Question: I came across a plaque at the base of a skyscraper at 43rd and Broadway in Times Square that indicated that Eugene O'Neill was born on that site. But I thought he was born at the Knickerbocker Hotel one block south, on 42nd Street. Can you provide information about O'Neill's birthplace and circumstances? —L.R.J., Louisville, KY
When Eugene O'Neill died on Nov. 27, 1953, in Room 401 of the Sheraton Hotel on Bay State Road in Boston, he reportedly said, "I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room — and Goddamn it — died in a hotel room."
O'Neill was indeed born in a hotel room. His father was famed 19th-century actor James O'Neill, who was constantly touring the United States and spent much of each year in various rented hotel rooms. Eugene's date of birth was Oct. 16, 1888, and the place was the Barrett House, a small, family-style hotel facing what was then known as Longacre Square, at the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street. James O’Neill had moved his wife, Ella, into Barrett House in late August 1888 to await the birth of her third child, while he went on tour with The Count of Monte Cristo.
The Barrett House was not a grand old hotel at the time, but it was modern, reaching eight stories and boasting elevators. It has existed for only five years when the O'Neills took a room. It was opened by two brothers, William C. and Hooper C. Barrett. William died suddenly of blood poisoning following an operation in 1893. He was 46. By 1901, Hooper had lost control of the hotel and become a bankrupt. Hooper died in 1936.
The Barrett later became the Cadillac Hotel. Eugene O'Neill lived to see his birthplace leveled. The building was razed in 1940. It had managed to last 57 years — a long time in the ever-changing world of Times Square. At the time, it was called "old" and a neighborhood "landmark" by the press. Some time later, O'Neill said, "There is only empty air now where I came into this world." He was sentimental about the spot, and kept an old picture of the Barrett House among his possessions. Today the site (1500 Broadway) includes a Starbucks.
The story of the plaque honoring O'Neill is nearly as eventful as the life it honors. It was dedicated on Oct. 16, 1957, the anniversary of the writer's birth, at the northeast corner of 43rd and Broadway. The plaque was donated by José Quintero and Theodore Mann, who founded the Circle in the Square theatre company, which made it reputation reviving O'Neill plays and restoring the dramatist's reputation. It "was fixed to a pillar in front of a store building on the site, one of the most bustling corners of Manhattan," future O'Neill scholar, Arthur Gelb, wrote at the time.
The plaque was then lost in 1961. It vanished during the renovation of a shoe store that occupied the site. The contractors trusted with it had misplaced it, angering many in the theatre community.
A new plaque was introduced on Nov. 27, 1973, by Theodore Mann. Among those in attendance, according to an article in the New York Times, were Tennessee Williams, Geraldine Page, Brooks Atkinson, and James Earl Jones. There was a snag in the ceremony, though. The plaque was hung at 44th Street and Broadway, one block north of where the Barrett House actually stood. Director Jose Quintero and actors Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards were actually waiting on 43rd Street, thinking the ceremony would be there.
Nearly 40 years after it disappeared, the original 1957 plaque was found in the offices of Cushman & Wakefield, the property manager for Times Square Plaza. It was rededicated on Oct. 16, 2000, at the northeast corner of 43rd and Broadway, where it hangs today. According to Susan Frankel, who sits on the board of the Circle in the Square Theatre School, "The rededication in 2000 was attended at the very least by Paul Libin, Ted Mann, Arthur and Barbara Gelb and Martin Segal."