BY Edward L. Shaughnessy
James O'Neill, Jr., was not often "a man of few words." Indeed, he possessed in great measure the gifts of charm and wit, a brightness and spontaneity that may have exceeded that of his parents or even of his immensely gifted brother. As William Batterham once observed, "He could make up stories, scenes, whole acts at the drop of a hat, and sometimes he entertained us by playing three or four parts from one of his father's old plays—and doing them brilliantly" (Sheaffer I, 106). Mere quickness and virtuosity, of course, are faculties different from genius. In the full range of intellectual virtues, wit is a lesser thing than creativity, its effects meretricious and evanescent. But in the moment of its flashing, this faculty tends to humble all other intellectual resources.
A component of intelligence (and one that defies measurement) is judgment. In this Jamie was profoundly deficient. Judgment is the sense of what is appropriate and prudent, the ground upon which wisdom is erected. A deficiency in judgment usually betokens immaturity, an adolescent narcissism carried over into chronological adulthood. Thus, the person not blessed with a stabilizing judgment will often jeopardize his own self-interests. In his deportment or volubility he is likely to embarrass or hurt those who wish to protect him from himself (e.g., the Stamford episode mentioned in the Prologue).
Why this condition develops and persists among certain personalities is a question best left to psychologists. But no great learning is required to see that it is frequently driven by cynicism (the "Mephistophelean" personality). It likes not to listen or to be serious. Hence the inveterate wit's garrulity, endless quips, and tendency to sting before being stung. Often, because he has been deeply hurt at some early stage of development, this personality erects a kind of impenetrable defense. And, precisely because he has a great potential for affection, which has made him liable to deep wounds, his primary emotion is ambivalence. Most readers of O'Neill will recall an especially salient illustration in these few lines of dialogue:
Jamie seemed unwilling or unable to lessen the power of his venom to destroy others. But he destroyed himself first, and last.
Over the years he used his great natural endowments more and more destructively. Does anyone truly, however, wish to destroy himself? The truth is that the younger James O'Neill seldom allowed himself to realize how sad he was. His brother, the genius, sorted out this truth and rendered it nakedly yet lovingly in two portraits, one a family study, the other a picture of his brother with two genuine friends. In the family album it was correct to call him by his earliest pet name, "Jamie"; in the second, by the pal-like "Jim."
In the pages that follow the brightest light will be shone on Jamie the student, a story that has never yet received adequate attention. It opens with considerable promise. There comes on a darker side of the picture, it is true; that seems inevitable. Eventually, moreover, the darkness consumes the light. But in the beginning how beautiful, brilliant, and hopeful a child was James H. O'Neill, Jr.
* * *
It was not long after their wedding in New York that James and Ella had set out for Chicago, where James was to fulfill a commitment with Hooley's. In an odd convergence of history and fiction, the Nettie Walsh challenge resurfaced while James was performing in a minor work called Forbidden Fruit. She sued for divorce on the grounds of desertion. Of course, the bride was shaken; so also was her husband. But O'Neill was nothing if not resilient, and his acting that fall, especially his work in Othello with Lawrence Barrett, was so fine that the very power and dynamism of his acting began to eclipse the unpleasantness of the law suit. Soon after, the newlyweds returned to New York and then set out for San Francisco, where in a short time James signed on with the Baldwin Academy of Music (Alexander 8-11). There they remained for nearly three years, establishing perhaps the most carefree domicile they would know in their married years.
James O'Neill, by now a formidable presence on the American stage, had arrived. His beautiful wife, a kind of garden lily required neither to spin not toil, accompanied him on jaunts in and about the beautiful city on the bay. Always beloved, Ella could once again take delight in the sort of pampering her father had bestowed upon her. Then came a successful pregnancy, filling the couple with happy anticipation. It was into this relative stability and comfort that James O'Neill, Jr., was born on September 10, 1878. The signs were propitious.
Biographers have reflected on what the birth of this child meant to Ella O'Neill. The emphasis has usually been placed on the fulfillment that was brought to her in the very pleasures of motherhood and on her deliverance from the rudeness and tedium of James's rough world. For a while she would be liberated from the hectic routines and the rudeness of life "on the road." She could fill her time by attending to the baby and herself. No doubt all of this connects with the reality of this period of the O'Neills' lives. There is another component to the story, however.
James O'Neill had already gained a professional justification and proof of his vocation in the theatre. His wife, without children, could only have taken reflected glory from that glamor. Devoted as she might be, her life would have had its direction and would have gained its interests only from her husband's achievements. As we know very well, these would never have satisfied Mary Ellen Quinlan. But in motherhood she might realize a more exalted purpose, and one which James himself would neither deny nor decry. Her duties and services would carry their own dignity. In her own situation, moreover, these circumstances would doubtless improve Ella's relations with her own mother, for she would be matching Bridget's model and giving her the pleasures of grandmotherhood. None of this could be without importance to a girl brought up as Ella had been. She was beginning to justify her destiny.
How could the little boy escape being spoiled? His father would love him, with perhaps a trace of gloating, seeing in the lad the extension of his own line. But the mother's full attention would be centered on the infant, her life for a time consumed by his. And the second James was so beautiful and bright. Everyone remarked on his beguiling qualities. If she made herself the center of his life (at least, as she saw and wanted to see things), could any other woman compete with her for his affection? Could he exist fully without her? Would he not see her other lovers, be they father or brother, as threats to his claims? And she seemed so to abet his childish fantasies, since James was gone so much of the time. James, who loved his son and also doted on him, did not need him as Ella did.
There were, of course, realities which no mere child could fathom. A boy of three or five could not understand the mother's role as wife. Nor could he know (did he ever realize?) how deeply devoted Ella was to James O'Neill, Sr. He could not estimate his parents' intense discomfort in separation, for they did love one another deeply. When she would leave him for long periods, sometimes he and his baby brother Edmund, born in the fall of 1883, would be placed in the care of Grandmother Quinlan. In February, 1885, Ella left the little boys with her mother in their New York hotel. When she had been traveling for some weeks with James, she learned that Jamie and Edmund were ill. Quickly followed the report to the O'Neills in Denver that the baby had died, infected by his brother's measles. Ella was forced to return to New York alone, James committed to finishing his western Monte Cristo junket.
It is tempting, perhaps too tempting, to make the case that Jamie had punished his mother for leaving him. He was precocious and spoiled, it is true. But it is too much to suppose that he planned this retaliation. (He had surely not intended to contract measles in the first place.) What is true is that all the adults involved must have felt pangs of guilt: Bridget for failure to supervise; Ella for giving in too easily to James's pleas to join him on the tour; James for seeking her company. Given such a powerful swirl of emotions, Jamie could hardly fail to sense the gloom and perhaps the hostility toward him. For the grownups had been made to look bad. Sometime thereafter followed his "banishment" (Gelbs 53).
* * *
Why Notre Dame, nearly a thousand miles from the O'Neill headquarters in New York and New London? Ella knew in the first place that its "Minims" were supervised by the very nuns who had watched over her. Indeed, these Sisters of the Holy Cross prepared the meals for the priests at Notre Dame, ran the laundry, and taught the boarders of 6-12 years old who lived in St. Edward's Hall. Sr. Aloysius and the others saw that the boys got their baths and in various ways pampered them. Yes, Notre Dame was a known quantity to Ella, but this was not the O'Neills' only reason for selecting the remote midwestern institution. Their decision was really less hasty and panicked than the Gelbs' (53) and Sheaffer's (1, 73) "packed off' suggests. The very stamp of their psychology and values was always reflected in their choice of schools for their sons. And no matter how disappointed they might eventually become with the older son, he was to receive (as his junior by four years, James Joyce, received in Dublin) the best classical training, as that concept was understood, in Catholic education of the time.
The history of Eugene's education would be different. After he left the Sisters of Charity at Mount St. Vincent's and the Christian Brothers of De La Salle Institute, he rebelled against Catholicism in general and sought to break from all its "houses." Thereafter he was associated with good and great secular institutions: Betts Academy of Stamford, Connecticut; Princeton, Harvard, and Yale. For James, Jr., however, Notre Dame made perfectly good sense.
The psychological portrait of James, Jr., is complex and arresting in large part because of his indelibly marked spiritual and intellectual training. Much more than Eugene (and again quite like Joyce) was he molded by the Catholic intellectualism of the 1880s and 90s. This period is sometimes identified with Newman, Hopkins, and Aubrey de Vere, et al. (including Francis Thompson, whom Eugene would so greatly revere). But these new winds of doctrine derived from a still older church authority in teaching and doctrine, especially as carried the stamp of Irish Catholicism. The mid-century generation of James and Ella knew little of this recent intellectualism, which would be challenged by many Irish-Catholic writers in the twentieth century: Farrell, Fitzgerald, Mary McCarthy, and playwright O'Neill, among many others. But the parents were quite comfortable in their faith. Notre Dame answered their needs. (Perhaps it is neither glib nor without relevance to point out that Eugene O'Neill was the only one of the five members of his family not to have a funeral mass and not to be buried in the St. Mary's Catholic cemetery in New London.)
Jamie was nurtured in the bosom of the Church, in the cradle of faith. (The images of nurturing in Mother Church and alma mater are not without meaning.) The Minim Department fostered a world that Ella knew from experience and James might once have envied. Here children were approved and petted by adults in a position to indulge their ideas of high cultivation. Here was a community of believers, an institution with hierarchy, order, doctrine, and discipline. To persons like the elder O'Neills it seemed not something to escape from but a place to take shelter in. Not so relevant are the accounts of many nineteenth-century boarding schools as grim monastery-convents that froze the child's heart with fear. (In this respect Notre Dame is unlike the Clongowes and Belvedere of Joyce, whose experiences were quite different from Jamie's.) Here the boys were called "dear little princes" by their beloved mentor and the school's founder, Rev. Edward Sorin. Father Sorin told the boys, as they left for summer vacations, that Providence had inspired their parents to send them to Notre Dame. They should thank God for that.
No, the place was not cold and forbidding. Only two months after Jamie's arrival on campus, the Minims' "play hall" had a roller rink added and electric lighting was installed in their residence hall. If the boys were required to stay over for Christmas and Easter, their places were warmly decorated. Picnics and outings were planned. St Edward's had pets (dogs, cats, and guinea pigs). It was generally a place of happiness where the practice of faith was integrated with daily life. One absorbed the sounds, scents, and sensations of Catholicism known to the period: Stabat Mater, Pange Lingua, Te Deum, plain chant; incense and candle wax; holy water, viaticum, lenten fasts; high mass and low mass; mortal and venial sin; indulgences, sodalities, forty-hours' devotion. In Jamie's nine years at Notre Dame, there seldom appears in the Scholastic any reference to corporal punishment (except in the natural shocks that athletic flesh is heir to). One notes the models of decorum and doctrine referred to without embarrassment: indefatigability, grace, amiability, deportment. A student named Pope is mentioned in the school paper, a lad "who is neither poet nor infallible."
Unfortunately, the racial bigotry typical of the period (and perhaps especially a presence of anti-semitism and prejudice against blacks often documented among the Irish) was a part of the mixture. Instances of cruelty, boy against boy, occurred no doubt with the same frequency as they have "normally" in such institutions. It is such an ambience that makes thought and response (some will say knee-jerk indoctrination) compatible manifestations of religion in one's carriage. It was not precisely Teddy Roosevelt's "muscular Christianity" but a different fashioning of religious life integrated with daily practice. Here would be created the captains of industry, the jurists and prelates, the "movers and shakers" that the Catholic Church would contribute to the American enterprise. The debate societies would take up the topics of the day, not merely those of a narrow parochialism but the larger ethical and social issues of civilization at large: Is the copyright a moral as well as a legal question? Was Hamlet sane? Does our perception of his age influence our overall judgment of him? One E. A. Ahlrichs of the class of 1894 argues in an extended piece in the Scholastic (28 January 1893) the question of "Shakespeare's Religion." If the piece seems somewhat biased toward Catholicism, it takes up, nevertheless, the very issue that Santayana would argue to a different conclusion two years later in "On the Absence of Religion in Shakespeare." (And wouldn't the idea have given both Jamie and Eugene some notion of how their father, in dealing with such matters, would come to terms with such issues: " ... (F)acts don't mean a thing, do they! What you want to believe, that's the only truth! Shakespeare was an Irish Catholic, for example" (LDJ 127).)
In such a time and place, simultaneously insular and sophisticated, young Jamie was ensconced. Administrators and biased contributors might chafe at having (rightly), to confess a lower academic status than Harvard and other patricians of the university community. Yet visitors with a quite worldly view sometimes praised the Minim program. The Scholastic reprinted this report by a Rev. R. Howley, D.D., taken from the Chicago Herald.
The parents who sent their children to places like St. Mary's and Notre Dame shared a moral vision and worldly ambitions for their children. It was expected that graduates would enter the professions and business, grounded in scholastic virtues and Christian ethics. Jamie was a boy endowed with precisely the faculties to take full advantage of such a program. One seldom sees in him the piety and fragility of his mother or younger brother. He was temperamentally more like his father—gregarious, garrulous, and convivial. He knew how to please (a capacity that seemed almost second nature for a time) parents and teachers, indeed all those whose esteem he craved. The capacity. for cynicism and rebellion must also have been present when his mother brought him to South Bend in 1885, but it was latent. Who, then, could have guessed what he was to become? Surely not the nuns who taught and tended the Minims, nor the priests who at regular intervals examined them.
It is usually supposed that James O'Neill, Jr., entered the Minim Department in the autumn (Sheaffer 1, 17); "only six months after Edmund's death (on March 4)," Gelbs 53). The facts are otherwise. In his School Days at Notre Dame, Charles W. Stoddard, then an English professor there, enters this notation:
In the "Day Book," preserved in the Hesburgh Archives, an entrance fee of $5.00 and a term's tuition and board of $125.00 are entered on 7 December 1885. (A "7" is recorded, indicating the entrant's age; a "C," signifying "Catholic"; and an "F" for "Father." "James O'Neill" is registered as both father and son (p. 270). In the 1889 "Day Book" for September 12 (p. 419) "11 ccc" is given, indicating age and "Catholic, confirmed, and having taken first communion." In 1888 only one "c" had been recorded.)
What do these entries reveal? First, we see that James and Ella took longer than has been thought (nine months, not six) to ponder Jamie's future after Edmund's death. There is no certainty that, had the sad events of the spring not occurred, the older brother would not still have gone to Notre Dame. His parents no doubt turned these matters over during the protracted summer in New London. Whatever, this can be inferred: His entrance into Notre Dame constituted the privilege of following in his mother's wake. Furthermore, being escorted there seems not to imply the same thing as being "packed off." Thus Ella, ten years removed from her resident days at St. Mary's, had returned to leave her son in its sacred precincts. He was seven; she was 28. She must have pined greatly as she departed those surroundings. On the other hand, since Jamie's presence was a reminder of her own earlier "abandonment" of Edmund, she would be putting at some distance this constant source of pain.
However difficult it was for Jamie to be away from his mother, he did not fall apart in South Bend, at least not academically. From the beginning he adjusted—almost heroically, one might say. Jamie was well liked in his Minim years, and he carried these good impressions into the upper divisions. Witty, bright, well met and active, Master O'Neill won wide popularity among both faculty and peers. "In his nine years at Notre Dame he was an outstanding student and an active and popular participant in school sports and other extracurricular activities" (Gelbs 53).
In the face of it, then, Jamie's career was in every way successful at Notre Dame. From the outset his name appeared often in the "Roll of Honor" published weekly in the Scholastic. This marked something other than academic achievement. From time to time the roll was preceded by this brief citation: "The following list includes the names of those students whose conduct during the past week has given entire satisfaction to the Faculty." His name appears in these and other positive connections literally hundreds of times in his near decade-long residence with the priests and nuns of Holy Cross.
It is fascinating to review the student account books of this period. For, knowing about his family what we now do (e.g., Ella's love for the place, James's "niggardliness"), we can read a great deal of meaning into the otherwise dry data. Typical entries: barber, .20; stamps, .36; shoe repair, .55; brush, .45; cash for trips to Chicago, $2.00 in 1889, $4.00 in March, 1893, $5.00 in May, 1894; soap, 10 cents; dentist, 50 cents. The board and tuition usually ran $125.00 a term, upped to $150.00 in 1892. For July, 1887, a charge of $40.00 is made for vacation (the summer his parents traveled in Europe). For December 24, 1893, is entered "$250.00 (less 15.00 for James)"; apparently, this was associated with Christmas largess.
Jamie spent the period from December, 1885, until December, 1891, in St. Edward's Hall. In January, 1892, when he was 13, he moved into Carroll and remained there until he left for good in June of 1894. The Roll of Honor provides a kind of history of his behavior patterns. In the main his name is mentioned, but there are stretches (those we can now associate with stress or trouble at home) when this O'Neill's name is omitted (there were several O'Neills in the school). His name is dropped for most of March, 1891. His name is missing from 15 October through 12 November 1892 (a period of some apparent difficulty, as we shall see). Even so, Jamie was clearly one of Fr. Sorin's pets—among the most favored, indeed:
Not only was he approved by the teachers and examiners; James was an exceptionally solid student who received awards year in and year out for "excellence" (gold and silver medals and premiums in elocution, rhetoric, grammar, arithmetic, Christian doctrine, and penmanship). In semester-ending examinations (e.g., 29 June 1889 a "96," and 20 December 1890 another "96"), he was often near the top of the class or tied for first place.
Apparently Jamie enjoyed "holding forth." He appears often in plays, gives recitations, and delivers poems of his own writing on celebratory occasions. These moments occur with a regularity that must have pleased his parents. Indeed, he is more than once seen as creditably carrying forth in his father's tradition.
Jamie's tributes to the beloved Founder were indeed remarkable. On 20 December 1890 his poem "To Rev. President Walsh," on the occasion of the priest's "Pastoral Festival," was printed on the cover page of the school magazine, the editor calling it "a beautiful tribute in verse, and delivered with faultless elocution" (250). The piece is here reprinted, young O'Neill's work at age 12.
By the beginning of his final year at Notre Dame (1893-94), Jamie had achieved great proficiency in the rhetorical-oratorical style of the day, sometimes fulsome and sonorous, but no easy task to echo in all its nuances. It is all really rather astounding. On Fr. Sorin's name day in 1893, James, Jr., spoke for his peers in Carroll:
In addition to such sterling performances as these, Jamie's situation was enhanced by his parents' frequent visits to South Bend. Lest it be incorrectly inferred that he had been abandoned, let these "personals" from the school magazine be noted.
But Jamie's outward popularity and happiness by no means suggest the full history of his emotional life in this period. His smoldering resentment toward his father began to flare up frequently in the early Nineties, those years when the boy was 13-16. Before long he had become something of a hell-raiser. No doubt, as Sheaffer says (I, 73), Eugene's birth in 1888 had complicated his situation. Another new baby, who easily won Ella's attention, became his unconscious rival. But Jamie came more and more consciously to hate James's parsimony. Eventually the father became the ogre who was responsible for the beautiful lady's entrapment.
James O'Neill was himself wrestling with his own major problems in these years. Ella's ongoing addiction was a tragedy sufficient to satisfy all requirements for penance. But his insecurity had created his own kind of bondage. If he could have given his life to Shakespeare, he would have done that but, approaching fifty, he felt that the financial risks were too great to take: "from 1893 through 1896, by playing a repertory that featured Monte Cristo at most performances, he did manage to keep on performing Hamlet, but in those depression years he would have gone under fast had he tried to devote himself to Shakespeare" (Alexander 57). His relations with Jamie were thus beginning to take a toll, and he sought help. From St. Louis, where he was starring in a mediocre romance called Fontenelle, the actor wrote to the Notre Dame President.
For all James's legitimate concern, his son was not the only student raising administrative eyebrows at Notre Dame. Only a few weeks after James had written to Father Walsh, one of the Scholastic editors complained of certain peers who posed a threat to decorum on campus, waxing a degree self-righteous.
It requires little imagination to suppose that among the miscreants scolded was one James O'Neill, Jr.
Underground fires of resentment were alive in Jamie. Coupled, no doubt, with the urges of sexual awakening and natural rebellion (faddism) of adolescence, was his discovery of Ella's morphine addiction. He had happened upon her inserting a hypodermic needle into her own arm. Sheaffer (I, 88-89) points out that Eugene learned of Ella's addiction in the summer of 1903. Jamie Tyrone tells Edmund (Eugene) that "Papa and I kept it from you. But I was wise ten years or more before we had to tell you" (LDJ 57). Thus, 1893 seems to have been a tragic year for Jamie. Thereafter, his insolence grew to the point that he became practically unmanageable at home.
Ranald holds (569) that Jamie's residence at Notre Dame ended in 1893 and that he spent the next two years at St. John's Preparatory School. This is not entirely accurate. He completed the 1893-94 year at Notre Dame, moved on to Georgetown Preparatory for part of the 1894-95 year, and entered St. John's in the autumn of 1895. Further, Jamie completed the '94 year with some distinction in South Bend. It was in October of 1893, as we have seen, that Jamie delivered the eloquent tribute to Fr. Sorin. He was listed on the Carroll Hall Roll of Honor as late as 27 January 1894 and was later prepared to compete for the elocution medal (Scholastic 9 June 1894, p. 637). But by the end of the year he was no longer being listed on the honor roll and he took no end-of-the-year awards. By the end of what must have been an exceptionally difficult summer, James O'Neill wrote to President Morrissey (Father Walsh had died in Milwaukee in July, 1893). (The letter is edited only where obvious corrections are required.)
* * *
By the time he arrived at Georgetown that fall, red lights were blinking furiously. These were years of financial depression, following in the wake of the "Panic of 1893." We can imagine the effect on James O'Neill, Sr., the actor-capitalist who was not a very shrewd investor in real estate. Therefore, while suffering near paralyzing guilt, he welded his fate ever more permanently to the firm of Dumas, Fechter, and Dantes. It was now twenty years since the great Booth had raised James O'Neill's self-esteem to the highest pinnacle he would ever know.
Jamie's career at Notre Dame closed out as would his tenures at Georgetown and Fordham—without the appropriate conditions of fulfillment. Perhaps this was to be the way his very life should be described. Whether Fr. Morrissey wrote the letter of recommendation, as asked, we cannot know. He probably did, for both James O'Neills had contributed much to the quality and tone of that institution. And of course, by invoking Ella's name and memory, James had played a fairly strong card in his son's behalf. (Throughout their lives both Eugene and his brother found it extremely difficult td give their father credit for what he had done for them.)
At any rate, the thing happened. In the (Georgetown) Rector's Entrance Ledger were recorded the essential data: "Entered September 13, 1894. James Henry O'Neill, 134 Pequot Avenue, New London, Conn. Winter address Barrett House 43 St. and Broadway, NY City. Boarder. Pocket money .50 per week, after his present supply is exhausted." (This address is confirmed by the New London City directory of 1894 (and '93 and '95). The middle name "Henry" calls to mind neither of James O'Neill's brothers identified by Manley W. Mallett; nor is the name suggested by any other of James's immediate kin or associates.) Charges of $216.36 were made for board, tuition, and books through the end of the year. A second bill of $80 (including final charges of $27.50 for a "Trip to Atlanta" was submitted for 1895. The books were closed on "February 24, when he must have left," says the university archivist.
In addition to these bare facts, all we know are Jamie's "bad grades" (although he seems to have begun with his usual strong showing).
The lovely Mary Ellen Quinlan, bereft now of parents and of her virginal ambitions, had slipped ever further into the depths of narcosis ("the poison," as James called it). Jamie, who had long seen his father as the arch-fiend responsible for this enslavement, became hardened in his resentment: "The father was to blame. Circumstances might force on Jamie an occasional truce, even arouse in him feelings of pity for the father, but his lifelong vendetta would never really end until his enemy's death" (Sheaffer 1, 73).
* * *
Perhaps it taxes us to recall that Jim (as he was called in school) was sixteen years old. In terms of his developing cynicism and anger, he may therefore seem strangely precocious, even mature in an odd sort of way. Where he went after Atlanta and what transpired on Pequot Avenue in that summer of 1895, we can reconstruct in broad outline. Now ten years after Jamie's matriculation at Notre Dame, Eugene was being prepared to enter another Catholic boarding school in the upper Bronx, Mount St. Vincent. His anxiety grew rapidly in this season of discontent filled with gloomy days, everyone in the Cottage dyspeptic for one reason or another. For it was, as Sheaffer has discovered, a summer "marked by the foulest weather in many years: rain on and off for weeks, for days on end the fog ..." (I, 63). When Eugene entered Mount St. Vincent, having just turned seven, he too would feel abused by his separation from Ella. (Eugene entered Mount St. Vincent on 18 October, a date that might seem late in the year to us today. Boarding schools of that period, however, were likely to admit students at almost any time during the academic year—a practice that was especially true of Catholic institutions.) And he would become a willing student of Jamie's teachings about "the old man" as a heartless "bastard." As the summer waned, things looked grim for both young men.
James, Sr., knew that he had little reason to hope for much cooperation from his namesake. And yet we have learned to marvel at Jamie's "Phoenix" powers. But how can we account for his recovering himself, first at St. John's Preparatory School, and later at St. John's College (now Fordham Prep and Fordham University)?
His official career (what is left on the record) in that educational complex was nothing short of brilliant. And, although he would in the years thereafter lose almost every semblance of decent self-control, he eventually earned the most extensive classical training of any of the O'Neills. He had, that is, submitted to discipline in a way that parents would normally be inclined to celebrate. And he had some reason to remind Eugene, albeit stretching the truth and supplying his usual cynical tone:
The program at St. John's, which included serious work in Latin and Greek, was rigorous by any standard. It was this Olympus that Jamie O'Neill scaled. Say what we will, he had genuine gifts for study. If he was not an original genius like his brother, he spoke with an authority that Eugene could not really claim. (An obvious comparison of Eugene, Jr., the Yale classics scholar, to Jamie is to their profligate lifestyles. (See Sheaffer 11, 626.) But just as obvious a connecting link, and surely the more honorable one, might be the nephew's claim to his uncle's impressive academic feats.)
It will not do, however, to romanticize this self-destructive man, as his surviving brother inclined to do in the years following Jamie's death. We seldom get the impression that he believed in the classical ideals or that he ever loved learning for its own sake. In his debates with Eugene about things intellectual, as Agnes Boulton records them, Jamie was forever ready with a quip but essentially shallow in commentary, the typical pattern of the wit. It is hard to imagine that Eugene, whose cynicism was much deeper and more sincere (in fact, a variety of romantic idealism), could have much enjoyed his brother's disrespect for the deeper despair. Once when they were drinking heavily, some remarks touched upon Beyond the Horizon and Gold.
Old Tyrone is wrong when he stands his two bad boys in the same corner: "There's little choice between the philosophy you learned from Broadway loafers, and the one Edmund got from his books. They're both rotten to the core" (LDJ 77).
In the fall of 1895 Jamie lacked a little over one year's credit at the secondary level. Francis X. Holbrook, retired head of the history department and archivist at Fordham Preparatory School, summarized his situation. "I would gather that James came in in 1895 and they put him into 2d Grammar arbitrarily and the following year he started in 1st Grammar and then was promoted into Freshman year in college during that year. This seemed to happen often with talented students-they would be moved ahead at mid-term" (personal letter, 17 June 1991). Dr. Holbrook no doubt has it right. In 1895-96 he took geometry and Special Latin and scored 92 and 96 in those courses. In the year 1896-97 he took trigonometry and 1st Grammar, in which he made 92 and 88. (He was always good in mathematics.) Jamie also took distinctions in 1895-96:
In his three and one half years in the college, Jamie's record is fairly stunning. He was elected class historian in his freshman year. Throughout his time at Fordham he was very competitive, not only in terms of class rank but in seeking prizes. He loved debate. "On Sunday, March 13th (1898), the Junior debating society held the first regular meeting since its organization. The debate of the evening, `Resolved: That Hawaii be annexed to the United States,' was argued by James O'Neil, '00, (sic) and Henry P. Downes, '00" (Fordham Monthly April 1898, 343). In the elocution contest later that spring, he acquitted himself with high distinction: "Mr. O'Neill ... succeeded in earning very hearty applause. His strong, rich voice gave him a decided advantage over many of the other speakers, and his interpretation of the speech he had selected was very favorably spoken of by many at the close of the contest" (Monthly, June 1898, 514). The following spring Jamie wrote the winning literary essay, "The Drama in America." (In it he ventured an opinion that might have made his father, if he read it, even less inclined to bless his son's judgment: "It is a question in my mind whether it is the lack of strong plays (on Broadway) that accounts for the conspicuous absence of great actors or vice-versa.... There is not to-day a single tragedian of recognized merit in this country" (Monthly, December, 1898). Nor was he, in his columns, without occasional trace of anti-Semitism and declamatory self-righteousness.)
It was as a collegian, however, that Jamie achieved the greatest promise of his life. Although we do not have the grade sheets for these years (fires at fault), the awards records have been preserved in the St. John's catalogues for the years 1896-1899. His name is published in each of the years.
In Act IV of Long Day's Journey Into Night Jamie makes light of Edmund's poetic aspirations.
There may be something more than the arrogance we are at first inclined to acknowledge. Because the public record of his life, second phase (1900-1923), is so complete a disaster, James O'Neill, Jr., may be too quickly taken for the fool, an intellectual lightweight. But his "oeuvre" merits attention on its own. Some of this work makes a valid claim, in fact, for inclusion in the O'Neill family pantheon of literary and performing arts. The reader will be given the opportunity to make a personal judgment in this matter.
In his freshman year Jamie joined the staff of the Fordham Monthly, an uncommonly sophisticated journal of its kind. As a junior he held the position of "exchange editor." The Notre Dame Scholastic provides a useful description of responsibilities attendant upon this person.
In his capacity as exchange editor Jamie had the opportunity to criticize the content of sister publications. His published remarks about the Scholastic, the St. Mary's Chimes, and the Georgetown Journal were by and large quite complimentary. An exchange editor was expected to assume the responsibilities of editor-in-chief in his senior year. He did, in fact, hold the chiefs position from September until December, 1899, when he was asked to leave Fordham. James H. O'Neill, '00, was identified as "Editor-in-Chief" in the October 1899 issue. In December his name has been replaced by that of Henry P. Downes, '00. Nowhere in the issue is a reason given for the change. The matter was treated discreetly (that is, silently).
The most solid pieces written by Jamie over his two and one-half years on the Monthly are gathered in the Appendix below. (Let us keep in mind, as we peruse these writings, that we behold in them the work of a collegian, 18-21. Whatever degree of precocity, or sophistry, may be perceived is the reader's to determine. What is not arguable is the tender age of the author.) After the example of Jacques Maritain in Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, the samples are offered as "Texts Without Comment."
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The story of Jamie's ultimate removal from Fordham has been many times told (Sheaffer I, 75; Gelbs 71; Ranald 569). (Alexander has him mistakenly expelled from Notre Dame (78-79); Bowen mentions nothing of his education beyond his nine years in South Bend (14).) The event occurred in December of 1899. It has, on the surface, all the possibilities for hilarious retelling, gossip and pub talk that never fails to elicit guffaws. O'Neill's lament for his brother in A Moon for the Misbegotten sends a very different message, of course, but even there, in the comedy of Act I, Jim Tyrone himself makes a joke of the incident.
We may suppose that this is a fairly accurate description of the prank and that the O'Neill brothers regaled many a delighted listener, each time no doubt embellishing the "facts" with new variations.
Francis X. Holbrook of Fordham throws considerable light on the possibility of Jamie's actually having brought off such a stunt.
Thus, although this episode constituted an especially egregious breach of discipline, young Mr. O'Neill was hardly the single offender against good taste and decorum at Fordham in those years. The P.O.D. Diary (a record of infractions kept by the prefect of discipline at the prep, not the college) confirms the "precocity" of even the younger boys. Outbursts of excessive drinking and other pranks are recorded with some regularity in the P.O.D. (Holbrook and Stellwag 21-22).
We can be sure that the matter was viewed very differently by James and Ella O'Neill, who were crushed and humiliated by such a ghastly turn of events. They had wanted their firstborn to make his mark; and they knew that he had been blessed with native intelligence and a prepossessing manner. How altogether mindless his transgression must have seemed to them. The truth is, moreover, that Eugene and Jamie themselves recognized the disaster for what it was. This is why A Moon for the Misbegotten, O'Neill's last play, develops more along tragic than comic lines.
Whatever else may be said, however, Jamie O'Neill's public record before December, 1899, appears nearly flawless. And whatever took place on Pequot Avenue or in the brothels and bars of Broadway and Chicago, he put together a simply stunning academic career. Privileged and talented, he was placed in first-rate elementary and secondary programs. And his Jesuit training was as solid as any offered in this nation. The St. John's College Bulletins of the late 1890's announced the graduation requirements in this way:
Although he did not take the degree, Jamie had not only competed for but had won many of their highest awards. Further, his contributions to an outstanding "lit magazine" will stand, the reader may agree, with much scholarly criticism that was then being published by the academic press.
After his school days Jamie's life went totally to seed. In whatever he did, he satisfied no one, least of all himself. Had he lost faith in himself? Did he seek death? These questions that tease us the most are in a sense none of our business. We may feel that we should apologize even for raising them. Whatever may have been his private sorrows of conscience, the remainder of his outward life was marked by a downward spiral of boozing, whoring, and prolonged periods of mere sponging off his parents.
He tried acting, mainly in the first decade of the new century, barely into his twenties. Even if he was already jaded, he could. still affect a stylish presence. And he had a voice to rival even his father's. Moreover, he somehow managed to remain, even until their deaths, within the sphere of his parents' care. That is, he stayed in one sense a: child, endlessly forgiven, even pampered. Fail as he might in his "profession," his father remained puzzled why his own flesh should fail to master the elementary demands of the stage. His career at Notre Dame and Fordham offered evidence aplenty of his poise and excellent voice. He seemed convivial but probably was, as Louis Sheaffer says, "at bottom a loner" (I, 219). Christine Ell made perhaps the shrewdest assessment of him: "(Gene) has a sorrow which isn't a secret, and Jim ... has a secret which he won't allow to become a sorrow" (Boulton 20).
What kept the "old man" tolerant of the son who so often disgraced him? What bond made him beloved of his mother? James and Ella stayed, in their later years, in the Prince George at 27th St. and Fifth Avenue. Jamie often took meals with them and lived much of the time at the Garden, near Madison Square Garden. Even when he tried James's patience to the breaking point, Ella remained solicitous. "Mrs. O'Neill was watching Jamie with silent anxiety. When she ordered some sandwiches and coffee sent up she ordered soup for Jamie; but he refused to touch it, and got an angry glare from his father.... We (Eugene and Agnes) left sometime after this, and Gene's mother walked to the elevator with us, urging Jamie, who left with us, to come in the next morning and have breakfast with them" (Boulton 235).
It was as though he were making up for all the years they had put him at such great distance. It seemed as if they could not do enough for him (and they could not). Even after he had just been "fired" from college, they returned to Notre Dame as guests, with Jamie, for the St. Patrick's Day student production of Twelfth Night (Scholastic, 5 April 1902). He barnstormed with James in the vaudeville version of Monte Cristo. Over the years he played (not very well) with his father in Abbé Bonaparte (1908) and Joseph and His Brethren (1913). And he gained parts in many other plays only because his father was willing to place his own name on the line.
To assert that James O'Neill, Jr., manifested profound Oedipal feelings requires no oath of allegiance to Freud. The case is one of the most classic imaginable. When Eugene said that his older brother would not have risked his ties to Ella to marry the actress Pauline Frederick, Jamie did not demur: "Mama—there's never been another like her, my little kid brother! She takes that bath every morning, all that sweet-smelling stuff in it—what for? The old man! The old bastard doesn't appreciate her even now. Sometimes I go into the bathroom and dip my hands into the water before it's all run out—umm!" (Boulton 210)
Jamie feared death, as we all do, and the milestone markers of the decades (a fear never wholly erased by his "What, ho!" cheeriness). That he was defeated by his mother's death seems obvious, in view of all that has been written by O'Neill and discovered by others. This is the spine of A Moon. He had gained a grip after James's death and his mother's recovery from addiction. Even Eugene seemed hopeful in his letter to Harold DePolo, when Ella and Jamie had set out for Los Angeles in the winter of 1922. "One bit of news about him will surprise you. He hasn't had a drink in almost a year and a half now. Fact, I swear to you. My mother got him to go on the wagon and stick-and he has stuck.... I swear by my grandmother's beard I am telling you naught but exact, however amazing fact!" (Selected Letters 162-63). But by the time his mother died in February, 1922, his retreat into alcohol was already well under way. His funeral received the same shabby familial treatment that Jamie had exhibited on the occasion of his mother's death: he had been too drunk to attend. Eugene, in a colossal failure of tact and courage, left Agnes to arrange such obsequies as there would be. He had not seen his brother in several months before the latter's death on November 8, 1923. Then Eugene pleaded that he was too emotionally devastated to be present for the blessing over his brother at St. Stephen's Church in Manhattan. He did not attend the interment in St. Mary's graveyard, where Bridget, Edmund, James, and Ella were buried.
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"Look at him—a thirty-five thousand dollar education and a thirty-five dollar a week earning capacity" (Gelbs 255). Thus, had an embittered James O'Neill once characterized his son's achievement. On his side, Jamie felt that his father was unfitted to appreciate what he himself esteemed in Ella. Massively presumptuous as it may strike us, the son saw in his father a sort of bogtrotter who had arrived from Leinster by way of Buffalo and Cincinnati. How could such a man appreciate her delicate sensibilities, the lovely innocent who had been nurtured in Jamie's sister school at Notre Dame? What did the old actor have in common with them, really? Uneducated, he could claim little of genuine cultivation: not the keyboard nor chess; nor the classics of Latin and Greek; not the lightness of Chopin nor the leisure to be taken far from the crowd. Even Gene could not appreciate their deepest bond.
As a lad of fifteen, urged by his mother, he had once written the President of Notre Dame to perform for them a functionary's chore.
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O, Mother, where are you? The man of 45 cannot be seen to weep as the boy of seven might. We cannot explain his grief. Our theories seem more to confound than to enhance our mysteries. The psychogist's terms, put forward in all good faith, seem in the end somehow stale and flat. Better, perhaps, to invoke words heard long ago in the sweet litany, heard by the girl and then by her child, in a world recalled now but in faint memory.
Notre Dame Student Accounts Book, with entry page for James H. O'Neill, 1891. Courtesy of University Archives, Theodore Hesburgh Memorial Library, University of Notre Dame.
St. Edward's Hall, where Minims lived in Jamie's early years at Notre Dame. Courtesy of University Archives, Theodore Hesburgh Memorial Library, University of Notre Dame.
Unidentified "champion" Minims of 1888, the year Jamie was 10 years old. Courtesy of University Archives, Theodore Hesburgh Memorial Library, University of Notre Dame.
The Minim "Princes" (circa 1890) with their beloved sponsor and the Founder of Notre Dame, Fr. Edward Sorin. Courtesy of University Archives, Theodore Hesburgh Memorial Library. University of Notre Dame.
Unidentified members of Editorial Board, The Fordham Monthly (1898). (Which dignitary is James O'Neill, Jr.?) Courtesy of Fordham University Archives.
Senior Hall (now called Dealy Hall), in which Jamie entertained his "sister" in the fall of 1899 (cause of his expulsion). Courtesy of Fordham University Archives.
St. Stephen's Church, Manhattan, site of the funeral service for James O'Neill, Jr., 10 November 1923. Courtesy of Gary Vena.
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