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Dismissed without prejudice: Eugene O'Neill's anti-semitism or some of my best friends ...

A favorite and very rewarding place for research in matters dealing with Eugene O'Neill is the Louis Sheaffer-Eugene O'Neill Collection in the archives of the Shain Library at Connecticut College in New London. And while much of the fascinating material available may have already been digested by Sheaffer, notably in his incomparable biography, and also by others (including ourselves), we in our last foray to Connecticut uncovered among the documents an eye-popping, eyebrow-raising statement, penned by O'Neill during his Provincetown days and buried in what seemed initially an inoffensive letter to John Francis, his former landlord-cum-patron. It was a letter that Sheaffer chose not to include in his biography--we wondered why--and one that got our joint and rapt attention, as it called for answers to at least two questions: one about O'Neill and the other (if biographical bias may be considered a legitimate literary concern) about Sheaffer.

In the letter, written from West Point Pleasant, New Jersey, and dated 8 Mar. 1919, the purpose of which was to remit documents of what he called the "Lewisohn business," O'Neill says:
   I judge that by the inventory which is attached to the mortgage
   document, Mr. Lewisohn intends that all that is in the buildings at
   present shall be our's [sic]. Of course, I have no means of telling
   this, and will have to depend on you. Naturally, I wish to buy the
   place as I saw it, and not give him any chance to take out stuff
   which is not specified in the inventory, after I am there.

   This may sound mean, Mr. Francis, but I have had too many
   dealings with Jews, and millionaire Jews, too, in the theatrical
   business, to trust one of them any farther than I could throw your
   store with my little finger. (1)

The letter continues with details of the transaction regarding O'Neill's purchase of the Station from Sam Lewisohn, but all else pales alongside O'Neill's jolting remark. Could it be, we wondered, that O'Neill was, well, a bigot? As one on the fringe if not at the center of enlightened social movements, as one who admired social and political reformers/radicals, in special Emma Goldman, as one who counted among his circle of associates/friends early and throughout his life a number of Jews (George Jean Nathan, Lawrence Langner, Saxe Commins, Horace Liveright, Harry Weinberger, and most likely Manuel Komroff--see Gilmer 88), O'Neill could not have harbored a prejudice. Or could he? Here from his early Provincetown days was a letter in the playwright's own hand suggesting what the answer might be.

So we turned to his canon and asked where in his work might this alleged (apologies for the influence of Court TV) anti-Semitism evidence itself. Might not his play Marco Millions furnish us with the answer? After all, though the Marco Polo business monopoly is in context a Venetian enterprise, we assume (or at least George Jean Nathan maintained, though, of course, Travis Bogard had his doubts) O'Neill was indirectly parodying the tycoon Otto Kahn in the play (he refers to Kahn as "Otto the Magnificent, the Great Kahn" in a 19 Aug. 1924 letter to Kenneth Macgowan, producer and drama critic--see O'Neill, Letter to Kenneth Macgowan 53), a play written, ironically, at Kahn's behest. (The mogul had hoped O'Neill would write a work centering on the businessman-hero. See Nathan; Bowen 151; Gelb and Gelb, O'Neill 528). Could the play, then, written loosely at the time of the Francis letter (1923-25), have been more than a jab at mercantile types? Might the remark have been rooted in ethnic bias? What could have sparked O'Neill's antipathy toward Kahn who had so steadfastly supported the Provincetown Players? There is a surfeit of letters from M. Eleanor Fitzgerald ("Fitzie"), the Players' secretary, repeatedly asking the philanthropist's assistance and thanking him for the same, and from Kahn to her or to Helen Freeman (Theatre Guild board member) on the same subject. (2) And while Kahn's infusion of cash was certainly not sufficient to sustain the fledgling acting company, the donations were considerable and long-term. As patron-of-the-arts Kahn was, after all, busy elsewhere, supporting the Russian Ballet, the Abbey Theatre, Theatre Francais d'Amerique, and various domestic opera companies and theater groups, including the Metropolitan Opera, Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre, the New Theatre, the New Playwrights Theatre, and the Theatre Guild (Anderson 60-82 and "Otto Kahn" 18), philanthropy that would continue until his death, with contributions totaling, by some estimates, a-not-to-be-sneezed-at $2,000,000 ("Otto Kahn" 19). Moreover, O'Neill had reason to be personally indebted to Kahn, who had offered assistance when O'Neill was trying to settle his parents' estate (Sheaffer 149) and (though somewhat later) who would fete both O'Neill and Gerhart Hauptmann at his home (Bowen 223). True, Kahn had balked at staging O'Neill's play Lazarus Laughed (who wouldn't?), wasn't keen on The Great God Brown (who is?), but again that was all subsequent to O'Neill's penning the spoof (Kahn's letter declining to stage Lazarus Laughed was dated 6 Oct. 1926). Besides, who wouldn't love a guy who urged free concerts because he believed music would reduce the crime rate? ("Otto Kahn"18). Kahn's philanthropy went everywhere: funds to help renovate the Parthenon in 1928 ("Otto Kahn" 18), to support American painters, to back American musicians. So what's not to like? But O'Neill apparently expected more, giving him another swipe in a letter to Macgowan (7 Aug. 1926):
   The regular commercial managers have their lousy disadvantages but
   I'm not sure if they're not less insulting to one's self-respect.
   Certainly our dealings in a money way with the Selwyns (Welded) and
   with Jones and Green (Fountain) proved that, compared to Kahn, say,
   they were generous gentlemen, good losers, and much more sincere
   patrons of the 'best in theatre,' whatever that is. (12021)

O'Neill's comment doesn't square with the observations of Kahn's biographer who perceived her subject as "cosmopolitan in every fiber of his being ... sometimes described as the only capitalist of his era with a soul" (Collins 1). And if it were Kahn's background O'Neill objected to, wouldn't he be surprised to learn that the Selwyns were Jewish, their family name having been changed from Simon ("Edgar Selwyn"). And if it were Kahn's religious background, wouldn't he be further surprised to learn that Kahn, a long-time friend and supporter of Father Francis P. Duffy and Catholic charities, had, confiding to a friend that he believed Jesus to be the Messiah, moved to convert to Roman Catholicism, the rise of Hitler only interrupting those plans (Anderson 41). On second thought, a move toward Roman Catholicism might only have intensified O'Neill's antagonism.

There is, of course, if one chooses to see it as such, more evidence of O'Neill's prejudice in Marco Millions--in Maffeo's aborted ethnic joke about the Jew named Ikey and his wife Rebecca, an anecdote that Polo recounts "with exaggerated Jewish pantomime" (402). But the merchant does so largely to ingratiate himself with the Muslim Older Ali, and in context, the joke only serves to render the moderately annoying Maffeo fully so. The playwright's sympathies are clearly not with the swinish Polo brothers. Still, we wondered, was it Kahn's religion, personality, or wealth O'Neill objected to? Or was it that the playwright was simply following the current trend among writers who found in the modern American businessman an object of humor and derision (Sinclair Lewis, Henry James, Lillian Hellman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Frank Norris)? Some of these businessmen characters were Jewish--Rosedale, Wolfsheim, S. Behrman--but not all: the Hubbards (though modeled after Hellman's relatives) and Babbitt were WASPs.

One might also search Lazarus Laughed, a play dealing largely with Jewish characters, for evidence of religious bigotry, but would do so, we think, to no avail. No ethnic profiling can be gleaned from the masks, their very nature being representative of various character types, ages, etc., and the play itself "imaginative theatre." The description of Lazarus is classical: "His forehead is broad and noble, his eyes black and deep-set. He "is tall and powerful, about fifty years of age, with a mass of gray-black hair and a heavy beard. His face recalls that of a statue of a divinity of Ancient Greece in its general structure and particularly in its quality of detached serenity (542)." The mask of Miriam, Lazarus's wife is "the pure pallor of marble, the expression that of a statue of Woman, of her eternal acceptance of the compulsion of motherhood." (542). Profiling is noticeably absent, ethnicity inconsequential (though the masks are "pronouncedly Semitic" [542]), the dramatic incident the sine qua non.

And then there were, if one is to make a case for O'Neill's bigotry, the troubling attachments to Jewish friends, seemingly ones of genuine and enduring (until Carlotta worked her magic) affection, pre- and post-Provincetown. Letters to Saxe Commins, whom O'Neill met in 1915 and who remained part of the playwright's circle until the late 40s, and others mentioning Commins attest to O'Neill's esteem and the intimacy between the two. In a letter to Horace Liveright endorsing his dentist-cum-editor, the playwright speaks of him fondly: "Saxe has been one of my oldest and best friends for a great many years, and I recommend him to your friendship because he is most certainly one of the whitest human beings that I have ever met!" (Commins 53)--in context an unambiguous endorsement, though by today's standards dubious at best. O'Neill closes with an assurance that he would construe any help the publisher can give as a "great personal favor." The exchanges were numerous, many letters from O'Neill to Commins closing with "Love to you and D [Dorothy]," or "Much love,"--probably more affection than he professed (or felt) for his children.

What may be, perhaps, a fairer context for O'Neill's remark to Francis and more attitudinally consistent is O'Neill's lifelong disdain for those who were rich and tight-fisted or at least perceived by him to be so--in short those who weren't inclined to support liberally the artist. Hence his "Dear Doctor Caiaphas" of The Hairy Ape alludes to the Caiaphas of the Gospels who exemplifies specifically expediency (John 18: 14) and hypocrisy (John 18: 28), but more generally the establishment and wealth. (3) And hence his unflattering depiction of James in Long Day's Journey or the Hell Hole denizens' coolness toward the fiscally conservative Parritt, or O'Neill's ungenerous depiction of Edward S. Harkness (the Standard Oil millionaire)/Edward Crowninshield Hammond (the pond baron) in Moon for the Misbegotten. Hogan, we recall, assaults the unsuspecting Harder with:
   I've been meaning to call on you, for I've a bone to pick with you,
   you bloody tyrant! But I couldn't bring myself to set foot on land
   bought with Standard Oil money that was stolen from the poor it
   ground in the dust beneath its dirty heel--land that's watered with
   the tears of starving widows and orphans. (887)

In truth, Harkness (although he apparently lived temperately and conservatively) could have committed all the seven deadly sins save one--he was anything but parsimonious, having given during his lifetime in excess of $100,000,000 to various charities ("Major Gifts"). Hammond, who unlike Harkness left descendants (one of them the recently retired publisher of The Boston Globe), and who was far less rich, was understandably (and necessarily) less generous. Nonetheless, he was civic-minded, giving copiously to the Boy Scouts and other favorite charities. Also at variance with the image O'Neill gives of Harder as "a bit stupid," "class reunions the most exciting episode of each year for him," Harkness was a man of broad and cultivated interests. While he enjoyed yachting, travelling, golfing, activities of his social class, he was also a devotee of Shakespeare, horticulture, and the beaux arts, a railroading enthusiast, and a student of pedagogy. Since Hammond and Harkness were social friends, they and their wives vacationing and the men golfing together, O'Neill could have seen them as kindred spirits, interchangeable and indistinguishable. His antagonism toward Hammond, though, was also personally motivated since the latter had the youthful O'Neill, then Beatrice Ashe's moonstruck suitor, chased off his beachfront (Sheaffer interview with EdnaTyler). Wasn't the Hammond estate described disdainfully in O'Neill's poem "Upon Our Beach" as the "cold, lonely, ugly house, a millionaire's house"? (Poems 48). (4)

It is also possible that O'Neill was, in his letter to John Francis, merely echoing the prejudices of his time and background. (See the Gelb and Gelb, O'Neill: Life With Monte Cristo 553, for Louise Bryant's comment on her Jewish landlord, and Linda Ben-Zvi, Susan Glaspell 167, for the more widespread anti-Semitism of the Provincetown artistic community.) O'Neill's Catholic education had included the study of A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, and while there is no overt anti-Semitism in the text, there is the insinuation that those who are not of the faith run the serious risk of scorching weather in the afterlife: "All are bound to belong to the Church, and he who knows the Church to be the true Church and remains out of it cannot be saved" (21). That teaching coupled with the prevailing image of Jews (pre-Vatican II) as Christ-killers served to fuel antiSemitism (Singer 243-44; Higham 149). Moreover, big brother Jamie in his prize-winning essay on drama, written in pre-political correctness days, revealed his own preconceptions about Jews when he suggested they were largely responsible for the debauched state of the theater:

The decline of the drama here is in a great measure due to this cause [syndicates]. The Jews who own or have leased all the theatres in the big cities throughout the Unites States, are not impelled by enthusiasm for art or any such nonsense as that. [Remember the younger O'Neill's charge regarding Otto Kahn.] They are after the spoils, and none realize as well as they what an unprofitable investment a serious play is apt to be. Hence they eschew all such and serve up to the people only what will tickle their degenerate palates. (Shaughnessy 84)

Jamie's influence on the young playwright has been well documented. Could it have extended to personal prejudices as well, or was Jamie merely being "anti-tycoon"?

In middle age, O'Neill may have been influenced by the prejudices his wife Carlotta harbored, the best evidence of which was her scathing assault on Saxe Commins. Concluding that he had removed some of her husband's manuscripts, Carlotta called Commins "a crook, a Jew bastard," threatened him with prison, and insisted that Hitler had not killed enough of his "kind" (Sheaffer 609). Tactfully, and, probably, wisely, Commins did not reveal the exact wording of Carlotta's ethnic attack when he wrote to O'Neill of the incident the same day. In his letter of 26 Feb. 1948, Commins refers to Carlotta's remarks vaguely as a "string of abusively vulgar epithets" (Commins 225-26). Carlotta had expressed less virulent but similar sentiments elsewhere--in her letter to George C. Tyler (9 Jan. 1933), in which she wrote, "Gene asks me to tell you that the idea of a play dealing with American history is only in the bud and may never come to bloom.--That report must have sprung from his little Jew-lawyer who was here for two days to talk business." (The "little Jew-lawyer" would be Harry Weinberger.)

And yet, this was the same woman who had, while still married to Ralph Barton, begun an affair with James Speyer, the American-German-Jewish philanthropist, whom she called, affectionately, "Papa." And the affair was not a quiet matter. Speyer was head of the American branch of his family's great international banking house, brother of Sir Edgar Speyer, baronet and Privy Councillor and head of the English branch of the same bank, and with financial roots going back to seventeenth-century Frankfurt-am-Main. So newspapers would not allow James Speyer to move silently through the world (see Gelb and Gelb, O'Neill 635)0. (5) Though there is no evidence that Carlotta remained Speyer's mistress after she began seeing O'Neill, still their relationship continued strong enough for her to seek Speyer's permission to marry O'Neill. Not only was the permission granted, but a $14,000 lifetime annuity from Speyer came with it (Sheaffer 223). And after the marriage Speyer continued to be a factor in not only her but their lives. (6) Still, Carlotta's sins were not Gene's, and his (at least those of 1919) cannot be attributed to her.

In recopying O'Neill's letter to Francis, Sheaffer, in his notes, did so accurately and completely--except, that is, for the problem paragraph, which he chose to delete or inadvertently overlooked (much less likely, we think). As puzzling as why O'Neill penned it is the intriguing question of why Sheaffer omitted it. Some possibilities spring to mind. Perhaps the biographer was salvaging to a small degree the reputation of the man whose life had been for so long at the center of his own (sixteen years, wasn't it?). Then again, Sheaffer may have felt that the statement was uncharacteristic of O'Neill and inconsistent with the way the playwright lived his life. Sheaffer may have seen nothing in the paragraph relevant to or enlightening of the playwright's work. Or he may have reacted more personally, feeling betrayed or stung by the comment and so purged it from his notes. We are left to speculate.

But what are we to make of O'Neill's remark? Can we see one testy and insensitive remark as indicative of a lifelong anti-Semitism? Few of us, O.J. Simpson-case-detective Mark Fuhrman the notable exception, can claim never to have made an ethnic remark, told an ethnic joke, stereotyped or demeaned some group. None of us would want an isolated statement or two to hound us in the afterlife. But then we recall that O'Neill also referred to a booking agent as a "fat little Jew" in a postscript to the manuscript of "Tomorrow," sent to editor of The Seven Arts, Jewish (ironically) Waldo Frank (Gelb and Gelb, O'Neill: Life With Monte Cristo 609). O'Neill's connection with the short-lived literary monthly The American Spectator and its rather frequent discussions, in articles and editorials, of Jews and Jewishness seems much too tenuous to be given serious consideration. (70

We cannot assert definitively that O'Neill was devoid of prejudices, he was, after all, a playwright of his time, but we find it more likely that his antagonisms were directed at those who had what he did not, unlimited wealth and power. While we concede that O'Neill's "Jewish remarks" are of concern, we proffer that the comment O'Neill made in his letter to Francis in the playwright's Provincetown salad days was belied by his later associations, for in truth some of his best friends were Jews.










Adelman, Joseph. Famous Women: An Outline of Feminine Achievement through the Ages with Life Stories of Five Hundred Noted Women. New York: Pictorial Review, 1928.

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American Spectator: A Literary Newspaper. 1932-1937. New York: Greenwood Reprint, 1968.

Anderson, Joyce M. "Otto H. Kahn: An Analysis of his Theatrical Philanthropy in the New York Area from 1909 to 1934." Diss. Kent State U, 1983.

"Beit Von Speyer, Banker, 72, Dead." New York Times 9 March 1933: 13.

Ben-Zvi, Linda. Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times. New York: Oxford UP, 2005.

Birmingham, Stephen. "Our Crowd": The Great Jewish Families of New York. New York: Harper, 1967.

Bowen, Croswell. The Curse of the Misbegotten: A Tale of the House of O'Neill. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959.

A Catechism of Christian Doctrine. Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. New York: Benziger Bros., 1885.

Collins, Theresa M. Otto Kahn: Art, Money, and Modern Time. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2002.

Commins, Dorothy, ed. "Love, Admiration and Respect": The O 'Neill-Commins Correspondence. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1986.

Dictionary of American Biography: supp. 3: 1941-1945. New York: Scribner's, 1928-1958.

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"Edgar Selwyn, 68, Producer is Dead." New York Times 14 Feb. 1944: 17.

"Edgar Speyer Dies on Visit to Berlin." New York Times 18 Feb. 1932: 21.

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(1) We earlier cited this letter in our article "Will the Real John Francis Please Step Forward," though the full text was not included. Then and in this paper, the letter is listed as found in the Sheaffer-O'Neill Collection at Connecticut College, though the letter in that collection is Sheaffer's copy, not the original. "The Eugene O'Neill Letters Project" also identifies Sheaffer's copy as its source. Linda Ben Zvi's Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times (167) cites from the original in the possession of the Celia Francis estate. Her purpose in citing the letter is not to comment on O'Neill's attitude towards Jews so much as to use it as one among a number of documents telling us of the anti-Semitism in the Provincetown artistic society as a whole.

(2) The evidence of Kahn's philanthropy is plentiful: Fitzi's letter (21 Jan. 1919) thanking Kahn for the $45 monthly donation toward theater rent and tactfully reminding him that he was two months in arrears; a letter from Kahn (25 Apr. 1924) mentioning that his support had by then reached $3300 and promising to up it to $5000. Other correspondence attests to Kahn's generosity: a letter from Macgowan (17 Feb. 1924) to Kahn in Palm Beach advising him of the Provincetown Players' fundraising to which Kahn responded by wiring $1000; Macgowan's letter to Kahn (8 July 1925) thanking him for a $5000 check; a note (23 June 1926) indicating that Kahn had sent a $1000 check to the group; a note documenting a phone call with Fitzi, which resulted in Kahn's sending $520 (23 Aug. 1926); a letter from Fitzi (21 Feb. 1928) asking for help, Kahn responding with a $1000 rent check, and so on (Provincetown Players Correspondence). Kahn's philanthropy elsewhere, both in effort and money, are illustrated in Fiedler 10-28 (as are the tensions brought about by Kahn as Jew and Kahn as member of the board of the Metropolitan Opera).

(3) It is remarkable that O'Neill refers so infrequently to Jews in his plays. He uses the word Jew sixteen times in Lazarus and once in Marco, Jewess once each in Lazarus and Marco, and Jews five times in Lazarus--see An O'Neill Concordance. Since the Concordance covers only 28 plays, we then turned to the e-version of the plays, Harley Hammerman's <>, and used the "find" mode on the 15 plays available there that the Concordance does not deal with: there were no further occurrences of any of those words.

(4) Didn't Hammond's penchant for keeping old cars (an old Franklin--see Sheaffer, interviews with Arlene Fones and with Judge Tom Troland) resound in Long Day's Journey as James Tyrone is charged with buying second-hand autos? The inspiration for this anecdote may well lie at Hammond's door since the playwright wrote of his own family's vehicles: "My father ... always got me the classiest rowboat to be had, and we sported the first Packard car in our section of Conn., way back in the duster-goggles era" (Letter to Brooks Atkinson 16 Aug. [1931]).

(5) Information about the Speyers' more public lives is available in the DAB: supp. 3: 1941-1945; the DNB, 19301940 and the Oxford DNB; the New York Times 18 Feb. 1932: 21; 9 Mar. 1933: 13; 1 Nov. 1941: 15; Who's Who in America 21 (1940-1941); Stephen Birmingham, "Our Crowd"; B. C. Forbes, Men Who Are Making America; Joseph Adelman, Famous Women; Whitaker's Peerage ... for the Year 1927. Curiously neither brother has an entry in the American National Biography, though their wives do. Both brothers reached peaks of international influence before World War I. They were major challenges to J.P. Morgan's and Edward Harriman's banking and railroad interests. Edgar a friend of Edward VII was made a baronet and Privy Councillor. Through James' friendship with Kaiser Wilhelm II, his brother-in-law, Edward Beit, as the only family member with a son, was ennobled becoming the Baron Beit von Speyer. But the brothers' sympathies with Germany during the War lost them much of their prestige in business and in society, though even then they continued with their considerable philanthropies in education, medicine, the arts, and, especially, those charities having to do with children and animals. James's private life as it relates to Carlotta is covered in Sheaffer, 223, 282, 532, 608. Sheaffer, otherwise scrupulous in documenting his sources, is inexplicably reticent about them as they pertain to the Speyer connection. See also Gelb and Gelb, O'Neill 635; and Ranald 439, 441, 451, 547, 554. The frequency of Papa's contacts not only with Carlotta but with both O'Neills is noteworthy and is testified to in Carlotta's "Diaries 1928-1943."

(6) Though an effort was made to keep the source of the annuity from O'Neill, certain it is that by 1948 he knew. See Sheaffer 608.

(7) O'Neill is listed as one of the editors of the literary newsletter (1933-34), where the question of Jewish ethnicity is discussed with some frequency (passim). Still, it is uncertain to what extent the playwright actually contributed to the periodical. The one most pertinent article, which is presented as the record of an editorial board meeting with O'Neill present, is obviously a fiction, an imaginary conversation--see The American Spectator: A Literary Newspaper (Sept. 1933: 1). O'Neill couldn't have been at such a meeting: in the eight months preceding that issue O'Neill was in New York City for only two days (see the headings of his letters, most of them to Nathan, in "The Eugene O'Neill Letters Project"; there the headings indicate that O'Neill was anywhere but in New York City during most of those eight months/ Other articles exemplifying The American Spectator's Jewish interest include Ben Schrago's "All the World's a Jew" (Dec. 1933: 2, 3) and Ernest Boyd's "Some of My Best Friends are Gentiles" (Mar. 1933: 3).
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Author:Smith, Madeline C.; Eaton, Richard
Publication:West Virginia University Philological Papers
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Date:May 1, 2011
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