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Eugene O'Neill | Article

Eugene O'Neill's Children


Scarred by his upbringing, Eugene O'Neill could not forge a lasting bond with his own three children.

First Son, Eugene Jr.
Eugene Jr., who was born on May 5, 1910, during O'Neill's brief marriage to Kathleen Jenkins, first began a relationship with his father when he was 11. Like his father, Eugene Jr. spent many years in boarding schools, from which he ran away several times. After Eugene Sr. received an honorary degree from Yale, Eugene Jr. enrolled in the university, where he excelled as a Greek scholar. He later taught at Yale and other institutions, but his personal life unraveled. He clashed with Eugene O'Neill's third wife, Carlotta, which he believed would bring rejection again from his father. Divorced twice, he grew despondent when his live-in companion left him in the summer of 1949, spurring bouts of heavy drinking. He took his own life in September 1950.

Second Son, Shane
When Shane O'Neill was born on October 30, 1919, the doctor who delivered him recalled that the baby's father, Eugene, was getting drunk elsewhere at the time. As Shane grew up, his father "seemed detached from the boy," said a family friend. Eugene left his wife, Agnes Boulton, for Carlotta Monterey, informing his young son via letter that he would not see him again for a long time.

Family Curse
As an adult, Shane drifted, taking odd jobs and joining the Merchant Marines. Reminiscent of his father as a young man, he began drinking excessively in his 20s and made repeated suicide attempts. Shane married and had a son, Eugene III, who died at two months, showing evidence of neglect, according to a doctor's report. Appalled, Eugene never again saw his son, who was later arrested for heroin possession. With a collaborator, Shane wrote a book about his family called The Curse of the Misbegotten. In 1977, like his half brother, Eugene Jr., Shane committed suicide.

A Daughter, Oona
Born on May 14, 1925, Oona O'Neill saw her father only intermittently as she was growing up. Her parents engaged in a bitter divorce when she was 4. She kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings of her famous father so she would remember what he looked like. As a teenager, she became a debutante and aspiring actress, engendering the hostility of her father, who called her "a spoiled, lazy, vain little brat." His anger grew worse when she decided to marry.

Final Rejection
After a romance with the then-unknown writer J.D. Salinger, Oona went to Los Angeles to pursue film roles, despite her acceptance to college at Vassar. In Hollywood she met the legendary comedian Charlie Chaplin, who at 54 was 37 years her senior and the same age as her father. He offered Oona acting lessons, and they soon fell in love, marrying after she turned 18. "Oona broke Gene's heart," said Carlotta. "He never mentioned her name after her marriage." When friends asked O'Neill about his daughter, he simply wouldn't answer.

Long Marriage, Long Grief
Despite much public skepticism about the marriage, Oona enjoyed a long union with Chaplin. Her adoration for the older man was such that Oona "catered to him with an almost geisha-like deference," said the actress Joan Collins. The couple moved to Switzerland after the House Un-American Activities Committee targeted Chaplin for suspected communist leanings. They had eight children, including the actress Geraldine Chaplin. Oona remained with her husband until his death in 1977. Then, perhaps reliving her socialite days, she dated younger men Ryan O'Neill and David Bowie. But unable to completely escape the O'Neill family curse of the misbegotten, grief over her husband's death drove her to alcoholism. She died of pancreatic cancer in 1991.


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