NEW YORK — By Woman Possessed is the last book the late Arthur and Barbara Gelb wrote about America’s foremost playwright of the last century Eugene O’Neill. Together, they had penned the first extensive biography in 1962, a 964-page tome which read like a novel. In 2000, they published another opus, O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo, which was a darker look at O’Neill and his family.
After Mr. Gelb retired from his position as metropolitan editor at The New York Times and as the Gelbs were approaching their 80s, they kept finding new lore about the O’Neill family. When the diaries of Eugene's third wife, the actress Carlotta Monterey, became available at the Yale University Library, which houses O'Neill’s archive, they decided it was time for them to write another book, titled By Woman Possessed, a compendium of their two O'Neill books interspersed with a treasure trove of newly found material.
Mr. Gelb didn’t live to see the book published; he died in 2014 at 90. So it was up to his wife to finish the editing and the preface. She was still around late last fall when “By Woman Possessed” was published, but she died in February of this year at 91.
As is all of their work on O’Neill, By Woman Possessed is unique, monumental, definitive and revealing, but most importantly, it is a continuously entertaining work. The Gelbs were the Nick and Nora detectives of O’Neill. There have been a slew of O’Neill books and a brilliant two-volume work is by Louis Sheaffer. O'Neill's second wife, Agnes Boulton, is the author of one; another was attributed to his son Shane.
But the Gelbs were the first, and they got all the facts right. They spent years scrutinizing every clue and rumor to find out the truth. Having marshaled great masses of information, they sifted them into coherent form, getting all the pertinent information onto the printed page while keeping their story in perspective.
O’Neill’s life, like so many of his plays, was a spectacular struggle against doom. Since O’Neill, we have had great American dramatists like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and later Sam Shepherd. We've also had August Wilson, the playwright who chronicled the African-American experience in a series of plays that mirrors O’Neill’s genius and talent. But what is distinctive about O’Neill is that his plays were about his personal problems and he wrote almost solely about them. All of the other playwrights I mentioned have had great life consequences and all at certain times have gotten their lives into their dramas, yet never with the entirety of O’Neill, who put himself and his family into play after play, trying to find a meaning that eluded him most of the time.
O’Neill as a dramatist was writing about his father, mother and brother James – and himself under the name of “Tyrone” in Long Day’s Journey into Night. This was no secret. In A Moon for the Misbegotten, the last play O’Neill wrote, the main character is his brother Jamie O’Neill. In Desire Under the Elms, under the guise of Ephraim Cabot, was James O’Neill, who was known as “Jim” to his wife, and she, who had been raised in Cleveland convent as Mary Ellen Quinlan, called herself “Ella.” The leading roles in one of his most infrequently produced plays, All God’s Chillun Got Wings is patently a reflection of the conflict in his parents’ marriage. James was “Jim” and his mother called herself “Ella.” Because that Jim, in the play, is black and Ella is white, most people have been led to think of All God’s Chillun Got Wings as a play of miscegenation. The Gelbs say no. O'Neill was once again just putting on stage a variation of his parents’ fierce contentious relationship.
O’Neill never ceased to thrash it out onstage for his own enlightenment. In the introduction to Long Day’s Journey into Night, he writes that the essence of the play was to make his parents' relationship comprehensible to himself. Long after his mother and father were dead, the forces that held them together and those that drove them apart were always O'Neill fodder.
His father James was a poor boy who made himself a celebrated actor and might have been great classic actor. The noted actor Edwin Booth said of James: “That young man playing Othello is better than I ever did.” But James O’Neill bought a $2,000 play called The Count of Monte Cristo, which was to bring him the kind of popularity and wealth that allowed him to buy a cottage in New London as a summer retreat. It still exists and served as the setting for Long Days Journey into Night. James always said, “Monte Cristo” made him abandon all ambition. It became a trap from which he never escaped, and the world into which Eugene O’Neill was born.
Eugene Gladstone O'Neill was born on Oct. 16, 1888, at the Barrett House in New York City, a now-demolished hotel on the northeast side of 43rd Street. Ella had a difficult time with her pregnancy; a few years earlier she had lost a child, Edmund, to measles. She was afraid about having another baby and Eugene at birth was 11 pounds. Since the birth happened at the Barrett House, she was attended by a hotel doctor who gave her morphine to ease the pain. She always blamed James's parsimonious ways for relegating her care to a hotel “quack” doctor. She might have been incorrect, though, because giving addictive medication was very common in those days until the Harrison Act of 1914 placed the dispensing of narcotics under federal government control.
Yet, as we see in Long Day's Journey in Night, the addiction haunted Ella for years.
Eugene O'Neill turned out to be a neglectful father of his children. After his divorce from Boulton, he rarely saw his son Shane or daughter Oona, who at 18 married Charlie Chaplin, 36 years her senior. When scandal ensued, her father disinherited her. His justification was always his work. He said he was unable to tolerate any distraction from his writing.
The Gelbs tell us that O'Neill was a hypochondriac, and at times an alcoholic. He had tuberculosis and conquered it. During his convalescence, he began to write plays. Later in life his was misdiagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which made it impossible for him to write. One of the many reasons O'Neill and Carlotta Monterey spent the last five years of his life in Boston and the nearby town of Marblehead was to be close to doctors who could treat him. As the Gelbs make vividly and heartbreakingly plain, this great artist, who died in a Boston hotel on Nov. 17, 1953, was a tragic figure through much of his life.
Carlotta lived 17 years more and her ashes were interred beside her husband's in Boston's Forest Hills Cemetery.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.