CORRECTING SOME ERRORS IN ANNALS OF O'NEILL (PART I)
Eugene O'Neill was generally critical of what was written about him. When his first biographer, Barrett H. Clark, sent him a sketch based on a number of sources--on inter-views and articles in newspapers and magazines, on material drawn from questioning O'Neill's friends and associates--the playwright wrote back that the sketch "is legend. It isn't really true. It isn't I" (Clark, p. 7).
Decades later he sounded a similar note while reminiscing about his life to Hamilton Basso, who was writing a "Profile" of him for The New Yorker. (This was the last time he ever was interviewed for public print.) After his wife Carlotta Monterey had interjected, in one of his sessions with Basso, that "nearly everything" that had been written about him was "all wrong," O'Neill added: "What Carlotta just said is true. Nearly every-thing that has been said about me is all wrong" (Basso, 3/13/48).
Since he felt this way, you would imagine that he must have made some efforts to correct the record; yet, on the whole, the opposite appears true. According to Barrett Clark, Miss Monterey once told him that she had "discussed with her husband the anecdotes I had picked up from time to time. She had had 'quite a talk about these things, and I begged him to take the time some day and go over them with you, straightening out the anecdotes, putting "truth" in them! He said, "Nonsense, what do I care what they say--the further from the truth they have it, the more privacy I have! It's like a mask!' (Clark, p. 8)
O'Neill did more than take comfort from his "mask"; he helped to create it. From years of researching his life to write a comprehensive biography, I found a good many errors in print, chiefly about the years before he became famous, and it turned out that some of them could be traced to O'Neill himself. He gave misleading impressions or accounts, for instance, of his seagoing career, of his suicide attempt at Jimmy the Priest's (the waterfront dive that would give him material for both Anna Christie and The Iceman Cometh) and of his brief fling at acting with his father in vaudeville. By and large, however, others were responsible for the errors that I have noted and corrected here. (For the sources identified by a catchword in the text, see the list of works cited at the end of the article.)
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Forebears. "I know little about my father's parents," Eugene replied to a writer who was working on a monograph of James O'Neill. "Or about his brothers and sisters. He had two older brothers, I think. I remember him saying one brother served in the Civil War ... was wounded, never fully recovered and died right after the war. He had three sisters, all dead now [in 1940], whom he never saw except when a theatrical tour brought him to the Middle West where they lived" (San Francisco).
In one respect, regarding the sisters, O'Neill's account is inaccurate. According to Mary Keenan, a cousin of the playwright, James O'Neill had five sisters, not three, while yet another relative, Manley W. Mallett, who has done extensive genealogical research on the O'Neills, discovered that there were six. The following family history is partly based on Mr. Mallett's summary of his findings. (Letter from MWM to LS, 11/12/74; for previous accounts of James O'Neill's parents and siblings, see: Bowen, pp. 23-24; Alexander, pp. 29-30; Gelb, pp. 20-22; and Sheaffer I, pp. 27-28.)
James O'Neill's parents were third or fourth cousins, with Mary, the mother, hailing from the "Black Nialls" and the father, Edward, who was about twenty years older than his wife, from the "Red Nialls." Fleeing from the potato famine in Ireland, they sailed about 1850 with their eight children on the Great India to Quebec, a voyage of six weeks, and settled in Buffalo, where their ninth and final child was born. Richard, the oldest one, died relatively young, while the family still lived in Buffalo. The other children, in the order of birth, were Josephine, Anna, Edward, the Civil War veteran; James, Mary, Delia, Anastasia (Mr. Mallett's grandmother), and Margaret.
After the family had lived in Buffalo a few years, the father, leaving his family to shift for themselves, returned to Ireland, where he died soon afterward from poisoning. One of Mr. Mallett's sources of information, his uncle Frank A. Kunckel (a son of Anastasia), told him that the elder O'Neill was "poisoned by saleratus bisquits baked by his favorite niece. She had mistaken a can of strychnine for baking soda."
Eugene O'Neill, who had heard about the poisoning from his father, mentions it in a secret document he wrote, intended solely and strictly for his own eyes, in which he summarized his parents' family backgrounds and their early years together. The paper was an attempt on O'Neill's part to organize his thoughts about the forces that had shaped his elders and, in turn, himself. The paper reads, in part:
"M [his mother]--Lonely life--spoiled before marriage ... fashionable convent girl--religious & naive ... ostracism after marriage due to husband's profession--lonely life after marriage ... husband man's man--heavy drinker--out with men until small hours every night ... stingy about money due to his childhood experience with grinding poverty after his father deserted large family to return to Ireland to spend last days (He died of poison taken by mistake although there is suspicion of suicide here in a fit of insane depression--guilty conscience for desertion (?) (In later days of his life husband periodically talks when depressed of doing as his father did, deserting family, going back to Ireland to die ..." (Sheaffer II, pp. 509-12).
In Long Day's Journey Into Night the playwright-son again referred to his grandfather's abrupt death when he has James Tyrone (read James O'Neill) say: "When I was ten my father deserted my mother and went back to Ireland to die. Which he did soon enough, and deserved to, and I hope he's roasting in hell. He mistook rat poison for flour, or sugar, or something. There was gossip it wasn't by mistake but that's a lie. No one in my family ever--"
By 1860, after nearly ten years in Buffalo, Mary O'Neill was living in Cincinnati with her younger children, including James; the older ones, while still quite young, had left their hard-pressed mother to strike out on their own. "The eldest daughter Josephine," Mr. Mallett writes, "was said to have been married at the age of 13 to a prosperous saloon keeper from Covington, Ky. In any event, she apparently was well established in the Cincinnati area before her father died and no doubt was instrumental in moving the family from Buffalo."
Mr. Mallett next alludes to a published interview with James O'Neill in which he said that when aged about fourteen he went to work for a brother-in-law who dealt in military uniforms in Norfolk, Virginia, during the Civil War. "He was a man of liberal tastes," said James, "and, liking the theater, took me with him twice a week. It was then that I formed my taste for the theater. When the war was over my brother-in-law sold out his business and moved back to Cincinnati, and I went with him" (Theater Magazine, April 1908).
"If James O'Neill's story of living in Norfolk with an older sister is true," Mr. Mallett continues, "only Josephine could meet the description. As I knew her at age 80, she was ... tall, erect, energetic, well-read and cultured. She seemed to have always lived well, but never had any children, and might well have taken an interest in this young brother." Apparently overlooking that he knew this great aunt and his grandmother only in their final years, Mr. Mallett adds, "Neither Josephine nor Stasia spoke with the Irish brogue which James struggled to overcome [as an actor]."
Since James' contacts with his sisters and their families appear to have been minimal after he had turned actor, it seems likely that his relatives tended at once to admire and resent him, an assumption that is verified by Frank Kunckel. In a letter to his nephew, Mr. Mallett, in 1937, he said: "I can still see him strutting across the stage and hear him call out, 'The world is mine!' He married a Cleveland Society Girl who was close to a Millionairess, and that [was] the reason we never saw or became intimately acquainted with him, and as far as [his being our] uncle, us poor kids might just as well not had an uncle.
"My uncle [James O'Neill] hardly knew his sister Stacia's married name." Rather cryptically, he added, "But if my father, your Granddad, had been a little reasonable, things might have been better."
Turning his thoughts to another side of the family of whom he was critical, Mr. Kunckel wrote: "The Platzes--that's Aunt Maggie's family--always wanted to be High Society and always lived in the Silkstocking Neighborhoods. But they never really crashed up there."
Aunt Maggie--more formally, Margaret Platz--became a footnote in James O'Neill's history when, all in black, she suddenly appeared, unexpected, uninvited, at his funeral in New London, Connecticut, in 1920. Arriving in midservice at the church, still carrying her suitcase, she looked around with an irate expression before joining the deceased's immediate family. Much to the annoyance of Ella O'Neill and her two sons, Mrs. Platz wanted a final look at her renowned brother; in the end, the coffin was opened briefly for her sake at the cemetery. That same day, after Mrs. O'Neill had retired to her hotel suite, Mrs. Platz called on her to ask about her brother's will; on learning that he had left everything to his widow, she lost no time in returning home.
A few years later her daughter, Alma O'Neill Platz, who had literary ambitions, published a newspaper article that was widely reprinted in which she reminisced, under the name of "Alma O'Neill," about the celebrated playwright as her "mother's favorite nephew" (New York Post, 12/19/25).
How O'Neill felt about the Platz family can easily be imagined. In reply to the writer of the James O'Neill monograph, who had asked about these relatives, the playwright said, "I have no information about Mrs. Platt [the writer had her name wrong] except that she lived in St. Louis, not in Cincinnati" (in the monograph and Gelb, p. 432). This was untrue, for Mrs. Platz had lived--and died--in the Ohio city. Evidently O'Neill hoped to prevent the writer from locating, and interviewing, any of his aunt's children, particularly "Alma O'Neill."
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Home Base. The nearest thing to a home the James O'Neill family ever had, the Monte Cristo Cottage in New London, Connecticut, which inspired the settings of both Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day's Journey Into Night, was scarcely the showplace some accounts suggest. From Bowen (p. 32) we learn that "some reports said it cost $50,000," while Alexander (p. 12) says the report of a Boston paper that "the house had cost $40,000--a fortune in 1883--could not have been far off," an estimate repeated by Carpenter (p. 21) and Raleigh (p. 90). In reality, the cottage was put together, at a cost of a few thousand, from several structures already on the site--a combination store-and-dwelling and a onetime schoolhouse (Sheaffer I, p. 48). The New London Day on September 1, 1897, described it as "quaint, picturesque but old-fashioned and plain."
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Dead Child. In a serious error, Bowen (p. 32) says: "In March of 1885, while on tour with his parents, little Edmund [the O'Neills' second child] contracted measles and died." Actually, had the child been with his parents at the time, his fate would have been different, although it's impossible to guess the course his life might have taken. Following, at any rate, is what really happened:
Yielding to her husband's plea that he was lonely without her, Ella O'Neill left year-and-a-half old Edmund and Jamie, aged six, in her mother's care in New York to join her husband for a time as he toured in the West (Sheaffer I, pp. 16-17). During her absence, Jamie caught the measles, and then the baby, after Jamie had ignored orders to keep away from him, fell victim. As soon as the parents in Denver heard about the children, Mrs. O'Neill rushed to catch the first train home, but before she could, word came of Edmund's death--a death that would shadow the family members all their lives. Ella, never able to forgive herself for having left the children, also continued over the years to blame her husband for urging her to join him, Jamie for infecting his brother. "I've always believed that Jamie did it on purpose," the mother says in Long Day's Journey Into Night. "He was jealous of the baby. He hated him."
The circumstances of Edmund's death, a memory kept alive and exacerbated by Mrs. O'Neill's charges, were a major source of the intense guilt feelings within the family circle.
Had Edmund lived to adulthood, it seems doubtful that Eugene O'Neill would ever have been born. Against Ella's wishes, at her husband's urging and pleas, she had a third and final child to replace poor Edmund. When Eugene eventually learned that his mother had unwittingly become a morphine addict as a result of his birth, he inherited his full share of O'Neill guilt.
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Mrs. O'Neill's Cancer. At some stage of her life Ella O'Neill had a mastectomy, but her son's biographers differ among themselves as to when this happened. Obviously, it is important to know when, for if she underwent the ordeal while relatively young, it undoubtedly would have had a more drastic effect on her outlook, on her personality, and, through her, on the family climate than if she had had cancer late in life. In 1887 Mr. and Mrs. O'Neill spent several months in Europe--on holiday, the actor told friends--but both Bowen (p. 32) and Alexander (p. 14) contend that the trip was made so that Ella could be operated on for cancer of the breast. According to the two writers, London and Paris had noted surgeons who specialized in the new operation. (Alexander also maintains that it was in this period that Ella became a drug addict, a statement contrary to evidence from various sources which indicated that she became addicted as a result of Eugene's birth a year later.) On the other hand, Gelb (p. 109) declares that the second time the O'Neills went abroad, in 1906, was the time Ella suffered from cancer and had the operation. None of the writers, however, documents or cites any sources for his or her account.
As it happens, two doctors' reports are extant (Sheaffer I, pp. 440-41) which establish that the surgery took place toward the end of her life. The reports follow in their entirety:
End of doctors' reports. So far as is known, Mrs. O'Neill never suffered a further recurrence of cancer before her death in 1922.
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Phantom Railroad. Around the turn of the century James O'Neill employed a press agent known as A. Toxen Worm (full name, Conrad Henrik Aage Toxen Worm, a Dane) who, like many of his fraternity, tended to embroider on fact and even to weave whole cloth from thin air. Seeking to foist on the public the illusion that the actor lived as munificently offstage as in his role as the Count of Monte Cristo, Mr. Worm told the press that Mr. O'Neill "is now having prepared the plans and specifications for a magnificent library which he is to present to New London. The estimated cost of this temple of literature will not be far short of a million dollars." The New London Telegraph published the story on January 3, 1900, under the headline: NEWS THAT IS FALSE.
Undeterred, the incorrigible Mr. Worm issued a story that Mr. O'Neill had given his 12-year-old son a junior-size railroad, consisting of an engine and car large enough to carry Eugene and a companion that ran on hundreds of yards of track around the family's summer home in New London. Although the plaything, which would have cost a few thousand dollars (today, over a hundred thousand), was another of the agent's fabrications (Sheaffer I, p. 47), the story appeared at length in the New York Herald on December 9, 1900, together with a drawing of the alleged railroad.
While the story of the million-dollar "temple of literature," published only in the New London daily, was quickly forgotten, the railroad fable was picked up by other news-papers, and twenty-five years later it again figured widely in print when Alma O'Neill Platz wrote about Eugene as "my best beloved playmate." (In reality, she scarcely ever saw him.)
Her story, which originally appeared in the New York Post on December 19, 1925, reads in part: "His father had a railroad engine, child's size, built for him. A track was laid on the grounds surrounding their cottage. Gene had to be both fireman and engineer to enjoy this toy, but to him it was all play ... the engine consumed half a ton of coal a day. The miles he traveled in that engine, both actually and in fancy!"
As a result of Miss Platz's reminiscences in the Post and other papers, the phantom railroad rolls again in Alexander (p. 19) and Gelb (pp. 62-63). Offhand, this whole matter may seem unimportant, but the Worm-ridden story serves to contradict O'Neill's portrait of his father in Long Day's Journey Into Night as miserly. How could James O'Neill have been tightfisted if he gave his young son so costly a toy?
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Fall from Innocence. In Long Day's Journey Into Night we are told that Edmund Tyrone (read Eugene O'Neill) first learned of his mother's drug addiction when she, out of morphine, dashed from their cottage one night and tried to drown herself in the nearby river. "It was right after that," Edmund recalls, "that Papa and Jamie decided they couldn't hide it from me any more. Jamie told me. I called him a liar!... But I knew he wasn't lying. (His voice trembles, his eyes begin to fill with tears.) God, it made everything in life seem rotten!"
Carlotta Monterey, the playwright's widow, gives a different version. According to her, he returned unexpectedly from school one day to the family's New York apartment to find his mother injecting herself with a hypodermic needle, after which his father and brother explained that she was a victim of morphinism, that her addiction had begun innocently with his birth.
Since we know that O'Neill revised reality in some respects, for structural and dramatic purposes, in writing his autobiographical drama, Miss Monterey's story can not be dismissed out of hand. At the same time the writer knows from first-hand experience that his widow, in recalling their life together and various things he had told her, tended to edit fact and not infrequently to indulge in outright invention.
Although Bowen (p. 36), Gelb (pp. 72-73) and Carpenter (p. 28) follow her account, the bulk of circumstantial evidence, including one of her details, suggests that Long Day's Journey is closer to what actually happened. On the Sunday following Eugene's disillusionment, as he and his father were descending the stairway at home, bound for Mass, the widow has said, Eugene suddenly declared that he would never again go to church. Mr. O'Neill, her story continues, grabbed his son and tried to take him along by force, but he finally had to desist as his son fought back. The struggle on the stairway could have occurred only at the cottage in New London, not at the New York hotel apartment.
O'Neill learned about his mother, everyone agrees, while in his early teens. In 1903--when he was nearly fifteen--the summer began in New London with a dreary month of rain, fog, and foghorn. Most likely it was during this period that Ella O'Neill, marooned at home for weeks and unable to renew her supply of morphine, ran from the house in her nightdress for the river. The O'Neills had endured other stretches of bad weather in the house by the Thames River, but this time, evidently, the prospect of remaining there all summer became intolerable (Sheaffer I, pp. 87-89). Jamie suddenly took a job with a stock company in Massachusetts, while Mr. O'Neill shipped his horses and carriage to New York and, before leaving town, told friends he was taking his wife and younger son to the Adirondacks.
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Interviewer Nods. While being interviewed for a series of articles in the New York News entitled "The Odyssey of Eugene O'Neill," January 24-30, 1932, the playwright recalled at one point that he had prospected for gold in Spanish Honduras in 1909 and 1910. Mischievously, apparently to test the alertness of the writer, O'Neill said that he had returned home by way of the Panama Canal. And thus it appeared in the News, subsequently in Gelb (p. 137), but the Canal, under construction since 1904, was not opened until 1914, a few years after O'Neill had left Honduras.
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The Seaman. The smell of salt air is seldom missing from O'Neill's writings; indeed, ships and the sea bulk so prominently in his works that one gets the impression he must have followed the sea for years. "Bound East for Cardiff" and "Thirst," "Fog" and "In the Zone," "'Ile" and "The Moon of the Caribbees" all take place entirely on the water, while three other one-acters, "The Long Voyage Home," "Warnings," and "Where the Cross Is Made," also have a maritime flavor. Further, shipboard episodes or the lure of the sea figure importantly in many of his long works, from Beyond the Horizon and Diff'rent to Gold and Anna Christie, from The Hairy Ape, The Fountain, and Marco Millions to Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra, and Long Day's Journey Into Night. In reality, though, the playwright's seagoing career was surprisingly short; he shipped out as a crew member less often than he led us to believe.
Reminiscing years afterward about a voyage he had made in 1910 on a Norwegian wind-jammer, the Charles Racine, from Boston to Buenos Aires (a two-month sailing he always treasured as a high point of his life), O'Neill said: "It happened quite naturally--that voyage--as a consequence of what was really inside of me--what I really wanted, I suppose. I struck up one day by the wharf in Boston with a bunch of sailors, mostly Norwegians and Swedes. I wanted to ship with somebody and they took me that afternoon to the captain. Signed up, and the next thing we were off" (Boston Post, 8/29/20).
Taking their cue from his words, a good many articles and quite a few books, including Bowen (pp. 45-46), Alexander (pp. 138-42) and Gelb (pp. 144, 148-52), draw colorful pictures of O'Neill splicing ropes, clambering up among the rigging, and reefing sails while the vessel pitched and swayed. The fact is, though, his presence on the wind-jammer did not happen as casually as he said, nor was he a regular member of the crew (Sheaffer I, pp. 160-70).
While serving as assistant manager for The White Sister, in which his father was touring, Eugene, always drawn to the sea, hung around the waterfront when the drama played a fortnight in Boston. He was particularly attracted to the Charles Racine, among the last of the old sailing ships, and in talking with some of its hands he learned that while it was not certified to carry passengers, it sometimes unofficially, for a price, took along a man or two who occupied an in-between status. In the end, O'Neill, with his father's approval, paid $75 for his passage to Buenos Aires (no small sum in those days) with the understanding that he was to help in the lighter duties, nothing hazardous, at the captain's discretion. Rather than being squeezed into the fo'c'sle with the crew, O'Neill and a friend of his, who likewise paid for his passage, had a small cabin to themselves (usually, the sick bay) and they took mess with the ship's officers.
In a moment of truth-telling years later, O'Neill said, "I landed in Buenos Aires a gentleman, so called, and wound up a bum on the docks in fact" (New York Herald-Tribune, 8/8/26). But scarcely any of his chroniclers seem to have noticed the first part of his remark.
O'Neill arrived in Buenos Aires at the start of August 1910 and left in latter March of the following year. During the period, he often told interviewers, he made a round-trip between Buenos Aires and Durban "tending mules on a cattle steamer," but he was not allowed to go ashore in South Africa since, as required by local law, he did not have at least a hundred dollars. There is reason, however, for doubting that he ever made such a voyage. His name does not appear among any of the crews on file with Britain's General Register and Record Office of Shipping and Seaman for vessels that made the round-trip during the period in question (he once identified the ship as British). Although the voyage, both ways, would have taken about two months, "tending mules" was all he ever said about it, yet he had a good deal more to say about ships on which he served a much shorter time. When, furthermore, he signed on the British freighter that carried him home from Argentina, he stated that this was his "first" ship, meaning his first berth as a regular deckhand. Since he was a "workaway," anxious to make the trip to New York, he received the nominal pay of one shilling a month, not, as one biography says, $25 a month.
Some ten years after he had quit the sea, he told a reporter that he could not recall the name of the tramp freighter that had brought him back from Buenos Aires--a vessel that became the model for the fictional S. S. Glencairn in some of his one-acters. Apparently he wanted to prevent anyone from tracking down and interviewing some of his old shipmates, for years still later he did name the vessel, but whether he or his interviewer was at fault, it appeared in the New York News (6/25/32), and subsequently in Gelb (pp. 158-61), as the S. S. Ikalis. In reality, he returned on the S. S. Ikala, a sister ship of the other one (Sheaffer I, pp. 185-87).
The remainder of his seafaring consisted of a round-trip to England on passenger ships--shipping out as an ordinary seaman (not, as one biographer says, as an able-bodied seaman) on the S. S. New York and returning as an A.B. on the S. S. Philadelphia. In summary, excluding the Charles Racine, where he had a special status, and the questionable turn-around trip to South Africa, Eugene O'Neill spent a total, on the Ikala and the two liners, of only about six weeks as a regular, bona fide seaman.
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Jimmy the Priest's. Between ships, O'Neill used to hole up at a waterfront saloon and flophouse in lower Manhattan known as "Jimmy the Priest's" after its proprietor, an enigmatic figure who looked rather clerical and yet, for all his quiet manner, had an intimidating air. His name, though unknown to any who frequented his place at 252 Fulton Street, was James J. Condon; his counterpart would later appear as Johnny the Priest in Anna Christie, with the opening scene of the play modeled on his saloon.
"Jimmy the Priest's," in O'Neill's words, "certainly was a hell hole. It was awful. One couldn't go any lower. Gorky's Night Lodging was an ice cream parlor by comparison. The house was almost coming down and the principal housewreckers were vermin" (New York Times, 12/21/24, and New York World, 11/9/24).
But he dramatized the place, he exaggerated; it was much sturdier than his words suggest. About a hundred years old when he took refuge there in 1911, the building, starting in the early 1920s, was occupied by a ship's chandler that loaded its floors with heavy maritime machinery and supplies until it was razed in 1966, together with other structures of the area, to make way for the World Trade Center (Sheaffer I, pp. 189-92).
In the only O'Neill short story ever published, "Tomorrow" (Seven Arts Magazine, June, 1917), set in Tommy the Priest's, a place similar to Condon's, the author in writing of his waterfront period took liberties with fact. The story has been accepted, however, by some of his chroniclers as more or less factual (Bowen, p. 49; Alexander, pp. 149-51, and Gelb, pp. 161-63). It is of minor significance that the flophouse accommodations at Condon's were cruder, more basic, than in the story, but it is important that "Tomorrow" helps to give, by implication, a misleading impression of the time O'Neill felt so forlorn and desperate that he tried to kill himself.
Told in the first person, the story ends with the narrator's ineffectual roommate, "Jimmy Tomorrow," who constantly vowed to get a grip on himself and reform tomorrow, committing suicide by jumping from an upper winder at Tommy the Priest's. Since a friend and fellow-lodger of O'Neill, one James Findlater Byth, nicknamed "Jimmy Tomorrow," did end his life in such a way, the story leaves the impression that Eugene was living there at the time. Lending weight to the notion, O'Neill years later disclosed to George Jean Nathan, as the latter reported, that he had attempted suicide through an overdose of Veronal at Jimmy the Priest's "a month or so after James Beith (a friend of O'Neill's) took his life" (Nathan, pp. 35-36). By now, since Nathan's account has been followed by Bowen (pp. 42-44), Alexander (p. 154), Gelb (pp. 186-87), and Carpenter (pp. 31-32), it is universally accepted that O'Neill's suicidal mood was partly induced by depression over his friend's death. In reality, Byth (not Beith) killed himself more than a year after O'Neill's skirmish with death and his permanent departure from the Fulton Street dive" (Sheaffer I, pp. 211-14). In fact, Byth was chiefly responsible for saving Eugene from his suicide attempt.
The future playwright first met Byth when the latter became James O'Neill's press agent about 1907. Although Eugene, a shy, wary soul, was usually slow to make friends, he took an early liking to the agent, a cheerful bantam with an inordinate thirst for liquor, a whimsical sense of humor, with himself often the butt of his stories, and, as he told it, a colorful, adventurous past. In time Eugene heard about the immense family estate in Scotland ("heavily mortgaged," the other admitted), an extensive journalistic career, not only in Edinburgh and London but as a Reuters correspondent in the Boer War, and his decline in family regard as he became the black sheep of the Byths (Alexander, pp. 115-16).
Although Eugene doubted some parts of the other's history, his doubts didn't go far enough (Sheaffer I, pp. 129-31). The son of a struggling upholsterer in a coal-mining area of Cornwall, Byth never had a privileged upbringing and, while he may have worked obscurely as a reporter in Britain, he never served as a Boer War correspondent. His made-up memories of the war (O'Neill would draw on them in writing The Iceman Cometh) were acquired while working as a publicist for "The Great Boer Spectacle," a theatrical extravaganza shown at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 and later at New York's Brighton Beach. Down on his luck a few years afterward, from drinking himself out of jobs, he joined his good friend, the youngest of the O'Neills, at Jimmy the Priest's.
By naming Byth as a factor in his suicidal mood, Eugene showed that the other man was important and dear to him, a fact emphasized by his several attempts to give "Jimmy Tomorrow" literary immortality, first in "Tomorrow," next in "Exorcism," a one-acter based on the author's near-fatal move, and at last definitively in The Iceman Cometh. Further, by linking Byth to his own desperate act, O'Neill used him as a coverup of the real reason he had felt suicidal. Shortly before he took the Veronal in the early days of 1912, he had gone to a whorehouse, with several men as witnesses, to provide evidence for his first wife's divorce suit against him. The episode had left him feeling degraded, in the darkest of moods, so disgusted with his past and hopeless about his future that death seemed the only solution.
The suicide of another regular of the Fulton Street saloon, a burly seaman named Driscoll who was one of Eugene's favorite drinking companions, is also mentioned by Gelb (pp. 171, 186) and Carpenter (p. 31) in connection with O'Neill's attempt. Driscoll, whose image recurs in the Glencairn playlets and most importantly as "Yank" in The Hairy Ape, was, in O'Neill's words, a "giant of a man, and absurdly strong. He thought a whole lot of himself.... It seemed to give him mental poise to be able to dominate the stokehold" (New York Times, 12/21/24). Yet, for a11 his swaggering self-confidence, he jumped overboard in midocean; but here again, as in Byth's case, his suicide had nothing to do with O'Neill's despair, for he vanished into the sea in August 1915, several years after O'Neill's ascent from the lower depths (Sheaffer I, p. 335).
Like Driscoll and Byth, Chris Christopherson, an aging seaman reduced to bargeman, was another Fulton Street hanger-on who came to an untimely end, but his was accidental. "He had followed the sea so long," O'Neill said, "that he got sick at the thought of it ... he spent his time getting drunk and cursing the sea. 'Dat ole davil,' he called it. Finally he got a job as captain of a coal barge....
"His end in real life was just one of the many tragedies that punctuate the history of Jimmy the Priest's. Everybody got very drunk at Jimmy's one Christmas Eve and Chris was very much in the party ... [He] tottered away about 2 o'clock in the morning for his barge. The next morning he was found frozen on a cake of ice between the piles and the dock. In trying to board the barge, he stumbled on the plank and fell over."
O'Neill's account, which appeared originally in the New York World (11/9/24) and the New York Times (12/21/24), is repeated in Bowen (p. 117), Alexander (p. 269), and Gelb (p. 170). However, whether O'Neill was misinformed or as a born dramatist could not keep from embellishing the story, Chris fell overboard not at Christmastime but in October 1917, and his body was found floating a week later near the Statue of Liberty. In any case, like Byth and Driscoll, he helped to inspire O'Neill's writings; a few years after his death he appeared under his real name, still cursing "dat ole davil," in Anna Christie (Sheaffer I, pp. 202-03).
* * * * *
Two Poems. Shortly after his last turn at sea, in 1911, O'Neill visited New London, where he had a reunion with friends of his on the two local newspapers, the Telegraph and the Day. Not long afterward, the Telegraph ran a poem entitled "Not Understood" whose author was given as "Unknown." Following is one of the stanzas:
For several reasons--chiefly, he had ambitions as a poet and, further, "Not Under-stood" sounds like him--Sheaffer I, (p. 201) surmises that he was the author. In reality, the poem was written by Thomas Bracken, an Irishman who emigrated to Australia in the mid-19th century, and is well known Down Under. It seems likely, though, that Eugene came across the poem while on the beach in Buenos Aires--the international mix there included Australians--and that he brought it to the Telegraph's attention.
In another misattribution, Sheaffer I (p. 290) has O'Neill making up some lines that he inscribed for a friend in a copy of Thirst, his first volume of plays. Instead, the poem, which begins, "All that I had I brought," was written by Ernest Dowson.
* * * * *
Vaudeville Tour. To believe O'Neill, the weeks he and his brother toured with their father in vaudeville in 1912, in a tabloid version of Monte Cristo, were a time of drunken hilarity. "The least said about those acting days," he wrote to a friend, "the better. The alcoholic content was as high as the acting was low. They graduated me from the Orpheum Circuit with a degree of Lousy Cum Laude" (EO to Charles O'Brien Kennedy, 10/29/38). And to another friend: "I am proud to say that I preserved my honor by never drawing a sober breath until the tour terminated. My brother and I had one grand time of it and I look back on it as one of the merriest periods of my life" (EO to Joseph A. McCarthy, 2/18/31).
Eugene's appearance with the troupe, he used to say, happened entirely by chance. His story, substantially, was as follows: While living at Jimmy the Priest's he found five dollars, ran it up to five hundred (a thousand in one version) at a gambling casino, threw a party for everyone at Condon's, where the liquor flowed like water, and he came to his senses a day or two later on a train bound for New Orleans. By coincidence, his story continues, his father was headlining there at the time in vaudeville; since Eugene was now virtually broke and his father refused to pay his return fare, he had no choice but to join the tour.
O'Neill's account of the tour as a farcical high point of his life can be found in Alexander (pp. 158-60) and Gelb (pp. 173-75, 181-85). One important fact he never mentioned was that his stint in vaudeville followed directly after his suicide attempt; had he linked the two developments together, his friends would rightly have suspected that he was glossing over a painful period of his life. Contrary, however, to most evidence that he underwent his crisis prior to New Orleans, Gelb (pp. 186-88) maintains that O'Neill, quitting the tour before its end, returned to Jimmy the Priest's and that it was during this period that he tried to kill himself.
O'Neill's picture of the circumstances under which he joined the vaudeville production and of his behavior--his brother's too--onstage and off is contradicted on practically a11 points by Charles Webster, a young actor with the troupe. A summary of his account follows:
In mid-January 1912, while the Dumas piece was playing in Memphis, Tennessee, members of the company noted that Mr. O'Neill appeared agitated, as a rumor spread among them that his younger son had suffered "some kind of misfortune." Soon afterward they heard that he had sent money to Eugene to join him, which he did in New Orleans, the next stop of their itinerary. As for the brothers' conduct, Webster said that if Eugene "gave the impression later on that the two of them pulled all kinds of funny things on stage, well, he was just making up a good story." The actor added that Jamie "practically always smelled of alcohol when he went on, but he was never staggering, it was impossible for the audience to tell he'd been drinking," while Eugene, he continued, "took a drink or two after a performance, but never before." It seemed to him that both brothers were "pretty respectful" toward their father (Sheaffer I, pp. 214-21).
* * * * *
Rival Reels. After half a lifetime of playing the Count of Monte Cristo, James O'Neill, in his final appearance, performed the role for the movie cameras in 1912 under the auspices of the Famous Players Film Company, newly organized by Adolph Zukor and Daniel Frohman. Despite publicity that the film would be made at great expense in Bermuda with well-known actors in the supporting cast, it was filmed at a cost of slightly over $13,000 in ten days at sites in and around New York, with James the only name player in a cast that included his elder son. The New London Telegraph reported in an interview on August 13, 1912, that as Mr. O'Neill "recounted the way in which the scenes were laid, his voice shook with emotion and his mobile face took on the varied characteristics of his part." According to the report, he was offered $10,000 outright for his interest in the film, but that he expected to make more from his twenty percent share of the profits.
Before long, when a three-reel Monte Cristo made by William Fox preceded the five-reel O'Neill film to the screen, the veteran actor realized he had made the wrong choice. It is not true, however, as reported by some movie historians, as well as Gelb (p. 220), that Famous Players withdrew their production after a few showings. Instead, the longer film was widely shown for several years, but it was never the money-maker its star had hoped; Mr. O'Neill's share finally totaled close to four thousand (Sheaffer I, pp. 223-24).
* * * * *
Cub Reporter. After O'Neill had become famous, some of his friends in New London liked to recall that he was once considered a hopeless aspirant for success as a writer. It appears, in fact, from their reminiscences that his brief career on the local Telegraph set a new low in journalistic history. In an article that has been widely quoted, Malcolm Mollan, the Telegraph city editor, once recalled that he complimented the cub reporter on the way he had set the scene in a story before he, Mollan, added: "But would you mind finding out the name of the gentleman who carved the lady and whether the dame is his wife or daughter or who? And phone the hospital for a hint as to whether she is dead or discharged or what? Then put the facts into a hundred and fifty words and send this literary batik to the picture framers" (Philadelphia Public Ledger, 1/22/22).
Two veteran newspapermen, Arthur McGinley and Robert A. Woodworth, both of whom said that they were on the Telegraph at the same time as O'Neill, have added other details. McGinley, whom Eugene used to consider a wit, said that if the other was sent to cover an accident or a fire, he would return with an "Ode to Death." His description is almost complimentary compared with the article Woodworth wrote under the headline, "The World's Worst Reporter" (Providence Journal, 12/6/31). After sketching O'Neill as haunched meditatively over his typewriter without writing a word, he adds: "Night after night for a week or more it is the same story. Smoke and dream, smoke and dream!
"'Hey, Mal! When is that guy going to get busy and do some work?' one of us asked the city editor. 'He sits in there and smokes, but he never turns in any copy. If he'd do something, some of the rest of us wouldn't have to run our legs off...."'
The article runs on at length in this vein, but at a time when Woodworth and others were said to have run their "legs off" because of the unproductive cub reporter, Woodworth was on the rival newspaper, the New London Day. So, for that matter, was Art McGinley.
Apparently corroborating the legend of his incompetence, O'Neill himself cheerfully agreed once that he had been a "bum reporter." But what good writer ever looks back with pride on his fledgling efforts? Actually, the future playwright made a quite creditable start in journalism. Like virtually all novices, he overwrote in his eagerness to make an impression (hence Mollan's allusion to "literary batik"); but a close survey of the Telegraph in the few months Eugene was on the staff turns up a good many stories that, from internal evidence, appear to have been his--all this in addition to a score or so of poems, topical, humorous, at times serious, that he contributed to a special column of the paper (Sheaffer I, pp. 226-31, 233, 236).
Further, in direct contrast to the recollections of Woodworth et al., Frederick P. Latimer, the paper's editor-in-chief, said of Eugene: "The four things about him that impressed me at once were his modesty, his native gentlemanliness, his wonderful eyes and his literary style. It was evident that this was no ordinary boy...." A man of good-will and independent thought, a lover of books, the editor, who was better equipped than Mollan and the others to appraise O'Neill, also said: "From flashes in the quality of the stuff he gave the paper and the poems and play manuscripts he showed me, I was so struck that I told his father Eugene did not have merely talent, but a very high order of genius" (Clark, pp. 18-19).
O'Neill in turn said that Latimer was "the first who thought I had something to say, and believed I could say it." In more lasting tribute, the playwright used him as the chief model for the genial father, a newspaper publisher, in Ah, Wilderness! Even their names are similar--Latimer, Nat Miller. (For other accounts of O'Neill as a reporter: Bowen, pp. 58-59; Alexander, pp. 163-66, and Gelb, pp. 195-202.)
* * * * *
Two Sanatoria. After working for the Telegraph several months, O'Neill had to quit late in 1912 when he fell ill with chills and fever, a condition tentatively diagnosed as "pleurisy." But he was stricken with something far more serious, tuberculosis, commonly called at the time "the White Plague" or "the Great Killer," also known as "the Irish disease" because so many Irish succumbed to it in their homeland or the tenements of America.
Some of the bitterest exchanges in Long Day's Journey Into Night take place between Edmund Tyrone (read Eugene O'Neill) and his father over the question of the sanatorium he should enter; indeed, this issue is one of the central points of conflict in the play. James Tyrone favors a state-run institution (one, in reality, in Shelton, Connecticut) that costs almost nothing and is chiefly for the poor, while Edmund counters furiously: "...to think when it's a question of your son having consumption, you can show yourself up before the whole town as such a stinking old tightwad! Don't you know (Dr.) Hardy will talk and the whole damned town will know. Jesus, Papa, don't you have any pride or shame?"
In the play, as the father relents, the two agree on a sanatorium subsidized by a philanthropic group that has a good reputation and charges only a modest fee (in reality, the Gaylord Farm Sanatorium in Wallingford, Connecticut). In life, however, Eugene did enter the "state farm" in Shelton. Referring to this episode, Gelb (pp. 221-23) says, "Apparently his destination was an ugly secret between father and son," since none of Eugene's close friends at the time could later recall that he had gone to the state institution.
Actually, New Londoners did know, for both local papers published the news. The Telegraph, for instance, said on December 9 under the headline GOES TO SHELTON TODAY: "Eugene O'Neill of the Telegraph staff, who has been seriously ill with pleurisy ... will leave today for Shelton, where he will take what is called the 'rest cure' for several weeks. The acute attack of pleurisy ... was a heavy strain on his lungs and, while neither is affected, it was deemed wise by his physicians to give them the benefit of outdoor living and sleeping...."
Where one biography talks of an "ugly secret," the author of another, who evidently didn't know that such a place as Shelton existed, much less that Eugene had ever gone there, assumes that Gaylord was the state-run institution that aroused Eugene's opposition and anger, as expressed through young Tyrone (Alexander, pp. 166-73).
It appears, at any rate, that none of Eugene's friends remembered Shelton because they were more or less ignorant about the place; hence the news of his going there made little, if any, impression on them. Indeed, since he did enter Shelton, it appears that he him-self knew almost nothing about it; but it was so desolate and forbidding that he left there in two days. Thus, it was after he had gone there, not before, that he was furious at his father; but in writing Long Day's Journey he took liberties with, among other things, chronology (Sheaffer I, pp. 236-43).
Shortly after Shelton, he was examined by two nationally-known physicians, specialists in tuberculosis, and was admitted to Gaylord, the scene, he used to say, of his "rebirth." There, for the first time in his life, he had the leisure, quiet, and peace to meditate on his past and think of the future; there, he made the crucial decision to write for the theater.
(Alexander) Alexander, Doris, The Tempering of Eugene O'Neill. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1962.
(Basso) Basso, Hamilton. "The Tragic Sense," The New Yorker. February 28, March 6, and March 13, 1948.
(Bowen) Bowen, Croswell. The Curse of the Misbegotten. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959. (Although the title page says the book was written "with the assistance of Shane O'Neill," he had no hand in its composition.)
(Carpenter) Carpenter, Frederic I. Eugene O'Neill. New York: Twayne, 1964.
(Clark) Clark, Barrett H. Eugene O'Neill: The Man and His Plays. New York: Dover, 1947.
(Gelb) Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O'Neill. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
(Nathan) Nathan, George Jean. The Intimate Notebooks of George Jean Nathan. New York: Knopf, 1932.
(Raleigh) Raleigh, John Henry. The Plays of Eugene O'Neill. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1065.
(San Francisco) O'Neill, Patrick. James O'Neill. History of the San Francisco Theater, Vol. 20: Writers' Program of the WPA in Northern California, 1942.
(Sheaffer I) Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill: Son and Playwright. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968.
(Sheaffer II) Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill: Son and Artist. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.
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