BY Barbara Gelb
FROM The New York Times, May 5, 1974
Twenty years after his death,
O'Neill's 'Moon for the Misbegotten' brings over $3,200 a week
to his estate. Who gets it?
The disposition of funds from the
substantial literary estate of Eugene O'Neill is still affected,
more than 20 years after his death, but the chaos and turbulence
of his relationships with his third wife and his two children
from an earlier marriage.
When O'Neill died on Nov. 28, 1953, he
left a will making his wife, Carlotta, his sole heir and
executrix. He had made the will in 1951, explicitly
disinheriting his two surviving children, Shane O'Neill and Oona
O'Neill Chaplin, and "their issue now or hereafter born."
He was angry about Shane's dissolute lifestyle and he was angry
at Oona for having married Charlie Chaplin, a man twice her age.
O'Neill had recently become reconciled
with Carlotta after a bitter and protracted battle, and was
feeling desperately guilty toward her. With the exception
of a $77,000 bequest to the Yale University Library for the
maintenance of the O'Neill collection, he left everything to
Carlotta as a gesture of expiation.
Today, with Carlotta O'Neill three years
dead and with the O'Neill children disinherited, the question
arises as to who now profits from the author's estate -- an
estate that has fattened with this season's lucrative revival of
"A Moon for the Misbegotten."
The answer is both complex and ironic, as
anything connected with O'Neill's life and work is apt to be.
Nothing about O'Neill has ever been easy.
For one thing, O'Neill's disinherited
children are profiting from what has turned out to be the
estate's latest and perhaps biggest money-maker to date; due to
a legal technicality, they are the sole owners of "A Moon for
the Misbegotten, " one of Broadway's major hits. But
royalties from O'Neill properties flow in from many sources
other than the current revival of "A Moon for the Misbegotten."
There are returns from both domestic and foreign stage revivals
of other plays, movie and television adaptations and sales from
the published versions of the plays.
There is no single source that can furnish
even a rough estimate of the total worth of the O'Neill literary
estate. The estate is hedged by a tangle of copyright
laws, awash with producers, publishers, university trustees,
deans and curators and it is guarded by the Scylla and Charybdis
of two law firms.
In 1964, six years before her death on
Nov. 18, 1970, Carlotta O'Neill made a will designating Yale
University as the beneficiary of the royalties from such of the
O'Neill properties that her estate should have in its control
when she died. Yale had been selected as the recipient of
the bulk of O'Neill's manuscripts and other documents in 1926,
when the university have him an honorary degree, "as a creative
contributor of new and moving forms . . . and the first American
playwright to receive both wide and serious recognition upon the
stage of Europe.
O'Neill's erratic academic career had
included a year at Princeton in 1906 -- he was kicked out for
failing to complete his freshman coursed -- and a year at
Harvard in George Pierce Baker's postgraduate playwriting course
in 1914. Baker had moved his theater workshop to Yale in
1924, and it was at his urging that O'Neill accepted the degree.
Mrs. O'Neill directed that after her death
the royalties from her husband's plays go partly to maintain and
add to Yale's O'Neill collection, partly to establish Eugene
O'Neill scholarships for "worthy students of playwriting" at the
Yale School of Drama and partly "for such other purposes
connected with" the library and the drama school as Yale "may
O'Neill's widow had forcefully implemented
her literary trust during most of the 17 years by which she
survived her husband. Sometimes she acted astutely,
sometimes capriciously, but the cumulative effect was to enhance
and solidify O'Neil's reputation, and this has been reflected in
the years since her death by the accumulation at Yale University
of a fund of $280,000. Shane O'Neill and Oona Chaplin, on
the other hand, are jointly receiving over $3,200 a week from "A
Moon for the Misbegotten" alone; that represents the author's
royalty of 6 per cent of approximately $56,000, which is what "A
Moon for the Misbegotten" takes in weekly. If "Moon" runs
to the end of the year, as all signs indicate it will, it will
gross close to three million dollars; the author's royalty will
be nearly $180,000. Friends of Oona Chaplin say she uses
her share to assist her brother.
is through a vicissitude of the copyright laws that Carlotta O'Neill's
estate lost control of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," as well as all or
partial control of a number of other O'Neill plays. By the same
quirk of law, however, all future profits from "Long Day's Journey Into
Night," among other plays, are secured exclusively to Yale. It is
all a question of who took out the original copyright, and who renewed
it 28 years after its expiration for a second 28-year term.
In the case of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," the play
was copyrighted by O'Neill in 1945, two years after he completed it.
The copyright expired in 1973, by which time Carlotta O'Neill was dead.
Under law, O'Neill's children had the right to renew the copyright and
to become the sole owners of the play.
from the earnings from "A Moon for the Misbegotten," a couple of random
examples indicate what other kinds of money are brought in by the
O'Neill estate. There is the American film Theater's "The Iceman
Cometh," for instance, whose future profits Ely Landau, the producer, is
reluctant to estimate; he will say only that his company pays a fee of
"in the neighborhood of $30,000" for the properties it films.
there was also the recent British-made television production of "Long
Day's Journey Into Night."
And there are the
domestic book sales. Michael Pratt, assistant sales manager for
trade books at Random House, O'Neill's publisher during his life time,
says that 67,000 copies of O'Neill plays in paperback were sold last
year. The company is currently readying a paperback of "A Moon for
the Misbegotten" and it also keeps several hardcover editions of the
plays in print. the Yale University Press is the publisher of
"Long Day's Journey Into Night" and A Touch of the Poet," both issued
"A Touch of the Poet," which
is likely to be the next big O'Neill money-maker, is, like "A Moon for
the Misbegotten," owned wholly by Shane O'Neill and Oona Chaplin; the
original copyright, taken out by O'Neill in 1946, was renewed by them
this year. A production of "A Touch of the Poet" is planned by the
producer, director and star of "Moon" -- Elliot Martin, José
Qintero and Jason Robards.
children are also part owners of some of the other O'Neill plays.
"The Iceman Cometh," for example, falls into this category. The
play was originally copyrighted by O'Neill in 1940 and became due for
copyright renewal in 1968, when Carlotta O'Neill was still alive.
Under the law, when the original copyright holder -- usually the author
-- has died before the original copyright term has expired, and
regardless of the stipulations of the author's will, the author's
children share with the author's widow in the term of the new copyright.
Thus, "The Iceman Cometh" is now owned jointly by the children
(two-thirds) and by Carlotta O'Neill's beneficiary, Yale University
As for "Long Day's Journey Into
Night," that play was never copyrighted by O'Neill, because he did not
want it produced or published until 25 years after his death. He
locked it up in a vault in the office of Random House. His widow,
who owned the manuscript under the terms of O'Neill's will, decided to
ignore the injunction. She took out the original copyright in
1955, when she authorized publication of the play. Because she was
in this instance the original copyright holder, the play remains part of
her estate and the author's children cannot share in it.
Things get even more confusing regarding book
royalties. The best seller among the Random House paperbacks is an
anthology that includes "Mourning Becomes Electra," "Strange Interlude"
and "Desire Under the Elms"; it sold 31,000 copies last year. That
particular volume, priced at $1.95, earned $60,450 in the year.
The author's royalty is seven and a half per cent, or $4,533.75.
Carlotta O'Neill's estate shares one-third/two-thirds with O'Neill's
children in "Mourning Becomes Electra" and "Strange Interlude"
(copyright expired after O'Neill's death) but collects the full royalty
for "desire Under the elms" (copyright renewed by O'Neill a year before
Robert Brustein, dean of the
Yale School of Drama, is wistful about the small sum that was turned
over to him last year for the first Eugene O'Neill scholarship, when the
university finally earmarked $2,500 for that purpose. An
additional $5,000 will be divided between the O'Neill collection and the
Yale School of Drama library. According to David Storrs, Yale's
assistant controller, the return is low at the moment, but is expected
to grow with the growth of the common stock in which most of the capital
"It's barely enough to keep one
student," Dean Brustein says. He is now trying to select that
"worthy student of playwriting" for the coming academic year.
Dr. Donald Gallup, curator of the O'Neill collection
at Yale, is pleased to have the somewhat larger annual sum allotted to
him (a yearly $3,200 from the original O'Neill bequest of $77,000, plus
$2,500 from Mrs. O'Neill's bequest) but he, too, wishes it were more.
The firm that drew up Carlotta O'Neill's will, and
that was originally designated as her trustee, is Cadwalader, Wickersham
and Taft. Jacquelin Swords, a member of
the firm, explains that the trusteeship was transferred to Yale two
years ago, in order to avoid tax penalties. Cadwalader, W. and T.
were run ragged during the final years of Carlotta O'Neill's life, when
she wandered rather spectacularly in her mind and developed a tendency
to give away the rights to plays several times over; the law firm was
frequently on the brink of litigation.
to Cadwalader, W. and T. that application must be made for permission to
produce those of O'Neill's plays owned wholly or in part by Mrs.
O'Neill's estate -- if anyone can figure out which ones they are.
For permission to produce the plays owned wholly or in part by Shane and
Oona, application must be made to their attorney, Herbert Jacoby.
Mr. Jacoby is affable but noncommittal. He would not want the
information about Shane's and Oona's earnings from "A Moon for the
Misbegotten" to be attributed to him, and indeed it does not come from
him; it comes, indirectly, form co-producer Elliot Martin, who confirms
the play's weekly gross and the author's percentage of royalty -- no
In 1946, three years after
O'Neill wrote his final play, and knowing he could probably never finish
another on, he reminisced about his very earliest works -- half a dozen
one-act plays -- written in 1913 and 1914.
"That's the year I thought I was God," he said. "I'd finish them
and rush down to the post office to ship them off to Washington to be
copyrighted before somebody stole them."
was not until much later that he discovered the pitfalls of copyright.
He never bothered to renew the copyrights on those early plays when they
expired after 28 years and inevitably somebody did "steal" them.
In 1950, when the plays had acquired, if nothing else a curiosity value
as the earliest works of America's only Nobel Prize-winning dramatist,
and obscure publisher issued them as "The Lost Plays of Eugene O'Neill."
O'Neill, who regarded the plays as groping failures, and who had chose
to forget them, was irritated, but could do nothing about it.
He did, however, try to make sure nothing like that
would happen again, and a few months before his death he tore to pieces
the manuscripts of the unfinished plays in a projected eleven-play
cycle called "A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed."
"Nobody must be allowed to finish my plays," he told
She helped him tear them up, bit
by bit. "it took hours," she later said. "It was awful.
It was like tearing up children."