Thirty miles east of San Francisco, the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site pays tribute to a truly unique individual: the first American playwright to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the winner of four Pulitzer Prizes. The heart of the property, the Tao House, is remarkable, too, since it was the famously vagabond playwright’s one true home over his 65-year-long life.
Eugene O’Neill was born in a New York City hotel room in 1888, and spent most of his early childhood in more hotel rooms—on tour with his father, a theater actor—along with boarding schools. As an adult, O’Neill flitted from place to place and by early 1937 he had married Carlotta Monterey, setting up housekeeping in yet another hotel room. That same year, though, she convinced him to find a longer-lasting residence—in Danville, California.
At Tao House (pronounced dow), O’Neill seemed to have finally found peace, residing on its 14-acre property until 1944 and completing his last six plays, including Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh. The estate’s name speaks of the Chinese Taoism religion, a yin-yang philosophy that seeks to achieve harmony in life through practices like meditation and feng shui.
Today, the home reflects the eclectic spirit of O’Neill’s life: white adobe and red tile Spanish Colonial on the outside, Chinese-style red and black decor inside, with covered windows and darkened mirrors to protect Carlotta’s sensitive eyes from light.
It’s easy to spend as much as two hours on the grounds on a docent-led or self-guided tour. Explore the path-lined gardens, black-walnut and almond orchards, hillside hiking trails overlooking San Ramon Valley, and O’Neill’s favorite workday diversion, the cliffside swimming pool.
Be sure to seek out the grave marker for Silverdene “Blemie” Emblem O’Neill, the family’s beloved Dalmatian, for whom the playwright crafted a magnificent “last will and testament.” In his words of farewell, Blemie (via O’Neill) wrote, “No matter how deep my sleep I shall hear you, and not all the power of death can keep my spirit from wagging a grateful tail.”
Writers seeking some of O’Neill’s magic should check the site’s calendar: the Tao Foundation hosts free literary and art programs at the home throughout the year, and the Eugene O’Neill Festival happens in September.