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In O'Neill's Danville, the Nice Words Cometh

The leafy Bay Area town where the Nobel winner wrote his greatest plays finally unveils its civic ode: a park highlighting his illustrious career.

November 07, 2005|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

DANVILLE, Calif. — A native son he was not, but Eugene O'Neill -- Nobel Prize-winning playwright, American theater's great chronicler of foible and dysfunction -- sank important roots in this upscale Bay Area town.

O'Neill toiled through the last days of the Great Depression and early war years to write his final and, by most accounts, greatest plays cloistered in a tile-roofed hideaway called Tao House up a hillside from Danville's tree-lined downtown.

Back then, and for several decades after, townsfolk mostly didn't know what to make of the intensely private playwright, who died in 1953.

Now, it seems, they're eager to embrace the memories.

The town recently unveiled a long-sought civic ode to O'Neill across the street from Danville's library, cutting the ribbon on a park featuring bronze displays highlighting the playwright's words and career.

Just days before the ceremony, local folks were confronted by O'Neill-style drama when word leaked of a move in Congress, later disavowed and eventually dropped, to put the playwright's home, a national historic site, and several other little-known federal parks up for sale.

Claudia Nemir, president of the Danville-based Eugene O'Neill Foundation, wondered aloud, "Why would we ever get rid of a public treasure?"

Salinas has John Steinbeck. Fresno has William Saroyan. But leafy Danville, population 43,000, has at least a piece of the puzzle that was Eugene O'Neill.

There even remains a living local witness to O'Neill's seven years in Tao House, where he spent torturous days threading family history into his most autobiographical and enduring plays, "A Moon for the Misbegotten," "The Iceman Cometh" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

"I kind of thought something was going on in that study," recalls Kathryne "Kaye" Albertoni, 95 now but a 26-year-old nurse when O'Neill's third wife, actress Carlotta Monterey, hired her to tend to the full-time needs of the sickly playwright known as "Papa."

"He would never let on just what he was writing."

Albertoni was at his hospital bedside in Oakland, where he was recovering from an appendectomy, when two Swedish representatives arrived in 1936 to present him with the Nobel Prize. There was no effusiveness, no champagne, no overt celebration by the poker-faced O'Neill, she recalls, merely a perfunctory thank-you.

O'Neill and his wife used the Nobel winnings of $45,000 to help buy and build the 5,000-square-foot estate, a mix of Spanish colonial and Asian influences. Monterey called it her "pseudo-Chinese house." They intended it to be their final harbor, but it would prove anything but.

The playwright set out to craft a cycle of 11 plays telling the history of a family in America, but jettisoned that project to tap his own family history: the unfulfilled actor father, the mother addicted to morphine, the alcoholic brother, his own scraps in waterfront saloons.

Holed up in a study behind three doors zealously guarded by Monterey, O'Neill battled the effects of a neurological disorder. His hand quaking with tremors, he made pencil scribbles barely decipherable to the naked eye.

"He could control the tremors best by writing smaller," said Margaret Styles, interpretive ranger at the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site.

But the disease eventually overran him. O'Neill found it impossible to create on a typewriter or Dictaphone, Styles said. "Once he lost that outlet, he put himself in a prison. He wrote nothing more after he left Tao House," she said.

The preservation of the home was itself an ordeal.

The O'Neills sold out in 1944, their world shrunk by a war that stripped them of hired help and income. The property was purchased as a cattle ranch. But by the mid-1960s, a developer was seeking to buy the estate, increasingly hemmed in by suburbia.

A trio of Danville women formed the O'Neill Foundation, and by 1975 it had purchased the home. But that was only the start.

For about a decade, neighbors on the winding one-lane road leading to Tao House fought efforts to open it for public tours. Finally, in the mid-1980s, the National Park Service agreed to install an electronic gate at the base of Kuss Road, accessible to the dozen homeowners and two tour vans a day.

With a limit of 30 visitors a day, Tao House is among the least-visited sites in the national park system -- and among the most vulnerable.

In September, word leaked of an idea in the House Committee on Resources, chaired by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), to sell off 15 national parks, among them Tao House.

Brian Kennedy, a Pombo spokesman, said the list was crafted by resource committee staffers during budgetary brainstorming meant to look at every possible option. Pombo, whose district includes Danville, "has no intention of selling any national parks," he said.

Craig Obey of the National Parks Conservation Assn., a nonprofit advocacy group, remains watchful.

"Just because a place is remote or hard to get to doesn't make it less significant," he said.

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