James O’Neill, Jr., the real-life counterpart of Long Day’s Journey Into Night’s Jamie Tyrone, was born in San Francisco in 1878 at an unusually stable—or at least stationary—period in his parents’ lives. James and Ella O’Neill, always at the mercy of James’s schedule as a touring actor, rarely stayed in the same place for long; their two years in San Francisco marked a relaxation of their usually breathless pace. James Jr. was born in the house of one of the couple’s friends, making him the only O’Neill child to be born in a home, rather than a hotel. But San Francisco was not to last; James and Ella went back on the road in James Jr.’s infancy. San Francisco receded, and James Jr., or Jamie, became a constant fixture of his parents’ constantly shifting life.
The O’Neills’ itinerant lives resulted in an endless string of close quarters. Years of hotel-room living created a tight bond between Jamie, an only child, and his parents—particularly his mother. Much later in life, at forty, Jamie wrote a letter to a friend in which he recalled relishing the smell of his mother’s perfumed bathwater. He would sometimes sneak into her bathroom to dip his hands into the sweet-smelling water before it drained. This near-Oedipal closeness has come to color one of the seminal events of the O’Neill family: the death of Edmund O’Neill, James Jr.’s first brother, born in 1883. James Jr. resented his baby brother’s arrival in the way that many older siblings do; the sudden shift in family dynamics—especially for a child accustomed to the solitary intimacy of traveling life—was difficult to bear. But though Jamie’s resentment wasn’t extraordinary, its outcome—or perceived outcome—was uniquely horrific.
In the winter of 1885, Edmund and Jamie were left in the care of their grandmother and a nurse so that Ella could join James Sr. on the Denver leg of his The Count of Monte Cristo tour. Seven-year-old Jamie contracted measles while his parents were away, and despite orders not to come near his younger brother, he evaded his grandmother’s eye and came into the toddler’s room, exposing nearly-two-year-old Edmund to the disease. Ella immediately bought a train ticket west; James stayed behind to fulfill his nightly obligation to Edmond Dantès. Before Ella could catch her train, she received a telegram informing her that Edmund had died. Blame for the incident floated around the family for years, haunting the O’Neills just as it does the Tyrones in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Ella sometimes blamed herself for leaving, sometimes her mother for being negligent. Most devastatingly, she also blamed Jamie himself (as she does in Long Day’s Journey), believing he may have infected his young brother on purpose, out of jealousy. Whether or not Jamie intended to harm his brother, the death haunted Jamie for the rest of his life—not least because of his mother’s reaction. Eugene O’Neill, for his part, seemed conflicted about his brother’s role in Edmund’s death; in notes O’Neill wrote for a psychologist on the incident, he said Jamie had "unconsciously(?)" played a role. In an early draft of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a drunk Jamie made a speech admitting to infecting his brother intentionally; in subsequent drafts, the monologue was cut.
The death of Edmund kicked off a radical shift in Jamie’s young life. He was sent to a Roman Catholic boarding school in Indiana, a rather lonely destination for a seven-year-old boy. But he excelled both academically and socially, winning scholastic awards, acting in plays, playing shortstop on the baseball team, and becoming a favorite of classmates and teachers alike. By the time his second brother Eugene was born in 1888, newly independent Jamie no longer feared losing his prime spot in his parents’ lives. But his confidence gave way in his early teens, when, while on a break from school, he walked in on Ella giving herself a morphine injection.
Again, bearing witness to his mother’s fragility had a profound effect on Jamie. He blamed his father for his mother’s addiction—the beginning of a familial rift that we see entrenched in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. And once he returned to school, his focus shifted. While his grades remained mostly high, he began to act out, prompting his father to write a letter to the school president in which he offered assurance that "If [Jamie] can be kept well in hand for the next two years I am sure he will make a good man." But James Sr. wasn’t entirely hopeful. The letter continued, "On the other hand there is a possible chance of his going to the dogs."
James Sr.’s latter prediction unfortunately hit close to the truth. Jamie left his Indiana boarding school at the age of sixteen and spent the next two years at Georgetown Preparatory School in DC and St. John’s Preparatory School in the Bronx. His behavior continued to raise eyebrows. In his last year of college at St. John’s University, his risk-taking came to a head in an event that combined two of his favorite vices. On a bet, he invited a prostitute to campus, claiming that she was his sister. He was expelled with six months to go till graduation.
A few years later, after a few stabs at other careers, Jamie ultimately came around to trying his father’s profession—acting. He had the looks, the voice, and the charm for the job—but not the discipline. While he wasn’t the lazy lout James Sr. often accuses him of being in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (he actually worked quite steadily at his father’s company for a number of years), he was hardly a model performer. He often appeared onstage drunk and had a habit of inviting local prostitutes to watch his performances on the road.
Though he was mentioned in the same breath with his father in press clippings (and took advantage of the tony clubs and dining halls offered to the celebrated older actor), he never earned much respect from critics and only continued to lose respect from his father. Regardless of what talent he may have had, he did next to nothing to cultivate it, saying he’d been "forced" to participate in his father’s, rather than his own, dream. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Jamie acknowledges a jealousy towards his younger brother’s potential, and indeed, the real Jamie may have resented Eugene O’Neill’s success in writing. After all, Jamie had been the family intellectual as a child. As an adult, he held a dream of becoming a newspaperman that was never to pass—but which Eugene saw realized in his own life.
By the time Jamie was 36, he and his father continued to tour together but were barely speaking. By the time he was 38, his acting career was over. But a brief bright spot was on the horizon. After his father’s death in 1920, James recommitted himself to his widowed mother’s care. At her urging—and inspired by her recovery from opioid addiction—he even stopped drinking, halting what had seemed an inevitable progression of alcoholism.
But this period of lightness—in which Jamie was free from the denigration of his father and willingly bound to dote on his mother—was not to last. In 1922, sober for nearly a year and a half, Jamie accompanied his mother on a trip to California to look into one of James Sr.’s real estate investments (in Long Day’s Journey, Tyrone’s sons –particularly Jamie—ridicule him for his poor and insatiable taste for property). While in California, Ella, suffering from a brain tumor, became ill and fell into a coma. Jamie, always susceptible to despair at his mother’s poor health, was distraught and began drinking almost immediately. In his own account of the event, he believed that Ella had woken up from her coma momentarily and had seen that he’d returned to the bottle. He believed she then "was glad to die" and left the world disappointed in her first son’s weakness.
Jamie accompanied his mother’s body back home to the east coast for interment. His train ride across the country with his mother’s coffin, immortalized in A Moon for the Misbegotten, was another tragically defining episode in Jamie’s life. He drank continuously (one of the nurses who had cared for his mother reported that he carried ten bottles of whiskey onto the train), cementing his slide back into alcoholism, and he hired a prostitute for the duration of the trip; they spent the journey locked in his compartment. When he arrived back east, he was barely conscious, and he was too drunk to attend even his mother’s burial. He didn’t stop drinking.
In February 1923, Eugene sent a detached telegram to the family’s lawyer to warn him of his brother’s behavior, writing, "The people who have been taking care of Jim in Darien phoned me[.] He has broken loose again is on way to New London [sic] after most disgraceful scene in theatre Stamford last night[.] Will be arrested there if he returns[.] Any measures however drastic you see fit to take to restrain him in New London [sic] will have my full approval." When Jamie was finally forced into a sanitorium, Eugene refused to visit him, though a friend, writing in July of 1923, said Jamie had "expressed a great desire to see" his brother. In the same letter, the friend laid out a horrible picture of Jamie’s health, saying, "He is very thin, pale, trembles a great deal and of course very weak. He cannot read or write so he asked me to write for him." Four months later, Jamie died without reconciling with Eugene. He was 45.
In A Moon for the Misbegotten, we meet James Tyrone, Jr. twelve years after the events of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Many scholars and biographers see the play as an exercise in wish fulfillment for Eugene O’Neill. The character of James finds absolution in his relationship with Josie; a comfort that the real-life Jamie was never afforded. Though the fictional James seems to be headed to the same death as his true counterpart, he does so with a lighter heart.
Long Day's Journey into Night is now playing at The American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit our website.
2015-2016 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Long Day's Journey Into Night