend the drama critic George Jean Nathan, “I feel a genuine sorrow. He was a fine person—and a unique character,” O’Neill wrote back. “I am glad the article speaks of him as my friend. He was all of that, and I know he knew my gratitude, for I often expressed it.” Celia’s scrapbook also contains a single (loose) clipping about the death of her brother in 1963. It, too, brings up the Francis—O’Neill relationship, reminding its readers that “Mr. Francis’ father was a much appreciated benefactor of artists and writers who were contemporaries of his working here,—notably Eugene O’Neill to whom he was materially helpful and close in friendship.”
John Francis was the son of Joseph Francis, an Azorean immigrant from the island of São Jorge. There is not much known about the father, though we have this romanticized description, published long after his death: “The father of John Francis, a Portuguese who had married an Irish lass, was a fisherman with rings in his ears and full of tales of risks and rewards of the Grand Banks.” The son, a person of good will and many good offices, showed little interest in fishing but he did take to running the country story he inherited from his father. The Young Francis’s trade was business—store-keeper (, landlord, realtor, insurance broker—but he was, perhaps above all, a benefactor, especially to eager young writers and cash-free artists. O’Neill called him a “fine person, a unique character”; others described him as “guileless,” “dogged and patient,” “beloved,” “benevolent and Buddha-like, simple and kind,” “rotund” and “tender-hearted,” “eccentric,” “avuncular,” “paternal,” “liberal-hearted,” “large round-faced” with “calm eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses.” He has been called “an ombudsman,” “an almost saintly man.” For decades he was the friend and benefactor of Provincetown artists and writers, staking them to credit at his store and rooms and houses at low-rent, and when they were away—in Connecticut (the Eugene O’Neills) or Greece (“Jig” Cook and Susan Glaspell)—he watched over their local property, paying taxes and providing insurance coverage.
When in 1916 Eugene O’Neill walked down the gangplank of the Dorothy Bradford in the company of his friend, the free-spirited, free-thinking Terry Carlin, he was not the first of those artists and writers who would become beneficiaries of Francis’s good will and “material” support. Nor were all those others as needy as O’Neill. But some of those knew a good thing when they saw it. Mabel Dodge was one of those. Her dealings with Francis in 1914-15 involved both the make-over of the Peaked Hill Bars Life-Saving Station, work that would turn the place into what O’Neill would later call his “chateau on the Atlantic” and—a more mundane task—finding Mabel a house to live in until the work across the dunes was finished to her satisfaction.
In her memoirs Mabel Dodge Luhan tells the story of Sam Lewisohn, one of “those very wealthy people,” who are “often scrupulously generous, thoughtfully so,” and his decision to buy the Peaked Hills Bar station and “share the place” with her, “turn and turn about.” Her part of her bargain was to “do it up for him exactly” as, of course, she “had intended to do” it all along. “I was always proud of the way I did that job at a distance,” she recalled. “I thought out the whole thing, every detail of it, ordered it, and got it executed by letter.” And then added: “I am so glad I saved the fascinating correspondence with John Francis, who kept the principal store in Provincetown and who carried out my orders! They form part of the long volumes of letters I have saved to while away the hours when I am too old to do more than remember!”
In all there are ten letters from Francis among Mabel’s papers at Yale University Library. The first letter, dated October 15, 1914, refers to Mabel’s desire to acquire the Peaked Hills Bars Life-Saving Station and should that effort fail, her need for a seasonal rental in 1915. “Will say that the house you wrote me about is small and a widow lady lives up stairs it has no indoor toilet has the old fashioned out door kind and I do not think you would like that.” This is a typical Francis sentence, with its lack of punctuation until a thought and everything pertaining to it is set down.
In his next letter, three weeks later, he writes to say that the Coast Guard has not yet decided what to do with the station. He offers to sell her one of his own houses. “This is no run down shack out of repair or one fixed up to sell,” runs the pitch, “it is a first class property.” Six days later he offers her other choice properties, including one located “opposite the property owned by Lombard the Millionaire.” Another six weeks elapse before he reports that “proposals for bids” on the station are now open. “Think over what you want me to render in for a bid,” he tells her, “and be prepared to send check if you get it.” He closes with one last detail: “I think your letter of authority to bid on same should have 25 cents of Government stamps on it you had better consult some one about that to be sure.” Francis’s next letter, dated January 22, 1915, takes up two matters: Mabel’s renting a cottage from a Mr. Rogers, and advice regarding what Mabel might do to protect her rights to the land on which the station stands. The Coast Guard does not own it.
The main concerns of Francis’s March 17th letter are the walls and floors at the station that Mabel wants painted. The work can begin around April 1st, he assures her. He has two good men who “will work for 25¢ per hour there will be no transportation charges as they will hoof it out there and a regular union man would charge you for teams and you know what this expense is… you would have to pay just what it cost and no more there would be no teams no padded pay roll or graft of any kind just a square honest deal.” But getting the painting done not only right but to Mabel’s satisfaction (seldom the same thing, apparently) would eventually become a major concern for Francis. Seemingly, the job was still well under control when he wrote on April 10th: “I forgot to mention the shade of paint for the floors I sent you a color card sometime ago will you please select the number you want and state the number of coats you want on the floor I think you would have to give it two where it is a new job.” The oak floors, Mabel decided, were to be “a translucent blue” and the walls white. “To meet Dodge’s sophisticated tastes,” it turned out, Francis had to carry “out the meticulous job of seeing that the walls were precisely covered with layer after layer of white glistening paint”—white being, as Francis found out the hard way, a color especially meaningful to Mabel.
Francis’s April 21st letter opens with bad news about the mattresses in the Rogers rental. “Mr. Rogers was here,” he begins,
He then turns to what is going on out at the Station. The painting is not going along as well as he expected, so he has had to hire “a man that has got a lot of push.” His pay is “35¢ per hour instead of 25¢ the price the others are getting,” but with him out there “handling the matter,” he quickly adds, “there will be no waste of time or stock leave the place.” “There is one more thing that should be attended to,” he concludes, “and that is the outside closet or toilet this is an outdoor affair in one of the outer buildings this has been used by the men for a long time and needs cleaning out and the seats should be painted and the thing put in condition for a lady to use.”
In the last of these letters, written in time to reach Mabel before she leaves for Provincetown, Francis reports that everything is in order. He has found her “a nice clean woman with sewing machine to do the sewing,” he will “attend to the boxes as they come in,” and he can rent her “a good shed” for an automobile.
In her memoirs Mabel recalled her season of bossing Francis around: “He had been very diligent and faithful in carrying out orders and had suffered, as much as any three men would have, from the awful responsibility combined with his usual melancholia and anxiety. I think it took at least ten years off his life!”
By summer’s end in 1915, John Francis was familiar to the Players group to be incorporated into one of their plays. As Mary Heaton Vorse recalled, “The character of the beneficent landlord who took his pay in paintings was easily recognized as the beloved John Francis, the friend of writers and artists.” In George Cram Cook’s “Change Your Style” the Francis character is named Josephs (recalling his own father’s given name). A grocer and a landlord, he is offered a painting in lieu of the rent owed him by a young post-impressionist painter. At first Josephs refuses the trade because the painting puzzles him, but when he connects the painting with some sort of recognizable realism, he changes his mind. It happens that Josephs, whose English is poor, mishears the wealthy art patron’s explanation for her decision to return the painting. She had bought it, thinking, mistakenly, that it was a “shaping of the sacred umbilicus.” When Josephs accepts the painting, he remembers it as that of “a heathen billigoat.” He will hang it in his store; it “might be good for trade.” Josephs represents the common man, uninformed about art but naively receptive to it in his own simplistic way. Needless to say, Josephs is used by Cook much in the way the Players group and their friends used Francis—friend-in-need, handyman, gofer, stooge. Incidentally, like Francis, Mabel, too, inspired the playwright. Cook theatricalizes her as Myrtle Dart—“Lover of the Buddhistic”—attired in “East Indian robe and turban.”
For his pains and considerable efforts—managing the make-over of the Peaked Hill Bars station—Francis was given “a gold watch with an inscription inside the cover.” This gift came from Sam Lewisohn, not Mabel, though it was she, of course, who initiated the matter. It use to take fifty years of service on the railroad to get someone a gold watch; Francis earned his watch for one season with Mabel. To put this gesture into perspective, recall that O’Neill’s one recorded gift to Francis was a picture of himself. “I certainly appreciate the present,” Francis wrote back, “and I have had it framed and have it in my office.” Who knows—perhaps it was good for business.
Mabel, of course, was not the only Player to take advantage of Francis’s willingness to serve. With nary a second thought, you can be certain, Susan Glaspell counted on Francis to meet her at the train whenever she arrived in Provincetown. On one such occasion, writes one of Glaspell’s biographers, “the unexpected bustle of the station disconcerted her, and it took longer than usual to find John Francis. He gathered her bags and asked after Jig, his blue eyes twinkling.” Of course he was happy to see her, or so Susan implies. Revealing of just how much Susan counted on Francis is her letter dated only May 11th. She writes from Davenport, Iowa, probably in 1926.
Then—she thinks to add still another task to his burden.
Glaspell, too, put Francis into a play (though not on stage). “The Outside” is set in “the old Peaked Hill Life-Saving Station.” “I was in Bill Joseph’s grocery store, one day last November,” says Bradford (“a life-saver”)—
For “Bill Joseph” read John Francis and for “Mrs Patrick” read Mabel Dodge.
Then there was Agnes Boulton, whose marriage to O’Neill took place in Provincetown. Here is what I suspect is a typical set of requests while the O'Neill family occupied the station at Peaked Hill Bars:
The particulars of O’Neill’s dependence upon Francis, and the comfortable way he called upon him, is too well-known to rehearse here. Everyone knows them: providing cheap rents and loans, brokering the deal for the station at Peaked Hill Bars, or indulging O’Neill when he painted slogans on the walls of his rented rooms in Francis’s Flats.
One thing is certain. Francis’s loyalty to O’Neill remained strong. When O’Neill was accused of plagiarizing his innovative play Strange Interlude, Francis offered his own opinion in words that were meant to comfort the beleaguered playwright: “We had discussed that thing in the office here several times and everyone that knows you know that you have brains enough to write your own plays without stealing them from a woman of that kind who likes to be in the public eye I hope it will come out all right but you can never tell what the lawyers will do when they think a man has a bank account.”
In conclusion, I shall take up, briefly, two other matters: the disappearance of the Peaked Hill Bars house and Edmund Wilson’s acquaintanceship with John Francis.
Even after the O’Neills left Peaked Hill Bars for Ridgefield, Connecticut, first, and then Bermuda, they still counted on the loyal John Francis to rent Peaked Hill Bars for them and—in what surely must have been at best an annoyance—to monitor its use by strangers, not all of whom, it seems, were O’Neill’s friends. “The place has been occupied several times,” Francis informed O’Neill’s lawyer, “but the tenants have always told me they were friends of Genes and it always seemed to me there was no rent paid or a very small one.” He doubted, in fact, that O’Neill would want to rent it “as it would take a good part possible all of the rent to put it in order the house is so hard to get to it is almost impossible to get any one to clean it and put it in order.” As it turned out, however, Peaked Hill Bars had seen its last tenant.
On January 12, 1931, after several months of gradually sliding into the sea, the Peaked Hill Bars house finally went under. Within two days Francis had a report for O’Neill’s lawyer, listing the possibilities for salvage. In this detailed account he saw fit to mention that looters had already taken the toilet in the still-standing barn.
In addition to the looters, there were the merely curious. As far as we know, Edmund Wilson can be safely numbered among the latter. In 1927 Wilson had rented Peaked Hill Bars through Francis, acting for O’Neill. In his diary for that year Wilson devoted a page to Francis (mentioning, along the way, the three generations of Francis men). “John Francis’s gentle, appealing voice and gentlemanliness (an eccentric real estate agent),” begins Wilson’s notations for June 20th. During “his first real summer at Provincetown” Wilson had gone around with “John Francis, who, though professionally a real estate man, discouraged clients from taking any of the houses he showed them.” “Fox said,” Wilson continues,
Political opinions? Sacco and Vanzetti? Communist ticket? Political views? Who among the artists and writers of the group known to all as the Provincetown Players would have even thought John Francis could have even had a political view, even if they did consider him one of their group? After all, “At one of the first meetings (in New York of the Provincetown Players) John A. Francis, the shy kindly man in Provincetown, was ‘unanimously elected an Honorary Active Member, as recognition of (his) sympathy and valuable services to the Provincetown Players from the beginning of their experiment.” This was honor enough, perhaps, especially since John Francis’s modicum of lasting fame derives mainly, if not entirely, from his connection with the members of that fabled group. If that honorary membership hardly seems commensurate with the Azorean-American storekeeper’s many services and kindnesses to artists and writers over the years and decades, perhaps “John Francis,” the elegy by Harry Kemp, the Dunes Poet, should be thrown into the balance.
 Celia Francis to Louis Sheaffer, April 15, 1966, Sheaffer—O’Neill Collection, Shain Library, Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut. Materials from this Collection are used with consent.
 Louis Sheaffer to Celia Francis, April 15, 1966, Sheaffer—O’Neill Collection.
 Sheaffer—O’Neill Collection.
 “As Ever, Gene”: The Letters of Eugene O’Neill to George Jean Nathan, ed. Nancy L. Roberts and Arthur W. Roberts (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press/ London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1987), p. 181.
 “John Francis Dies in Office Here” [hand-dated “11/7/63”; no source given], in Celia Francis Scrapbook, Sheaffer—O’Neill Collection. The obituaries of the senior John Francis bear subtitles such as “Friend of O’Neill Dies After Illness” or “Funeral Held Today for John A. Francis Who Aided Eugene O’Neill and Others in Struggle to Survive.”
 Ernest L. Meyer, “Landlord on Parnassus,” The Progressive (Nov. 4, 1946); clipping in Celia Francis Scrapbook, Sheaffer—O’Neill Collection. An earlier version of the piece, “As the Crow Flies” (New York Post [August 27, 1937]; clipping in the Celia Francis Scrapbook, Sheaffer—O’Neill Collection) does not contain the last part of the sentence: “full of tales of risks and rewards of the Grand Banks.”
 Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo (New York and London: Applause, 2000), pp. 609-10; Louis Sheaffer, undated note, Sheaffer—O’Neill Collection; Leona Rust Egan, Provincetown as a Stage: Provincetown, The Provincetown Players, and the Discovery of Eugene O’Neill (Orleans, MA: Parnassus Imprints, 1994), pp. 3, 110, 243-44; Madeline C. Smith and Richard B. Eaton, “Will the Real John Francis Please Step Forward?” Eugene O’Neill Review, 24 (Spring & Fall 2000), 6, 9; Agnes Boulton, Part of a Long Story: Eugene O’Neill as a Young Man in Love (London: Peter Davies, 1958), pp. 157-58; Edmund Wilson, The Twenties, ed. Leon Edel (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975), p. 380.
 Eugene O’Neill to [Barrett] Clark, July 21, 1919, Sheaffer—O’Neill Collection.
 Mabel Dodge Luhan, Movers and Shakers (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985), pp. 342-43.
 Mabel Dodge’s letters to John Francis are among the Mabel Dodge Luhan Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, and are quoted with consent. In quoting from them I have regularized spellings but not punctuation or capitalization.
 Egan, Provincetown as a Stage, p. 104. “White was Dodge’s stylistic signature, a startling decorative style attributed to Whistler” (p. 244).
 Luhan, Movers and Shakers, p. 343.
 Mary Heaton Vorse, Time and the Town: A Provincetown Chronicle (New York: Dial Press, 1942), pp. 118-19.
 George Cram Cook, “Change Your Style,” in 1915, The Cultural Moment: the New Politics, the New Woman, the New Psychology, the New Art & the New Theatre in America, ed. Adele Heller and Lois Rudnick (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991), pp. 292-99.
 Quoted in Barbara Ozieblo, Susan Glaspell: A Critical Biography (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), p. 77.
 Mabel Dodge Luhan, Movers and Shakers, p. 343.
 Quoted in Smith and Eaton, “Real John Francis,” 9.
 Ozieblo, Susan Glaspell, p. 123.
 Susan Glaspell Cook to John Francis, May 11 [1926?], Sheaffer—O’Neill Collection. In June 2005 I was told by Linda Ben-Zvi that the only time Susan Glaspell referred to herself as Mrs. “Cook” was when writing or speaking to John Francis. Ben-Zvi is the author of Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
 Susan Glaspell, “The Outside,” in Plays by Susan Glaspell, ed. C. W. E. Bigsby (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 47-55.
 A third play deserves mention for its use of Portuguese characters. In Wilbur Daniel Steele’s “Not Smart,” a one-act satirical comedy, there are two Azorean-American figures—the maid and a fisherman—who, it is learned at the end of the play, plan to marry. Milo and Fannie Tate, self-proclaiming bohemians profess to have a modern open marriage, but find that they cannot agree on what to do with the maid when they “discover” that she is “not smart”—that is, pregnant—and that it will be revealed—rightly or wrongly—that Milo has impregnated her. A friend warns the couple that these “rough fishermen” are “ignorant and uncouth… you wouldn’t think they had a spark of sentiment or honor in them; but when anyone gets one of their women-folks in trouble—especially an outsider, like Mr. Tate—well…” (“Not Smart,” in The Provincetown Plays, ed. George Cram Cook and Frank Shay [Cincinnati: Stewart Kidd, 1921], pp. 241-72).
 Agnes Bolton to John Francis, Wednesday [ca. 1924], Sheaffer—O’Neill Collection.
 On these matters see Smith and Eaton, “Real John Francis.” Nothing is known of Francis’s feelings upon discovering that his near-improvident tenant had done this to rooms he would again have to rent out—after O’Neill had moved. Did the cost of covering the lettering (or his prescience about O’Neill’s future success) keep him from painting over the slogans once O’Neill had left? Or did Francis think O’Neill’s inscriptions enhanced the appearance of the rooms, especially to artists or writers?
 Copy of John A. Francis to O’Neill, July 8, 1929, Sheaffer-O’Neill Collection.
 Copy of John Francis to Harry Weinberger, April 25 , Sheaffer-O’Neill Collection.
 Copy of John Francis to Harry Weinberger, Jan. 22, 1931, Sheaffer—O’Neill Collection.
 Wilson, The Twenties, p. 387. Wilson refers to John Francis, Jr. as “Will”; he was usually addressed as “Johnny.”
 April 27, 1966, Sheaffer-O’Neill Collection.
 “Harry Kemp Writes Tribute to Francis,” The Provincetown Advocate, Dec. 16, 1937 [reprinted from the Cleveland Plain Dealer]; Celia Francis Scrapbook, Sheaffer—O’Neill Collection.
paper was originally presented at the Sixth
International Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Society
in Provincetown, Massachusetts in June, 2005.]
Now that was a swell article! Many thanks.
I am thrilled to see this article. Thank you for writing about John Francis. This was a good man. Grace Collinson use to tell me how he helped her learn English. I have much to state about him, and I was lucky enough to purchase materials from Celia Francis's estate after she died. For now though, I sold photographs of John Francis to Yale. There are also photographs of the front of the grocery store. Thanks again for writing about someone I admire.
© Copyright 1999-2011 eOneill.com