The four daughters kept a running communication with
each other as well as with their mother and father, and lively letters
flew back and forth.
It was some time after Margery's visit to New York to
see Agnes, when Teddy handed a letter to her as she came in from outdoor
chores. The letter described Agnes leaving the city with Gene O’Neill.
She wrote that she and Gene had spent a lot of time talking and being
together. For awhile they were both quite cautious, but feeling safer
and more sure of each other at this point. Gene had asked Agnes if she
would go up with him to Provincetown, Massachusetts. Agnes explained,
“It will be quieter for him there and he’ll be able to write without
distraction…and so will I!”
Agnes was also excited and elated because two of her
stories had been included in Edward O'Brien's Annual Best Short Stories
Collection. Then on a pensive note she mentioned she would not be down
for a little time and probably wouldn’t get up to see Mother and little
Barbara right away, but would keep in touch with everyone at The Old
House and at Dawn Hill.
Margery studied the letter. Agnes must have been scared
about getting into this relationship…and who knows about Gene O’Neill?
Well, it looked as though Mother Cecil would have Cookie for a little
At Provincetown, Gene and Agnes had settled into a small
two-room apartment, and both were writing fervently. Agnes was beginning
to know this man a little better. Eugene O’Neill was a complicated,
emotional being. Tall, thin and well built, with a deep tan and dark
hair, his soft brown, wide-set eyes expressed an unfathomable
loneliness. Feeling this, Agnes often had the urge to console him. His
smile could sometimes be sad, sometimes sardonic, while at times she
would see him laugh quietly, but in a flash darkening again and seeming
to brood on some ponderous thought.
Gene was finishing a new play titled Beyond the
Horizon, and Agnes was turning out novelettes, which were called
“saucy pulps.” Gene had gone on a drinking binge instigated by the death
of his close friend, Louis Holliday. Louis had died from an overdose of
heroin because the young woman he loved had gone off with another man.
Feeling better with the routine in Provincetown at the Cape, Gene was
able to taper off his drinking and finally get back to writing.
The political situation disturbed Gene and Agnes as
World War I raged in Europe. It was a contrived war and only much later
would the country know the truth of it. An extract of a letter from a
newspaper, written by a member of the New York Stock Exchange to his
customers may explain the desire of the government and the military to
take up arms and join the war raging in Europe. (Margery had saved this
letter.) The writer says:
Regarding the war as inevitable, Wall Street
believes that it would be preferable to this uncertainty about the
actual date of commencement. Canada and Japan are at war, and are
more prosperous than ever before. The popular view is that stocks
would have a quick, clear, sharp reaction immediately upon outbreak
of hostilities, and that they would enjoy an old-fashioned bull
market such as followed the outbreak of war with Spain in 1898...If
the U.S. does not go to war, it is never the less, of good opinion
that the preparedness program will compensate in good measure for
the loss of the stimulus of actual war.
When the draft was organized Gene wrote to the doctor
who had taken care of him at Gaylord Farm Sanatorium in Wallingford,
Connecticut. Gene had been cleared of all signs of tuberculosis, which
he had suffered earlier, under the care of Dr. David Lyman, and he hoped
the doctor would give him an exemption from the service because of his
susceptibility to the disease. He could easily become reinfected under
the rough conditions of army life, and had at one time been turned down
by the Navy for “minor defects.” At this time in his life he felt no
sympathy for the war.
Living in an age when strict Victorian codes were
usually followed, relatives and friends of the family had a difficult
time accepting the fact that Gene and Agnes were living together,
unmarried. Some of the family wondered if this wasn't a rather
scandalous arrangement for the two young people, and asked how Ted and
Cecil explained the situation to the younger sisters. Cecil responded by
stating they considered themselves modern and free-thinking parents and
were perfectly comfortable with the situation, speaking easily about the
Cecil was a woman who smoked cigarettes, had modeled in
the nude for art classes and considered herself a part of the
avant-garde of the times. Later on she and Ted had three daughters who
“lived in sin” and two who had children “out-of-wedlock.” Ted's
Philadelphia family expected him to be more straight-laced and
unforgiving of such a scandalous way of life. Having been a student and
follower of the radical, free-thinking Thomas Eakins, Ted turned in that
direction and became a free-thinker himself. Eakins had been barred from
his position in the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts because of his
radical approach to using nude models in his art classes. He set up a
new school, The Art Students League of Philadelphia, fitting his own
needs with the freedom to use nude models, which he felt important for any
students studying the human body.
The four daughters, trying to go with the modern trend,
generally accepted new ways of thinking about free love, smoking
cigarettes, wearing short skirts and bobbed hair. The world was changing
and they were ready to go with it!
Agnes had become a model for her younger sisters, who
were fascinated with what little they knew about Gene O'Neill and
thought the relationship with Aggie was quite exciting. Each one wanted
to move up to New York City and begin such a life for herself, following
in the footsteps of their sophisticated sister. Meanwhile, Agnes and
Gene were enjoying Provincetown and a stimulating new life with each
There were sunny days when Gene and Agnes took long
walks on “the outside” or ocean-side of the town. They often walked
until they came to the old Coast Guard Station overlooking Peaked Hill
Bars. This was a rugged building which had been purchased from the U.S.
Government by New York financier Sam Lewisohn who, with the help of
Mabel Dodge, the writer, refurbished it to make a livable house and took
turns sharing this seaside treasure as a summer escape from the hot
Agnes wrote a note to some of her family about “The
Station” one day when she and Gene had been walking out there. They had
headed out over the dunes to the old coast guard building. She said Gene
looked so longingly at the place and told her it was the house they
should have. She described it as desolate but very charming, sitting
close to the shore as an ideal spot to hide away and write with no
interference from the outside world. “Every time we go out there,” she
wrote, “we hardly talk going back into town but for now we need to tuck
our dreams away and hope that someday we’ll be able to have a place like
In the spring of the year 1918, Margery and Teddy
received a telegram dated
Married Gene on April 12. Very happy.
Sending same to Ma and Cookie. Tell
Cis and Bobby. Love and hugs, Agnes.
A few days later a letter arrived from Mother Cecil in
Cornwall addressed to Teddy and the family in Jersey:
Don’t know how I feel about the marriage. Don’t
really know much
about Gene O'Neill...but there was no word about taking Cookie, just
usual loving messages. Will Gene be a father to her…or will it go on
the way it is now? Barbara seems content, but she asks for her
mother when it’s bedtime and when she’s very tired. I don’t know
what else to tell her except that her mother is working.
Things are quiet otherwise, and we’re all right.
Wish Aggie could get the
bill paid for the cows! But I guess she's doing the best she can.
earth she ever thought she needed cows, I'll never know. She gets
from them, and has to pay someone to milk them. They should be sold
soon! Please write to Bobby and Cis. I’m tired and busy.
Love to all, and hugs, Ma
Agnes had purchased the cows as a financial venture,
which did not turn out as planned. The farmer had written that he wanted
the balance of his money immediately instead of the installments they
had agreed on. She didn’t have the entire sum and feeling afraid he
would be angry, she was very reluctant to ask Gene for help. The farmer
was demanding payment through a collection agency, and after a time,
unable to pay any of the amount she owed to the farmer, Agnes lost the
Though constantly keeping in touch with the family,
Aggie had not been up to see little Barbara for quite some time. She
could not bear to be parted from Gene if she left for a visit to
Cornwall and was concerned that he would be distraught, as he wanted her
around all the time. It was frustrating to find herself in this
position, but she felt driven to do as Gene wished and would not cross
these boundaries for anyone, not even her small daughter. Worried it
might mean losing Gene, Agnes was in a great deal of distress over the
situation. In her heart she wanted to be a mother to Barbara, but Gene
had said so often he wanted there to be only the two of them and no one