Eugene O'Neill's Wives
Eugene O'Neill left the first two women he married and stayed with the third, who despite a sometimes rocky relationship was the mainstay in his life until the end.
O'Neill's first wife, Kathleen Jenkins, rarely saw him after they married. Accustomed to a mundane social scene of tea and supper parties, Jenkins met O'Neill when she was 20 and became enamored with the exotic man who wrote her poetry. Almost immediately after they married in a secret ceremony in October 1909, O'Neill set sail for Honduras. He failed to notify his new bride when he returned home to New York, avoiding his responsibilities to her and their son Eugene Jr. The marriage, which ended in 1912, was doomed from the start, Jenkins realized. "We could never have made a go of it," she recalled many years later. "I'd be foolish to imagine that I could ever have given him the kind of understanding he needed."
O'Neill's second marriage also failed. Agnes Boulton, a writer of short novels and stories that appeared in pulp magazines, met O'Neill in the Hell Hole, a New York saloon he frequented — which would later become the setting for his play The Iceman Cometh. Within six months, they married, in April 1918. Later Agnes told a friend that she had fallen in love with O'Neill because he was a drunk and needed her help. She also believed that marrying him would give her access to a Bohemian lifestyle, but he shunned the parties she craved to attend. Another friend said that Agnes "seemed to live in mortal fear of O'Neill. "After they had two children, Shane and Oona, the strains in their marriage intensified. At last O'Neill left her, confiding that he loved someone else.
Carlotta Monterey met Eugene O'Neill for the first time when she acted in his play The Hairy Ape. She called him "the rudest man I'd ever seen." But four years later, when they met again, the thrice-married Carlotta softened toward the playwright, who shared with her the distresses of his childhood. She too had had a difficult childhood, growing up poor in Oakland, California and abandoned by her father. Though married, O'Neill pursued the woman hailed for her beauty and glamour. He needed her, he told Carlotta. "My maternal instinct came out," she said. "This man must be looked after, I thought. He broke my heart."
In 1928, Carlotta set sail for Europe with O'Neill, who was still married at the time. After contentious divorce proceedings with Agnes, O'Neill and Carlotta were married in July 1929. He expressed ardor for the newest woman in his life. "We fulfill each other," he told a friend. But to O'Neill's biographers after his death, Carlotta chose to claim that their marriage was not a product of a mad love affair. She appreciated O'Neill as an artist, she said, and provided him a protective environment in which he could work. Her husband "never loved a woman who walked," she said. "He loved only his work. But he had respect for me." However, soon after O'Neill's death, she privately published a volume of his letters, inscriptions and poetry expressing his passionate love for her.
Carlotta "lived to make a home for [O'Neill] to work," she said. "He had never had that before." He credited Carlotta with facilitating the challenging creation of Mourning Becomes Electra. In addition, she nursed him through the agony of recounting his childhood in writing Long Day's Journey Into Night. She served as her husband's gatekeeper, answering the telephone for him and writing his correspondences. When O'Neill's health deteriorated, she transcribed his faltering handwriting. The two strong-willed personalities also fought mightily. Carlotta separated from O'Neill briefly in 1948, but returned to care for him in his declining years.
A Husband's Legacy
Carlotta was at her husband's side when he died in a Boston hotel room in November 1953. Her commitment to ensuring his success did not end with his death. Though he had insisted to his publisher that Long Day's Journey Into Night should not be published until 25 years after his death, Carlotta took the play to another publisher less than 18 months after O'Neill died. The play was produced in 1956 on Broadway, winning O'Neill a posthumous Pulitzer Prize and cementing his legacy as a preeminent American playwright.