Though he was born in New York City and roamed around to live in more than two dozen other places in his lifetime, Eugene O'Neill picked northern California as the place he wanted to be at the climax of his writing career. Today, his home in Danville, not far from San Francisco, is the center of the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site. Saved from the wrecker's ball in the early 1970s by the Eugene O'Neill Foundation, the site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1971, a National Historic Site in 1976, and fell under the auspices of National Park Service management in 1980.
Here he wrote his final and most memorable plays, namely, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten. But I say, still, give me his Anna Christie above all.
The only American playwright to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, O'Neill also garnered four Pulitzer prizes. While living here (1937-1944), he completed five plays.
ONeill's home, Tao (pron. Dow) House, sits on an 11- or 13-acre (depending on who is counting) estate bordering the Las Trampas open space with a nice view of the San Ramon Valley and Mt. Diablo. To enter Tao House, you need reservations, see Contacts below. Every visitor gets a free, guided tour of Tao House, and there's a print brochure for exploring the grounds outside.
The house was named Tao by O'Neill, who was interested in Eastern thought, and wife Carlotta, an actress with a passion for Oriental art. Tao ("The Way") is one of China's great religious achievements. Some authorities believe O'Neill echoed several Taoist principles in his writing. The sea, for example, he wrote, symbolized "impelling, inscrutable forces behind life, which it is my ambition to at least faintly shadow...in my plays."
O'Neill worked hard in a separate study here (a former garage), working from early morning to about 1pm. He wrote in longhand in pencil, and suffered greatly from tremors and other unspecified illnesses. After lunch, he usually swam in the pool or walked with Carlotta, but sometimes worked into the night. A dog, Blemie, was a surrogate child for the couple. In the evening, they usually read or listened to their record collection of jazz and blues music.
Although the exterior is Spanish colonial with adobe-like blocks, the interior is crammed with Chinese furniture, under deep blue ceilings and boasting red doors, tiled or black-stained floors. Carlotta was very sensitive to light, so most of the shades were kept drawn, and because of the dark décor, the interior seems rather gloomy to some visitors. While living here, O'Neill and his wife, Carlotta, planted and harvested walnuts, almonds and different citrus fruits. When they bought the place, it held 158 acres, compared to the smaller plot you can see today.
Some visitors admire the 8-foot high bronze tablet that sits in a park across the street from the Danville Library and Community Center. On it are inscribed selected words from Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Private vehicles are not allowed on the site. You come to the Museum of the San Ramon Valley in Danville, at 205 Railroad Avenue, and board an NPS van (free) for the short trip to the estate.
On site you can hike or bike in from the trails in the Las Trampas Regional Wilderness. The area is said to be good for bird watching, too. Look out for wild turkeys and red-tailed hawks. Also wandering around are black-tailed mule deer, coyotes and bobcats, so keep your eyes open. The Foundation occasionally stages O'Neill plays in the barn on the property.
There is no admission fee. You need reservations to visit the site, and though same day reservations are occasionally available, it is suggested that you reserve one or two weeks in advance. The park is open year round from Wednesdays through Sundays, with guided tours at 10am and 1:30pm. In the summer of 2009, you could visit on Saturdays without reservations, but it is not yet known whether this policy will be followed in summer of 2010. Office hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 9am to 5pm.
The site is one of the least visited of all NPS properties, with only 2,544 visitors in 2008, the last full year report available. The need for reservations may account for this, or lack of interest in America's only Nobel-prize winning playwright. This despite having a theater named for him on Broadway in New York and several of his plays having been adapted for the movies, including Anna Christie, starring Greta Garbo.
Not far away are other important sites, including the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial (20 miles), the John Muir National Historic Site (20 miles), the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park (32 miles) and the Juan Batista de Anza National Historic Trail (10 miles).
The official website of the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Park is www.nps.gov/euon, tel. 925/838-0249. You can contact the Eugene O'Neill Foundation at 925/820-1818 or visit their website at www.eugeneoneill.org.