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Interviewing Ghosts


BY Barbara Gelb
FROM The Eugene O'Neill Review, Suffolk University, 1994


It is rare, I am told, for biographers to take a second crack at their original subjects.  It sounds like an admission of inadequacy, an acknowledgment that the first time around was not good enough.  Well, that may be true.  Nonetheless, my husband, Arthur Gelb, and I find ourselves obsessed, once again, by the endlessly fascinating subject we though we had finished exploring thirty-three years ago.  We spent six years in the research and writing of what turned out to be the first major biography of Eugene O'Neill.  And yet, even as we handed our publisher our two thousand-page manuscript, we brooded about the material to which we had not had access.  Some consequential papers, for example, in the vast O'Neill collection at Yale University's Beinecke Library were restricted for the lifetime of O'Neill's widow (who, at seventy-four, was still in robust health).  Also we sighed after other documents and letters held by individuals who were reluctant, for various reasons, to share their contents with us.


Our biography, O'Neill, was published in 1962 with (I am compelled to proclaim in all due immodesty) considerable fanfare; it drew front-page reviews in the book sections of the country's major newspapers, was on The New York Times best-sellers list and remained in print for thirty-two years.  But, comprehensive, timely and well-received as it was, we understood then that it was not the final word.  And now we can cite compelling reasons to re-examine the stormy and baffling life of this great dramatist, who was not only an authentic literary genius but a prolific writer of unswerving artistic integrity.


Our research, this time around, consists primarily of combing through previously unexplored documents—not nearly as exciting as our zealous quest after people close to O'Neill who were still alive when we began our project.  There is, in fact, no major figure left alive to interview.  (O'Neill, himself, would be 106 today.)


In 1956 we found ourselves racing after relatives and associates of O'Neill's parents, many of whom were in their eighties; some, not surprisingly, were ill or infirm.  We also tracked down O'Neill's childhood, seafaring, bohemian and drinking friends; his teachers, his doctors, his lawyers, his agents; the casts, directors, producers and publishers of his plays.  Some of them expired within months of having shared their recollections.


Tracing these elderly people often required uphill detective work.  One of our most exhilarating bits of sleuthing began in the O'Neill collection at Dartmouth College, where we discovered a letter to a Joseph McCarthy, written by O'Neill in 1930 (when he was forty-two and working on Mourning Becomes Electra.)  The letter indicated that the two had been childhood friends at the Catholic boarding school to which O'Neill's parents sent him when he was seven.


“Do you ever think of Sister Martha, who used to knuckle us on the bean?” O'Neill wrote.  By now, two years into our research, we understood how strongly O'Neill's writing had been influenced by his early Catholic indoctrination, and we were eager to have confirmation from a living witness who went that far back with O'Neill—if, indeed, McCarthy was still living.


We had nothing more than the twenty-eight-year-old address in New Jersey to which O'Neill had sent his letter.  Learning that McCarthy no longer resided there, we scanned old telephone books, prowled neighborhoods where McCarthy had once lived, and were rewarded by finding a former landlady who remembered him.  She told us he had fallen ill some years earlier and gone to a veteran's hospital in the New York-New Jersey region.


After checking the hospitals we lucked out: a Joseph McCarthy, formerly of New Jersey, was a patient at a veteran's hospital in Bath, a remote town in northwestern New York State.  During several telephone conversations with a sympathetic hospital administrator, we ascertained that McCarthy had often mentioned his boyhood friendship with O'Neill.


That was the good news.  The bad news was that McCarthy had recently had a stroke and could not speak.  But he still had the use of one hand and could communicate, albeit laboriously, by writing; and he was willing to be interviewed.  We were on the next day's bus to Bath.


It took hours to elicit McCarthy's memories of O'Neill as a schoolboy.  We were astonished how vivid an impression O'Neill had left on him and how haunted, more than sixty years later, McCarthy still was by the ghost of that brooding boy.  Eager as he was to describe O'Neill as a child, McCarthy tired easily and was self-conscious about his incapacity.  Over a period of several days, we visited him in the morning, leaving a page with half a dozen typewritten questions, and returning the next day to collect the answers he had painfully scrawled.  While the information ultimately filled no more than two pages of our biography, we knew it was significant.  Only a contemporary could have conveyed with such immediacy O'Neill's sense, as a child, that “religion is so cold.”


Yet another hospital—this one in New York City—yielded a former seaman, James Joseph Martin, nicknamed “Slim,” who, it turned out, knew a side of O'Neill few others did.  Slim had been a construction worker and I.W.W. member who sometimes helped build sets for the Provincetown Players, the group that presented O'Neill's plays on their tiny stage in Greenwich Village between 1916 and 1922.  It was their similar seafaring experiences that had endeared Slim to O'Neill.


Before we could interview Slim, however, we had to spring him from a locked psychiatric ward.  His overburdened social worker told us that Slim had initially entered the hospital to be treated for tuberculosis but that it turned out he was also “violently alcoholic.”  His only living relative was a daughter, from whom he had long been estranged, and he'd had no visitors for several years.


We persuaded the caseworker to let us visit Slim in the locked ward, where we found him unthreatening and delighted to have visitors—especially admirers of his old pal, Gene O'Neill.  Now sober and bored, Slim was happy to strike a bargain.  If we could get him transferred to a medical ward and urge “them” to return his confiscated spectacles, he'd spend his days sketching his recollections of Gene O'Neill.  After we convinced the caseworker that we would take an ongoing interest, Slim was re-evaluated and placed in the ward of his choice.


Slim turned out to have a poetic and philosophical bent and, over a period of several months, he covered page after page with remembered conversations with O'Neill.  In large loopy letters he expounded upon everything from sea lore to the drunken arguments he had with O'Neill in the Greenwich Village bars they both loved, to their shared philosophy of the neglected and oppressed.  Slim was a remarkably rich source, and we stayed in touch with him until his deteriorating health forbade visitors.  Like Joe McCarthy, Slim had been indelibly marked by O'Neill.


Perhaps the most poignant, and certainly the most ghostly, of our encounters took place in a nursing home on the outskirts of New London, Connecticut, where the O'Neill family had their summer home.  That was where we found Lillian Brennan, an older cousin of O'Neill's.  Earlier research had convinced us that she was the inspiration for the tenderly drawn spinster aunt, Lily Miller, in Ah, Wilderness!  We had learned, both from letters and from recollections of other relatives, that Lillian, nicknamed “Lil,” had been a favorite of O'Neill's.


Confined to the home for several years, Lil Brennan was ninety in the summer of 1958 when we visited her.  Her doctor warned that Lil was in no condition to be “interviewed.”  The meeting would probably prove futile, he said, for Lil was senile and much of the time she alternated between periods of blank withdrawal and delusional babble; every now and then she would lapse into a dreamlike state in which she relived episodes from her early life.


Once again we were lucky, for on the morning we saw Lil she happened to be reliving the days of her young womanhood in the late 1800s.  She referred to what she believed to be recent events and, in response to our gentle questioning, presented us with a spontaneous tintype of O'Neill's mother as a young matron, already troubled by the demands of her unsettled life—and who, of course, we knew by then to be the prototype for Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night.


In our newly extended research we are not finding anything that dramatically alters our original view of O'Neill's life and work.  What this new look does afford is a chance to enrich and expand our earlier analysis and interpretation, largely through the contents of hundreds of O'Neill letters and other papers unavailable at the time of our initial publication.


It was a surprise, for example, to discover a handful of flirtatious letters written by an adolescent O'Neill in 1905 to a teenage girl named Marion Welch.  In an effort to identify O'Neill's inspiration for the fifteen-year-old Muriel McComber in the nostalgic Ah, Wilderness! we had exhaustively interviewed a woman named Maibelle Scott, who presented compelling evidence that she was the girl O'Neill had in mind.  But the letters to Marion Welch—of whose existence we had no inkling at the time—strongly suggest that she was at least a partial model for the character; it now appears that Muriel McComber was, in fact, a composite of two young girls with whom O'Neill conducted brief summer romances in New London.


As our process of discovery continues, the time seems ripe for a re-evaluation of America's only Nobel Prize-winning dramatist, a writer whose plays are constantly being revived and rediscovered by new generations of theatregoers around the world.


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