Eugene and Carlotta O'Neill at Tao House: 1937-1944
Written by Beverly Lane
When Eugene and Carlotta O'Neill lived in Danville, it was the epitome of rural California living. As O'Neill wrote in several letters "It is absolute country...without a taint of suburbia...yet only three-quarters of an hour motor ride from Frisco." Eugene O'Neill needed a place to write which offered a quiet environment, good weather and access to doctors. While in Seattle he had received the Nobel Prize for Literature in November, 1936, and had been so lionized (and besieged by reporters) that he and Carlotta fled to the San Francisco Bay Area. Carlotta Monterey O'Neill had grown up in Oakland. They decided to move to Northern California and, after looking around the Bay Area, they settled in the bucolic San Ramon Valley.
The O'Neills purchased 158 acres of the former Bryant Ranch in Danville, using the Nobel Prize award of $40,000. The land, house and furnishings cost around $100,000. A long driveway, fencing and a gate helped provide them with total privacy in the context of serene, natural surroundings. As a reflection of his interest in Oriental philosophy and her focus on style, they named the place "Tao House" which means in Chinese (as interpreted by the O'Neills) "the right way of life."
Carlotta had created other homes for Gene, including a renovated chateau in France and the palatial Casa Genotta in Georgia. Tao House was located above the San Ramon Valley in Las Trampas hills with a clear view of the 3849-foot Mount Diablo. The weather was moderate summer and winter, with an annual rainfall around 25 inches.
The house was built using a combination of Chinese and California ranch motifs. It had heavy basalt brick walls, a roof of black colored tiles and doors which opened out to several porches and patios. Inside, the dark blue ceilings and colored mirrors provided the chic look Carlotta wanted. One small room housed a player piano, Rosie, whose music was sometimes heard in the valley below.
They planted Gene's favorite star jasmine and hawthorne, along with redwood trees to screen the pool, and walnut and almond trees. The O'Neills raised white Brahma and other varieties of chickens, including a rooster dubbed Sugar Ray Robinson. "Blemie," their beloved Dalmatian, liked to roam and sometimes went as far as downtown Danville.
Their driver, bodyguard and "man of all work," Herbert Freeman, picked up the mail, dry cleaning and groceries from town. He also retrieved the wandering Blemie on occasion from Danville. Neither O'Neill drove, so they relied on Freeman to take them to doctor appointments, Cal football games and visits to Oakland and San Francisco. A full staff at Tao House included Freeman, a cook, a gardener and three other servants.
From his study O'Neill could look west to the courtyard, barn and the oak-studded hills. Eastward walnut and fruit orchards stretched across the valley to the Mount Diablo foothills. The water of the Carquinez Strait could be seen to the north. On September 14, 1937 he wrote to Barrett H. Clark:
"We have a beautiful site in the hills of the San Ramon Valley with one of the most beautiful views I've ever seen. This is the final home and harbor for me. I love California. Moreover, the climate is one I know I can work and keep healthy in. Coastal Georgia was no place for me."
The San Ramon Valley
The San Ramon Valley in 1937 was emerging from the depression. Like many rural communities, ranches and farms had been lost to foreclosure and expectations had diminished. The new Bay and Golden Gate Bridges were prime topics of conversation and a tunnel through the hills to Oakland opened in 1937. The war in Europe seemed far away. The Treasure Island Fair (1939-40) was very popular, especially with young people; Carlotta O'Neill attended twice.
In 1940 the valley had 2,120 people and Danville was the largest community. Small grammar schools and ranches of different sizes spread out from the Danville Highway. San Ramon Valley High School was the only high school and was located not far from Tao House. Fires were fought by volunteers.
Danville itself was a small town. It had a restaurant, fire station, beauty shop, hardware store, blacksmith, Legion Hall, dentist, two churches, bank, meat market, five and dime store, pool hall, lumber company, bar, drug store with a coke bar, two grocery stores and several gas stations. A Southern Pacific train, depot and warehouses served the valley.
Viola Root ran the Valley telephone system from an office located between Acree's Market and Elliott's Bar in downtown Danville. There were 340 telephone customers in 1940. The Danville Presbyterian Church's annual summer ice cream social was a major community event. Each summer 150 children from the San Francisco Protestant Orphanage came to Camp Swain (north of town in today's Hap Magee Ranch Park) for the pleasant weather and rural outdoor living.
The O'Neills' contacts with town folk were few in the early years. Carlotta dealt with the architect and workmen who built the house and pool and conferred with the local nurseryman at Sunset Nursery about landscaping. Tao House was known to the local residents, of course. They knew about O'Neill's fame and couldn't miss the large white house and chauffeur-driven car. Sometimes Freeman would stop in town and run an errand while Eugene or Carlotta waited in the car.
Isolation and the Plays
Carlotta protected O'Neill's writing time by controlling correspondence and regulating visitors. Gene's children from earlier marriages did visit. Shane and his sister Oona each came twice. Eugene Jr. was the most frequent family visitor, coming on four occasions for a week or more. Carlotta's family, including her mother, daughter, son-in-law and grandson, visited more often since they lived in the Bay Area.
Other friends and colleagues were entertained. The O'Neills' only close friends among local people were Paralee and Jean Baptiste Havre, who spent the summers in nearby Diablo. They exchanged dinner invitations and visited San Francisco together. Miguel Covarrubias, who painted the famous murals for the Treasure Island Fair, and his wife Rosa (a good friend of Carlotta's) were guests at Tao House several times.
Scholar Travis Bogard characterized the walls surrounding O'Neill as providing a "moat of silence" which enabled him to write. Carlotta was devoted to her husband and worked to protect him from unwanted interference.
O'Neill wrote his last and greatest plays at Tao House. When he was well enough he worked steadily on several plays, including an ambitious planned cycle of nine (and later eleven) plays. Only two of the cycle plays survive: "A Touch of the Poet" and "More Stately Mansions," which was never finished. In 1939 he completed "The Iceman Cometh" and began "Long Day's Journey Into Night." In 1941 be began "A Moon for the Misbegotten" and the one act play, "Hughie."
He suffered from neuritis, depression, periodic flu attacks, prostate problems and hand tremors (then diagnosed as Parkinson's Disease). Nevertheless, O'Neill worked regularly, sometimes from early morning into the evening. He re-wrote and revised his plays repeatedly before he was satisfied with them. His handwriting became smaller and smaller as the tremors increased. While in Danville, Carlotta and her daughter Cynthia Stram typed manuscripts for him, using a magnifying glass to decipher the words. He tried dictating and typing but could only create by putting pencil to paper; he must have realized that his time to write was coming to an end.
World War II
As the war in Europe intensified, the O'Neill's followed troop movements faithfully via radio and tracked the war in Europe on a large wall map. In spring of 1940, O'Neill's diaries cited "war news" and "war obsession," noting that he felt "spiritually completely disintegrated" because of a combination of physical illness and depression. Having lived in Tours, they were especially devastated by the German invasion of France.
"The crushing of France hit Carlotta and me hard for sentimental reasons in addition to the larger aspects of the disaster. When Tours was lost we felt almost as badly as if Danville, California, had fallen."
Pearl Harbor and the American entry into World War II exacerbated problems for the O'Neills. Almost immediately there were gas shortages and serious servant problems. Two air watch towers were established in nearby Alamo and San Ramon and volunteers watched for enemy airplanes around the clock.
Carlotta's diary for December 15, 1941 states "Freeman working very hard to finish 'blackouts' on windows."
The valley's Japanese-American families were taken to internment camps in May of 1942, along with all Californians of Japanese descent. One young man, Charlie Ajari, had worked the vast family tomato fields east of Tao House. He remembered the O'Neills coming down Danville Boulevard in their big Chrysler.
When Freeman joined the Marines in 1942, Curtis Haskell, who owned Danville's hardware store, and Charlie Roberts, who worked for the owners of Blackhawk Ranch, occasionally drove for the O'Neills. This forced contact with the locals ended some of O'Neill's isolation from the valley residents. It was seen by one friend, Barrett Clark, as important to O'Neill. Clark felt it "helped restore the man's essential faith in a world which his reading and contemplation had, in a way, distorted."
O'Neill wrote Clark that money couldn't buy what these people were doing for him. In one letter he voiced his concern for the fate of "the small business man, shop keeper...farmer" who were suffering from war profiteering. "We see so many instances of that in this neighborhood."
In turn, several local residents were impressed with the O'Neills' manners and friendliness. Slim Harless, who worked for them, said "they were just nice people." Curtis Haskell later said "I went up (to bring a delivery) and we started talking and became friends." Carlotta's diary in December, 1942: "Haskell comes to do chores - brings some 'old' records and some New England clam chowder his wife made. The local people are most kind."
On June 16, 1943, Oona O'Neill, age 18, married 54 year old Charlie Chaplin, a prominent actor and film producer who was notorious for his romances with younger women. O'Neill was already annoyed with her recognition as "Deb No. 1" at New York's Stork Club. Oona called her father the day after the wedding, according to an account by Mildred Fereira who was at the Danville telephone exchange. Carlotta took the call and Oona asked her to break the news to O'Neill. The marriage caused an estrangement between father and daughter.
A revolving door of cooks and servants and the O'Neills' increasing health problems eventually forced them to leave Tao House. They felt marooned and Carlotta could no longer manage the house. In December of 1943, O'Neill wrote to Saxe Cummins: "We've put the rancho up for sale. Too much of a burden and worry. It has us licked."
They sold the house to the Arthur Carlsons and moved in a San Francisco hotel until the war ended. Carlotta later recalled: "We stayed at Tao House for six whole years, longer than we lived anywhere else. Of course, there were many hardships, but it was a beautiful place and I hated to leave."
O'Neill had called Danville his final home and harbor and, indeed, it was the place where he successfully completed five significant works: "A Moon for the Misbegotten," "The Iceman Cometh," "Hughie," "A Touch of the Poet" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night." Tao House and Carlotta's protection facilitated this final burst of creative energy.
After leaving Danville he never wrote another play.
What is feng shui?
Feng shui (pronounced fung shway) is the ancient Chinese art of placement which translates into “wind and water”. Some believe these natural forces are responsible for health, prosperity and good luck. Long ago, the Chinese observed certain surroundings brought more luck than others. They concluded that if they changed their surroundings, they could change their fortunes. The goal is to be in harmony with Nature in order to receive the full benefit of its positive energy.
O’Neill’s Interest in Eastern Philosophy
Eugene O’Neill was a man in search of a personal philosophy. As a teenager, he rejected his Catholic heritage after discovering his mother’s morphine addiction. He spent his life “looking for new gods to replace the old”. His personal library contained many books on religion and philosophy.
As a young man, his search led to an interest in Asian cultures and Eastern philosophies like Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. He felt an affinity with the Taoist idea of nature influencing humans. Many of O’Neill’s plays, including Pulitzer Prize winning Anna Christie and Beyond the Horizon, reflected his views on Man’s need to be in harmony with natural forces.
Tao House and Feng Shui
No documentation exists showing that the O’Neills knew of the feng shui practices. Yet, their home contains numerous feng shui elements.
According to experts, the O’Neills chose a perfect site for their home. The Las Trampas hills represent the “Green dragons”, surrounding and protecting their home on three sides and the house is below the ridge, protecting it from any forceful “chi” or life energy.
The courtyard reflects features replicated from Taoist gardens they toured in China during 1928 such as indirect paths, “guardian” rocks, and hidden entryways. The interior of Tao House includes designs to contain good “chi”; stairways do not face doorways and exterior doors do not face other exterior doors. These are all positive aspects of feng shui.
Yet, negative aspects have also been sited in the O’Neill’s home. In his study, O’Neill sat under an exposed ceiling beam as he worked. The beam represents a dangerous knife-like blade ready to split whatever is beneath it. And he selected a black mirror for his bedroom. Did O’Neill know? Did he care? No one is certain. What we do know is Eugene O’Neill eventually concluded Eastern philosophies did not meet the needs of Western Man.
- Information courtesy National Park Service