Arts and Leisure

Why the Ghost of Eugene O’Neill Haunts a BU Dorm

Eugene O’Neill lay dying in Room 401 of the Sheraton Hotel in Boston just before Thanksgiving in 1953. For years he had suffered from depression and what doctors diagnosed as Parkinson’s Disease. They later determined he had cerebellar cortical atrophy.

The rare illness caused hand tremors that prevented O'Neill from writing.

No wonder he was depressed.

Ultimately, pneumonia killed him in that residential hotel suite on Nov. 27, 1953, at the age of 65.

Eugene O'Neill's third wife, Carlotta Monterey, and his doctor, Harry Kozol, stayed by his deathbed. They heard him whisper his last words:

I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room and, goddammit, died in a hotel room.

eugene-o-neill-writers-photo-1

Studio portrait of Eugene O'Neill

Eugene O’Neill

Eugene O’Neill was born in the Barrett House on what is now Times Square in New York City on Oct. 16, 1888. His alcoholic father, James O'Neill, was a well-known actor who immigrated to the United States from Ireland. His mother, Mary Ellen Quinlan, also Irish, suffered from mental illness. Because his father traveled so much, O’Neill attended boarding school. He then entered Princeton, and left it after one year. He spent summers at his family’s home, the Monte Cristo Cottage, in New London, Conn. (which you can now visit in the summer).

Depressed and drinking heavily, O’Neill went to sea aboard a tramp steamer for several years. He joined the Maritime Transport Workers Union of the IWW, or Wobblies, and wrote plays.

He found his stage in 1916 with the Provincetown Players on Cape Cod. Four years later he published his first play, Beyond the Horizon, and won a Pulitzer Prize for it.  Over his lifetime he steered American theater away from the frothy comedies of George M. Cohan and Charles Hoyt. His characters often belonged to the working class and used vernacular to express hope, despair, disillusionment and pessimism.

He won the Nobel Prize for Literature during his lifetime as well as three Pulitzer Prizes. Only the plays of George Bernard Shaw were more widely produced.

Postscript

Eugene O'Neill left written instructions not to publish his masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, until 25 years after his death. His wife published it three years after he died, and O’Neill received another Pulitzer Prize for it posthumously. The story is a semi-autobiographical account of one day in the life of his mother, father, brother and himself at their seaside cottage. Tension escalates throughout the day as they spar over addiction, blame and regret while trying to show love and sympathy for each other.

The year after Eugene O’Neill died, Boston University bought the hotel and turned it into the Shelton (now Killachand) Hall dormitory.

BU students say they’ve heard or felt O’Neill’s ghost. The elevator sometimes opens for no apparent reason. They hear strange scratching sounds. Lights dim suddenly and toilets flush themselves.

O'Neill's ghost is described as benevolent. Perhaps it really is the specter of the playwright, at last at peace. In Long Day's Journey Into Night, his autobiographical character Edmund recalls the bliss of getting lost in fog during his sailing days:

The fog and the sea seemed part of each other. It was like walking on the bottom of the sea. As if I had drowned long ago. As if I was a ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea. It felt damned peaceful to be nothing more than a ghost within a ghost.

The floor was named ‘Writer’s Corridor’ in 1984, and every spring its residents put out a collection of writing called Eugene’s Legacy.

This story about Eugene O'Neill was updated in 2019.

 

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