Dismissed without Prejudice: Eugene O'Neill's Anti-Semitism or Some of My Best Friends

By Smith, Madeline C.; Eaton, Richard | West Virginia University Philological Papers, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Dismissed without Prejudice: Eugene O'Neill's Anti-Semitism or Some of My Best Friends


Smith, Madeline C., Eaton, Richard, West Virginia University Philological Papers


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. …

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