In reading Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb’s Possessed by Women: A Life of Eugene O’Neill, I’ve been struck by the parallels between Eugene O’Neill and Jack London.
The Gelbs’ biography, as Barbara Gelb explains in the introduction, is the culmination of several books on Eugene O’Neill and decades of interviews, including some with Carlotta Monterey, O’Neill’s last wife and, as so often happens, the guardian and caretaker of his person and, after death, of his literary legacy (see also: Mary Hemingway, Charmian London, Valerie Eliot). This biography is based heavily not only on O’Neill’s work, about which the book is perceptive and fair in its evaluations, but also on his “Work Diary” (https://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3581993), although O’Neill’s ample commentary on his work, as cited in the bio, isn’t present in the pages shown on the Beinecke site.
Where to begin with the parallels?
Both were born to parents who had known poverty, and each man knew that he was the unwanted son of a mother who was distracted and, while not physically neglectful, seemingly paid little attention to her son’s needs. London’s mother Flora was a spiritualist and worked various schemes that didn’t pan out in order to help support their family. In a case that made the newspapers, her lover, whom she regarded as her husband (William Cheney) had advised her to get an abortion, after which she dramatically attempted to shoot herself in front of him.
Ella, O’Neill’s mother, was, as the posthumously produced Long Day’s Journey into Night makes clear, addicted to morphine for many of his formative years. Although she later “took the cure” and became sober, Ella, in O’Neill’s recollection, had vowed never to have another child after the death of her second son, Edmund, at age two (note that Edmund was the name Eugene gave to himself in LDGIT). In a fragment, he “tells of the devastating death of her infant son, Edmund, and her guilty vow never to have another child, which led her—a pious Catholic woman—to submit to a “series of brought-on abortions.” And he asks, ‘Did this mark beginning of [her] break with religion, which was to leave her eventually entirely without solace?'”(325). As did London, who supported his mother all his life, O’Neill eventually came to terms with Ella and was devastated when she died.
Each went to sea at a young age, after quitting formal education (London from poverty, O’Neill from discontent) and developed an addiction to alcohol that would last for the rest of his life, with periods of sobriety. Each went through a period of dissolution–London in his early days in Oakland, O’Neill at the bar Jimmy the Priest’s, which he later immortalized in The Iceman Cometh–and, to oversimplify this somewhat, decided that writing would be his salvation.
For London, according to his autobiographical novel Martin Eden and his memoir John Barleycorn, this occurred because he realized that brain-work rather than the brute physical labor he had experienced when working in a steam laundry, shoveling coal, and so on would enable him to live like a human being. The Bergs’ By Women Possessed doesn’t deal with this part of O’Neill’s life as much, because it’s already been treated in a host of other biographies, including their earlier ones.
In their private lives, London and O’Neill shared similarities as well. Each thought he could write better if he lived apart from people, on land of his own. London found this in his Beauty Ranch in the Valley of the Moon in Sonoma; O’Neill tried to find it in a number of places, from a place on the dunes in Cape Cod to Bermuda to (with Carlotta) a chateau in France, Sea Island, Georgia, and northern California. Both were more gregarious and needed people more than they thought, however. Each married more than once and went through an acrimonious divorce proceeding once their marriages (London’s to Bess Maddern, with two children; and O’Neill’s to Agnes Boulton, with two children) had broken down and they decided to marry their lovers (Charmian Kittredge and Carlotta Monterey).
Carlotta had stated that she would never learn to never darn socks because she planned to marry a rich man, and did, but that was not enough. She wanted a sense of purpose, and she found it in O’Neill. Although she’d been married three times by the time she met O’Neill at 27 (?), Carlotta had a secret trust fund not from a husband but from James Speyer, a man 40 years older than herself whose mistress she had been. This supported her throughout her life with O’Neill, who apparently believed Speyer took only a fond, familial interest in her. But like Charmian, an accomplished pianist who had supported herself as a secretary, Carlotta had an acting career that she gave up to devote herself to her husband’s career.
Neither O’Neill nor London had much use for their children when they were growing up, unfortunately. O’Neill took some pride in his oldest son by his first marriage, Eugene, Jr., at first, but later was disappointed and showed it. He and Agnes, who already had a daughter, had agreed that they would have no children, yet they had two, Shane and Oona. He was apparently a distant father to Shane, his son with Agnes; his daughter, Oona, he saw once for tea in the space of seven years, although she eventually came to visit him, and he never spoke to her again after she married Charlie Chaplin. London, although he loved his daughters as children, could judge them harshly as they grew older and his ill health increased his irritability. In the famous “ruined colt” letter of February 24, 1914, frustrated by Joan’s loyalty to her mother, London’s ex-wife Bess, London wrote:
When I grow tired or disinterested in anything, I experience a disgust which settles for me that thing forever. I turn the page down there and then. When a colt on the ranch, early in its training, shows that it is a kicker or a bucker or a bolter or a balker, I try patiently and for a long time [to cure it, but] suddenly there comes to me a disgust, and I say Let the colt go. . . . Years ago I warned your mother that if I were denied the opportunity of forming you, sooner or later I would grow disinterested in you. I would develop a disgust, and that I would turn down the page. . . . I have turned the page down, and I shall be no longer interested in the three of you. (Letters 1298-99)
Joan was 13 at the time.
Although I’m overgeneralizing to say it in this way, these last wives proved to be similar. Both were dressy, self-dramatizing (which London and O’Neill loved), sexually adventurous, and determined to encircle their man with a combination of romantic and maternal love, bravery in the face of chaos, intense housekeeping and organizational skills, and the ability to put up with neglect, major mood swings, and actual abuse (on O’Neill’s part) at times, although there was also the time when London hit Charmian in New York and not with boxing gloves.
Each woman kept a diary, with an eye toward future generations, and their tone of voice in their writing even sounds similar–recording the declarations of love that they received from London and O’Neill as well as some coy suggestions of sexual activities, records of visits, and moods, sometimes theirs and sometimes O’Neill’s and London’s. Each also served as her husband’s typist, despite Carlotta’s continuing eye problems. London gave Charmian his manuscripts as insurance, and he inscribed them to her; O’Neill did the same with Carlotta.
The most striking parallel between O’Neill and London in literary terms is probably their outlook–presenting life as it is, as O’Neill and London both said. Their naturalistic perspective was marked by a perpetual return to their own lives for the subject matter of their art, as though to work through torments inflicted in the distant past through the poor family dynamics they had experienced. Each wrote about race, sometimes perceptively and progressively for the time but often in ways reflective of the worst “scientific” attitudes of the time, which were bad enough then and horrifying now. Each wrestled with questions of faith, including O’Neill’s lapsed Catholicism. Oh, and not for nothing, each was a literary celebrity of the time, and handsome, too (which didn’t hurt). London was known for his socialism and popular fiction, especially The Call of the Wild, and O’Neill for being America’s most original dramatist, the winner of two (or three?) Pulitzer prizes and the Nobel prize.
I won’t weigh in here on their works other than to say that I’ve read a lot of both. London doesn’t get enough credit for his innovations, and some of O’Neill’s might seem dated now (Strange Interlude), but they were daring at the time.
[What I’m hoping to do in the new year is to post more of these pieces, which aren’t polished work, obviously, but rough drafts with maybe some thoughts to pursue at a future date.]