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Weekend Escape: Northern California

Two Days Journey Into Danville : In search of literary ghosts at the quirky home of playwright Eugene O'Neill

November 03, 1996|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DANVILLE, Calif. — We came to the sun-gilded hills east of Oakland on a ghost hunt. A literary ghost hunt, to be precise, to a house haunted by one of the greatest, and most tormented, spirits of the American theater.

The center of our weekend was a tour of Tao House, the eccentric hilltop estate that dramatist Eugene O'Neill and his third wife, Carlotta Monterey, built for privacy in Danville with his 1936 Nobel Prize stipend. In a second-floor study with stunning views of the San Ramon Valley, O'Neill scribbled out in pencil, and blood, four searing and often autobiographical masterpieces: "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "The Iceman Cometh," "Hughie" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten."

In 1944, illness and wartime shortages forced O'Neill from what he called his "final harbor." Tao House was sold and O'Neill never wrote again before his death in 1953, at age 65, in Boston. Twenty years later, a private foundation began a preservation campaign that led to state acquisition of Tao House and eventual transfer to the National Park Service in 1980.

Unreformed theater junkies, my wife and I long had wanted to visit the O'Neill house. Now we had an invitation for our 6-year-old daughter to spend the weekend with friends. That was a good excuse to explore Danville, Walnut Creek and towering Mt. Diablo State Park nearby.

We flew from Burbank to Oakland on Friday evening and drove a rental car a half an hour northeast to our Walnut Creek bed and breakfast. The Secret Garden Mansion (formerly The Mansion at Lakewood) is an 1860 manor with three acres of lawns and a beautiful collection of Victorian furniture. Highlights include a grand sunken parlor and a breakfast room lushly painted to resemble a garden.

Our own $145-a-night room with a four-poster bed was very romantic, all in pink, white, lavender and green, but also quirky. A former walk-in metal safe served as a closet and the antique water basin had to be swung up on a hinge to empty into modern plumbing below. I had one O'Neill-like complaint: the fey motif of bunny pillows, bunny towel racks and bunny paintings made me hungry for well-boiled rabbit stew. Otherwise, it's a relaxing place to read a biography on a lawn chair or sip lemonade in the parlor.

After a terrific breakfast of fresh orange juice, coffee, muffins and fruit crepes, we drove 10 minutes down Interstate 680 to Danville. Public tours of the 14-acre O'Neill property are free, but neighborhood protests about traffic on narrow Kuss Road limit visitors to two tours a day, Wednesday through Sundays; access is allowed only by Park Service van from a downtown Danville parking lot. Including the short ride, the tour lasts about two hours and 45 minutes.

First, we visited the lively farmers market held on that parking lot every Saturday. We peeked into the artsy shops along South Hartz Avenue.

The van took us and seven other tourists uphill to a white stone wall and red Chinese-style front gate. We could see the odd mix of California Mission and Chinese styles the O'Neills chose for the hideaway they named after meditative Chinese philosophy. Tao House pairs Spanish verandas with dark Asian tiles, hacienda-like fireplaces with opium couches for beds.

The front garden walkway zigzags, in the Chinese tradition of discouraging visits from evil spirits. O'Neill had enough of his own ghosts to wrestle. At Tao House, he finally wrote truthfully about his family's sorrows of morphine addiction, alcoholism and suicide. The unhappy Tyrone clan in "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is almost a documentary about his youth.

The park rangers provide excellent biographical information and display enlarged pictures of the house in the '30s and '40s. The most compelling shows a visit by O'Neill's teenage daughter from a previous marriage, Oona, shortly before her own controversial wedding to Charlie Chaplin.

The first-floor music room contains O'Neill's beloved Rosie, a player piano that supposedly came from a New Orleans bordello. Restoration has returned the strange blue ceilings and weirdly tinted wall mirrors that Carlotta Monterey chose because of her sensitivity to light--or her vanity. A former actress from Oakland, she discouraged visitors and won a reputation as an overprotective dragon lady.

The isolation paid off in the book-lined second-floor study. The room is now fully furnished with original and replica artifacts, including two packs of Lucky Strikes on a desk and the ship models that reminded O'Neill of his days at sea. With a fireplace and a private porch, the room struck me as the perfect place to write.

The guide passed around a copy of one of O'Neill's original pencil manuscripts, scribbled in tiny handwriting that Monterey deciphered and typed. We heard a rare tape of O'Neill reading from "Long Day's Journey," an Act 4 monologue about the sailing life: ". . . I dissolved into the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight. . . ."

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