FIRST LOVE: EUGENE O'NEILL AND "BOUTADE"
Eugene O'Neill spent four years at
Betts Academy in Stamford. Connecticut--between 1902 and 1906. The
picture his biographers draw of him during these years is of a young
man subjected to severe traumatic experiences which were to form the
essential qualities of his mature character. Louis Sheaffer draws an
image of him as a loner, a solitary reader, one who refused the
active life of "character-building" sports favored by the Academy's
head, and who was good in history and English but poor in geometry
and trigonometry. Sheaffer quotes his
sources as saying "He talked very little and seldom smiled," or "He
sat along the side-lines of fun, enjoying it in a semi-absent way."
Sheaffer adds that he played the usual schoolboy dormitory pranks
and that he habitually wore a mask of cynicism as he began his
"quarrel with authority." Swinburne, Dowson, Fitzgerald, Wilde, and
Baudelaire were the poets he admired, and during these years he made
the acquaintance, in New York City, of Benjamin R. Tucker, whose
bookstore was a mine of radical literature.
It was in this period--in 1903,
according to Sheaffer--that O'Neill learned of his mother's
addiction to morphine on the frightening night when she fled from
the house in New London and attempted to drown herself in the river.
It was also in these years that Jamie took his younger brother in
hand and instructed him in the life of the high livers of low life.
Somewhere in this period, presumably on a weekend in New York, Jamie
arranged that Eugene should lose his virginity in a mechanical
rough-and-tumble in a cheap brothel. And it was during this time,
when he was fifteen in 1903, that O'Neill began to drink and to
enter on a life of dereliction during the weekends away from school.
Sheaffer rightly views this as the
onset of a rebellion against a difficult childhood, a rebellion that
was to climax with his dismissal from Princeton and his
disappearance for a time into a world of dismal picaresque
adventure.1 O'Neill was
undoubtedly on a primrose path, but as with all adolescents, there
was at the start an innocence in wickedness that somewhat tempered
the darker colors of his late adolescence at Betts Academy. The year
1906 was, after all, the year in which he would set the action of
Ah, Wilderness! and, while the comedy must be viewed as his
nostalgic fantasy of a faraway world, it is not clear that the play
presents entirely a world that "might have been," or that O'Neill in
his Academy days did not have in him a quality that might still be
called virginal. At least at Richard Miller's age, seventeen.
Shaeffer notes O'Neill's schoolboy
custom of writing letters to his family, friends, and acquaintances
while he was at Saint Aloysius Academy between 1985 and 1899.2
The habit, no doubt, continued, and there exists in the American
Literature Collection of the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale
University a small collection of letters which offer an insight into
O'Neill's mind during the Betts Academy years. They were not
entirely years of darkness.
The letters are addressed to a
girl named Marion Welch, who lived in Hartford, but who spent part
of the summer of 1905 visiting a friend, Marion Green, in New
London.3 O'Neill called her "Boutade,"
a term meaning "caprice" or "whim," and he paid her flirtatious
attention in English and beginning French. He wrote from New London:
You cannot imagine with what
feelings of joy I received your letter this morning. All the
more so, because it was unexpected, for I thought by this time
New London and all in it were but faint memories of the misty
past to you. I am very happy to find out that I was mistaken.
I cannot say how much missed
and still miss you. New London has now relapsed into a
somnambulant state which is far from pleasing and all on account
of your departure.... I miss your "wind-mill motion" in the
rowboat but, to be truthful, it was far from a windmill towards
the end and more like an expert's.4
(Now will you be good). I have not even been up to hear
the orchestra at the Pequot for fear I should be overcome by
pleasant memories (and the bum music).
Those pictures are exceedingly
unkind to me and I hope I do not look anything like them. They
are good however considering the sun was in our faces (and the
subjects as you cruelly mentioned) Do not forget to send me the
others and if I may ask for the millioneth [sic] time for your
photo "Please! Ah! Please! I think you're the meanest girl I
ever knew" But all joking aside I assure you that I want it ever
so much. And let us keep up this correspondence, begun with such
"earnest of success" If you knew what a break it is in the dull,
monotonous existence up here I feel sure you would not refuse.
I am getting to be perfect
bookworm and read all the morning, swim in the afternoon as
usual (you said in your letter I receive no morning baths) and
read all night. Can you beat it ? It has the "Cynic Tub"5
"beaten to a pulp." Oh! Excuse me my cherie [sic] I forgot that
was one of your sore points. However do not let it "prick your
conscience" Hee! Haw!
That reminds me. I have sworn
off sarcasm as a bad job as you will probably notice in this
letter. It is a realy [sic] very contemptible thing, don't you
think so. Almost as bad as making puns....
I may be in Hartford soon "You
never can tell" I have a mind to go to Trinity just so as to be
near you. Now you must acknowledge that that is a horrible
Miss Keeney still floats
around in that hat like a nymph or a Jersey cow, I can't tell
Well the sand in my hour glass
is about run out and I must "put on the brakes" Please send me
your photo with the other pictures and thus make me even more
than I am now. Your eternal slave
Given on the 24th day of July
in the year of our Lord 1905
It is almost impossible to judge
1905 by the attitudes of the 1980s. O'Neill, like Richard Miller,
was "going on seventeen." Yet even by Richard Miller's
standards--who was not incapable of an "Aw gee!"--the tone of the
letter is young, unsophisticated to the point of naiveté. Perhaps
Booth Tarkington's Seventeen, written in 1916, brings us
closest to the unfledged quality of the world in which O'Neill was
hatching.6 However that may be,
the image the letters offer is in some contrast to that of the
tormented, masked adolescent, even though it does not deny that
other self. Happily, he wrote again the following month:
Received your most welcome
letter with the pictures inclosed [sic] yesterday. The pictures
are much better than the ones you send before don't you think so
? Thank you so much for your "half give-in" even though it be
only a half....
Would that I might see you
soon and let you complete your rowing lessons! New York was
almost as slow as New London. Everyone I know was away and it
was hot!! It makes me sweat to think of it.
I looked up Jenn Ingelow and
read "High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire". It is fine is'nt
[sic] it? That parody on "Annabel Lee" is very clever. Am glad
to hear you have learned the original. Some of the lines express
my feelings exactly especially the following:
"And neither the angels in
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee"
Except her name is not Annabel
Lee but M..... W.....
But what is it you said one time about
Life up here is just the same.
It makes the famous "Simple Life" look like "The Pace that
Kills" To say it is slow would be using language as weak as
Watts' Hymns for Infant Minds. But I go to Saratoga in a couple
of days and I hope "to wake up" I was up to one of the "hops"
last Saturday night and danced with the fair ones (not even
fair) I was bored to death and said "Never again for little
Eugene" and by the nine gods I never will unless you or someone
else that I know are there.
I don't see how anyone could
go to Darwin for enjoyment. Alex. Dumas père pour le mien. I
could read every book in the world and no heroes could ever
replace "D'artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis," "Monte Cristo"
and "Bussy" in my estimation. "Charlie Steele" however has a
Do not let Tennis take all
your thoughts because then you will forget how to row. And that
would be a great misfortune in so promising a pupil. My brother
and I swam the river this morning and I am some tired.
If you want to read some
pretty poems I recommend Thomas Moore to you. He has written
some "peaches" and I never tire reading them and have learned a
Write soon "ma cherie" [sic]
and lit [sic] up the monotonous days of
Your devoted admirer
The unexpected praise of Monte
Cristo is, of course, for the novel, not the play, but it is to be
noted that in 1899 James O'Neill had appeared successfully in a
dramatization of The Three Musketeers and followed it with an
expensive new production of Monte Cristo which was also received
with applause. Sheaffer relates that while at Saint Aloysius,
O'Neill and several of his friends whom he had taken to see The
Musketeers were reprimanded by a nun for indulging in games
imitating the sword play at which James excelled. Evidently, the
Dumas virus was not out of his system six years later.
My dear Marion:-
What is the matter? I hope you have not acquired a cramp from
playing tennis so that letter writing is forbidden. It is over a
week since I have heard from you. You will say that is not so long.
But in this modern "Sleepy Hollow" every day is composed of 24
hours, each one equivalent to ten in any other place--but why
multiply details--it is centuries since I have heard from you....
L'autre Marian was over a week ago Sunday. I took her picture and
she took mine. Will send you them when they are fixed. We missed you
very much and especially that persuasive way of yours "Please! Ah!
Pl...ease" (You see I do not forget)
The weather is so cold up here that it would cause the blush of envy
and shame to mantle the cheek of an iceberg. "And o'er the one half
world Nature seems dead"
The other night it was clear and the moon was full (but I was'nt'
[sic]) But the wind was blowing a gale and the sea was pretty high
and "mon frère et moi" went out in the boat and rowed way out in the
Sound. It was fine. The waves were so high that when we were on top
of them we could see the mortgages on the houses in Shelter Island.
All joking aside it was certainly rough and we enjoyed it immensely.
Do write soon and throw a little sunlight into the chasm of Despair
Your devoted slave
She took pity on him and wrote a letter which he answered joyfully,
describing a trip to Saratoga "where the 'Lid" is off for good." He
won a bit on the "ponies" and then "'rustled my pile' on the slot
After a while (when my cash account looked like a large minus sign)
I decided that gambling was a very bad thing anyway and that hotel
proprietors who keep slot machines ought to be lynched. I had a
releif [sic] from the dreary solitude of New London and hated to
come back. In a graveyard there is some excitement in reading the
inscriptions on the tombstones but in N.L.------
. . . I am now reading "The Laughing Man" by Victor Hugo. Have you
read it? I suppose you have, dear little book worm that you are. I
will take your advice and read "The American Prisoner" if I can get
it. I asked my brother about the other book you mentioned by
Harland, and he said he liked "The Cardinal's Snuff Box" better. I
have not read it. "My Friend, Prospero" is another good book by the
same man (and his latest).
I have met an agent for the Madison Automobile Co. and he has a 60
horse power machine worth seven thousand in which he has taken me
out. We went up to Norwich and back (29 miles) in forty minutes. I
have not been able to part my hair since I was so frightened....
Well I guess I have "snowballed my layout" of interesting things to
relate and so "Au revoir ma chèrie je vous aimerai toujours et je
vous baisserai en pensée"
Your devoted admirer
Evidently, O'Neill in 1905 had yet to reach into the world of
scandalous literature offered by the late nineteenth-century poets
which Richard Miller offered to Muriel McComber, although the use of
French suggests that he is seeking some special way of approaching
and expressing other than mundane subjects--a slightly spicy code; a
way of saying things that the prying eyes of others cannot decipher.
In his next letter, he has returned to New York City, before
returning to school.
. . . We arrived in New York Wednesday morning after a stormy
passage on the boat in which the fog horn kept me awake all night. I
was sorry to leave New London for I was beginning to have a fine
time up there. My brother, "Con" Daly (of Yale crew fame) and myself went to see "The Prodigal Son"
last night. It is a dramatization of Hall Caine's novel of that name
and is very sad. In fact all the audience were crying (to get their
money back) I suppose you have read the book? If not you have a
treat in store for you.
I came out to a farm in Jersy [sic] this morning and write from
there. It is rented from my father by a breeder of race horses. Talk
about your slow places! It has the land of the lotus eaters beaten
to a pulp. There is nothing to do but ride horse back and
And he concludes with a petition for the picture she has never sent:
"Please! Ah! Please! . . . Excuse burns on paper made in drying
The letters that follow came from Betts Academy, which is now a
"desert drear," as were most of the places from which he wrote.
I came back last Wednesday and am now pouring [sic] over Vergil Trig
etc. in an effort to compel Princeton to be charitable and let me in
next year. I love this strenuous life (as you probably noticed in
New London when I sat in back and let your row)
Boardman is back. He says the High School refused to endanger its
reputation by taking him back. He also claims he knows you well and
taught you how to skate. It seems I have a rival in the professor
When I was in New York I went around with Con Daly and my brother. I
am now recuperating from the result. I also met Shevlin the captain
of the Yale football team. He seems to me to contradict the
statements that he is a bad fellow. Daly was never really "fired" as
he gets his diploma and goes back to Law school to row on next years
Boardman wants me to come up and stay with him sometime during
Christmas. If so I will see you I suppose. That is a very unlooked
. . . As somebody has evidently been sweeping the room with this pen
I must stop. Write me soon. Your letters are the only solace to my
broken heart (which I have lost and which you have found but remain
indifferent to) Je t'aime ma cherie! Je t'aime! . . .
The trips to New York, like several in this period, were the
occasion of Eugene's introduction to the profligate ways of Jamie.
Yet they sound innocent enough--friendly excursions with Varsity men
who are not so bad as they have been painted. Somewhere here, no
doubt, O'Neill met the prototype of Wint Selby from Ah,
Wilderness!--perhaps the dissolute Boardman. Marion, in her next
letter, objected to Eugene's friendship with Boardman, but O'Neill
defended him, after apologizing for a delay in answering because of
another trip to New York City.
. . . What you said about my accepting Boardman's invitation would
be true last year but I am glad to say he has learned a lesson and
is a very good fellow. The proof of this, is that he has been
admitted to a very select secret society, composed wholey [sic] of
what is termed, good fellows. I may mention that I also am a member
and one of the framers of the constitution.
However I never had any idea of accepting his invitation (except to
see you) for little old New York is good enough for me at any
season. Have you any prospects of visiting there this year? If so I
wish you would let me know, for I should like nothing better than to
do everything I could to make your stay amusing and interesting.
Our football team played its first game Saturday with Stevens High
School and we won 17 - 0. We play Yale Freshmen next Wednesday and,
I beg of you, if you wish to have a good opinion of the school, do
not look up the score in the paper ... I am not playing football
this year but run two or three miles every day in preparation for
Whether the remark about his going out for the track team is more
than adolescent strutting is uncertain. Sheaffer presents O'Neill as
one given to long walks and solitary sessions with books, playing
only "Pitch--and-catch and occasional games of tennis."
Nevertheless, the secret society, whatever it was, somewhat belies
the image of O'Neill as a determined loner, as does his account in
his next letter of a roughhouse in the dormitory:
We had a fine "rough house" here a few weeks ago. It was at night.
All of us stuck our heads out of the windows of our rooms about one
o'clock in the morning and gave four or five Betts cheers. Having
awakened Mr. Betts the fun began. It consisted, in the main, of wet
towels and pillows and soap and pails and wastebaskets, thrown with
intent to injure the visages of the Herr Professor on our floor or
of any one else in the way. When Betts arrived on the scene, "mirabile
dictu" all doors were shut and the snores of the sleepers would have
waked the dead. When he finally did awaken us noone [sic] could give
him the least information in regard to it. I am sure he would have
beleived [sic] himself in under the influence of an hallucination
(occasioned by some of his half-cooked hash) if the weapons of the
attack had no [sic] been laying all over the hall But to this day he
does not know who were engaged in the adventure nor is he liable to
find it out....
He continued to describe a trip to New York to see the "Pearl and
Pumpkin" in which he admired only the scenery and a song or two. The
best things to be seen on that visit were "Roger Bros. in Ireland"
and "Houdini the Handcuff King" ("He certainly had me guessing").
He signed that letter (dated November 11, 1905) ". . . beleive [sic]
me to be as I have been for months and always will be, Your own
Eugene," but thereafter the correspondence died a natural death in
one final letter, written presumably near to the Christmas holiday:
My dear Marion.
It is, I suppose, useless to ask for pardon for making you wait such
a long time for an answer to your letter. All I have to say is that
it got here just before our Thanksgiving vacation and I forgot it in
the excitement of going to New York. I just happened to find it
today in my desk and determined "to do the deed before the purpose
cooled" and write you immediately. I hope I am forgiven, for I
cherish the remembrance of some of the happiest days of my life
(passed in a row boat in New London harbor) far too greatly to have
any hitch in our correspondence. I also have a picture of a certain
girl with a dog (Teddy?) which I cherish even if it is only only
[sic] a half give-in.
But to throw away the pill I was smoking and to come back to earth.
Our Christmas holidays begin on the twentieth of this month and
maybe I wo'nt [sic] be glad to get to old New York again.
So you went to see old worm eaten "Monte Cristo." It may be all
right for those who have never seen it before but for me "Back to
the Bamboo." I saw six plays during Thanksgiving vacation and we
only had five days. They were all musical comedies (I always
confessed to degraded tastes) Marie Cahill in "Moonshine" was the
best of all.
Have read quite a few books lately. "My Friend Prospero" by Henry
Harland is fine and I like it as well as the "Cardinal's Snuff Box"
Read it by all means if you have not done so already. I have also
read "The Masquerader" and "Beverly of Graustark" and "My Lady of
the North" I suppose you have read all these. I want to read "The
Clansman" but never can get it at the library. At his time of the
year when there is nothing to do in the way of sports, good books
come in very handy.
Boardman said he met you at a dance during Thanksgiving and that you
were as pretty as ever.
Well please do not take my delay as an example but write soon. I
leave Tuesday afternoon for New York so if you don't write me before
then address your letter to Lexington Hotel, 47th St between
Broadway and 6th....
The "bell invites me" to go to class so "au revoir"
Which, so far as the record goes, was the flat ending of the romance
with "Boutade." It seems evident, however, that whatever the trauma
that haunted him, whatever loneliness he felt, it is not quite
sufficient to picture him as a brooding, self-isolated youngster.
Nor is it certain that he was entirely as remembered by classmates
recorded in Sheaffer: "moody ... quite cynical ... reading books
about sex, plays that were pretty frank about marital problems." The
Boutade letters suggest an alternative innocence. Evidently he was
not going to reveal the excesses to Marion Welch, but the enthusiasm
for musical comedies and for romantic adventure stories rather than
fin-de-siècle poets suggests that there was, flowing side by side
with the darker current, a boyhood that can only be called
"regular." And it is pleasant to think that Boutade was not entirely
forgotten. The rowboat on the shore in which Richard Miller and
Muriel McComber plight their tentative troth was a precise memory.
1Cf. Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Playwright (Boston: Little,
Brown, 1968), chs. 5 and 6 passim.
2Sheaffer, p. 71.
3Marion was the daughter of a Hartford insurance doctor, George
Kellogg Welch. She was two years older than O'Neill and had just
graduated from high school. Her recollection of O'Neill that summer
was that all her set called him "the professor," because of his
intellectual interests. She added, however, that she did not tease
him. The Greens lived close to Monte Cristo cottage.
4O'Neill had been teaching her to row.
5That is, the tub in which the Cynic philosopher, Diogenes, was said
to have lived.
6Seventeen, it will be recalled, concerns a visit similar to that
made by Marion Welch. A young, baby-talking siren visits a friend
for the summer, to the devastation of the small town's young male
population, who cluster around her with adolescent squawking like
seagulls around a garbage scow.
7O'Neill had won a wager with his father by memorizing the role of
(IN THIS ISSUE)