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OONALiving in the Shadows
By Jane Scovell
Warner BooksCopyright © 1998 Jane Scovell
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Being Irish"
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 "l" 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 forgot 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.
Oona's paternal grandmother, Mary Ellen Quinlan, was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1857 and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. She too was the offspring of Irish immigrants; unlike the O'Neills, her parents, Thomas and Bridget Quinlan, prospered. Her father had a successful career in real estate and became part owner of a liquor and tobacco shop. Actors from the nearby Academy of Music frequented Quinlan's establishment, and before long the proprietor struck up a friendship with one of the troupers, Jimmy O'Neill. O'Neill soon was introduced to Quinlan's only daughter, fourteen-year-old Mary Ellen, or Ella, as she preferred to be called. Ten years younger than James O'Neill, Ella developed a teenage crush on the good-looking and personable young man, whereas he viewed her as a sweet child, someone to be gently teased but not amorously pursued. Shy and modest, Ella exhibited personality traits that might have led her into religious life-like many Catholic girls, she briefly flirted with the idea of taking the veil.
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 performer 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!"2 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.
Excerpted from OONA by Jane Scovell Copyright © 1998 by Jane Scovell . Excerpted by permission.
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