IN SEARCH OF O'NEILL
I can hardly believe that it's been more than three decades since the day that an enterprising publisher asked Brooks Atkinson to write a life of Eugene O'Neill, and that Brooks decided--considering the monumental job of original research he knew it would entail--that he didn't have the energy. He suggested the project to ay husband and me, and--with what I now look back on as the height of youthful temerity--we agreed.
It's difficult to remember now how little was then known about O'Neill's family and the tribulations of his youth; and yet, today, scholars all over the world are intimately acquainted with the minutiae of O'Neill's life. And since you are all O'Neill scholars and presumably have read every word written by and about him, I feel that the only thing I can tell you that you don't already know is a little bit about what it was like, back in the olden days of the 50's, trying to find and milk primary source material before it vanished forever.
When my husband and I began our research, we were constantly racing to discover and interview people who had known O'Neill's family, and who were--even as we tracked them down--suffering from incapacitating strokes, or terminal alcoholism, or incipient senility--men and women in their 80's, sometimes in their 90's, who were literally at death's door.
We did not believe, with T.S. Eliot, that "the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates." Not that we doubted for a moment the "perfection" of O'Neill's art. But we were certain, as soon as we read Long Day's Journey Into Night in 1956--and from the little we did know about his life--that O'Neill, the artist, was also, intrinsically, O'Neill, the man who had suffered; that the two could not be separated; and that O'Neill's life held the clues to his art. And we determined to track down as much detail as we could about his-relations with his family, going back to his early childhood and beyond--to the forces that had shaped his parents.
In 1962, just as our biography was being published, this country was beginning to feel the tremors of a youth-rebellion that became an upheaval during the next two decades. And the details of O'Neill's youth--lived a half-century earlier--held a particular significance for our time. As Brooks Atkinson wrote in his introduction to our biography, "If the term 'beatnik' had existed in [O'Neill's] youth, he would have been recognized as a perfect example of the rootless, rebellious, dissipated, egotistical, self-pitying renegade." It was only, Brooks added, "his passion for writing [that] saved him, by imposing on him a certain discipline. He chose between dereliction and writing."
Of course, we all now know that most of O'Neill's plays--not just Long Day's Journey Into Night--were haunted by the ghosts of his father, mother, and brother, as well as his youthful self. But even Long Day's Journey, when it was first published, was recognized by only a handful of sophisticated theatre critics (such as Atkinson) and a few of O'Neill's closest friends and surviving relatives, as being autobiographical. And even they did not know to what degree it was based on the facts of his life.
The play was never intended by O'Neill to be taken as literal autobiography. It appeared to strip away all the most deeply buried O'Neill family secrets--revealing O'Neill's father as a pathological miser; his mother as a hopeless morphine addict; and his brother as an embittered, worthless drunk. But Long Day's Journey was a theatre work, and like all great works of art, it was a distortion of reality that illuminated and heightened the "real." O'Neill was under no obligation to help his future biographers decipher his life. In fact, he did his best to foil any future biographer by trying to insure that the play would not be published until 25 years after his death. That would have been 1978. I've tried to imagine what the O'Neill legend would be like if that wish had been acceded to. Dozens of people we interviewed would, of course, have been long dead, and much that was possible still to trace in the 1950's would have been totally obscured by the 1970's.
To my husband and me, Long Day's Journey became the Rosetta Stone of the O'Neill saga. It offered the clues to O'Neill's formative years, to the influences that shaped his creativity, to the sources for his early plays and to his development into the theatre giant that he ultimately became. It was vital to keep reminding ourselves, though, that the play could not be taken as literal autobiography; to remember that O'Neill, the artist, had every right to distort, suppress or exaggerate his material in any way his creative vision led him. He was making theatre, and his only commitment was to his artist's self. This could be frustrating to someone researching the facts of his life. Once accepted, though, it became an exciting challenge to try to separate the play's myth from the author's real life, and then to trace how the facts of his life--or, rather, his perception of those facts--were transmuted by him, consciously or unconsciously, into art.
To shed light, for instance, on the difficult and lonely childhood O'Neill ascribed to his alter ego, Edmund Tyrone, in Long Day's Journey, we set out to find, among others, a man we knew to have been a friend of O'Neill's during his earliest school days. We had found letters from O'Neill to this man--Joseph McCarthy--in one of several O'Neill collections that existed in the 1950's. It seemed clear, from the letters, that O'Neill and McCarthy had been intimate friends at the Catholic boarding school to which O'Neill's parents sent him at the age of seven. In one letter to McCarthy from O'Neill in 1930 (a year before he completed Mourning Becomes Electra) O'Neill had written, "Do you ever think of Sister M_____ who used to knuckle us on the bean?" Well, because we had realized by the time we came across that letter how vital a role O'Neill's early Catholic indoctrination played in his later creativity, we were very eager to find this Joseph McCarthy.
The letter had been sent to McCarthy at a New Jersey address, and we began our search there. It took days of hunting through old telephone books, visiting neighborhoods were he'd lived, until finally we found a former landlady who thought he had fallen ill and gone into a veteran's hospital--"somewhere in New York State," as she recalled. We then began writing and telephoning to all the veterans' hospitals in New York and finally were able to trace him to a hospital in the remote town of Bath, in the northwestern part of the state. Fortunately, my husband had trained as a police reporter at the New York Times, and understood that sort of research technique--which, incidentally, was often what was required, when traditional methods of scholarly inquiry proved inadequate--although, of course, we did plenty of scholarly research too. The work we were doing in those early days of the investigation into O'Neill's life was, after all, the raw research. The realization of how much of that sort of tedious legwork would be required was precisely why Brooks Atkinson had passed the job on to us.
When I called the veteran's hospital in Bath I was told that McCarthy had recently had a stroke and could not speak. I asked if he could use his hand to write, and was told he could. So I went to Bath and spent several days visiting the hospital and--with the cooperation of the hospital authorities--interviewing him. It took hours of questioning to get him to reconstruct his memories of O'Neill as a schoolboy, and what he told me ultimately filled only two pages of our 964-page biography. But the sense he conveyed of O'Neill as a young child was something only a contemporary could have provided.
And I always felt it had been well worth while to sit and ask questions and wait while McCarthy painfully scrawled out the answers on scraps of paper. He had been fond of O'Neill and was truly anxious to tell me what he remembered, such as the fact that "Gene," as McCarthy called him, "had an aura of sophistication," even at the age of eight; that he read books well beyond his years, such as the novels of Anatole France; and that, at the age of nine, he could comment, "Religion is so cold." It was astonishing how vivid the impression was that O'Neill left on McCarthy; how haunted, more than 60 years later, McCarthy still was by the ghost of that young boy.
Another man whom we unearthed, also confined to a hospital--in this case closer to home, in New York City--was James Joseph Martin. "Slim," as he was called, knew a side of O'Neill that no one else did: the ex-sailor. Slim, too, had been a sailor--as well as a construction worker and a member of the militant I.W.W. We found out about him through a woman who'd had a peripheral connection with the Provincetown Players in their pre-World War I days. Slim had a philosophical and poetic bent, and was drawn to the Players, for whom he did occasional odd jobs of building. He developed an admiration for O'Neill as a fellow-Irishman.
Slim Martin had tuberculosis, which was thought to be arrested: and he was an alcoholic, and had for some time been locked into the hospital's psychiatric ward. He had been long estranged from the daughter who was his only living relative. I persuaded Slim's social service case worker to let me visit him in the locked psychiatric ward. He seemed to me to be perfectly tame, now that he was sober, and delighted to have someone take an interest in him, especially someone who admired his old pal, Gene O'Neill. Slim was happy to strike a bargain. If I could get him transferred to a medical ward and make them give back his confiscated eye glasses, he'd spend his days writing out his recollections of his old pal. It was fairly easy to do what he asked. The social worker was only too happy to have someone share the burden of Slim's mental well being, and I promised to visit regularly, which I did, over many months, until he finally became too ill to receive visitors.
Slim went on at length, and fascinatingly, about everything from his and O'Neill's separate experiences at sea, to their shared philosophy of the downtrodden and the repressed, and their drunken arguments in the Greenwich Village bars they both loved to frequent. I have to confess that occasionally, when he would hint to me that he might be about to run out of steam, I would sneak a pint of whiskey in to Slim. It didn't seem to harm him, and it usually got him going again. The material he furnished ended up filling dozens of pages of our biography.
Like Joseph McCarthy, Slim was indelibly marked by O'Neill. He provided a most moving and poetic tribute--in its way as impressive as the admiration of O'Neill's peers, such as Sean O'Casey. Slim said that, for O'Neill, "the downtrodden, especially if they were courageous, were heroes and friends. And when O'Neill had success and adulation he would leave a group of befurred and jewelled and top-hatted socialites and those he dubbed 'the sons of Mary' to walk over and say hello and chat with one of those he called 'the sons of Martha.' And you could. be in shirt sleeves with the soil of labor black in the sweat of your face. He was truly a man and a friend."
All three of O'Neill's wives--all of them in their late 60's--were very much alive and in rude health when we began our research. The difficulty in their case was a disinclination to talk to a biographer, without all sorts of concessions and reassurances--and in one instance, blank refusal. As it turned out, Carlotta Monterey, the most difficult and temperamental of the three, became a marvelous source over the six years that we interviewed her.
Carlotta respected Brooks Atkinson greatly, because O'Neill had admired Brooks and occasionally confided in him, and Brooks asked her to see us, so she did. We had our ups and downs with her, and we always maintained the fiction that we were merely chatting with her about O'Neill and her life with him. A biography in progress was never mentioned. Sometimes she was willing to see us both together, sometimes she insisted on seeing my husband alone, and occasionally she asked to see me alone. We never took notes in her presence, because that made her nervous and self-conscious. What we would do was race away from the interview to a typewriter, and put down everything we had talked about. And at a later interview we would subtly check up on anything we thought needed confirmation or clarification.
It wasn't until the end of our research that my husband, at our attorney's suggestion, asked Carlotta if he might tape-record a session with her. To his great surprise, she said yes, and he taped an interview with her that went on for hours and has become one of our most treasured possessions. In that interview they went over much of the vital material Carlotta had already given us, including a vivid account of O'Neill's birth, as he had recounted it to her. And she added new information about O'Neill's final years, notably about their fights and separations and her confinement to a psychiatric facility near Boston, as well as their last days together in Boston. And she described the scene at his deathbed--which she said she had never told anyone about before.
Carlotta was a staggering figure in her own right, the only other person involved with O'Neill's life--except for John Reed and Louise Bryant--who I felt should herself be the subject of a work of some sort. She was so marvelously volatile and inconsistent and melodramatic, and for a very long time she seemed absolutely indestructible--even O'Neill couldn't do her in. She was amazing.
O'Neill's second wife, Agnes--the mother of Shane and Oona--would not see us because she was writing her own book about her marriage to O'Neill. But there were numerous friends and acquaintances of hers who were willing to talk to us about her life with O'Neill. And we managed to get a look at her memoirs in manuscript, shortly before our biography went to press, but we never did meet her face to face.
It was O'Neill's first wife, Kathleen Jenkins, who described to us one of the most poignant episodes of O'Neill's youth. By the time we saw her, we had already pieced together some of the story of her hasty marriage to O'Neill when they were both 20. She was, of course, already pregnant. And we also knew some of the background about her son, Eugene O'Neill, Jr.'s suicide at the age of 40 (only a couple of years before O'Neill's own death). We did not know, though, the extent of the tragedy that Kathleen's life had become, or how haunted and--evidently--guilty O'Neill felt about his love affair with her. And we became aware of how, for the rest of his life, O'Neill kept slipping bits of that relationship into his plays.
Kathleen was widowed and had also lost a younger son--from her second marriage--before Eugene, Jr., killed himself. She lived very quietly in a small town on Long Island, and seemed to be almost pathologically concerned about her reputation. She hedged about the date of her marriage to O'Neill, fearing, even though she was then close to 70, that she would, be thought of as not quite respectable by her neighbors if the true story were told. This sensitivity became understandable when we realized that she had never gotten over the humiliation of those newspaper stories trumpeting the scandal of Eugene, Jr.'s birth and her desertion by Eugene's father. O'Neill, of course, had been bullied by his father, James, into abandoning Kathleen. And soon after, O'Neill allowed Kathleen to divorce him.
The pain of that episode never really left Kathleen, and though she forgave O'Neill, she could barely bring herself to talk about their aborted romance, even though nearly 50 years had passed by the time we went to see her. What became even clearer, though, was that O'Neill never got over it either. The episode with Kathleen--his dilemma and his guilt--lingered with O'Neill to the end of his writing days. It explained his interest in the subjects of abortion and forced marriage in some of his earlier works; and even more importantly, it illuminates the relationship between the young lovers, Sara Melody and Simon Harford, in A Touch of the Poet, one of his last--and finest--plays.
And perhaps most interesting of all, we were able to find evidence of O'Neill's unconscious obsession with the Kathleen episode even in the family saga of Lone Day's Journey Into Night. Knowing about Kathleen Jenkins solved the puzzle of why, in Long Day's Journey, with all of the 24-year-old Edmund Tyrone's talk about his recent, turbulent and adventurous past, there is no mention of a marriage or the birth of-a son. As we ultimately discovered, it was during the summer of 1912, which is when Long Day's Journey is set, that Kathleen was in court divorcing O'Neill. And, indeed, O'Neill does seem to have had that on his mind while writing the play, since--into a cast of characters made up of family members--he chose to introduce only one outsider, a servant girl named Cathleen, a symbol for the unacknowledged wife, not to mention the mother of his rejected son.
In order to thoroughly absorb O'Neill's family background, to try to understand the pull of what was his only settled home--and the place, or course, that became the scene of possibly his finest play--my husband and I rented a house in New London during the spring and summer of 1958. There were numerous family members and old family friends to interview in the area, and also all the local landmarks to which references are made in Long Day's Journey, Ah, Wilderness!, A Moon for the Misbegotten and other plays: the hotel where James and his sons drank, the river where O'Neill rowed his boat and swam, the lighthouse in the Sound and, of course, Monte Cristo Cottage itself.
We had two young sons and decided to combine their summer vacation with our O'Neill research. Our boys had grown used to living with O'Neill by this time. They regarded his as a member of the family, referred to his cozily as "Gene," and weren't at all surprised to be spending their vacation in his hose town. They had, in fact, picked up our devotion to O'Neill, as children will, and made it their own. I'll never forget the day, a few months before we all embarked for New London, when my husband took our boys for a walk through the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park. They studied the bust of Shakespeare that decorates the garden and my husband overheard Michael, who was then seven, tell Peter, who was not quite five, that "Mossy says Shakespeare is the world's greatest playwright." Peter indignantly retorted, "Oh yeah? What about Gene O'Neill?"
The people of New London in 1958 did not, we quickly discovered, share the Gelb family's admiration for Gene O'Neill. One of O'Neill's relatives, who had been sent a gift copy of Long Day's Journey, had thrown it into the fire without reading it. Her anger was shared by other relatives of James and Ella O'Neill, who felt--as O'Neill had feared they would--that he had betrayed his family. But it wasn't only family who found O'Neill a distasteful subject.
The New London elite had always taken a snobbish attitude toward all the O'Neills, whom they regarded as shanty Irish, as drunken riffraff. Some of the town's elderly residents refused to talk to us. New London in the '50's seemed oblivious to Eugene O'Neill's stature and, indeed, took positive pleasure in its hostility to him. O'Neill had had an adolescent fantasy that we learned about from one of his local friends the summer we spent in New London. In this fantasy, O'Neill would make a lot of money, hire a horse-drawn carriage and then, as he put it, "fill it full of painted whores, load each whore with a bushel of dimes, and let then throw the money to the hoi polloi on a Saturday afternoon."
In a way this childish fantasy of vindication and revenge has been fulfilled. Today, of course, the Monte Cristo Cottage has become a museum that New Londoners are proud of; there is a Eugene O'Neill Avenue in town, and the O'Neill Theater Center flourishes in the neighboring town of Waterford.
One of the most startling discoveries we made during our New London summer concerned another strange omission in Long Day's Journey. In the play, as we all know, Edmund Tyrone becomes almost inarticulate with rage at the thought that his wealthy father is going to allow him to be a charity patient at a state farm for tuberculars. James is then shamed, in the play, into sending his son, instead, to a heavily-endowed, semi-private sanitarium.
Everyone we interviewed in New London took it for granted that this was what had actually happened, because they all knew that O'Neill had, in fact, recovered his health at the Gaylord Farm Sanitarium, a heavily-endowed, semi-private institution in Wallingford, Connecticut. O'Neill set his early play, The Straw, in Gaylord Farm and subsequently gave numerous interviews about the place--whereas he never mentioned the state farm referred to in Long Day's Journey Into Night until he wrote the play.
But we discovered a discrepancy, through other research, between O'Neill's date of departure from New London, and his arrival at Gaylord Farm--a difference of two weeks--and we wondered if, indeed, his father had sent his first to a state farm, as James Tyrone threatens to send Edmund in Long Day's Journey.
We pointed out this discrepancy to people like O'Neill's New London girl friend and the nurse who had cared for his when he developed pleurisy and then T.B.--both women in whom he had confided. And neither of them thought it possible that James O'Neill had actually sent his son to a poor farm. They--and all the other friends and relatives we talked to--had always believed O'Neill went straight to Gaylord, and no one could account for the gap of two weeks between the day he left New London and the day he arrived at Gaylord.
And so, on a hunch, I began a search in the area for sanitaria that had existed in 1912, and found the Fairfield County State Tuberculosis Sanitarium in Shelton. And then I tracked down and interviewed the doctor who had received O'Neill there and who quickly suggested he leave and apply instead to Gaylord. And we concluded--and wrote--that apparently O'Neill's first destination had been "an ugly secret between father and son."
It wasn't until later that we came across a brief item in the local newspaper dating back to 1912 saying that O'Neill was going for a rest cure to Shelton, a few miles southeast of Wallingford. That discovery could have saved us some trouble and time, but it had little bearing on the issue. We referred to the news item in our biography, adding that no one among the dozens of New Londoners we interviewed recalled having noticed it at the time. Here was one more crucial example of the way in which O'Neill played with the facts of his life, distorting them to heighten the tragedy of Long Day's Journey.
And tragedy was what O'Neill insisted upon. Brooks Atkinson once commented to us that he believed O'Neill's life had not been any more tragic, intrinsically, than many other lives. But where others had managed to shake free of childhood despair, to laugh in its face, O'Neill chose to be its prisoner. He was haunted and hounded by the tragedy of his birth, of having been unwanted, of having (so he believed) driven his mother to drugs, of being preordained for disaster. He spent his life in the obsessive telling and retelling of this saga of doom.
O'Neill used the despair of his childhood and youth as a rationale for rebellion. He used it to seek--by unconventional means--for a truth beyond the accepted conventions. And he succeeded--as one or two such rebels do in every generation--in molding the tragedy of his youth into art. His inner vision never wavered. Even on his deathbed O'Neill insisted on the fateful pattern set for him at birth. I'll never forget Carlotta re-enacting for us, in tears, the scene at O'Neill's deathbed, and his dying words: "Born in a hotel room, and Godammit died in a hotel room!" No dramatist ever wrote himself a better exit line.
-- Barbara Gelb
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