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Ella, James, and Jamie O'Neill
"My Name Is Might-Have-Been"

Prologue     I. Ella     II. James     III. Jamie     Appendix


BY Edward L. Shaughnessy
FROM The Eugene O’Neill Review, Suffolk University, 1991

I. Ella

The moment of literal birth is not truly the beginning of one's life. Earlier dynamics of shaping must be located, earlier even than the instant of conception. This is simultaneously the homeliest truth and the greatest individual mystery. Thus it is that each of us who grows beyond mere animal necessity inevitably puts into motion the search to learn who we are. "The end of man is knowledge" (9) says the narrator in All the King's Men. By the end of the novel, he has gained a powerful insight into the enigma: "each of us is the son of a million fathers" (436). We want to know, said Aristotle, to know.

Granting the universality of this superb obsession, however, few of us can devote much energy to searching out the answer. We settle for a few genealogical teasers and a nicely pruned family tree. The mystery, if we take it seriously, overwhelms us and so we turn to more prosaic undertakings (sculpting a career, making money, seeking fame). Someone has said that most of us take an interest in at most five generations: as far back as our grandparents; as far into the future as our grandchildren. Still, in odd moments, we are haunted by a few vivid memories which, in their stunning simplicity, both terrorize us and glorify us. We are curious, yes, but we ponder those moments infrequently because our total engagement with them would paralyze us.

*          *          *

What a splendid couple they must have been as they exchanged vows in the rectory of St. Ann's Church on East 12th Street, Manhattan. James O'Neill of Cincinnati, actor taking on celebrity status, handsome but modest, had every reason to feel that the promise of his life would be fulfilled. Equally modest and serious, Mary Ellen Quinlan of Cleveland and graduate of the outstanding convent academy in Indiana was talented and demure after the manner of her bringing up. With her lovely brown tresses, she must have appeared tall as she stood next to this handsome young man of medium height. These two beautiful persons preferred to insure the low visibility of their nuptials, both as a matter of good taste and for practical reasons. The young celebrity should not wish to dampen the ardor of his growing female audience. She, whose widowed mother questioned the prudence of her daughter's decision, had had to give in. The bride, who would be twenty in just two months, saw the years ahead as promising romance, happiness, and fulfillment. Indeed, what was here put together, on 14 June 1877, was to be put asunder only by the death of James some 43 years later. Witnesses were Mary Ellen's mother and her uncle, Thomas Brennan of New London. The occasion, presided over by Fr. Thomas F. Lynch, was thoroughly Irish, Catholic, and traditional. The only other person present was the bride's brother, William.

The history of James and Ella (as she chose to be called after leaving the academy) has been several times written (see Sheaffer, the Gelbs, Alexander, Bowen, and Ranald). Another extensive retelling seems not to be in order here, therefore. But something of a review, with attention to the molding of their adult character and psychology and to their relations with their sons. (especially with James, Jr.), should be established. The following narrative makes a modest claim, moreover, to inclusion of certain information never before published (once again with particular emphasis on the O'Neills' first-born son).

*          *          *

The Quinlans had arrived in Cleveland by way of Connecticut from Tipperary, Ireland. Mary Ellen, born in New Haven on 13 August 1857, was the second child of Thomas J. (son of Philip and Margaret) and Bridget, daughter of Patrick and Aanistasia (sic) Lundigan. There is some discrepancy in the age of Bridget. Mary Ellen's birth certificate (on which the family are called "Quinland") gives the mother's age as 25 (birth year, then, would have been 1832); Thomas is said to be 24. Bridget's death certificate (28 July 1887) gives her age as 60, suggesting an 1827 birth year. Thomas died in 1874 at age 41.

Quinlan was apparently gregarious, ambitious, and well liked. He prospered as a newsdealer and retailer in stationery, books, confections and eventually liquors and tobaccos. What little we know of Bridget suggests a rather cold and "moralistic" (Sheaffer I, 14) personality, one who acted as a brake on Thomas's inclination to spoil his daughter and her brother, William Joseph.

The Quinlans were well established by 1870, when young James O'Neill, freshly minted actor from the Cincinnati treasury, had become something of a hit in John Ellsler's stock company that held forth in the Cleveland Academy of Music. O'Neill would in 1872 move into a similar position with McVicker's in Chicago, although he returned to Cleveland for a few summers. Thomas Quinlan, hail fellow well met, liked actors (Bridget did not) and found something compatible in the younger Irishman. James was, apparently in spite of Bridget's coolness, a frequent presence at the Quinlans' Cleveland home, 208 Woodland Avenue (home address supplied by archivist, Sr. M. Rosaleen, 19 June 1990).

Mary Ellen was then thirteen; James was coming into his mid-twenties. Perhaps it has been too seldom recalled, even by Eugene and James, Jr., how long these two knew each other. James would die in 1920, fully a half century after he met Mary Ellen, the child who would become the central figure in his and their sons' lives. Of course, from 1870 to 1875 their relations were those of an older brother to his sister, altogether chaste and proper. In the fall of 1872 Ellen set out for the school in northern Indiana that her father had chosen for her. (In view of all the information that has been advanced over the years about Miss Quinlan's name preferences and changes, it is interesting to note that her name is given in the St. Mary's entrance register (September 11, 1872) as "Ella Quinlan.") A bit fearful in the beginning (she was only 15), she came to love this place and would often return there over the years. (The archivist says, however, that there are no entries in Chimes to confirm Ella's visits. But in the 1909 Alumnae Register she is mentioned as "Ellen Quinlan, Mrs. James O'Neill, New London, Connecticut" (personal letter, 8 July 1991).)

St. Mary's Academy in the 1870s was not the St. Mary's College of today. Established in 1844 by the French Sisters of the Holy Cross, companion order to the priests who had established neighboring Notre Dame two years earlier, the academy was granted the status of a college in 1903 and formal accreditation by the North Central Association in 1906, when it conferred ten baccalaureate degrees (Wagner 51-52). Thus Ellen (class of 1875) could not earn a bachelor's degree. Still the Academy had established a rigorous "academic course," listed in the 1876-77 catalogue, a regimen that demanded a good deal of its young women: basically the foundations of the trivium. "Mental Philosophy," Dana's Geology, Davies' Trigonometry (optional), and a Review of General History were kept for the graduating year. (Students today might profit markedly by wrestling with the series of Sadlier's Excelsior Catholic Readers, an engaging but no-nonsense approach to study.)

Thomas Quinlan had clearly known what he was about. "The music department became a conservatory of music in the academic year of 1871-1872" (the year prior to Ellen's matriculation). Indeed, "music at Saint Mary's was attracting attention from farther away than the local press. Dwight's Journal of Music, published at Boston, contained in its issue of July 20, 1878, both an advertisement of Saint Mary's Academy and a detailed review ... of the musical program at the 23rd annual commencement exercises" (Wagner 39). In Chicago the Catholic Review of 23 June 1880 observed about the closing exercises of that year: "At Saint Mary's one hears not the trivial and meretricious in music, but Beethoven, Haydn, Chopin, Schubert ..." (quoted in Wagner 41).

The person responsible for establishing this sophisticated course of study was Mother Elizabeth Lilly, founder and director of the conservatory. Mother Elizabeth came with her mother Harriet Redman (also a convert to Catholicism) to the Sisters of the Holy Cross in 1854. Both were widows descended from Dr. George Arnold, Queen Elizabeth's organist in Winchester Cathedral (Alexander 5). Mother Elizabeth was in charge of music at St. Mary's from the mid-1850s through the late nineties; she died in 1901. Strong evidence of her leadership and good taste may be inferred from the piece Mary Ellen Quinlan played at her own commencement, Chopin's Polonaise, op. 22, for piano.

This latter Polonaise is preceded by an andante spianato in G in six-eight time, and unaccompanied. It is a charming, liquid-toned, nocture-like composition, Chopin in his most suave, his most placid mood: a barcarolle, scarcely a ripple of emotion, disturbs the mirrored calm of this lake.... It was practically a novelty to New York when Rafael Joseffy played it here, superlatively well, in 1879. (Huneker 184)

That an 18-year-old was invited to play this Chopin on the Indiana prairie in 1875 seems astounding to us today. (Indeed, Ella may have been justified in claiming that she had been trained as a concert pianist. She may have been more talented than James acknowledged or Eugene ever knew. And, although not one of the superbly talented O'Neills ever took an earned academic degree, Ella was the only one to complete her prescribed course of studies.) She practiced for years on the "Piano Forte" that her father had left to her in his will and which years later she had moved into the Monte Cristo cottage in New London.

Certain events other than her marrying James O'Neill placed an indelible stamp on Ella's life and character. All have to do with the births of her sons and therefore with her husband. James, Jr., was born in San Francisco in the autumn of 1878. How the parents doted upon him. How much happiness he gave them in his early years, how much sorrow after he moved into late adolescence. That his birth and that of a second son took place "on the road" could not have been preferred by Ella. She was so happy in her early motherhood, however, that this travail may have been muted for a time. The O'Neills would remain in the California city until the fall of 1880, when they returned to New York City. In 1883 Edmund Burke was born in a St. Louis hotel, the young family again on the circuit. (All three sons were born in the fall of the year.) In the late winter of 1885 Ella, in order to be with James (in Denver), had ,left the boys with Bridget in New York, where Jamie contracted measles and then infected the baby. Ella would never get over the guilt she associated with this "desertion"; nor would she ever conquer an irrational resentment toward her first born for his destructive act. (That very fall she would escort him to the same Indiana hinterland where she had studied. Ella could explain that she was sharing with him those surroundings that held such dear memories for her. But the brilliant Jamie would not fail to interpret the maneuver as his banishment.)

An 1887 summer trip to Europe gave James the opportunity to assuage his wife's lingering depression. Unhappily, the results were just the opposite of what he had intended. While they were abroad, Bridget Quinlan passed away. Again Ella was unable to provide comfort to one of her own. If she had not been especially close to her mother in earlier years, they seem to have become more companionable after the births of Jamie and Edmund. She could hardly face now a return to their New London "cottage," which they had purchased only three years earlier.

If having another child was intended to clear away the gloom of Ella's life, again the equation would produce its own tragic factor. In order to relieve the pains of the difficult birth of Eugene Gladstone in October, 1888 (in another hotel), the attendant physician administered morphine. In the months and years to follow, the lovely and innocent girl of the convent academy became addicted (a "dope fiend," as Edmund Tyrone would call his mother Mary in Long Day's Journey Into Night). This presence in their lives would poison the O'Neill well for more than two decades.

Lovely and innocent, it is true: but not without a measure of steel in her character. Let two instances stand for the validity of this assertion. After her father died and she had completed her studies at St. Mary's, Ella Quinlan convinced her mother to move to New York. There she could receive further training in the piano; she could also reestablish her connection with James O'Neill, who was a member of the Union Stock Company there. Given Bridget's coolness toward theatre people in general, her yielding seems quite remarkable indeed. As things turned out, she would forever be separated from her Tipperary husband, buried in the Catholic cemetery near St. Bridget's parish church in Cleveland. Mrs. Quinlan would be buried in St. Mary's in New London (in the O'Neill plot).

One further illustration of Ella's strength of character may be discovered in the manner of her recovery from addiction. Having attempted the cure many times, in 1913-1914 she placed herself once again in the only environment she could be certain was protective and salutary: that of the convent (Sheaffer I, 280-281; Ranald 531). If any had doubted the depth of her girlhood piety and faith, this triumph ought to have proved their reality. Thereafter, Ella returned to her devotional life: early morning mass during the week and a regained identification with the Virgin Mary.

It was this girl, shy and beautiful, who had been awarded in the closing exercises a crown "for Politeness, Neatness, Order, Amiability, and Correct Deportment." It was she whom James O'Neill honored, a woman refined and "finished," this "singular vessel of devotion" whom Jamie adored. Both loved her beauty and were defeated by her defeats. And Ella, too, knew ambivalence. She felt that, although she loved James, she had paid a heavy price to be his wife, including the never very subtle disaffection of her friends of girlhood. Over the years she pampered and petted James, Jr., but accused him of fatally infecting his infant brother. She continued this pattern of indulgences and disapproval of him until the very moment of her death.

Record for matriculation for "Ella Quinlan" (11 Sept. 1872), whose parent is given as T. J. Quinlan, 208 Woodland Avenue, Cleveland. Courtesy of St. Mary's College Archives.

College dormitory (circa 1875), when Ella Quinlan was a student.  Courtesy of St. Mary's College Archives.

Attired in 19th-century costume, students gather on the steps of The Academy (now called Bertrand Hall). Courtesy of St. Mary's College Archives.

St. Ann's Church, Manhattan, where James O'Neill and "Ellen Quinlan" were married on 14 June 1877. Courtesy of Gary Vena.

Prince George Hotel, a typical parlor (circa 1905) in an apartment such as that occupied by the elder O'Neills. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.



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