Times Square Tintypes: Eugene O’Neill

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles playwright Eugene O’Neill.
 

THE GREAT GOD O’NEILL

EUGENE O’NEILL. He is the only Broadway playwright who was born in Times Square. He was born in the Barrett House, now the Hotel Cadillac, at Forty-third Street and Broadway. The date: October 16, 1888.
Caricature of Eugene O'NeillHe always wears dark clothes.
When writing he uses either pen and ink or a typewriter. It merely depends on which is handy. Revising a play annoys him.
His father was James O’Neill—an actor famous for his portrayal of the Count of Monte Cristo. His mother, a fine pianist, attended a convent with the mother of George Jean Nathan.
He’s a great swimmer and doesn’t mind cold water.
Night life doesn’t appeal to him. He made one tour of the night clubs. It was his last.
Never attends the openings of his plays. In fact he seldom goes to a theater. He’s rather read a play than see it performed.
While at Provincetown, a feeble-minded lad of six took a great liking to him. One day while sitting on the beach the boy asked: “What is beyond the Point? What is beyond the sea? What is beyond Europe?” O’Neill answered, “The horizon.” “But,” persisted the boy, “what is beyond the horizon?”
Could grow a beard in ten days if he didn’t shave.
His father, who said he never would be a great playwright, lived to see his son’s first success, Beyond the Horizon.
He hasn’t touched a drop of liquor in the last three years.
In his youth Jack London, Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling were his favorite authors. Today Nietzsche is his literary idol.
He can’t walk a mile without meeting an old friend who asks for money. He gives.
After the opening of Strange Interlude he chance to meet an old seafaring friend. O’Neill asked what he was doing, and the friend replied, “Oh, I’ve married and settled down. Got a nice little business and doing pretty good. And you, Gene, are you still working the boats?”
Reads all the reviews of his plays. He claims he knows the good critics from the bad ones.
He seldom talks unless he has something to say.
While writing he hates to be disturbed. When working at Provincetown he tacked this sign outside his door: “Go to hell.”
Is crazy about prize fights and the six-day bicycle races. When in town he will go to anything at Madison Square Garden. The only person he expressed a desire to meet was Tex Rickard.
His full name is Eugene Gladstone O’Neill. Lately he discarded the middle name entirely.
Once, when a mere infant, he was very ill in Chicago. George Tyler, then his father’s manager, ran about the streets of that city at three in the morning for a doctor.
Is always making notes for future plays. He wrote the notes for his first plays in the memorandum section of that grand publication, The Bartender’s Guide.
He likes to be alone.
He had three favorite haunts. One was Jimmy the Priest’s saloon, a waterfront dive. He later made use of this locale in Anna Christie. Another was “Hell’s Hole,” a Greenwich Village restaurant. The third was the Old Garden Hotel, which was situated on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and Twenty-seventh Street. Here he met many people of the sporting world. A former bicycle rider (now a megaphone shouter on a sightseeing bus) he met there is still a pal of his.
It took him three years to write Strange Interlude. He had only six of the nine acts completed when he sold the play to the Theatre Guild.
He is especially fond of fine linen.
When in New York he lives in a secondary hotel. A place no one would ever think of looking for him.
He has huge hands.
For every play he draws sketches suggesting designs for the sets.
Of his own work he prefers, The Hairy Ape, The Straw (this he considers the best of his naturalistic plays), Marco Millions, Strange Interlude and Lazarus Laughed. The last is to be produced next year by the Moscow Art Theatre.
He takes great delight in recounting droll stories. Tells them with feeling and skill.
While attending Professor Baker’s class at Harvard he almost ruined the college careers of John Colton and Johnny Weaver by filling them full of beer.
Is now living in France. He does not intend to return to America for some years.
His first book, Thirst and Other One-Act Plays, was published at his expense.
All of his original manuscripts are in his possession despite offers in five figures for them.
He writes important messages which are not to be breathed to a soul, on the back of a postal card.
In Shanghai, on his recent trip around the world, he was a called a faker posing as Eugene O’Neill.

Times Square Tintypes: Owen Davis

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles perhaps the most prolific of American playwrights, Owen Davis.
 

CURSE YOU—JACK DALTON!

SOME people write one play and then are never heard from again. But this fellow’s inexhaustible. OWEN DAVIS.
He is a tiptop cook.
There never will be an exact count of how many plays he wrote. He wrote at least three hundred. Between the ages of twenty-seven and forty he remembers nothing but writing plays. Somehow, between scripts, he managed to get married. Also to raise a family. Didn’t notice either until he was forty. Then took up golf.
He knows much more about a lot of theatrical managers than they care to have him know.
Had a unique contract with A. H. Woods. It stated that for a period of five years he could write plays for Woods only. Also stated that during that period Woods couldn’t produce any plays but his. During those years he wrote fifty-eight melodramas, or a play a month for five years.
He’d go to Europe tomorrow if they’d build a railroad across the Atlantic Ocean.
He doesn’t drink. He’d like to.
Is a Harvard graduate. Played football on the Crimson eleven. Also held that college’s record for the hundred-yard dash until four years ago.
In those days of the thrilling melodramas Woods would select a title and order terrifying lithographs of maidens in peril. Then Davis would write a play to fit both the title and the picture.
Perhaps you recall some of them. They include such titles as Through the Breakers, Deadwood Dick’s Last Shot, The Chinatown Trunk Mystery, Confessions of a Wife, The Gambler from the West, Tony the Bootblack, The Great Express Robbery, Queen of the Opium Ring, Convict 999, Broadway After Dark, The Policeman and the Millionaire’s Wife, The Creole Slave’s Revenge, A Chorus Girl’s Luck in New York, and Edna, the Pretty Typewriter.
He doesn’t remember writing Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl, although he is credited with it.
His play Icebound won the 1923 Pulitzer prize. The Detour he considers his greatest play.
Always smokes cigars. At rehearsals he makes a little cup from a newspaper to flick his ashes in. He is well house broken.
Clarence Darrow is his idea of the greatest American.
Prefers the theatre to the movies, ices to ice cream, a four-in-hand to a bow tie, a cold bath to a hot one, poker to bridge and a wicked woman to a simple one.
The first theatrical flashlight ever made was of his play The Road to Paradise. It is now pasted on the wall of his workroom. Among those in it are Mrs. Davis, then the “You Ain’t Done Right by Our Nell” girl. And George Jessel‘s stepmother, then very interested in keeping the villain from foreclosing on the old homestead.
Wrote his first play, The Rival Detectives, at the age of eight. All the characters in it were murdered.
His ambition is to have a perfect script after the first writing. Thought he had it with The Nervous Wreck. Then had to rewrite it seven times.
Once was turning out so many plays that he had to write under seven different names. Two of the nom de plumes, Robert Wayne and John Oliver, became well known. In fact, a Pittsburgh dramatic critic wrote a piece about John Oliver stating that “at last a man had come along to drive Owen Davis out of business.”
Eugene O’Neill is his favorite playwright.
When writing he moods himself to the play. While working on Chinatown Charlie he lived on chop suey.

Read More »

Times Square Tintypes: Samuel Shipman

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles Samuel Shipman, a playwright of some prominence in the first half of the twentieth century.
 
 
NO MAN IS A HERO TO HIS VALET
 
SAMUEL SHIPMAN. When he was graduated from Columbia this line appeared under his picture in the college book: “God Makes Some Strange Things.”
His first play, which he wrote at the age of twelve, was something called Justice. It was performed at the Jewish Educational Alliance.
He is marvelously unkempt. Even after he has had a shave and a haircut he needs a shave and a haircut.
As a kid he wore phony jewelry to appear rich.
Writes all his plays in Atlantic City. He engages a suite in one of the exclusive hotels. He always takes two stenographers an a collaborator with him. He dictates everything he writes. Paces the floor and is often in another room shouting the lines. The stenographers work in relays, one resting while the other is taking the dictation.
He never sleeps more than four hours a day. And always one of these hours is between five and six in the morning.
He made a million dollars in royalties from Friendly Enemies and East Is West. So did Wall Street.
Likes to drink and play with tea. Is always pouring the tea from the glass to the saucer and then back into the glass.
Has only one superstition. That is he must start an finish his plays on a Tuesday. It doesn’t matter if the Tuesdays are months apart.
He once taught English in an East Side school.
Everything he does he describes as “terrific.”
Has only one superstition: that is, theatrical notables. Eugene O’Neill, for example, he believes is only an intellectualized Theodore Kremer. Claims the only thing he likes about George Jean Nathan is H. L. Mencken. A. H. Woods is his favorite producer. Because whenever he hands that impresario a flop Woods never cries, but merely says: “It’s all right, sweetheart; try again.”
He rarely eats meat. His favorite meal is one composed solely of caviar.
Likes to go prowling about the city at night and often sets out at midnight, alone.
The sight of fish fascinates him. He is a frequent visitor at the Aquarium.
He never hangs up anything. His clothes are sprawled about the house. On entering he tosses his hat anywhere. His coat is dropped on the living room floor; the vest on the bedroom floor. His trousers he carefully places at the foot of his bed. He dresses faster than a fireman.
To date he has had twelve collaborators. His favorite is John B. Hymer because Hymer understands him.
He wants to know everything before anyone else.
Never reads a book during the winter. Every summer he goes for a vacation in the Catskill Mountains, taking two valises full of books with him.
Doesn’t like young girls. Never goes out with a lady under thirty-five.
Never falls in love with an actress. His sweetheart is a nonprofessional. Her parents, however, dislike everything connected with the theater and won’t allow him in the house.
His ambition in life is to write the libretto of an opera and to have it presented at the Metropolitan Opera House.
He suffers from indigestion. His secretary carries his pills and reminds him when he has indigestion.
At Columbia he studied playwriting under Brander Matthews, who gave him a C minus. He asked that his mark be raised and Matthews asked why. Shipman then pulled out a contract for a play he had just sold. Matthews merely replied: “It’s the old story. Theory is theory and practice is practice.”
He covered the Ruth Snyder case for a tabloid newspaper.
Never cleans his shoes on the outside, but only inside. This, he claims, is healthy for the feet.
He can recite most of Ibsen’s plays from memory. While writing a play his teeth become loose; in fact, so loose that he can pluck them. To date he has plucked six. The minute the play is finished his teeth tighten. He is continually visiting dentists because of this condition.
The greatest disappointment one can get in life, he believes, is meeting somebody one had heard a lot about.
One evening at the Lambs Club Eugene O’Neill was playing poker with a group of playwrights. After losing all his money O’Neill offered to play on his ability as a dramatist. After another hour of heavy losing O’Neill got up and started for home. As he was leaving the doorman said: “Good night, Mr. Shipman.”
The only time he ever combs his hair is before going to bed.