Oona O'Neill Chaplin's paternal ancestry has been chronicled and studied in numerous biographical and critical works concerning her husband and her father. In the latter instance, by transforming himself, his father, mother, and older brother into the Tyrones of Long Day's Journey into Night, Eugene O'Neill not only created a landmark of American dramatic literature but virtually ensured his family's dominance in any future examination of his daughter's life. Given the celebrity status of the O'Neills and the abundance of material on them, it is hardly surprising that Oona's maternal forebears, the Boultons, were accorded a historical backseat. Oona, however, was a product of both houses, and in order to get the full picture, it is necessary to examine her two dynasties. First (and simply because of their accessibility) a look at the notable O'Neills, whose story, up to James O'Neill's breakthrough as a theatrical star, follows a classic American immigrant pattern.
Oona's paternal great-grandparents, Mary and Edward O'Neil (the name is Gaelic for "champion"), fled from Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century to escape the devastating effects of the Great Potato Famine. Edward brought his wife and children to America, where they settled first in Buffalo, New York, and then in Cincinnati, Ohio; during this time a second "I" was added to the family name. Edward O'Neill did not do well in the new world. His two oldest sons took off almost immediately, leaving James, born in 1846 in Kilkenny, Leinster, as the oldest male child in a household that included five younger sisters. Always homesick, unable to support his brood, and fearful of dying in a strange country, Edward abandoned his family and returned to Ireland while his wife struggled on as a charwoman. James O'Neill, himself forced to work at the age of ten for fifty cents a week, never forget those early years of humiliating poverty. Indeed, despite his future affluence he never let his wife and sons forget, either. Young James gravitated to the stage, worked long and hard as an apprentice, and overcame his biggest hurdle, a thick brogue. In an era when declamatory actors like the raging Edwin Forrest were yielding to more subtle stage performers like the subdued, but no less dramatic, Edwin Booth, the handsome, gifted, and appealing James O'Neill emerged as a bona fide matinee idol with unquestionable potential.
At the age of forty Thomas Quinlan, a teetotaler, suddenly began drinking heavily, jeopardizing his health. He fell ill with tuberculosis and died while his daughter was still in school. Always a daddy's girl, the grief-stricken Ella immersed herself in her studies, music in particular, and proved talented enough to receive a gold medal for her achievements at the piano. After graduation from St. Mary's Academy in Indiana, an institution renowned for educational excellence, Ella overcame her mother's objections and moved to New York City. There, almost immediately, she renewed her acquaintance with James O'Neill, now a principal of the Union Square Stock Company. Ella had been dreaming of him since their first meeting; now he fell for her and soon proposed. Despite similarities in their Irish Catholic backgrounds--just as she had thought of taking the veil, he once had considered wearing the collar--the outgoing, earthy actor and the shy, ladylike musician were oddly matched. What brought them together was a powerful mutual passion and Ella's unconscious desire to replace her beloved father. Convent-bred and conventionally raised, Ella Quinlan should have married an upstanding solid citizen, either a prosperous businessman or a professional, the kind of husband who would have sheltered and coddled her. She should have married such a man, but she did not. She married an actor, an alliance her father surely would have frowned on, for although Thomas Quinlan had enjoyed Jimmy O'Neill's company, it is doubtful that he had fancied the itinerant per former as a son-in-law. His widow, Bridget, certainly expressed her misgivings about having James as a son-in-law.
The wedding of James O'Neill and Ella Quinlan took place on June 14, 1877, in St. Ann's Church on East Twelfth Street in New York City. Ella, who had a taste for luxury in clothes, wore an exquisite and expensive satin and lace wedding gown, which in future times came to symbolize her lost youth and innocence. Often Ella would take it out and ruminate over her past life, a process that became so difficult and tear-filled she eventually put the gown away for good. Eugene O'Neill brilliantly used this remembrance in the closing scene of Long Day's Journey into Night when, in a drug-induced haze, the character Mary Tyrone meanders about the stage cradling her tattered wedding dress in her arms and talking of happier days.
Drawn into the theatrical life by her husband's profession and associations, Ella's convent-based sensibilities soon were buffeted. She was vastly different from the worldly ladies with whom James O'Neill previously had kept company. One of them, the actress Louise Hawthorne, committed suicide after losing his affections, and still another, Nettie Walsh, swore that James had married her. Walsh sued the actor right after his wedding, making Ella's adjustment to her new life that much more difficult. The case was dropped, but not before Ella Quinlan O'Neill had been thoroughly shamed and disenchanted. Hurt followed hurt. She claimed, for example, to have learned of her husband's predilection for alcohol on their honeymoon. Although James O'Neill definitely imbibed, heavy social drinking was the norm for men of that era, particularly men of the theater, and despite the frequency of his drinking and the volume consumed, he seemed quite capable of holding his liquor--a skill neither of his sons inherited.
Not only did O'Neill's drinking upset his wife, but his profession itself proved an ongoing obstacle. Acting still was considered less than respectable, and following her marriage Ella's social standing took a nosedive. Former friends and classmates gave her the cold shoulder. She had no place to go except into her husband's flamboyant world, and as Ella took her place beside him, the security of a solid home life yielded to a succession of hotel suites in scattered cities. She always accompanied her husband on the road yet would not deign to spend time sitting around theaters waiting for him. Consequently she spent many hours alone in nondescript hotel rooms. James O'Neill revered his wife and, all too aware that he had married above himself, suffered guilt pangs for subjecting this gentle woman to the harsh vicissitudes of the actor's life.
Shortly after the Nettie Walsh lawsuit was resolved O'Neill took Ella to San Francisco, where they remained for almost two years, possibly the happiest of their married life. Soothed by the genteel atmosphere of the Bay City, Ella relaxed and even found herself drawn to some of her husband's associates. On September 28, 1878, in the home of one of those friends, she gave birth to their first child, James Jr. Five years later in a St. Louis, Missouri, hotel, their second son, Edmund, was born.
Ella attempted to properly care for her children and to continue being her husband's traveling companion as he settled into his acclaimed portrayal of Edmund Dantes in a dramatization of Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo. The play was a mixed blessing. Through it O'Neill latched on to a perennial source of income, but the promise of his youth was essentially squandered on a potboiler. In the opinion of contemporary critics and his fellow actors, had he not confined himself to the Chateau d'If, James O'Neill might have become one of the theater's immortals, someone whose name would have been said in the same breath as Edwin Booth (in America) or Sir Henry Irving (in England). However, since his fear of poverty compelled him to stay with a role that made money, his fame and fortune came out of a role he grew to loathe. The public's insatiable appetite for Dantes, the actor complained, kept him from undertaking the classic roles of the theater and forever mired him in melodrama. In one sense he was correct--he was only giving the public what it wanted, yet he too was at fault. A dedicated actor often elects to take on a superior role for less money simply to stretch his abilities. James O'Neill was unwilling to make the sacrifice; he could not tear himself away from a proven meal ticket to fully explore his talent, and that frustration no doubt contributed to his thirst. In later years the elder O'Neill gave vent to his discontent again and again, all within earshot of his impressionable son Eugene. In Eugene's view, by capitulating to the pit his father took the easy way out, something the younger O'Neill vowed he never would do. His aspirations always would exceed his grasp; anything that came easily would not be worth the effort. Ironically, after enacting the Count for more than 4,000 of the estimated 6,000 performances he gave in his lifetime, James O'Neill did try to wean himself and his audiences away from Dumas and into other dramas. By then it was too late. He had lost the spark; the vaunted potential had been dashed against the walls of the Chateau d'If.
Although he toured for most of the year, James O'Neill maintained a hotel apartment in New York City where Ella stayed with the boys. Their passion undimmed, the couple could not stand to be apart for long, and Ella regularly left the children in the care of her mother and a nursemaid to join James on the road. The physical desire to be with him temporarily overcame her maternal instincts, but those conjugal visits were marked by guilt as well as ardor. Wife? Mother? In a dilemma similar to the one her granddaughter Oona would face in future years, Ella, the good Catholic girl, was torn between the two demanding roles of wanting to be at her husband's side and wanting to look after her children. Decisions usually were made in favor of the former, for not only did James need her, she herself could not bear the separation.
On a western tour in the winter of 1885, James wrote and begged Ella to come to him. Squelching her misgivings, she agreed, and leaving Jamie and Edmund with her mother and the nurse, Ella went to Colorado. During her absence Jamie came down with measles and passed it on, in a far more virulent form, to his infant brother. Word of the boys' illness was sent to their parents in Denver, and the frantic mother made plans to catch the first train east. O'Neill, bound to the tradition of "the show must go on," had no choice but to remain. Just before Ella left town, a telegram arrived announcing Edmund's death. Alone and wracked with grief, she made the long trip back even as her husband put aside his personal agony and again stepped onto the stage as Edmund Dantes.
Within months of his son's death, and after two and a half years of playing the Count of Monte Cristo, James bought the rights to the drama and took control of the production. Now working for himself, the actor raised his interpretation to a new level of fervor; his increased efforts paid handsomely, netting him some $25,000 per year. The joy in realizing that he was becoming a rich man was mitigated somewhat by Ella's behavior; she never could fully let go of her lost child or of the part she felt that she had played in his death. Blaming herself for leaving Edmund, Ella still would cry out for her infant son a quarter of a century later.
In the mid 1880s Bridget Quinlan moved to New London, Connecticut, to live with her sister, and during frequent family visits to see his mother-in-law, James O'Neill found himself drawn to the quiet New England sea town. He purchased property on Pequot Avenue, and that residence became the O'Neills' summer home and the setting for Long Day's Journey into Night. Although only a summer citizen, Ella came to regard New London as home, especially since little Edmund was buried there. Having a place to call home, however, was not enough to alleviate her grief. In 1887, in an effort to lift her spirits, O'Neill took Ella on a grand tour of Europe. Whatever pleasure that trip might have afforded was shattered when they returned to discover that Bridget Quinlan had died. At this, Ella was thrown deeper into heartache and despondency. With her father and mother gone, James remained her sole bulwark and she became increasingly dependent on him. Trying to bolster his wife, O'Neill decided that with Jamie enrolled at boarding school Ella needed someone else to occupy her time--that is, another child. At first she resisted, arguing that no one could replace Edmund. In time she yielded with the hope that the newborn would be a girl, a daughter who would not replace the lost boy but, rather, be her mother's comfort and darling. The darling comfort turned out to be Eugene Gladstone O'Neill.
Born on October 16, 1888, the O'Neills' third son weighed a phenomenal eleven pounds. His head was exceptionally large, which prompted one of Ella's more outspoken cousins to declare that Eugene would "either be an idiot or a genius!" Apprised of the baby's imminent arrival, James, on the New England theatrical circuit in his sixth consecutive tour of The Count of Monte Cristo, raced home between appearances in Brockton and Fall River, Massachusetts, to attend his wife. Whether he arrived in time for the actual birth is not known; it is known that he stayed for only a day and then immediately returned to the road.
While her husband continued to triumph on the stage, Ella suffered at home, and morphine was prescribed to ease her postpartum pain. In those days the indiscriminate administering of drugs was an accepted practice; despite the dire predictions of certain watchdog groups, most physicians relied heavily on them. Ella Quinlan O'Neill found bottled comfort, became hooked without realizing it, and within a short time was addicted. She blamed James for her plight, arguing that he had put her in the hands of a second-rate doctor in order to save money. In all probability had Ella given birth to Eugene in a fashionable private residence instead of a small family hotel on the corner of Broadway and Forty-third Street, and had she been looked after by a high-ranking physician rather than the hotel's on-call doctor, she still would have been provided with morphine. Deeply concerned and somewhat helpless in the face of Ella's urgent need, James coped by doing his best to cover up. He would take the train to New York City after Saturday evening performances and would stay for the weekend in order to keep an eye on Ella.
During one of James's weekend visits, Eugene was baptized and christened at Holy Innocents Church on West Thirty-seventh Street. His name was derived from Eoghen, a famous figure of Irish lore; however, the loyal Irish nationalist James O'Neill made a slight error in translation--Eoghen is Gaelic for Owen, not Eugene. The name Gladstone was bestowed in homage to the British prime minister, whose efforts for Irish home rule endeared him to Hibernians but did nothing to advance his career in England. O'Neill's fierce love of the Auld Sod was handed down to his son, and being Irish, Eugene O'Neill later maintained, was what explained him the most.
In the early weeks and months of Eugene's life, while his mother flowed in and out of awareness, he was looked after by Sarah Sandy, an English nanny. The diminutive nursemaid remained with the family for seven years, leaving when the boy was enrolled at boarding school. Apparently Sarah Sandy was a mixed blessing; although she was a loving, constant presence, her taste for the macabre--she regaled Eugene with horror stories and took him to museums featuring hideous wax figures of murderers and various grotesques--definitely had an adverse effect on the impressionable child. Not an unkind person, Sarah Sandy added a touch of the terrifying to her charge's childhood. Eugene was nervous, and the jittery upside-down, inside-out quality of the O'Neills' life, the travel, the hotels, the theaters, all served to advance his nervousness. The rootless nature of his existence, combined with the ghoulish bent of his nursemaid, produced in him such a terrible fear of the dark that he suffered constant nightmares. To help the boy, James O'Neill reached back to his Irish peasant roots for a remedy: when the night terrors came, he would offer his son a glass of water mixed with a few drops of whiskey. Eugene later claimed that he believed this act of comfort predisposed him to spirits and in some way led to his alcoholism. Although ancient remedies can indeed wreak havoc, in this instance O'Neill's problems more likely stemmed from his family's fly-by-night existence--his father's endless touring and the equally disturbing touring of his mother's mind--than from the sprinkling of a few whiskey drops in his drinking water.
During Eugene's infancy and throughout his young adulthood, Ella O'Neill wallowed in depression and drugs and remained icily out of reach. The boy's love and need for her went unanswered. As a result of that lack and the nomadic existence he was forced to lead, the future playwright shouldered his way through a lifetime of what he termed "hopeless hope." By his own admission he was a person who never felt at home, always felt like an outsider, and always was "a little in love with death." The bleakness seems to have been relieved only through books. First, Sarah Sandy read to him and then helped him learn to read by himself. He poured his heart and soul into mastering the words and became an ardent and devoted reader; books, in fact, became one of the two great loves of his life, the other was the sea. Indeed, so considerable was his enthusiasm for the water that O'Neill more than once declared that he wished he had been born an amphibious creature rather than a man.
Eugene spent eight to nine months of the year touring with his parents. That life, as his mother had learned before him, proved far more rigorous than glamorous. In at least one instance it was downright calamitous. Nutrition sometimes was sacrificed to expediency; meals were grabbed on the run between performances and/or cities, so Eugene's diet suffered. He came down with rickets, a bone disease resulting from a vitamin D deficiency frequently seen in poor children. Once the disease was discovered it was successfully treated. Still, the idea that he had been subjected to such a degrading illness remained an embarrassment all his life. Fortunately the summers in New London provided a welcome, if not a complete, respite from life on the road. At the Connecticut shore Eugene knew where he would be from one day to the next and took solace in the soothing monotony of sameness. Those summers notwithstanding, the playwright later bluntly declared that he had no youth. Caught between his powerful father and his fearful mother, Eugene O'Neill grew up gloomy.
Once he reached school age, Eugene's days on the road ended. Sent to Mount St. Vincent-on-Hudson in Riverdale, a boarding school run by the Sisters of Charity, he was introduced to the formal teachings of Catholicism. In the sixth grade, about to receive his first Holy Communion, he took some of his classmates to see his father on stage. Informed of their whereabouts and incensed that the boys had stepped into the nefarious realm of the theater, one Sister of Charity showed no mercy and refused to allow the miscreants to receive communion. The punishment hit hard; clearly his father was involved in something disdained by the Church, and though Eugene had done nothing wrong the sins of his father were visited upon him.
In 1900 Eugene left Mount St. Vincent and enrolled in the De La Salle Institute in New York City, first as a day student and then as a boarder. Two years later he transferred to Betts Academy in Stamford, Connecticut, and was graduated from that institution in June 1906. During his days at Betts Academy, Eugene spent time with Jamie, who magnanimously introduced his younger brother to the wicked ways of the world. Later Jamie would brag that Gene learned sin more easily because his big brother paved the way. Eugene was accepted at Princeton and upon entering that august university chose to concentrate on drinking rather than studying. Although he was intelligent enough to handle the college curriculum, O'Neill was not emotionally mature enough to fit in. His tendency to take himself seriously earned him the nickname Ego. Suspended for two weeks for unruly behavior (i.e., drunkenness), he made known his intention to withdraw from the university at the end of his freshman year.
Following Eugene's defection from academia his father arranged for him to work at the New York-Chicago Supply Company, a mail order house selling inexpensive jewelry in which James O'Neill had invested money. Employed, if not exactly gainfully, Eugene palled around with college chums from Princeton and other Ivy League schools. At this time he met Kathleen Jenkins, an attractive, socially connected young woman. In 1909 she became his wife. Within weeks of their wedding Eugene took off on a gold-mining expedition, leaving behind a girl he barely knew who, by this time, was carrying his child.
Eugene Gladstone O'Neill Jr. was born in May 1910 while his father was in British Honduras. A few weeks after his son's birth Eugene returned to the States and, making sure that Kathleen was not present, went to her mother's house to see his infant son. He held the boy in his arms, cried, handed the infant back to the grandmother, and left for good. Later the playwright told his namesake that he was forced into the decision. What else could he do? Not only was he a twenty-one-year-old drop-out with no means of supporting a wife and child, but his parents had been against the marriage from the beginning and wanted it annulled. Confused and depressed, O'Neill called this the lowest moment of his life and tried to end his agony in an unsuccessful attempt at suicide. Eugene and Kathleen subsequently were divorced, and the former was put under no obligation to pay alimony or child support. Kathleen Jenkins married a second time and her husband, George Pitt-Smith, raised O'Neill's son as his own; Eugene Pitt-Smith did not even learn of his true parentage until he was eleven years old, at which time he took back his birth name.
With the marriage to Kathleen officially over, Eugene returned to the bosom of his family. To keep him busy, James made his son an assistant manager of his theatrical company, a job which consisted of hanging around the entrance to the theater to make sure no one got in without a ticket. Soon enough, Eugene bolted and went off to sea. He landed in Buenos Aires, where his seemingly aimless debauchery continued. In truth, all that Eugene O'Neill experienced during this time became fodder for his artistic soul. Returning to New York in 1911, the twenty-three-year-old ne'er-do-well, as his father termed him, headed for familiar stamping grounds--Jimmy the Priest's waterfront cafe. Then, in 1912, O'Neill shipped out to sea for a final voyage as an able-bodied seaman, a title that meant almost as much to him as his later designation as Nobel Prize laureate. Upon his discharge O'Neill returned to the family and along with his brother toured with their father's hoary Monte Cristo show. One story has it that Eugene, pressed into undertaking two minor roles in the Dumas opus, was accosted by his father after the young man's first stage appearance. "Sir," said the senior O'Neill, "I am not satisfied with your performance." To which his son answered, "Sir, I am not satisfied with your play."
The O'Neills returned to New London for the summer of 1912, the exact time setting for Long Day's Journey into Night. For years Ella's boys had known of their mother's addiction (really, just about everyone knew), and the worst part for Eugene was the damning suggestion that it was his fault, that the pain of bringing him into the world had coerced her into drugs. Living through it was hell, but later O'Neill the artist would use O'Neill the son's guilt to great advantage in his dramas. That summer the O'Neill boys hung around together. Jamie, ten years Eugene's elder, already was in the grip of a hopelessness that far eclipsed his younger brother's despair. A hapless drunkard, both charming and cynical, kindly and nasty, Jamie never did amount to anything. James Sr. eventually took great pride in Eugene's accomplishments and frequently bragged about his younger boy even as he denigrated his elder son. As Eugene's achievements increased, Jamie continued to do nothing and succeeded only in becoming morbidly attached to his mother, an alliance which culminated in his accompanying her corpse on a train ride from Los Angeles to New York. That horrific episode resulted in Jamie's return to raging alcoholism and became a moving theme of his brother's play A Moon for the Misbegotten.
During that central summer of 1912 Eugene worked for a newspaper, wrote poetry, and contracted tuberculosis. TB, the white plague, was believed to be hereditary and so highly contagious that sufferers were set apart like lepers. Moreover, devout Irish Catholics attached a tragic spin to consumption by assuming that God visited it upon sinners. Bedridden, tended to by a nurse, cut off from his companions, and aware that both his grandfathers had died of the disease, Eugene understandably was terrified. His father, fearful lest Ella, in her perpetually weakened condition, contract the illness, arranged for Eugene to enter the Gaylord Farm Sanatorium in Wallingford. Watched over and cared for as he had never been before, O'Neill used the five-month stay to great advantage, especially in reading; at Gaylord he discovered the works of Strindberg, which had a most profound influence on his own dramas. Friends said that Eugene O'Neill went into Gaylord a boy and came out a man. O'Neill himself said that he was reborn within the sanatorium's confines.
Early in June 1913 Eugene returned to New London and immersed himself in serious reading--from Aeschylus to Nietzsche, from Shakespeare to Ibsen--and began the serious business of writing plays. During these years of training his father was by turns tight-fisted and generous. For example, while he would not wholly subsidize Eugene, granting him a mere ten dollars a week allowance, he did pay for the publication of Thirst, the first collection of Eugene's plays. Eager to pursue his career, Eugene entered George Baker's renowned drama workshop at Harvard in the fall of 1914. There, according to a fellow student, he "stood out like an oyster in a lunchroom stew." O'Neill finished the term at Harvard, returned to New York, and rented a room in Greenwich Village. The aspiring playwright supplemented his allowance by selling bits and pieces of his own writing to magazines and newspapers and by working on screenplays for the fledgling movie industry. He also spent quite a bit of time with his brother at the latter's favorite watering hole, the Columbian Saloon.
Jamie, now a confirmed alcoholic, befriended whores and drunks and pipe-dreamed of becoming a newspaperman. He loved his younger brother yet could not help but be envious of Eugene's obvious talent, and that filial resentment inspired more drinking. Like his brother, Eugene drank; but unlike Jamie, his drinking was not continuous. Eugene would work intensely, then would go on sprees and recover, and then, racked with guilt, return to his work. Years later, when he could no longer balance the drunkenness and sobriety, he stopped drinking completely because it interfered with his creative process. Eugene O'Neill was an artist first and then a drinker. Jamie O'Neill was simply a drinker.
In the summer of 1916 Eugene made his first trip to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he shared an oceanside shack with a friend. Like Greenwich Village, although on a far smaller scale, the picturesque town at the tip of Cape Cod had become an artists' colony. It was here that Bound East for Cardiff premiered at the Wharf Theater, marking the first O'Neill drama to be staged as well as the beginnings of the Provincetown Players. Unable to serve his country in the First World War because of his fragile health, Eugene concentrated on his work and his drinking. In 1917 the Provincetown Players established themselves on Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village and, at O'Neill's insistence, called their New York venue the Playwrights' Theater. From the onset the plucky little company--which included writers Terry Carlin, Susan Glaspell, George Cram "Jig" Cook, Hutchins Hapgood, Neith Boyce, Wilbur Daniel Steele, William Zorach, and John Reed, and set designer Robert Edmond Jones--achieved national recognition. Among its offerings were O'Neill's one-acters, In the Zone, Ile, and The Long Voyage Home.
Striking in appearance, the lean and wiry O'Neill had inherited his father's Black Irish looks. Distinguished from their fair-skinned, light-haired countrymen, the Black Irish are said to be descendants of shipwrecked sailors washed up on Ireland's shores during the Spanish Armada debacle. The fact that he was an Irishman who did not look like the majority of Irishmen provided another deviation from the norm for the man who never felt he belonged. (Charlie Chaplin, an Englishman by birth, also was distinguished from that fair-skinned race by his dark coloring, which was variously attributed to his being Black Irish, a Gypsy, or a Jew.) Women were very attracted to Eugene O'Neill and he responded, but in a diffident rather than active manner. Characterized as affectionate more than sensual, he often was the pursued, not the pursuer. Although O'Neill had many casual affairs during this period, he seemed to have been genuinely enamored of Louise Bryant. Louise was the lover of John Reed at the same time that she took up with Eugene, and when she ran off and married Reed, O'Neill was left in the unwelcome role of unrequited suitor. Small wonder the abandoned, dejected playwright immediately gravitated toward a woman who bore a remarkable resemblance to Louise. Her name was Agnes Boulton.
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