NL, O'Neill captivated NY Times icon Gelb

Arthur Gelb, the former New York Times managing editor who died Tuesday at age 90, lived much of his experience as a biographer in the sometimes murky life of Eugene O'Neill. Perhaps more than any other single place, New London captivated Gelb and his wife Barbara, for this odd old city held many of the secrets that detailed O'Neill's genius. And the Gelbs' passion for learning about O'Neill was insatiable.

The Gelbs rented a house on Glenwood Avenue in New London for a year when they were beginning their research leading to "O'Neill," their 1962 biography of America's greatest playwright. They returned to work on "O'Neill, Life With Monte Cristo," published in 2000 and dug even deeper into the playwright's New London life.

They were present soon after the creation of the Eugene O'Neill Memorial Theater Center by Waterford's George C. White at the former Hammond Estate in Waterford. Then culture editor and soon metropolitan editor, Gelb assigned reporters to chronicle theater events here. Gelb encouraged the work there by his occasional presence at events in Waterford and by the Times' coverage of the theater center.

My uncle, Arthur B. McGinley, then the longtime editor of The Hartford Times, had come at White's request, to speak to Waterford residents about establishing this theater dedicated to recreating and renewing fresh, innovative American theater. A half-century later, the O'Neill continues to turn out great young playwrights in fulfillment of that goal.

Gelb and my uncle at once took favorably to one another as kindred spirits. Both were old-time newsmen whose ability to smell a story, chase it down and ask all the right questions - sometimes interminably - sealed their bond. Gelb would sit for hours in my uncle's West Hartford home as Art McGinley smoked cigars and told of O'Neill's New London life. Arthur McGinley and O'Neill were best friends as teenagers in New London.

"Gene O'Neill and I tried to drink America dry and nearly succeeded," said McGinley. My grandfather, John McGinley, had encouraged James O'Neill to come to New London in the summers. My grandfather and grandmother Evelyn hosted the young O'Neill for dinner three to four nights a week. O'Neill was reluctant to go home to face his mother's drug addiction and the hostilities between his father, James O'Neill, and O'Neill's brother, Jamie.

O'Neill wrote "Ah! Wilderness," his only comedy, with the McGinley family as the model. He used four of my uncles' names - Wint (Winthrop), Art, Tom and Lawrence in the play.

With great candor, the playwright revealed a sensitive side not generally seen in the public O'Neill. The Millers, the fictitious family in "Ah! Wilderness," represented the kind of family life he fervently wished he could have enjoyed, said O'Neill.

The Gelbs also developed a special fondness for Waterford's Sally Thomas Pavetti, the curator of the Monte Cristo Cottage for many years. As Mrs. Pavetti became a stellar member of the Eugene O'Neill Society, she traveled great distances to attend their events and became known as an expert on O'Neill's history. She will soon be honored by the O'Neill Theater Center for her achievements.

Her work also resulted in a great friendship with the Gelbs, whom she saw frequently in New York City and occasionally in Waterford.

Not more than six years out of college, I became a "stringer" filing free-lance stories with the Times when Gelb was metropolitan editor. I would pick up the phone to find Gil Hagerty, a clerk on the metro desk, informing Gelb that I was on the phone. "Arthur, Morgan McGinley on line two," Hagerty would announce. Quickly, Gelb was peppering me with questions about whatever story he wanted written. Somtimes I had the answers but just as often, Gelb had more questions than I could answer.

He was always generous to me professionally and when I became president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers' Foundation, Gelb, then president of the Times' Foundation, gave us thousands of dollars for education programs to improve the skills of opinion writers.

In April of 2000, the Gelbs were principals in a tribute to O'Neill at Connecticut College, where they received honorary degrees. Next month, the ninth annual conference of the Eugene O'Neill Society will be held here in New London to commemorate the great American playwright in conjunction with Connecticut College and the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. The conference is called "Eugene O'Neill: Hunted, Haunted, Home."

Throughout this relationship with O'Neill, the college has been guided first by Brian Rogers, a former head librarian at the school, teacher J Ranelli and now by Rob Richter, director of arts programming at Connecticut.

Surely the personality of Arthur Gelb will be part of the June 18-21 celebration. Unfortunate it is that he could not be here in June as an expert witness to the greatness of Eugene O'Neill.

Morgan McGinley is a former editorial page editor of The Day.

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