Eugene O’Neill, by the winter of 1951, had long suffered from a degenerative neurological disorder that finally shut off his ability to write. Aggravating his depression was the fact that The Iceman Cometh, his last play on Broadway in his lifetime, was not the success he’d hoped for in 1946. Now 60, but looking some 20 years older, he was living a bleak, isolated life in Marblehead Neck, Massachusetts, with his wife, Carlotta.
She was a former actress and internationally acclaimed beauty, the same age as O’Neill, worn out from years of catering to her world-famous, Nobel Prize-winning husband. She herself was afflicted with various ailments, including severe nervous tension and depression. Both were taking strong medications containing bromide that had hallucinatory side effects of which they were unaware.
Their clash was inevitable. O’Neill, unable to give vent on paper to the dramatic furies that had driven his writing for the past 35 years, was compelled to act out the drama of his current dilemma. And Carlotta, the one-time actress, a woman of capricious temperament, was his Hell-sent foil. A few years after O’Neill’s death in 1953, she sardonically depicted to us the climactic (and decidedly operatic) conflict in Marblehead as “A little drama in the home.” The drama on the night in question resulted in hospital stays for both O’Neills—he with a broken leg and she for druginduced psychosis. (The drama was depicted in a one-act opera by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori at the Glimmerglass Festival at Cooperstown, New York, last summer.)
Carlotta Monterey O’Neill survived her husband by 17 years. Far from being released by his death from playing the role of tragic heroine in which O’Neill had cast her, she continued to follow his unwritten script. From the beginning of their marriage in 1929 when both were 41—a third marriage for him, a fourth for her—O’Neill and Carlotta enacted their passionate personal drama of love and fury.
She had fulfilled his expectations as both lover and antagonist. They had battled, but she had helped him to live and to write; and, nursing him devotedly (and long-sufferingly) during the tormented months of his final illness, she helped him to die.
Carlotta assumed with gusto her new role as widow and literary heir of the great dramatist she called (sometimes in mockery) “the Master.” Her guardianship, particularly with regard to the disposition of his plays, was sometimes viciously disparaged by O’Neill’s friends and associates. But O’Neill himself would probably have viewed her actions with ironic detachment. Knowing her inside out, he left her the absolute right to dispose as she pleased of his literary estate.
Uncannily, she began to assume O’Neill’s character, in much the same way that Lavinia Mannon, in Mourning Becomes Electra, assumed the character of her dead mother, Christine. Carlotta played a dual role—that of the dramatically mourning widow, who dressed exclusively in black, down to her carefully chosen jewelry, and that of O’Neill’s alter-ego, managing his literary property in a manner that was, she believed, dictated to her in vaguely mystical terms by O’Neill’s spirit. She became O’Neill.
Late in 1955 she moved from Boston, where she had buried him, to the Lowell Hotel in New York. She and O’Neill had stayed there briefly years earlier, and now his ghost moved in with her.
“Two years ago today—at this hour—Gene was dying! Will I ever be able to free myself from this man—and the love I felt for him!” she wrote to The New York Times theatre critic, Brooks Atkinson, with whom O’Neill had been friends.
Carlotta then began a tug of war to retrieve the manuscript of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which O’Neill had consigned to the vault of his publisher, Bennett Cerf of Random House, with instructions that it be locked away until 25 years after his death—so that no one would be alive to question its autobiographical origins. Cerf did his best to honor O’Neill’s request but Carlotta, her husband’s legally undisputable heir and executrix, was of course triumphant.
The play was published in February of 1956 and in the same month was produced in Stockholm with great success. A month later Carlotta placed it in the hands of José Quintero and Theodore Mann for production on Broadway. She had admired their hugely successful off-Broadway revival, that May, of The Iceman Cometh—a production that featured an unknown actor named Jason Robards in the role of Hickey, the deluded salesman.
Critics began re-evaluating O’Neill, and Carlotta was shrewd enough to realize that a production of Long Day’s Journey could revitalize his reputation—and that Carlotta, who was beginning to run short of funds, could profit from the play’s presumed success.
Carlotta liked to eat well. She had been accustomed all of her adult life to luxurious and elegant surroundings. At 68, she was still a handsome, vital woman. After her many years of seclusion with O’Neill and following his death, she was enjoying her re-emergence into the world. Not that she became a social butterfly. She carefully maintained an aura of semiseclusion and noblesse oblige, from time to time inviting select acquaintances to lunch—or, more rarely, dinner.
These meals—sometimes served in her hotel suite, sometimes at the Quo Vadis restaurant, sometimes at Passy, sometimes in the dining room of the Carlton House, where she moved from the Lowell—were always lavish, prolonged and quite often festive. While Carlotta was exceedingly erratic and volatile and could strike like a serpent when she fancied herself crossed, she could also be warm, funny, loquacious and entertaining.
During the next few years, Carlotta often complained to us that she was being haunted by O’Neill. She tended, at times, out of loneliness and depression, to drink too much. She had mental lapses during which she would give things away impulsively—jewelry, clothing, bric-a-brac, even the rights to plays.
Her final years of loneliness and desperation led to the sort of delusional existence O’Neill might have bestowed on one of his heroines. She progressed from mental aberration to senile psychosis, and her eventual collapse could well have been the climax of an O’Neill play.
There were no happy endings for O’Neill heroines, and Carlotta was the ultimate O’Neill heroine. Like Mary Tyrone of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Carlotta became a ghost inhabiting her own past.
She spent the rest of her life in mental hospitals and nursing homes, finally winding up, in 1970, in the Valley Nursing Home in Westwood, New Jersey, where she died on November 18 of “arteriosclerotic coronary thrombosis.” She was 81.
As she had instructed in her will, her ashes were interred in the Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston where she had buried O’Neill 17 years earlier. She left a will, bequeathing most of her worldly goods to her daughter, Cynthia.
Her most priceless possession—the memories of her life with O’Neill—she could bequeath to no one. They were painfully, preciously, her own. With special thanks to the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York.
Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb have written two biographies of Eugene O’Neill, in addition to numerous articles, and have widely lectured about O’Neill and his plays at theatres, universities and libraries in this country and abroad. Their final O’Neill biography, By Women Possessed, is scheduled for publication by Putnam at year’s end. Mr. Gelb is former managing editor of The New York Times.