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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 1


What Did Eugene O’Neill Look Like Naked?:
Trouble in the Flesh

William Davies King
University of California, Santa Barbara

“He was stark naked now.”[1]

The “he” in this short paragraph is Eugene O’Neill, in a manner of speaking. By this same manner of speaking, we see him stark naked, full frontal, with Agnes Boulton suggesting that he turn onto his “tummy” so she can direct “some sort of electric heat lamp” to his sore back. She massages his shoulders for a while, and then suddenly he grabs her, pulls her down onto the bed with him, and unfastens her clothing, saying, “Jill! I want you! I want you! I need you!” That “tumescence” of his—the tumescence of America’s greatest playwright, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, that “sudden rise of sexual greed” which “gave his eyes new brightness”—advances to its “brief moment of climax.”[2] (Ars longa, vita brevis, indeed!) This episode is, perhaps, the stickiest moment in the biography of Eugene O’Neill, though of course it is not to be found, as such, in any of the existing biographies of O’Neill, because such is not the manner of speaking of biographers.

An unexpected, sudden, final . . . (What should we call it? Act of coition? Tumble in the hay? Gene would have used a shorter word.) . . . under a sun lamp, late in December of 1927, would leave Agnes pregnant, or possibly pregnant, or putatively pregnant, or at any rate soon to be in need of an abortion (effected in March of 1928 in the apartment of Mary Blair). Gene had already made the decision to leave Agnes for Carlotta. He had already sent the fateful “I love someone else” letter, but then there she was, in his hotel room, with the sun lamp, and, sure enough, his tummy turned. Or rather, as a matter of fact, the event took place in her hotel room. Agnes had a cold, and Gene suggested that she might benefit from using a sun lamp, which was in his room. He brought the lamp to her room, discovered her lightly clad, and the love-making episode occurred then and there.[3]

To Gene, the whole episode would come to seem like proof that Agnes had always been an unworthy wife, a Strindbergian female demon. To Agnes, it would seem like proof and confirmation of what the psychiatrist Mortimer Flowers had told her: “Your husband is not a person.”[4] Life would go on, for a few more pages anyway. Strange Interlude was shortly to open, the commercial climax of O’Neill’s career, and he would be married to Tanager Bolt for the rest of his life, but the life story sticks with that [short word], which the biographer glosses over and I put into quotation marks or brackets or euphemism. We need pulp fiction to get to that level of truth, that degree of verbatim. Academic discourse doesn’t go there.

Eugene O’Neill, naked, comes to us, not by way of biographer, but in a novel called Trouble in the Flesh, published by Doubleday in 1959. The author was Max Wylie, and the characters were all disguised by the line that we typically see on a copyright page: “All of the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” Not so purely coincidental is the fact that Wylie had had long conversations with Agnes in the years immediately preceding the publication of his novel and that she had let him read long, painful letters disclosing the sticky facts of sun lamps and psychiatrists and sex.

Obviously, Wylie was performing a standard literary maneuver in using the facts he knew as the matter of good story. Life becomes fiction by a change of name. From biography to fiction, the slip can be hardly more than a few syllables. Agnes and Gene become Jill and Seton Farrier. Richard Madden, George Tyler, Jamie O’Neill, and others, all recur under new names. Some characters are composites, such as the psychiatrist Mortimer Flowers, who is a combination of Drs. Gilbert Hamilton and Smith Ely Jelliffe. And Tanager Bolt blends aspects of Carlotta and Louise Bryant into a hideous femme fatale. Carlotta is naked, too, in this book, exhibiting a mismatch of entrancing face and hideous legs, nice tits, bad pins (those gams!), always that combination of beauty and beast--a depiction that, by the way, is not borne out by photographic evidence of the Monterey physique.

Of what use to the historian are documents such as this novel? History rarely records the naked body, or at least so it was before the internet, but the roman à clef might give that unexpected peep. The novelist has license to use history, then expose it, but with what license (or licentiousness) can the historian use the novelistic representation or other lurid re-imaginings? Eugene O’Neill’s life has posed an exceptionally interesting problem of this sort because his own life work so constantly involved weaving fact and fiction about his own life.

Following the release of Long Day’s Journey into Night in 1956, it became clear that the O’Neill biography would prove to be an extraordinary story. Several biographers were already beginning the work, including Bowen, Sheaffer, and the Gelbs. I have told elsewhere the story of how Wylie sought out Agnes in 1956, writing her a letter that began, “Please forgive this intrusion upon your private life,” but then followed with, “You seem to be the heroine of a novel I am writing. It is about Eugene O’Neill.”[5] Wylie’s editor at Doubleday, Lee Barker, had suggested to him that he should “write the story of Eugene O’Neill in the form of a novel,” and for Wylie that meant uncovering a nakedness, which became Trouble in the Flesh.[6] At the time of O’Neill’s death in 1953, the most recent effort to give a comprehensive portrait of O’Neill had been Hamilton Basso’s three-part profile, published in the New Yorker in 1947, but that picture had been developed in the repressive environment of O’Neill’s final years, when Gene and Carlotta together strictly delimited what the world could see of his life.[7] There was no nakedness in that profile, but the atmosphere changed after the playwright’s death, when friends and associates felt less restrained about telling what they knew. 

A few years after writing his New Yorker profile, Basso depicted the O’Neills in his own novel, A View from Pompey’s Head.[8] Carlotta appears as the malicious, overprotective, vengeful wife of Garvin Wales, a tragically afflicted novelist who had, at the insistence of his wife, severed ties to his saintly editor, a composite of Saxe Commins and Harry Weinberger. The O’Neills are largely offstage presences in this incisive exploration of ancestral self-consciousness among southern gentry.  When at last the main character, who is loosely based on Basso himself, comes to see Garvin Wales, at the very end of the novel, he encounters a self-tormented artist who can no longer create. The nakedness is that of a doomed soul. And the Carlotta character turns out to be not so utterly malicious as we have been led to expect. She has her good intentions and adverse conditions. One can imagine that these discoveries pretty much match what Basso found when he interviewed O’Neill. The climactic revelation of the novel is that Garvin Wales, whom the world thought to be an orphan, was in fact the son of an African American woman whom he shamefully supported in secret. This serves the novel’s theme, while the only connection one can make to the source of the character is through that key word in the O’Neill lexicon, “misbegotten.”

Trouble in the Flesh provides a very different opportunity for speculation. Wylie’s primary purpose in investigating the O’Neill saga was to fuel the plot of his novel. Wylie actually met with Basso to discuss this project and compare notes on Carlotta. After publishing his novel, Wylie attempted to serve the non-fictional discussion of O’Neill by publishing the O’Neill-Boulton correspondence within his own editorial framework, though without success. But initially, it seems clear, he was looking for “the dirt.” He probed many sources, in pursuit of material for the story, including many of the same people who were being approached by the early biographers. Agnes Boulton was an ideal source for him, since she was still driven by the Strindbergian love-hate evaluation of her years with Gene that had made such a “drama” of their marriage (see O’Neill’s Welded for details).

It was by way of Wylie’s urging and Wylie’s editor at Doubleday, Lee Barker, that Agnes came to write and publish Part of a Long Story, her memoir of the first year and a half of her marriage to Gene.[9] That book begins in such an atmosphere of coldness that the very possibility of nakedness seems remote. The first night they sleep together, it is in a room so cold Agnes keeps her overcoat on, while Gene is wrapped in a fur cloak. Of contact, there is none. In some ways, it is the coldness and remoteness of Gene, modulated by the sudden fact of his attraction to Agnes, which gives the book its romantic power. Part of a Long Story does not go into detail about Gene’s physical nakedness, though the reader becomes aware of Agnes’s bodily sense of him and her jealous fixation on the fact that his body had had access to other women, especially Louise Bryant, whom she describes as that “menacing and determined hussy, of whom my main impression was from a photograph Gene had showed me of her, in which, with legs in tight riding breeches spread apart, hands dug in the pockets of a smart jacket, she leaned against a shingled, weather-beaten wall, a gamin cap rakishly on her head, a provocative smile on her lips, as a half-mythical symbol of the great old and mystic Irish legends.”[10]  

The imminence of those legs, “spread apart,” led Agnes to take control of her life in a new way: “Through desperation, through intuition, I saw what I must do: reject the me I was and become what I wasn’t—a firm and determined female who was taking matters in her own hands. I was frightened of me in this role, I am sure of that now, nor have I attempted it since.”[11] This last statement is contradicted by Part of a Long Story itself, which unmistakably reflects a “firm and determined female” redefining the terms of her relationship with Gene. I have elsewhere analyzed this fascinating book, which operates simultaneously as a historical document and a unique sort of roman à clef, for which no key seems to be required, since the names are unchanged, but which remains substantially fictional.[12] Gene appears naked several times in this book (as Boulton put it, “he never had any feeling about being naked”[13]), but the purpose of the book is not that kind of disclosure.  Instead, the book uncovers the terrible emotional instability and alcoholic dependency of a writer who would nevertheless become great. He is not seen becoming great in this book. Indeed, in a way, it is Agnes who is seen becoming great here—great with child (the book ends with the birth of Shane) and great with the capacity to write this book. It would take nearly the rest of her life for the book to come forth, but the seeds were sewn at this time when she took hold of her self-determining powers.

When Max Wylie knocked at the boarded-up front door of Agnes’ New Jersey house in 1956, a house that, according to Wylie, had been recently pilfered by Shane in his pursuit of drug money, he perceived this potential in Agnes.[14] Her story—her part of a long story—could make a book, and Wylie convinced his editor at Doubleday to take it on. Wylie also found ample material for his novel, as Agnes spoke freely and with a storyteller’s knack for plot. We can get a sense of what Wylie was working with from the exactly contemporary interviews of Agnes conducted by Louis Sheaffer.  Sheaffer established a long and fruitful relationship with Agnes as a source for his biography of O’Neill.[15] Beginning in 1958 and continuing until her death in 1968, they met many times and carried on a long correspondence of mutual interest. He helped her with short- and long-term loans, with care for Shane and other extended family members, and with editorial advice on her writing. Meanwhile, she gave him an extraordinarily candid insight into her marriage and many other details of Gene’s life, albeit biased according to her attitudes toward that period of her life. Sheaffer did everything he could to test this material for accuracy. At several points in Sheaffer’s notes do we glimpse Gene naked. We hear Agnes’s testimony that he was “generously endowed by nature,” but “not an expert lover.”[16]  He so disappointed Agnes with his monotonous and predictable every-other-night routine, that she one day walked into the ocean at Peaked Hill Bar, as if to drown herself, to express her displeasure.[17]  

Wylie takes this aspect of the nakedness of Eugene O’Neill two or three steps further, to a point where scholarship has not ventured, and I thought it might be best here, in Provincetown, on the cutting edge of the continent, to look into some aspects of Gene’s nakedness that are treated most gingerly by biographers.

Trouble in the Flesh begins shortly after the birth of Shane, on the day Gene rescued a barrel of pure alcohol from a shipwreck off of Peaked Hill Bar. The narration begins in the turbulent, mixed feelings of the character based on Agnes. This is Jill, a pulp magazine writer who has recently married Seton, a rapidly rising playwright. The play Seton is currently promoting is called Treasure, loosely based on O’Neill’s Gold (the one play Wylie could in some way trace back to Agnes Boulton, as it derived from the scenario Boulton initially conceived for what became “Where the Cross is Made”). Jill looks upon the barrel of alcohol not as a gift but as an unwelcome dose of fuel to the self-destructive fire burning in her brilliant husband. Wylie, who was basically a hack writer, living in the shadow of his more famous brother Philip, pays respect in the novel to Jill for her having been a workaday writer and increasingly uncomfortable with the romantic extravagances and pretensions of her husband. Eventually she comes to understand that her husband is interesting for his failure to be fully human. He is wildly out of touch with all the important people in his life, his wife and child, his parents, his artistic collaborators, and even his brother. (The character based on Jamie, here named Patrick, almost steals the focus of the novel, because Wylie’s depiction of the final, horrifying binge of Jamie’s life makes both Leaving Las Vegas and The Iceman Cometh look mild.)

O’Neill’s emotional disconnection can be substantiated from many sources, and it specifically reflects the opinion that Agnes came to hold of him. Wylie, like Agnes, somewhat jumbles the chronology, and no doubt enhances some of the anecdotes for effect. However, since the story is told, at least in part, from the narrative perspective of the wife, the experience of reading the novel can seem like the experience of her knowing of Gene, and the book’s vivid passages, of which there are several, seem to provide an intimate connection to the living Gene and Agnes. The novel contains numerous facts about the marriage that could only have come directly from Agnes, who had been largely invisible in previous accounts of the O’Neill life, including O’Neill’s. For example, his statements about the experience of living at the lifesaving station outside of Provincetown frequently mention the pleasure he took in the solitude, the aloneness, the holy romantic unto-himselfness, though, of course, hardly a night did he spend out there without Agnes by his side. The story of what it was like to be with such a man, in his constructed solitude, could only come from one source, and Wylie was fortunate to have found a way into Agnes’s kitchen.

The experience of biographical intimacy gets a little uncomfortable on page 88, when, in a flashback to the earlier, passionate days of the marriage of Seton and Jill, we glimpse that aforementioned “tumescence” and are taken inside “the blinding hot thrill of feeling him,” not to mention the “thrill of being pierced.”[18]  In the following few years, though, Jill had come to realize “that a passionate man could be a cold man,” that he “could never be a loving man,” and, finally, that he “was all to himself.”[19] The novel takes us through the same succession of losses—of father, mother, and brother—that Stephen A. Black has analyzed so well as the key crises of O’Neill’s adult life, then comes to its climax at a summer vacation resort not unlike Belgrade Lakes, where the O’Neills spent the summer of 1926.[20] There Seton meets Tanager Bolt. She is a storied woman, strikingly beautiful except for those unfortunate legs, which we are told she has artfully concealed when photographed naked. According to one character, she “has a pelvic skill never learned on horseback.”[21] Furthermore, word has it that Tanager Bolt is bisexual. Gene renewed his acquaintance with Carlotta that summer of 1926 at Belgrade Lakes, where she was staying as a guest of the literary agent Elizabeth Marbury, who was known to be a lesbian. He had previously known her only as the actress who had replaced Mary Blair as Mildred Douglas when The Hairy Ape had moved uptown in 1922. O’Neill was not fond of actors, and the same goes for actresses, but Carlotta commanded his attention.

Agnes told Sheaffer that she did not think that Gene began the affair with Carlotta until he returned to New York in the fall, but Wylie’s novel indicates that it was in a kayak that the “rare but special carnal esurience” overcame him. Wylie expresses this tremendous surge of desire in a magnificent passage of what might be called metaphysical pornography:

The scream in the air and the power the wind carried; the malevolent sound of it and especially the unannounced cunning of its arrival—these were elemental forces in his own darkness. Answering, they suddenly broke the surface, exhilarating his sense of contest and assertion. All his motor responses were quickened with the lift of these recognitions, the sight of nature broken out of her cage. The pelagic in his muscles, the elegiac in his mind, the passional in his spirit, rived and sang and met the wind, clapping the mouth of its impudence.

He was thrilled.[22] 

All this is prelude to the scene later that evening when Seton swims back to a boathouse near where Tanager is staying, and she covers “his cold nakedness” first with blankets and then her body: “She seemed as much man as he woman, and her use of him thrilled him beyond bearing.”[23] It should be noted that documentary evidence of this sexual position for the initiatory episode in 1926 is scant.

Wylie’s papers make it clear that he was prone to evolving causal theories about O’Neill. Indeed, he did extensive investigative research among medical professionals to develop a theory that O’Neill’s psychological and physical condition might be traced to the morphine he received through his mother’s breast milk. The psychiatrist in the novel voices this same theory about Seton. He is speaking to Seton’s physician, Dr. Cedric, a character possibly based on Dr. Louis Bisch, who was Gene’s physician. In the same conversation, Dr. Cedric voices a theory that would account for the sentence just quoted, describing precisely how Tanager covered Seton’s nakedness. He calls it “secondary bisexuality” and explains:

It’s observable in the way he describes his women. He doesn’t—he can’t describe his women, not as other men would describe them. Nor show them to us even as they are seen by themselves. He can’t because he doesn’t know what a woman is. The stamp of his own projection is on them. The stamp of his own projection is on himself, too, as hero. In every play. He’s always his own hero. He merely changes the hero’s name from play to play, not even bothering to change the description. And always more woman than man. Seton wants to be a woman, even though he’s very much a man.[24] 

From what I’ve been told, psychiatrists in the 1950s were only just beginning to address sexuality, so it is clearly anachronistic to suppose that professionals in the 1920s were thinking this way, but the interesting question, I think, is whether Wylie had a source for this insight into O’Neill. Did Agnes Boulton, who might well have discerned some bisexuality about Gene, who saw him naked, as it were, who had his manhood at least occasionally in hand, supply Wylie with the insight? Sheaffer’s notes on his interviews with Agnes do not contain reference to bisexuality, though there are a few cautious passages in his biography, which suggest that the idea had crossed his mind, especially in connection with Gene’s early friendships with Ed Keefe, sailors on his voyages, Terry Carlin, Charles Demuth, and others.[25] Sheaffer and the Gelbs give little attention to the question of whether Gene’s friendships with these or other men might have raised issues of sexuality. Indeed, no evidence survives to suggest any homosexual relationship, and even Black, in his psychoanalytic biography, gives little attention to sexuality. On the other hand, Trouble in the Flesh goes directly after it, certainly for sensational effect, but, I would suggest, perhaps not gratuitously. Though the novel must be regarded as a speculative work, Wylie was not drawing his ideas out of the air, and the repercussions extend well beyond a footnote on Gene’s bedroom predispositions.[26] Dr. Cedric himself takes his idea of “secondary bisexuality” to an interpretation of the playwright’s attitude toward prostitutes, his quest to be mothered, or “re-mothered.”[27]  And finally he puts on a little performance, as Seton Farrier, the “caged ape,” which I believe puts a new light on the late plays, like The Iceman Cometh, about which O’Neill wrote that “there are moments in it that suddenly strip the secret soul of a man stark naked.”[28]  Dr. Cedric declares himself the “articulator” of Seton’s torment, saying:

“I, Seton Farrier, will punish myself for what I’ve done, but you I will punish more for what you would never let me be! Again and again I will punish you. For not recognizing what I was. What a beautiful thing you’ve rejected! What a rare canvas you’ve smeared! How can you be so cruel! Look what it’s done to me! Aren’t you ashamed! Aren’t you ashamed and sorry!” Here the physician shrank back, waving off imaginary aid. “No—No---- Don’t offer sympathy now! It’s too late---- Too late. I’ve been and gone. You should have caught the splendor of me while it was passing. You should have saved it then. You should have felt my need and filled it. You should have taken me into the warmth of you. But you never touched me! You looked and passed, and left me dying![29]

Perhaps it is only here, on the outer edge of the country and on the outer edge of O’Neill scholarship, that it can be said, but I think attention must be paid to such a cry, even if it does come from out of the whirlwind of pulp fiction. Might not the persistent image in O’Neill’s plays of a man drawn by a “call,” some predisposition to the immaterial, some “touch” of the poet, be heard as the cry of a man lost in uncertain sexuality? The obverse of O’Neill’s misogyny and misanthropy is a kind of polymorphous perverse theatricality, in which any way of being a man might be staged, though few of these plots will be enacted.

I suppose I might be accused of voyeurism, but I think this particular drive to see is fully in the spirit of what O’Neill himself wrote:

I love life. But I don't love life because it is pretty. Prettiness is only clothes-deep. I am a truer lover than that. I love it naked. There is beauty to me even in its ugliness. In fact, I deny the ugliness entirely, for its vices are often nobler than its virtues, and nearly always closer to a revelation.[30]

Do you see what I mean?


[1]  Max Wylie, Trouble in the Flesh (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1959), 473.

[2]  Wylie, 391.

[3]  Louis Sheaffer, O’Neill: Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973), 280.

[4]  Wylie, 474.

[5]  ALS, Max Wylie to Agnes Boulton, 9 Oct. 1956, Eugene O’Neill Collection, Yale University; also see William Davies King, “A Wind is Rising”: The Correspondence of Agnes Boulton and Eugene O’Neill (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000), 19

[6]  ALS, Max Wylie to Agnes Boulton, 9 Oct. 1956, Yale.

[7]  “Profiles: The Tragic Sense,” New Yorker, 28 February, 6 March, and 13 March 1948.

[8]  The View from Pompey’s Head (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1954).

[9]  Part of a Long Story (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1958).

[10]  Boulton, 117-18.

[11]  Boulton, 120.

[12]  “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Wife of an Artist: Agnes Boulton's Part of a Long Story” (a paper delivered at the 2000 American Society for theatre Research meeting). Much of this paper will appear as the Introduction to the book I am currently writing about Agnes Boulton and her marriage to O’Neill.

[13]  Boulton, 109.

[14]  This story is told by Wylie in the draft of an Introduction to the volume of O’Neill-Boulton correspondence, which he hoped to publish in the 1970s. The typescript is in the Max Wylie Collection at Boston University. The Boulton family, and Agnes herself, took issue with many of the facts concerning Wylie’s dealings with Agnes. I will be addressing this story at length in my book.

[15]  The documentary record of Sheaffer’s dealings with Agnes can be found in the Sheaffer Collection at Connecticut College.

[16]  Sheaffer interview of Agnes Boulton, November 1962, 1, Sheaffer Collection, Connecticut College.

[17]  Sheaffer interview of Boulton, 6 October 1960, 2, Sheaffer Collection, Connecticut College.

[18]  Wylie, 88.

[19]  Wylie, 90.

[20]  Stephen A. Black, Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

[21] Wylie, 390. In his unpublished Introduction to the O’Neill-Boulton correspondence, Wylie attributes this description of Carlotta to the critic John Mason Brown.

[22]  Wylie, 396.

[23]  Wylie, 412.

[24]  Wylie, 402-03.

[25]  Sheaffer’s very oblique references, if they can be called that, are in O’Neill: Son and Playwright (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1968) 118, 138, 167, 181.

[26]  In his Introduction to the O’Neill-Boulton correspondence, Wylie presented his analysis without the cover of fiction: “O’Neill was self-exiling, even self-immolating, and more woman than man. In fact, unmanly in every department in life except sexual activity; in great need of mothering, and in equal need of solitude; in perpetual flight, and  in constant hiding.” Note: I am not suggesting that unmanliness is to be associated necessarily with bisexuality , but Wylie is making that assumption. He makes the point explicitly in his one published writing on O’Neill, “Aspects of E.G.O. (Eugene Gladstone O’Neill),” The Carrell, 2:1 (June 1961), 10.

[27]  Wylie, 403.

[28]  Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer, Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 511

[29]  Wylie, 404.

[30]  From an interview of O’Neill by Malcolm Mollan, “Making Plays with a Tragic End,” Philadelphia Public Ledger (22 January 1922), reprinted in Ulrich Halfmann, Eugene O’Neill: Comments on the Drama and the Theater: A Source Book (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1987), 14.

[This talk was presented at the 2005 meeting of the Eugene O’Neill Society in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I will explore the themes developed in this essay at greater length in the book I am currently writing, Another Part of a Long Story: Literary Traces of the Marriage of Agnes Boulton and Eugene O’Neill.]



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