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Second Thoughts


BY Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb
FROM The New York Times, May 7, 2000

Stephen Spender, the British poet, expressed astonishment when we told him we were rewriting our biography of Eugene O'Neill, which had been in print for 32 years. The occasion was a small dinner party in Sir Stephen's honor in 1994 at the New York Public Library.

''No biographer ever does that,'' said Sir Stephen, who was 85 at the time. ''That would be tantamount to admitting he didn't get it right the first time. It would be acknowledging that the original biography was less than the final word on the subject.'' (Amending his remark, he said he did know of one -- only one -- such author, Michael Holroyd, who rewrote his biography of Lytton Strachey.)

Ruefully, we admitted that we did not, in fact, get it absolutely right the first time, and we explained why we felt fortunate to be able to take another crack at it.

When we embarked on our research in 1956, just three years after O'Neill's death, we were both barely out of our 20's. Although we had been ardent admirers of O'Neill since adolescence and had written extensively about the theater, we were too young, really, to tackle such a complex subject. Looking back now, we're amazed at our audacity. ''Long Day's Journey Into Night'' had just been published, and promised to be a fascinating window on the author's life -- a life that hadn't yet been fully documented, despite O'Neill's stature as America's only Nobel Prize-winning playwright. What a challenge, we thought -- to write the seminal study of a creative artist as stormy and baffling as O'Neill. We imagined it would take three years; in fact it took six. We didn't finish until 1962.

In 1956, there were still scores of people alive who had known O'Neill, and even some who had known his famous actor-father, James; his shy, aloof (and morphine-addicted) mother, Ella; and his alcoholic older brother, Jamie. But many of these sources were in their 70's and 80's or beyond, and were dropping off rapidly from illness and old age, several within weeks of our talking with them. Some refused to talk with us at all -- among them, at first, O'Neill's widow, Carlotta Monterey.

Luckily, we had the assistance of Brooks Atkinson of The Times, one of the few theater critics who had gained O'Neill's respect. It was Brooks who urged Carlotta, a former actress more celebrated for her beauty than her talent, to see us. During the next five years she told us, sometimes with amazing candor, about her life with O'Neill. ''He wrote the plays,'' she often remarked. ''I did everything else.''

Soon our apartment was crammed with bulging file cabinets, as well as with tables for the primitive equipment we used in those pre-high-tech days: two typewriters and a suitcase-size reel-to-reel tape recorder, weighing 30 pounds, that we lugged on trains, planes and buses to the far-flung places where O'Neill had lived and worked. In the late 1950's we rented a house for four months in New London, Conn., where the O'Neill family had spent more than 30 summers -- and where O'Neill set his autobiographical ''Long Day's Journey Into Night.''

Our sons -- aged 3 and 5 at the start of the project -- came to accept O'Neill as a member of the family. Once in Central Park we guided them to Shakespeare's bust, explaining he was the world's greatest playwright -- only to be challenged by our 5-year-old's plaintive, ''Oh, yeah? What about Gene O'Neill?''

Finally, we reached the point at which we felt we had O'Neill pinned down on virtually every day of his adult life. But even then, we continued to seek that one last fact we feared might have eluded us. A psychiatrist friend warned that we were becoming dangerously obsessed. We had to stop researching, he said, and start writing. We exchanged thoughts day and night, and then alternately wrote and edited, rewrote and re-edited. It's impossible now to recall which of us wrote what.

Our 990-page biography landed on the best-seller lists, and was greeted unanimously as comprehensive -- too comprehensive, some complained. By now, we were broke. Harper & Brothers had given us a $10,000 advance -- in those days a substantial sum for young writers -- but we had spent more than triple that on research and had to borrow to keep our family afloat. Moreover, our endless hours of collaboration had put a bit of a strain on our marriage. We found ourselves overwrought about semicolons and bitter about parentheses. It was a case of too much togetherness. We decided to go our separate ways professionally, and turned our backs -- we thought forever -- on O'Neill.

What, then, could have possessed us, more than 35 years later, to revisit him? For one thing, some important new material had surfaced: previously withheld letters (O'Neill wrote close to 4,000 during his lifetime); working notes and early scenarios for some of the major plays; O'Neill's work diary and Carlotta's personal diary, both kept under wraps during her lifetime.

There had also been a change in us.

With the passage of time, we had arrived at a different view of the O'Neill family dynamics. As the parents of grown children (and the grandparents of four), we now found ourselves more in sympathy with O'Neill's parents.

Back when we were conducting our research, we tended to identify with the rebellious O'Neill and his ''misunderstood'' older brother, and were sometimes impatient with what we believed to be James and Ella O'Neill's insensitivity. Now we better understand both their characters. Fear of poverty, for example, turns out to be a more important theme than we had thought in James's life. Digging more deeply into James's early youth -- in the obscure Irish town of Tinneranny and later in Buffalo -- we more fully comprehended the scars left on his family by the potato famine, and were able to trace the influence of these early fears on his son's life and art.

Like most writers on O'Neill, we portrayed his mother as having been withdrawn, indifferent and indeed hostile to her husband's professional life, almost from the moment she married the gregarious and hard-drinking James in 1877. This was how O'Neill himself viewed her, having been in a sense brainwashed. But he, of course, did not know her in the early years of her marriage, and we have now found Ella's character to be far more nuanced.

This time we had access to letters and diary entries by an astute young actress in James's company, Elizabeth Robins, with whom Ella became friends eight years before Eugene was born. They reveal Ella as a spirited young woman, much interested in James's business dealings and his backstage life. Contrary to O'Neill's portrait of the wife in ''Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' who has always hated the theater and stood aloof from it, Ella sometimes served as her husband's dresser, and frequently made casting suggestions; at least during the early years of her marriage, Ella was in some ways more outgoing and eager for social contacts than James. She did not begin to fall apart until after the death of her infant second son in 1885, for which she never forgave herself or her husband.

After making these discoveries, we felt we owed it to O'Neill not to leave our original work frozen; and having by now learned a new tolerance for each other's foibles, we agreed to collaborate once again. At first, we thought we'd simply correct some errors and make modest changes. But as we proceeded, we realized what was needed was a completely rewritten work, which we now think will take three volumes. The first comes out later this month; the next two are already outlined, and (we pray) we'll be finished in 2004. We're also working on a documentary about O'Neill, to be directed by Ric Burns. But we're wise enough now to know, as we did not back in 1956, that even when we're done, it won't be the last word. No biography ever is -- especially when its subject is as restless and demanding as Eugene O'Neill.


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