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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. IX, No. 1
Spring, 1985


(IN THIS ISSUE)

O'NEILL'S FIRST WIFE DEFAMED

Leafing recently through The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes, a collection drawn from many published sources, I began, of course, with its several pages on O'Neill. Donald Hall, editor of the book, says in a prefatory note: "Son of a theatrical family, O'Neill worked at a variety of jobs before he began writing for the theater in 1913. Like many another American writer, he suffered from a frailty." The editor then quotes, as follows, from At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf.

O'Neill's drinking often led to blackouts; in fact, in 1909 his first marriage had resulted from one. He woke up in some flophouse with a girl in bed next to him, and he said, Who the hell are you?" and she said, "You married me last night."

This, to put it politely, is hogwash, wholly erroneous, without a scintilla of truth. Both Cerf, originally, and Hall should have known better than to peddle such a fable, for they could have learned the facts from any of the O'Neill biographies. Kathleen Jenkins, O'Neill's first wife, was thoroughly respectable, a more or less conventional young woman from a good family: her maternal grandfather had been a member of the New York Stock Exchange; her father, from pre-Revolutionary stock, was an employee of Tiffany's jewelry house. Kathleen, as she once said, was "deeply in love" with Eugene and, from their romance of several months, became pregnant. O'Neill was shamed by mutual friends into marrying her, in a ceremony kept secret from his parents, to legitimize their child, but the two never lived together. Several years later, too proud to ask for alimony or support for their son, she got a divorce.

Airily repudiating what should have been one of his major responsibilities as editor, Mr. Hall says in the preface to his book: "In the matter of accuracy, I have been careful to be unscrupulous; if a story achieves print, it is grist for this mill." No doubt Mr. Hall must have thought that that sounded cute, really cute--he had "been careful to be unscrupulous"--but to most of us, I venture to say, he sounds grossly insensitive about literary ethics.

Clearly, though, the original and chief culprit in this whole matter is Bennett Cerf. It so happens that the Oxford Press editor could hardly have found a less reliable source of information on O'Neill than Cerf's memoir, as the following account should demonstrate.

When O'Neill's publisher, Liveright's, went bankrupt early in the 1930s, a good many houses sought to acquire the playwright; aside from his prestigious name, his published works always made money, even those that had failed in the theater. "Everybody was making offers for Eugene O'Neill," Mr. Cerf says in At Random (pp. 81 & 85), "and also for one of the leading American poets on the Liveright list, Robinson Jeffers. Those were the two I wanted most ... but O'Neill was the prize. His agent was Richard Madden, and every publisher in New York made a beeline for him.... I had a much better idea; I flew down to Sea Island, where Gene and his wife, Carlotta, lived....

"So while all the other publishers were besieging Richard Madden ... I signed up Gene O'Neill personally. We shook hands and the whole deal was made.... [Madden] was very surprised when O'Neill told him that he was going to come with Random House, since all the big publishers wanted him and we [Cerf and his partner Donald Klopfer] were still beginners."

Cerf's account is followed, more or less, by several biographies, but the facts of the matter are otherwise. It simply is not true that the young publisher took the initiative of going to Sea Island, Georgia, or that he and the playwright quickly reached agreement.

After a number of publishers, including Cerf and Klopfer, had approached O'Neill by letter or through Madden, the playwright had Thomas R. Coward come to Georgia. O'Neill, as well as Carlotta, liked him personally, but he was disappointed in his book list, which he saw only after he had invited the Coward-McCann man. O'Neill meanwhile had had an attractive offer through Madden from Random House and, though he was starting to fear that he might have to play host to a parade of publishers before reaching a decision, he invited Cerf for an overnight stay. Despite the latter's recollections, the two parties agreed on a deal only after extensive correspondence and negotiation, not during Cerf's brief visit (O'Neill, Son and Artist, by Louis Sheaffer, pp. 414-417).

Shortly after Cerf's visit, Eugene wrote to Saxe Commins, his editor at Liveright's and closest friend, that while he felt his association with either Coward or Cerf "could not fail to be pleasant," he considered the Random House partner "more able ... [he has] an appreciation for good literature, an ambition to expand only along lines of distinction." Carlotta, giving her own impression, wrote Saxe that Cerf "is a very clever businessman. And can get away with a lot on account of an exterior of boyish enthusiasm & carefree manner ... Don't think I don't like Cerf--because I do--but he is a bit like all those N.Y. friends of his--(Dorothy Parker, Woollcott, Ross of The New Yorker)."

As time would prove, Carlotta didn't really like Cerf. She had met him during her previous marriage, to cartoonist Ralph Barton, and had never felt at ease with Barton's smart, wisecracking friends, among them Parker, Woollcott and Cerf.

From a well-to-do family, Bennett Cerf entered the publishing field in the early 1920s when he purchased a berth as a vice-president with Horace Liveright, whose profligate style of living kept him chronically short of funds. A spendthrift playboy fascinated by the theater, he ran his domain as a combination of publishing house and oasis where literary and theatrical notables could find a party going on, with endless drinks, at almost any hour of the day or night.

At Random, calling O'Neill "part of the ensemble," goes on to say (pp. 33 & 34): "Some-times in a single day [Herbert Bayard] Swope would come up from the newspaper [the World, where he was the editor], and O'Neill and Dorothy Parker and then maybe Marc Connelly. Or Ben Hecht, one of the most amusing of all....

"Eugene O'Neill was too much of a brawler for me in those early days, a real wild man, but I loved him....

"At Sea Island, I found him much changed from the wild man I had known at Liveright. He had lived down along the waterfront in those days, among all those men in flophouses, a bunch of drunks who were always in trouble. He was so often at Bellevue to dry out that they knew him there by his first name....

"O'Neill's drinking often led to blackouts; in fact, in 1909 his first marriage had resulted from one. He woke up in some flophouse with a girl in bed next to him, and he said, 'Who the hell are you?' and she said, 'You married me last night.' He actually had. In disgust he signed up on a boat and went on a seven-month trip, and that's where he got the background for his sea plays ...."

First of all, O'Neill was never "part of the ensemble" at his publisher's; Hecht, Parker et al, including Cerf, were virtually strangers to him. He made himself so scarce, in fact, that Liveright used to complain, "Why doesn't Gene ever come to see me?" As for his being a "brawler," yes, he had gotten into scrapes during his seafaring days, his time in the lower depths; but his roistering, except for occasional brief lapses, was behind him once he turned playwright. Cerf, on the basis of what he had heard about O'Neill's footloose years, was romanticizing him, in a left-handed sort of way, when he spoke of him as a "real wild man."

At Random is rife with other exaggerations, misleading remarks and outright errors about O'Neill. Although the memoir leaves the impression, without explicitly saying so, that Carlotta Monterey had been the mistress of cartoonist Ralph Barton, they were married. He was her third husband, O'Neill the fourth.

Contrary to Cerf's account, O'Neill did not "fall" for her when she appeared in his 1922 play The Hairy Ape. Indeed, the opposite was true. At their first meeting, at a rehearsal of Ape, she criticized both her part and the play, without knowing that the author was present and overheard her, while he told his friend Jimmy Light that he didn't think much of her acting ability. Their romance began a few years later when they were vacationing separately in Maine, O'Neill with his wife and children, Carlotta nearby as the house guest of someone Eugene knew.

Recalling a visit to the O'Neills when they lived at Tao House in California, Cerf says (p. 87): "In some New Orleans whorehouse he had bought--I don't know how he found it--a player piano which he named 'Rosie'; it was white, with naked ladies painted all over it. And Carlotta, the great religious girl, thought it was terrible, so Gene had it down in the cellar. He'd sneak down once in a while and drop nickels in the slot, and while it played old ragtime tunes he'd sit there with an ecstatic look on his face."

His account is wrong in several respects. Far from disapproving of the piano, Carlotta, who found it in Wurlitzer's store on Forty-second Street, just off Times Square, had given it to her husband as a birthday present. Instead of being "white, with naked ladies painted all over it," let's have O'Neill's description:

It was a great moment in my life when she first burst on my sight in Wurlitzer's remotest storeroom in all her gangrenous-green, festooned-with-rosebuds beauty. There sure must have been an artist soul lost to the world in the New Orleans honky-tonk--or bordello--she came from.

Another time he said: "I'm not sure that listening to all those old songs I played on Rosie was a good idea. I try to remember a beautiful verse of Verlaine and come up with a line of 'Everybody's Doing It' or 'Oh, You Great Big Beautiful Doll.'"

--Louis Sheaffer

(IN THIS ISSUE)

 

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