A biography of the playwright who was haunted by three wives and his mother.
Arthur Gelb (1924-2014), who served as managing editor of the New York Times, and his wife, Barbara, have devoted their careers to chronicling the life of Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953). In 1962, their 964-page O’Neill was published after they were approached by a publisher who knew they admired O’Neill’s plays. At the time, little was known about the playwright whose works were being revived on Broadway, to great acclaim, and the Gelbs wondered how much the plays were based on his life. In the next decades, they revised the biography several times and then, in 2000, published O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo, intended to be the first of three volumes updating their original biography with newly available archival sources. Since the publication of their first biography, however, O’Neill has been the subject of much attention: studies of his work habits; correspondence with his editor, Saxe Commins, film producer Kenneth Macgowan, and theater critic George Jean Nathan; a two-volume biography by Louis Sheaffer; O’Neill’s Creative Struggle by Doris Alexander; and most recently, an excellent biography by Robert Dowling (Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts, 2014). The Gelbs’ new portrait embellishes, but does not alter, the image of O’Neill revealed elsewhere: a man beset by demons, especially “the terror evoked” by his mother’s “morphine-induced tantrums” as he was growing up, which the Gelbs thought they had not sufficiently examined. He was an alcoholic, treated his wives abusively, and neglected his children, especially his unwanted son Shane, who was subjected to his father’s “stony anger” and whom O’Neill disinherited, along with his sister, Oona. The authors draw on extensive interviews with O’Neill’s melodramatic, often spiteful third wife, Carlotta, to convey the volatility of their marriage. In his plays, they argue, O’Neill created “a family dynasty” that replaced his actual family.
Although the Gelbs deeply admire O’Neill’s talents, they portray the same cruel and desperately unhappy man who emerges from many other biographies.