Eugene O'Neill's parents, James O'Neill and Mary Ellen "Ella" Quinlan, were both children of parents who immigrated to America from Ireland. Their early lives, however, were quite different.
Born on August 13, 1857, Ella grew up in a comfortable home in Cleveland, Ohio, where her father, Thomas, prospered as a local businessman and real estate investor. At 15, she went to school at the Convent of St. Mary at Notre Dame in Indiana, and graduated with honors in music. Ella met James O'Neill at her father's house when she was 15. James had known few comforts as a child, but at 26 was making a name for himself as a Shakespearean actor. Ella developed a crush on the charismatic performer. O'Neill left Cleveland for a theater company in Chicago, but met Ella again a few years later. Thomas Quinlan had died, and Ella had persuaded her mother to take her to New York for advanced studies in music. Ella married James in June 1877 despite her mother's concern that her sheltered and refined daughter would not be happy as the wife of a touring actor.
Scandal and Loneliness
Almost immediately Ella had to contend with a lawsuit against her husband from a former mistress who claimed James was the father of her son. The scandal devastated her. At the same time, her mother's concern proved to be correct; not long after marrying, Ella disengaged from the world of her husband. Many years later, long after her death, her son Eugene O'Neill, in his play Long Day's Journey Into Night created a character who represents his mother. The character Mary Tyrone bemoans her lonely life: "I've never felt at home in the theater. Even though Mr. Tyrone has made me go with him on all his tours, I've had little to do with the people in his company, or with anyone on the stage."
Children and Tragedy
The birth of a child, James Jr., in September 1878 brought Ella a temporary respite from her troubles. A second child, Edmund, was born in 1883. When Edmund was 1 and 1/2, Ella left her two sons with her mother to join her husband on the road. While she was away, her older son contracted measles, a highly contagious disease. Edmund then also fell ill with the measles and died. Ella blamed James Jr., believing that he purposely exposed his brother to the disease. Her surviving son was sent to boarding school, and she vowed not to have another child. She did, however, when Eugene was born in October 1888.
Because of her grief and pain from a difficult childbirth, Ella turned to morphine, the beginning of a longtime addiction to the drug. When he was a teenager, Eugene walked in on his mother giving herself an injection. Later her husband was afraid to leave her alone when they traveled together on tour. He brought her to the theater with him, where she sat in his dressing room in a drug-induced stupor. Carmelite nuns eventually helped Ella break her drug habit.
When her husband died in August 1920, Ella blossomed. Her son Eugene remarked that the title of his play Mourning Becomes Electra reflected the fact that widowhood was becoming to his mother. She handled her late husband's financial affairs, selling their cottage in New London, Connecticut, which was the setting for Long Day's Journey Into Night. While on a trip to California with her son Jamie, Ella took ill and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She died on February 28, 1922. "I was just beginning to enjoy her," Eugene said after his mother's funeral.