The event is the opening night party for My Gene, a one-woman show starring Colleen Dewhurst as Carlotta Monterey, widow of Eugene O’Neill. At an elegant Manhattan restaurant, the playwright makes her entrance. At her side is Arthur Gelb, managing editor of the New York Times and her husband of 41 years. “Author and Arthur!” bellows comedian Robert Klein. She blushes as the assembled intelligentsia applaud vigorously. At 61, Barbara Gelb has just written her first play.
And not an easy one. Though alone onstage, Dewhurst—playing the volatile ex-actress Carlotta from 40 to 80—must delineate a major period of theatrical history while detailing her own tortured marriage to a self-destructive genius. It was Gelb’s task to knead all this material into a coherent two-hour monodrama. “Seeing my three grandchildren was all that kept me sane doing this production,” says Barbara.
Although writing a play was new to Gelb, the material was familiar. My Gene is but the latest public demonstration of Gelb’s continuing passion for one of America’s finest dramatists. She and Arthur wrote the 1962 bestseller O’Neill, the first major biography of the Nobel prizewinner.
The Gelbs began researching the biography in 1956, three years after O’Neill’s death from pneumonia. Barbara was wary of interviewing Carlotta, then in her 70s. “Carlotta was very, very much the grande dame,” recalls Barbara, adding that Carlotta—who died of heart failure in 1970—was partial to men. She told friends falsely that Barbara wrote the first half of the book, about O’Neill’s previous two wives, and that Arthur wrote about O’Neill’s life after the playwright married Carlotta.
Now, a quarter-century later and having produced three non-O’Neill books, Barbara has returned to Carlotta. Dewhurst asked Gelb to write the play as “an annuity,” a solo vehicle that the actress could tour with at college campuses. Gelb delivered something more. “Barbara gave Carlotta, who has always been known as a bitch, a life with another side to her,” says Dewhurst, explaining that audiences now realize Carlotta’s strong influence on O’Neill and his characters.
It’s quite understandable that Gelb should have a true feeling for theatrical life. Barbara’s mother, Elza, was the younger sister of violinist Jascha Heifetz, and her stepfather, S.N. Behrman, was a celebrated playwright. Stage heavyweights such as the Lunts and Laurence Olivier were regular callers at the Behrmans’ Park Avenue flat. (Gelb’s natural father was Harold Stone, “the youngest millionaire in the country before the crash.”) After a year at Swarthmore, Barbara dropped out and in 1944 became a copygirl (“We called them copygirls, not persons”) at the New York Times, where she met Arthur, then a lowly news clerk.
Her first gift to him was a set of O’Neill’s collected plays and, according to Arthur, “our first really expensive date” was the Broadway production of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh in 1946. They were married the same year; shortly before, Barbara left the paper and began free-lance writing. “Barbara was really a better writer than I was,” says Arthur, now 63, “but [World War II] veterans were returning, and the women were gently asked to move on.” As Arthur has risen at the paper, Barbara has become inured to complaints that her lengthy feature articles on O’Neill and other literary and entertainment figures run in the Times because she is the boss’s wife. “I was writing articles for the Times a long time before my husband became an editor there,” she says confidently. As to whether Arthur ever assigns or edits her stories, she says, “No, never.”
Today the Gelbs live in a large Upper West Side apartment and have a second home on Long Island. They are in close touch with their sons, Michael, 35, a building contractor in Worcester, Mass., and Peter, 33, an executive at a musicians management firm in New York. The couple socialize primarily with other journalists and writers, and Barbara is known in their crowd as an astute critic. Says Joseph (Catch-22) Heller: “She doesn’t mince words.”
The critics didn’t mince words either about My Gene. Too many facts, they carped, not enough drama. Gelb, who cut 50 pages of factual material during rehearsals, will not read the notices. She does, however, provide her own. “I’m not saying I’m a playwright yet,” she says, “but I do understand what it’s about now.” Her playwright friend Jean (Mary, Mary) Kerr, whose husband Walter was for many years the Times drama critic, argues that Arthur’s perceived domination of cultural coverage at the Times negatively affected the critics’ views. “I feel she suffers from the syndrome I’ve suffered from,” says Kerr. “If he’s so damn smart, why isn’t she Shakespeare?”