The Gene and Carlotta Romance

Nickolas Muray (1892-1965) was “arguably the most successful celebrity and fashion photographer of the twenties.” – Carl Van Vechten, The Splendid Drunken Twenties.

Muray’s daughter, Mimi Muray Levitt, has kindly given me permission to publish some of his portraits of Eugene and Agnes O’Neill and Pamela Bianco both in The Velveteen Daughter and on this website.

Amazingly, Ms. Levitt found notes written by her father that describe the moment the romance between O’Neill and Carlotta Monterey began—a fascinating account that was not reported in the in O’Neill biographies I read, and it may not have surfaced anywhere else until now.

Muray writes in his notes that he met Eugene O’Neill for the first time around 1919. His studio was then on Macdougal Street, next to the Provincetown Players, and he photographed some of O’Neill’s stage productions. Later, Muray was invited to the O’Neills’ home on Cape Cod. He describes O’Neill as “quite an athlete – swimming and also boxing – and also his great love was paddling a kayak boat. The rough seas…challenged him to do his best and conquer its power. …I was engaged busily with my camera and motion picture camera, making records of this fantastically interesting individual.”

The meeting between Eugene and Carlotta occurred six years later. Muray recalls a day in 1925 when he had an 11 o’clock appointment—Eugene O’Neill was to sit for a portrait.

“Before 11 o’clock I had a sitter, Ralph Barton’s wife, Carlotta Monterey, who was to play in one of O’ Neill’s plays called The Hairy Ape. She came late, and the sitting extended beyond 11 o’clock, and I asked her if she would mind having Mr. O’Neill come down instead of waiting in the reception room…. She said “Oh, of course – bring him in.”…When I was finished with her, she asked Mr. O’Neill is he would mind if she watched me taking pictures of him. Of course he had no other answer except – of course he had never had any audience before in picture-taking, but if she didn’t get bored with it, she was welcome to watch. In about 45 minutes I was finished with O’Neill, and it was already 12:30, so I asked them would they mind having lunch with me…. We went to the Crillon, which was around the corner at 48th Street at the time, whose owner I knew quite well. He gave us a nice corner table, and the three of us proceeded to have a midday snack with amusing conversation, laughter, etc. I had a 2:15 sitting…and I apologized, saying that I hoped I wouldn’t seem rude, but I had to leave them, that I had to go back to the salt mines. I didn’t know at the time that this was the beginning of a romance which culminated in Carlotta divorcing Ralph Barton and…marrying Mr. Eugene O’Neill.

All biographies I consulted state that Carlotta divorced the cartoonist Ralph Barton (see “The Cartoon in Harper’s Bazar” in this section) in March of 1926, and that O’Neill and Monterey met in Maine in the summer of 1926. This new-found anecdote obviates this version of the story.

A clarification:
The Hairy Ape was staged by the Provincetown Players in the spring of 1922, not 1925. By all accounts, O’Neill and Monterey were hostile in the brief exchanges they had at that time. However, regardless of whether the meeting at Muray’s studio took place in 1922 or in 1925, it still predates the accepted version that the pair met and were deeply attracted to one another for the first time in 1926.