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prologue: Homecoming

On a Sunday in May, 1931, Eugene O'Neill stood on the deck of the Holland-America liner Statendam as the ship neared the United States. Beside him was his third wife, the beautiful and reportedly rich actress Carlotta Monterey. They were returning from an exile of three years, after a courtship that had extended over half the globe. The playwright's figure was straight and slender; his face was lean, the features finely drawn; his eyes were dark and probing.

As for Carlotta, the artist Neysa McMein described her then as "possessing the beauty of all women, of all races, of all time. Even another woman was aware of that. She was so beautiful that she made you suddenly afraid." Within a year the great photographers of the thirties -- Nicholas Muray, Ben Pinchot, and others -- filled the society and fashion pages with portraits of this royal couple of the arts.

O'Neill was forty-two. He had been honored in the United States as a great literary figure whose plays had revitalized the American theater, his work was being performed in South America, in France and in Germany, and the Kamerny Theater of Russia had toured Europe with several of his plays in its repertory. His output had been impressive. To date, he was the author of nineteen full-length plays. He had published six one-act plays while still in his twenties. Three times during the past decade he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Yale University had conferred on him an honorary degree and had placed a bronze bust of him in its Drama School. He had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Now, in 1931, he told drama critic George Jean Nathan, he was happy for the first time in his life. Talking with Nathan in London, he said his new-found happiness had "stood tests which would have wrecked it, if it wasn't the genuine article." He added, "I feel as if I had tapped a new life."

No one seeing the couple together could doubt that O'Neill's exaltation stemmed from his happy marriage with Carlotta Monterey. When they celebrated their second wedding anniversary two months later he gave her a copy of his new play, Mourning Becomes Electra, with this moving inscription:

I have known your love with my love even when I have seemed not to know; I have seen it even when I have appeared most blind; I have felt it warmly around me always (even in my study in the closing pages of an act!) -- sustaining and comforting, a warm, secure sanctuary for the man after the author's despairing solitude and inevitable defeats -- a victory of love-in-life. Mother and wife and collaborator! I love you!

On that Sunday in May, after the liner docked, O'Neill and his wife checked into the Hotel Madison on East Fifty-eighth Street. There was nothing, seemingly, on the horizon to mar this homecoming. He told a friend that he felt he was just at the right age to "begin to learn." In addition, he had everything to back him up now -- love, security, peace and fame. He said he looked forward with confidence to years of undisturbed hard work and of giving himself up to the joy of living. Now he could even pick up the loose ends of his past life.

He had made arrangements through his friend and lawyer, Harry Weinberger, to bring his two children by his second wife -- Oona, then five, and Shane, twelve -- into New York to visit him. His anger at their mother, Agnes Boulton, occasioned by the divorce suit, was ended. He sent word to Shane to tell her that he was sorry, sincerely sorry, and to say that all the bitterness had got burned out of him when he was in a hospital in the Far East. The future years would prove this, he said. He also planned to see Eugene junior -- his son by his first wife -- who was completing his third year at Yale. Eugene, a brilliant student who showed promise as a poet, had made Phi Beta Kappa and had been tapped for the most exclusive of Yale's senior societies, Skull and Bones.

Confident of himself and his future, O'Neill had agreed to appear at a press conference at the offices of the Theatre Guild the following Thursday afternoon; but, as always, his address and phone number were a guarded secret. The occasion for the interview was the forthcoming production of the new O'Neill play, Mourning Becomes Electra.

On Wednesday, May 20, just a block south of where O'Neill and Carlotta were staying, Ralph Barton, a celebrated New Yorker magazine caricaturist, composed a note for the newspapers. On the bed before him was a photograph of his former wife and a book of cartoons entitled Suburbia. In the flyleaf of the book was an inscription she had written while they were still married -- "To Ralph sometime on a certain Friday or was it Saturday?" It was signed "Carlotta."

I have run from wife to wife [Barton wrote], from house to house and from country to country in a ridiculous effort to escape from myself. . . . In particular, my remorse is bitter over my failure to appreciate my beautiful lost angel, Carlotta, the only woman I ever loved and whom I respect and admire above all the rest of the human race. I do hope that she will understand what my malady was and forgive me a little. I kiss my dear children and Carlotta.

Then Barton shot himself in the head.

Harold Ross, editor of The New Yorker and an intimate friend of both O'Neill and Barton, broke the news to the O'Neills. It was Carlotta who first received the word, and her reaction clearly indicated that she didn't envision her involvement in the publicity that would be given to the suicide. However, she soon found her name brought into the newspaper stories about the case, when Homer Barton, the artist's brother, told the press that Ralph had visited the O'Neills shortly before he killed himself.

"My brother was still in love with his third wife, Carlotta Monterey," Homer told The New York Times, "and the realization that he had lost her broke his heart. It was a matter of impulse, I am sure, for Ralph was very impulsive. When Mr. and Mrs. O'Neill came to New York, he paid them a friendly visit."

To the O'Neills this was a most unpleasant development, and they wondered whether they should even acknowledge the statement by issuing a denial. They consulted with Harry Weinberger and they decided that they would not meet the press to discuss the matter. O'Neill, of course, was committed to a press conference later that week at the Theatre Guild; he would keep that engagement, but he would make no comment there on the Barton suicide. On that matter the O'Neills' answer would be confined to a formal statement issued to the press by Weinberger:

Mr. and Mrs. O'Neill have asked me to state that contrary to newspaper reports of statements by Homer Barton, brother of Ralph Barton, they have not seen Mr. Ralph Barton since their return to the United States and Mrs. O'Neill, the former Carlotta Monterey, desires to state that she never saw or heard from Mr. Barton since her divorce more than five years ago.

The newspapers made the most of this dramatic situation. On the day of the funeral, the New York Journal said that Barton had had ninety-two girls in his life but "no one came to mourn him today. Of these, he loved one. She was not there for a final look at the man she once held tightly in her arms."

Homer Barton persisted in drawing attention to the O'Neill aspect of his brother's suicide. "If Carlotta won't see him," Homer told reporters, "nobody shall see him. It is the O'Neill influence that has kept Carlotta from this final farewell to Ralph."

On Thursday afternoon, O'Neill arrived at the Guild Theatre on West Fifty-second Street. Surrounded by some thirty reporters, he agreed to being questioned by one of them in the presence of the others. Joseph Heidt, press agent for the Guild, called on John Chapman, then a reporter on the drama desk of the Daily News, to act as spokesman for the group.

"O'Neill was pallid and shaking and sweating when he faced me," Chapman, now the drama critic of the News, has recalled. "For that matter, so was I."

O'Neill talked freely about Mourning Becomes Electra, but this was not what the reporters wanted to hear. At the end of the theater part of the interview, Chapman said, "We're sorry, Mr. O'Neill, to have to ask you some personal questions, but our desks have ordered us to."

To all of Chapman's questions about Barton's suicide O'Neill replied that he had no comment to make. He pointed out that his attorney had issued a statement emphatically denying that he or his wife had seen Barton. Chapman called attention to Homer Barton's statements, and finally O'Neill volunteered a possible explanation.

"We hadn't seen him since our arrival on Sunday," he said. "As far as I know, I never met Ralph Barton. He did not call on us. I do not question his brother's sincerity, for Mr. Barton might have told him he called. He was in a very peculiar mental state. I know that he had made no effort to see Mrs. O'Neill."

Barton's body was cremated and his ashes were shipped to Kansas City, where he had been born and raised. The incident was soon forgotten, but in casting the shadow of tragedy over the jubilation of a happy homecoming it exemplified the recurrent theme of paradox in the playwright's life -- private disaster linked with public triumphs, pain with joy, beauty with ugliness and light with darkness. Perhaps no other artist has ever "lived" the emotional content of his material so directly, or expressed it with such awesome truthfulness, as did this man who experienced and created the haunted world and haunted life of Eugene O'Neill.

The Count and the Convent Girl

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