Eugene O'Neill and his wife Carlotta Monterey made their home in the hills above Danville, California beginning in 1937. O'Neill named their home Tao House, and he meant to live there, write there and die there.
Especially die there _ O'Neill had been born in a shabby hotel room near Manhattan's Broadway district in 1888. His mother was given a narcotic by a quack doctor to lessen the pain of the birth, and she became hooked. O'Neill wrote movingly of her in one of America's greatest works of literature, ``Long Day's Journey Into Night.''
Born in a hotel room, a place that would begin his mother's destruction, O'Neill swore he would not die in one. That's why Tao House, which is now a national historic site, meant so much to him. He wanted to live his days out there, and said it would be his final home and ``harbor.''
Thoughts of O'Neill came back to me during the recent celebration in Danville of the heroics of pilot Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the Danville pilot who landed his plane in a New York river and saved so many lives. That was such an upbeat, positive event.
Sullenberger, thin and trim with gray hair and mustache, looks a bit like O'Neill, but in demeanor, other than sharing with O'Neill a desire to stay out of the public eye, Sullenberger is probably more like a gentle, unassuming ranger who was in charge of Tao House some years ago.
I was assigned to do a feature article on Tao House and became fascinated by it and O'Neill, and soon became acquainted with the ranger, let's call him Ron. He was superb in his job, but the heaviness of O'Neill and Carlotta's past lives began to wear on him.
O'Neill and Carlotta loved each other, but they also fought, and it was Carlotta who saw O'Neill through months and years of nightmarish nights and days as he tried to come to some sort of peace with his past and what surely would be described as an extremely troubled and self-destructive family.
One afternoon, as we were walking though the grounds, Ron blurted, ``I don't know how people could have lived this way. I would have gone stir crazy.'' And, indeed, he would have. This was not a job for someone who, as a kid, had dreamed of a career amidst mountains and valleys as a ranger. Ron should have been in Yosemite or Yellowstone, breathing deeply and stretching his walking muscles.
But instead of communing with nature, every day Ron moved through rooms inhabited by a great but haunted writer. It was in Tao House, with its heat and sunny views of Mt. Diablo, that O'Neill wrote ``Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' ``A Moon for the Misbegotten'' and ``The Iceman Cometh'' _ not in some romantically dark house on a stormy New England coast, as I had imagined. And mind you, he wrote these plays after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Ron did enjoy parts of his job. Tao House is set on a beautiful mountain; it's wild and lovely and he liked that. And Ron was happy discussing O'Neill's beloved dog, Blemie, standing over the dalmatian's grave and talking to visitors about O'Neill's tribute to his pet. This was undoubtedly Ron's favorite piece of writing by O'Neill:.
"I . . . Blemie ... do hereby bury my last will and testament in the mind of my master. I have little in the way of material things to leave. Dogs are wiser than men. They do not set great store upon things. They do not waste their days hoarding property.
``They do not ruin their sleep worrying about how to keep the objects they have, and to obtain the objects they have not. There is nothing of value I have to bequeath except my love and faith.''
Ron liked this side of O'Neill, he could identify with it . . . he also appreciated O'Neill's very strong love for Carlotta, and once pointed out O'Neill had dedicated ``Long Day's Journey Into Night'' to her, writing that their marriage had been ``a journey Into light'' . . . and O'Neill's playing of Rosie, his piano, long since missing . . . there was joy, too.
But the other side . . . a man whose two sons were suicides, who disowned his eighteen-year-old daughter Oona when she married a much older man, Charlie Chaplin, never seeing her again, who did battle with, seemed to luxuriate in, the blackest of memories . . It was very difficult for Ron to come to terms with this O'Neill.
By 1943 a tremor in his hands stopped O'Neill from writing; he tried typing and dictating, but neither worked _ it's hard to break old creative habits, and he was used to his tight, neat cursive. With O'Neill unable to release tension through writing, the marirage suffered, rancor intensified.
In 1944 O'Neill left Tao House. He died in 1953 . . . in a hotel room, of course. That was in Boston, back in New England, where I'd originally imagined he'd written those great, dark plays, not in sunny California.
O'Neill's last words, it is said, were, ``Born in a hotel room and Goddammit died in one!''
Now Danville is celebrating Sullenberger. Good.
I don't know where Ron is now, but I hope out there doing what he was meant to do, tending a forest, protecting wildlife and pristine streams, perhaps writing a dedication to a loved, lost animal.
Interesting, Danville, for such a small town . . .
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...