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Death at Dawn

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1

During this time Gene was going to the Provincetown Theatre on Macdougal Street almost every afternoon and evening, and often I was with him. Ile was produced, and The Long Voyage Home; and there was much happening that may be of importance to those interested in the theater, particularly in the early days of the Provincetown group, that I am not going to put down here, even though Gene was a pivotal part of it all. People I knew and liked, some of whom I grew to love—Jig and Susan, Jimmy Light and dear Sue Jenkins, Nina Moise, Donald Corley and Dave Carb: Teddy and Stella Ballantine, and of course, young Saxe Commins. Jimmy Light later became director of the Provincetown Players, giving everything he had to it. Don Corley visited us frequently, a poetic and whimsical man, not quite of this world; Dave Carb, one of the original group in Provincetown, became outwardly conventional and wrote about the theater in Vogue: Teddy Ballantine—everyone knows his fine acting and excellent parts in motion pictures, although now I understand he has returned to his painting—and Saxe Commins, later Gene's closest friend, standing by him in a period of despair, was to become a well-known editor and one of the partners in Random House. All that went on, the excitement, the rehearsals, the talk, the audiences—so much and so interesting and yet were I to put down even a part of it here, this would not be part of a long story, but the first volume of an epic. A play was produced by Maxwell Bodenheim; another play of Susan Glaspell—The Outside; In the Zone was up at the Comedy Theatre: and the Provincetown put on a play by that talented young writer Michael Gold. . . . The winter grew colder and colder and Gene bought a nubby blue overcoat, which he was to wear until the late fall, when Shane was born.

2

This overcoat was thrown over me, and I think it covered part of Gene, too, the first night we spent together. White Nights, Gene used to say of such occurrences, and I will use the expression though I am not quite sure what it means. Perhaps the white and dazzling cold of the night streets suggested it—a cold that penetrated into the rooms and the apartments and which, I am sure, caused the gas—or was it the water mains?—to freeze. Walking along the streets became a perilous interlude between places where one sat and talked and ate; there was ice below and white sky above, and the air was so sharp that it hurt as one breathed. . . .

Sometimes Gene carried a thin leather portfolio with him, though not often, and this night he had it clutched tightly in one cold hand while the other held my arm. We had left Polly's restaurant and were going to a small apartment that belonged to some friend of Hutch Collins. Hutch had phoned us while we were eating dinner, and said to come over after we finished. "It must be like this in Russia," I said on an outgoing frozen breath, and then knew I had made a mistake, for under the passing street light I saw Gene's mouth turn cruel and scornful.

Hutch opened the door for us and took us into a dingy and sparsely furnished front room. There was a smaller room behind it, seen through a partly curtained arch, much the same as the other except that one could glimpse an unmade double bed. Gene took a pint of Old Taylor from his overcoat, and Hutch got glasses and we all sat down. Hutch tried to make me some coffee but the gas was frozen, so he found an old can of Sterno among some debris in a cupboard, and some was made over that. Gene was in a dark and pensive mood, expressing himself at intervals about what went on at the theater. I think that 'Ile was in rehearsal, and In the Zone (of which he spoke scornfully) was a success. Hutch Collins, warm and simple and quiet, was not saying much. Someone knocked, and he went to the door again and came back with a tall, bleak, hard-faced character whom I had seen several times at the Provincetown Theatre, not understanding exactly why he was there . . . Scotty! . . . I had also met him with Gene several times, drinking and giving his opinion about this and that.

Scotty did not like me. He already felt that I was (or would be) interfering in his relationship with Gene. I wondered how he had found out where Gene was—but he was always very smart about that. Gene now addressed most of his remarks to the newcomer, who in turn gave advice, sided with Gene, and urged him on to taking action in whatever it was all about. I began to get bored with his talk on subjects which I was sure he knew nothing about, and this feeling was shared by Hutch, who would look at me silently once in a while, in understanding or perplexity. Scotty was encouraging Gene in his bad mood, with a shrewdness which was obvious to us but not to Gene, and implying that the young playwright was always right about everything. He was very much the center of things now that he was there and he emphasized this by glancing constantly at a large flat cardboard box, which he had brought with him and had placed beside him on the couch: as if to say that this was important, too, keeping us meanwhile in suspense.

After talking with Gene for a while he got up and opened this box, spreading out on the couch some exquisite tablecloths and bureau scarves, made of batiste, with fine lace and drawn work. He wanted Hutch Collins to buy one to take home to his wife, telling him he could have it for ten dollars, whereas it was worth nearer seventy-five, but not explaining how he got these things. . . . Afterward he devoted himself to Gene, whose intense excited eyes were now fixed only on him.

Hutch Collins got restless and I began to get sleepy, thinking it was time to get back to the Brevoort, but I didn't want to leave Gene. While they were talking, Hutch and I went through the back room to a sort of wall kitchenette that they had in small apartments then and, standing talking to me, Hutch tried to get what was left of the Sterno going for more hot coffee, for the apartment was getting colder and colder. When we returned Scotty had produced from somewhere a quart of liquor and had poured out two large glasses for himself and Gene. (I think that this legerdemain of producing a bottle when it seemed that there was no more to be had was one of Scotty's greatest charms.)

Hutch Collins, who drank a great deal but never showed it and was very quiet, poured himself an even larger drink and sat down on the couch. Scotty, who observed everything, gave him a derogatory glance, implying that Hutch was unwanted. He managed to convey to us, without a word, that Hutch Collins and I were outsiders, that he alone understood and was the intimate companion of the young playwright, and what were we doing here?

Hutch sat on the couch, saying nothing, and I, taking a creaky willow chair, also silently waited and was watched covertly by Scotty—though he was careful to give Gene the impression that he was giving him his complete attention. Then there came one of those long silences that so often followed a speech of Gene's and which those who understood him and were his friends did not break—for one knew that it would be breaking into his continued (though silent) stream of thought. Scotty said nothing, but I knew he had me on his mind—how to get rid of me. When Hutch and I were in the kitchen we had heard Scotty suggesting that he and Gene leave and go elsewhere but Gene had ignored this and evidently intended to stay where he was; which, of course, seeing it was Gene's wish, Scotty was too wise to oppose. Hutch Collins, he knew, would go before long, for he had a wife and children somewhere uptown. But me—?

I was watching Gene's face, as one does when one is in love (probably with a foolish expression on my own), when Scotty came to my side, holding a kitchen glass two thirds full of yellow liquor and for the moment pretending that I was a little queen—but with quite other ideas in his mind.

"Here—drink this," he said solicitously. "It's the best—got it off a boat!"

I shook my head, for one smell of the stuff was enough to knock me over, and Scotty, unable to suppress a baleful look at me, went back to his conversation with Gene. I sat there in a sort of daze, listening. Hutch, sitting erect on the couch, dozed off for a moment, holding his glass in his hand. He looked tired and unhappy. It was nearly four o'clock. There was a long silence, and at last Scotty seemed to sense that the topic they had been discussing had come to an end, at least for Gene. He didn't like this and began fishing around in his pockets and at last brought out a clipping, at which he stared.

It was not until he began to read it aloud that I realized the morose look was his idea of expressing a sudden poetic mood that had overcome him. Gene listened silently. It was a poem, cut from the Journal-American . . . something about craving a ship . . . and long furrows; and I remember perversely thinking that the furrows reminded me more of those on Scotty's face than on any sea.

Scotty began the second verse, and Gene's face hardened: he regarded Scotty with malevolence.

"Tear it up!" he exclaimed. Scotty folded it carefully and put it back in his pocket, conveying angrily at the same time that Gene was not in a state to appreciate good poetry.

Gene stood up; he filled his empty glass with the yellow liquor, and held it insecurely in his hand. It was as if he were searching for something in the past, his eyes moving vaguely around the room, perhaps on that same search. After a moment he began to recite a poem:

"Ah,—the wind on my forehead that might not blow
on the earth. . . .
I saw the lights of a ship march slowly over the sea.
And the land fell away behind me, and into the night
That covereth all things and passes no more for me.
My heart went dreaming . . ."

"Swinburne!" Scotty said scornfully. He was clever enough to combat Gene at times. "'My heart'—ha-ha—! 'Dreaming'! Good old stuff!" But he'd made a bad mistake—for Gene was quoting Richard Middleton.

But Gene did not hear him; again he paused; again that absent search. . . .

"I am only a dream that sings,
In a strange large place,
And beats with impotent wings
Against God's face,
The darkness is all about,
It hides the blue,
But I conquer it with my shout
And pierce it through.
And the golden cities rise up,
Till I am as space,
And the earth is my drinking cup,
And my resting place. . . ."

Scotty was hurt, staring gloomily at his feet while Gene recited. But Hutch woke and listened and I saw real love in his eyes. Hutch had an inner integrity, a sort of inner purity under his tough newspaperman appearance. He worked on one of the big newspapers uptown during the day, supported his family, but at night came down and rehearsed at the Provincetown Theatre. He died very suddenly the following year and I remember what a great shock it was to Gene and to me too.

It was about this time that the door opened silently and the owner of the apartment came in. I cannot remember his name, or who he was, hard as I try, for we never went to his place again. He was quiet and dark and moved noiselessly, and I remember getting the impression that nothing that happened made any difference to him or interfered with what was going on in his mind. He spoke to Gene and Hutch—but pointedly ignored Scotty, who then rose up and took his box and left with sarcastic dignity.

I felt the cold coming through the chair, through the floors and the walls, through my coat and into my bones, and must have shown it, for Hutch asked me if I wanted more coffee, and went in to try and make it. Gene and the other were seated, speaking to each other only at intervals, and so I got up and went back to where Hutch was, and sat on the bed watching the little blue flame heating the pot. . . .

Suddenly Gene, tall and menacing, stood in the door between the two rooms. Then I felt his hand heavily on my shoulder and I was pulled to my feet and pushed through the door to the other room and left standing there, dazed, not knowing what had happened. The quiet dark man raised his eyebrows slightly, then lowered them.

"Have a drink?" he said, rising and holding a glass toward me. Gene had seated himself again. This time I gulped some of the awful stuff, shivering. I could feel it warming me as it burned its way down my throat. A moment later Hutch came in with a cup of coffee, and I swallowed that also and then sat down in the willow chair.

Gene sat there expressionless, without saying a word. Hutch was calm, as if nothing had happened. He didn't say anything to Gene except that he had to get uptown. In spite of our host urging him to stay and sleep on one of the couches, he took his hat and turning up the collar of his overcoat, left us. The quiet dark man picked up a newspaper and started to read it.

Gene was silent. He looked tired and bitter and sick, and after a moment he got up and went into the next room. I heard the bed creaking as he lay down. I just sat there, feeling the temporary warmth of the liquor and the coffee, not able to think. The dark man offered me a cigarette, saying nothing; I said something about this being very inconvenient for him but he told me it was all right, he was used to sleeping on the couch. He pulled out an old, moth-eaten bearskin carriage robe from a closet and sat regarding it, and then Gene called me and I went in.

He was lying under a tumbled quilt that he had tried to pull about him unsuccessfully. His overcoat was on the floor beside the bed. I lifted it up and placed it over him. "Lie down!" he said, and I did, not even taking off my coat, for the cold was penetrating everything, and I could see my breath in a faint vapor as I lay there, hearing Gene breathing beside me. The only light came from the next room, and I could hear the dark man groan as he wrapped himself in the bearskin robe before he turned the light off.

Gene was motionless lying beside me under the heavy cotton quilt, which seemed to have an unpleasant quality of its own, damp and smelling of mildew and spilled beer. He turned over, without saying a word, his face to the wall. After a while I pulled the overcoat that covered him partly over myself and got as close to his back as I could, for I was suffering from the cold, and that must have warmed me a little, for before I knew it images of places, and faces of people that I had never seen were forming behind my eyelids. Then I was asleep.

A faint light was coming through the window when I awoke. I could see Gene's head close to the wall, as if he had not moved during the night, and as I slipped out of the bed I tucked my part of the overcoat against his back. In the next room, completely covered by the bearskin robe, the dark man slept, snoring. There was no mirror; I combed my hair as best I could, straightened my coat, and put on my gloves. I was not sure of just where this place was or just how to get back to the Brevoort and I hesitated, wondering if I should awake the man on the couch and ask him. Looking out through the window to the street I saw that it must be ten or eleven o'clock. I stood there in a sort of daze, wondering what I should do. I did not want to wake Gene, and he would probably sleep for another couple of hours.

I couldn't stay here either; the same restless nervousness that had wakened me made me want to leave. I wanted to walk along the street and feel the snow crunching beneath my feet and yet something made me long to stay. If only he was awake—And, standing there in miserable indecision I felt I could not leave until I had spoken to him—at least to tell him that I was going. . .

"What are you doing?"

I turned and saw Gene standing in the doorway. His eyes were burning; he was pallid and he needed a shave. I remember that he was wearing his dark blue high-necked sweater, salvaged from his trip to Southampton as an able-bodied seaman, under his coat. He gave me a dark look. "Where is my portfolio?"

I did not know and somehow I felt panicked by this question. We looked around the room, and then I saw that it had slipped down behind the end of the couch. I picked it up and handed it to Gene. He looked inside, smiling scornfully to himself, threw it in on the bed, and then picked up a glass, two thirds full of liquor that had been left on the small table. He stared at it—and then with a shudder he drank it. I had my hand on the door but I did not open it, wondering what he was going to do. I only had to wait a moment until after the liquor had burned down his throat.

He began talking and I stood there listening to him, amazed and shocked and yet somehow untouched. He began a tirade against me, couched in language that he had learned at sea and in the dives of the waterfront and I listened for a while and then opened the door and went out.

3

In looking back over what I have written and trying to place events in the order, more or less, that they occurred, nothing much has been said of what we talked about when we were together, either alone or at intervals between the conversation of others. It was, among other things, the charm of his words and voice that tightened the net in which I was being caught. His speech was often hesitant; pauses or intervals in which, if one listened, one caught the meaning of what he could not put into words.

The war was going on and he talked about that—or rather against it. With bitter sarcasm he told of how he had taken long lonely walks across the Provincetown dunes and had been arrested by two Secret Service men and held for a short time as a spy. There seems to be a suspicious attitude in the United States against people who take long walks. A year or so later when Gene and I spent the winter in the Old House in Ocean County one of the old neighbor women with whom I was friendly hesitated and then confidingly asked me if Mr. O'Neill didn't take drugs?

Gene retained not only a certain scornful bitterness tinged with humor about the Provincetown episode, but a certain defiance as to what he would or would not do if any similar encounter turned up. It was wartime and he was not in uniform and looked of draft age. He was secretly conscious of this, which, looking back, seems a queer streak in him. I don't recall if he had a draft card exempting him because of his tuberculous record or not, but because of that he certainly would have been exempted. I think the only disillusionment about him at this time (which of course I put quickly out of my mind) was when one afternoon two officers in uniform came into the back room of the Golden Swan and began looking around—obviously they meant business. I was sitting with Gene at a corner table and somehow expected he would rise up and denounce these people, as he had often said he would do should they approach him.

They did approach him and began questioning him, or asked for his draft card, I forget which, and with a queerly disappointed feeling I saw him immediately become overfriendly—although when they first entered I had seen a somber tightening of his lips, accompanied by a quick swallowing. . . .

He was ashamed of this, I know, though he did not try to explain it, and it was that night he got very drunk and some of the Hudson Dusters gang having come into the back room he decided to join them and become their leader. It all ended in a big fracas, with Harold de Polo "bottling" someone in Gene's defense.

He talked also about people, about Hutch Hapgood, Mary Pyne, and Terry Carlin, whom I hadn't met yet and who was to be a part of our life for a long time; and about Jig and Susan, and others who were members of the Provincetown Players group: but again this is strange, it does not seem to me that he spoke too much about those who were really closest to him. For his conversation about people would often seem to be the release of a certain sarcastic enjoyment of their actions and motives—perhaps he was following out some pattern about life or people which was working in his mind. Life was a dark, sardonic thing, lit with alcohol and bitter dreams, and he was the poet, with "vine leaves in his hair. . . ."

Thus Spake Zarathustra . . . This book had more influence on Gene than any other single book he ever read. It was a sort of Bible to him, and he kept it by his bedside in later years as others might that sacred book. In those early days in the Village he spoke often of Zarathustra and other books of Friedrich Nietzsche, who at that time moved his emotion rather than his mind. He had read the magnificent prose of this great and exciting man over and over again, so that at times it seemed an expression of himself. I have some copies of Nietzsche that belonged to him, which he bought and read before I knew him, and which are copiously marked. . . .

Gene often carried in his pocket a small blue volume of poems he had purchased that fall, for I found that book too, recently, with Eugene O'Neill, 1917, written on the flyleaf. The cover had been chewed by a mouse, and there is a cigarette burn on the outer edge. Some of the pages are clean and white, others have been much read. . . . This book brought back much to me, and with a certain sadness . . . and there was a sense of discovery too, for as I read them again, after this long time, it seemed to me that those poems he loved best in the book really dramatized something of himself as he was then.

He would read and quote these poems often, and now it gives me a strange and rather disturbed feeling—as if I see Gene himself, know him again as he had once been. It disturbed me because I began to wonder which was Gene and which was the poem—was it that the poem expressed him and what he felt? Or had he read the poem and from it created an image of himself?

This is not exactly fair to him, because it happens to most of us—that we find or read something at times which expresses to us what we are, or exactly how we feel about something, about which before we were inarticulate. These poems of Richard Middleton's—how many people know about them, or read them now? They seem beautiful to me, and then again I am not able to judge, because I am influenced by their being so much a part of O'Neill. . . .

It was from these poems of Richard Middleton's that he quoted that night, while Hutch, Scotty and I listened. . . .

4

After returning that morning to my room at the Brevoort, my confusion was worse than it had been after the party where Gene turned back the face of the clock—but of a different nature. I was too tired to even try to think. I took a bath and lay down on the bed to try and get together, into some shape, my feeling about what had happened. . . . When the telephone rang I was not going to answer it; then, alas, did there not come some hectic feeling that maybe he was calling, that he wanted to tell me that he was sorry?

But it was Christine. . . . I listened, wishing I had not answered. She had tried to get me the night before because she was anxious to tell me about a place she thought I should take—a small two-room apartment—but I'd have to decide right away. (I had told her that I didn't want to stay at the Brevoort any longer, and to see if she couldn't find a place.) I listened but it didn't make too much of an impression on me—perhaps I was too tired.

I lay there thinking of many things Gene had said to me—about people, about himself. A colder and more realistic picture of him seemed to come to me, and this frightened me and made me very unhappy, for I didn't want it to be so. A part of me kept saying, This isn't true, this isn't so, he is all you think he is. Yet I thought of many things. I remembered too vividly the time the two men in the Hell Hole asked him about his draft card. I recalled a remark he had made in the same place, mockingly perhaps—but was it true?—what he wanted in a woman was mistress, wife, mother, and valet. I recalled his ironic and unkind comments about supposed friends—people to whom he was charming when face to face.

I thought about his work—what had I seen of it? 'Ile, In the Zone . . . a small volume of plays called Thirst. Why had I been so certain and confident of his genius? Was I wrong? Had my feeling for him deceived me? Then I remembered the poetry he had quoted the night before and how he had moved me. I recalled things he had told me about his Honduras trip, and about being at sea . . . and I weakened.

Then I thought of last night again—that speech, those bitter, exacerbating words. Where had they come from—what did he mean? He was full of spite—even of hatred. Looking back over the evening I could find no reason in what I had said or done for the way he treated me. I wept. . . .

I can't take this sort of thing from him, I thought fiercely, getting up from the bed. The thing to do was to move out of here, get the apartment that Christine had mentioned and not see him again.

It was after four o'clock when I dressed and went down to the desk after calling Christine. I had definitely decided to take the apartment anyhow, though, to be truthful, I had not, I'm afraid, made up my mind as to Gene.

Before I could tell the clerk that I was planning to leave he handed me a bulky manila envelope, slightly soiled. I opened it, and seeing that it was a typed copy of the Moon of the Caribbees I took it upstairs, forgetting to tell the clerk my intention of leaving, and took it from the envelope. There was no letter—only a poem by Middleton, written in pencil on a small piece of paper.

I am only a dream that sings
In a strange, large place,
And beats with impotent wings
Against God's Face.

No more than a dream that sings
In the streets of space;
Ah, would that my soul had wings,
Or a resting place!

 

 
 

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