Stalking Seán O’Casey


Notes from a Biographer

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Irish playwright Seán O’Casey’s death. Sam Stephenson tracks his appearances in W. Eugene Smith’s archive.


The original tape box for the reel containing the Red Valens phone call. On same reel, photographer Daniel Kramer is recorded in Smith’s loft discussing his photographs of Bob Dylan intended for Sensorium. Smith met Kramer in June 1965 when both were photographing Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited studio sessions. A Long John Nebel radio show is also recorded. The handwriting is an assistant’s, not Smith’s. Images courtesy of Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona.

On August 15, 1965, W. Eugene Smith was up late, as usual, in his dingy fourth-floor loft in the wholesale flower district, a neighborhood desolate after dark. He was working on the first issue of Sensorium, his new “magazine of photography and other arts of communication,” a hopeful platform free of commercial expectations and pressures. He was editing a submission by the writer E.G. “Red” Valens, whom he had met in 1945 when both were war correspondents in the Pacific. Despite the late hour, Smith decided to give his old friend a call.

Valens’s wife answered the phone just before the fifth ring. She’d been asleep. She gave the phone to her husband. He’d been asleep, too.

“Good morning,” said a groggy Valens.

“You don’t stay up as late as you used to,” joked Smith.

He then apologized for calling so late. Valens wasn’t irritated. He even resisted Smith’s offer to call back at a more reasonable hour.

Thirty-six minutes and nineteen seconds later, the pair said good-bye and hung up. We know this because Smith taped the phone call. When he died in 1978, this clip was among 4,500 hours of recordings he made from roughly 1957 to 1966.

After the discussion of Valens’s article concluded, the conversation turned to the habit of taking notes while reading. Smith said he couldn’t read one page of Henry Miller without taking three pages of dissenting notes. Valens said he could rank his library based on the number of notes he’d jotted in the margins of each book—the more notes, the more favor. Smith responded by expressing adulation for an Irish writer who had passed away the previous year:

That seeing, thoughtful soul Seán O’Casey causes me to be … when I run out of imagination or I’m just dead against a wall—I can’t function, I can’t think right, I have no probe, if I read O’Casey for a little while … I’m usually back to seeing and searching, and things start pouring out. Very few writers can do that to me. Faulkner can do it to some extent. O’Casey is my old standby. I always include a copy of O’Casey when I go somewhere on a story.

Valens then said, “That’s worth a short article next time you run out of ideas for an issue [of Sensorium]—‘O’Casey: The Traveling Man’s Boon.’ ”

Smith chuckled.

Valens then said, “No, I’m serious.”

Three weeks later, Smith’s financing for Sensorium fell through and another grand ambition was left unfinished. A more specific explanation of O’Casey’s impact on Smith’s photography never emerged, either.

*  *  *

In a letter to two editors at Holiday magazine in 1957, while pitching a layout of his extended work-in-progress on the city of Pittsburgh, Smith described the intended opus as “Tennessee O’Neill or Wolfe O’Casey.” The four names refer to three playwrights and a novelist, Thomas Wolfe, who also wrote several one-act plays. Throughout his life, Smith referred to literature and theater (and to music) as the most important influences on his photography, but he rarely provided references to specific works. His professed indebtedness bears a tinge of grandiosity and reveals, too, a general feeling of inferiority within the field of photography at that time.

Smith’s obsession with theater registered in other ways, too. Among them, his first daughter, Marissa, was named for a dancer he met while photographing a Broadway show in 1939. In much of his classic Life magazine work, especially 1948’s “Country Doctor,” his pictures resemble theater stills. He photographed the preparations and openings for original productions, such as Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, and he produced two major photo spreads on obscure theater subjects for Life. When he began making voluminous photographs out his fourth-floor window in the late fifties, he called the frame his “proscenium arch.”

Smith spoke of his photography assignments as “stories,” as he did in the phone call with Valens. He would have been closer to the truth if he’d said, I always include a copy of O’Casey when I go somewhere on a poem. He never recognized or reconciled the difference between story and poem, or journalism and art, and the tension troubled him unconsciously.

Photojournalism—reporting from a field unseen by an audience—carried a legitimacy that was important to Smith. His father had been a business leader in Wichita, Kansas, and his mother a devout, converted Catholic; the expectations for young Gene were conventional. By age fourteen, he was working on assignments for local papers. When he was sixteen, he painted W. EUGENE SMITH, PHOTOGRAPHER on the side of his mother’s station wagon, signaling his desire to venture out for stories and be known for it. He retained the label of journalist for the rest of his life, long after his work had outstripped that field’s boundaries. In the margins of a book of writing by the sculptor Rodin, beside a passage about truth in art, Smith jotted, “This is the epitome of journalism.”

I recently came across a 1982 talk called “Impossible Stories” by the filmmaker Wim Wenders, in which he says, “In the relationship between story and image, I see the story as a kind of vampire trying to suck all the blood from an image. Images are acutely sensitive; like snails they shrink back when you touch their horns. They don’t have it in them to be the cart horses, carrying and transporting messages or significance or intention or a moral. But that’s precisely what a story wants from them.”

Wenders’s concern for the image helped me articulate my evolving feelings about Smith over the nearly eighteen years I have been studying his life and work. Smith resigned from Life magazine in early 1955, giving up a large salary and expense account. In doing so, he also gave up journalism once and for all. On his first freelance assignment in Pittsburgh, he befriended the young avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, whose silent films and beliefs that language numbed the senses impressed Smith. His work moved further beyond journalism than ever, further beyond story, toward image and poetry. But he couldn’t shake the need for story in his public presentation. As a result, he strangled his extraordinary, lyrical Pittsburgh images by jamming them together on the page and inserting overwrought text. In one section comparing the most exclusive private club in Pittsburgh to a union beer joint, he added these words: “Yet at the core, down at the coiling depths of pulse and instinct, what difference here except in furnishing?”

I want to shake Smith. Hey, man, just let the images breathe. The image is enough.

*  *  *

I must admit that Wenders’s quote also gave me pause in my role as Smith’s biographer. I can see myself working to piece together a story from the detritus of his life—archives and memories and sometimes bread crumbs it feels he left behind on purpose. Too much effort to make a story from these fragments can suck the blood out of them.

When Smith’s archive was bequeathed to the University of Arizona, his library contained 3,750 books. Among them were two collections of Seán O’Casey’s plays, five of the six volumes of his autobiography, one essay collection, and two individual plays, Cock-a-Doodle Dandy and Red Roses for Me.

(Smith also owned about 25,000 vinyl records, including much of the spoken-word catalog of Caedmon Records, which means that it can reasonably be assumed that he owned that label’s 1952 recording of O’Casey reading selections from Juno and the Paycock and from two of the autobiographies).

Who knows how many O’Casey volumes Smith lost or gave away? A few jazz musicians who frequented Smith’s loft in the late fifties and early sixties were known to use his bookshelves like a lending library, with many books no doubt long overdue. Others would steal his things and hock them while Smith looked the other way.

A twenty-second comment by Smith about Seán O’Casey, in a dubiously recorded, nocturnal phone call in August 1965, led me down a rabbit hole. There are other references to O’Casey in the Smith annals, but none this alluring to me, the sympathy and patience for Smith demonstrated by Valens and his wife being the first thing, leading to the brief O’Casey monologue.

I now know a lot about O’Casey. I’ve read much of his work and I’ve reached out to O’Casey experts, such as James Moran, a professor of drama at the University of Nottingham and the author of a terrific study, The Theater of Seán O’Casey. There are ways to connect dots between Smith’s aesthetic impulses and O’Casey’s.

According to Smith’s first biographer, Jim Hughes, Smith had an affair with a young actress who read O’Casey aloud to him in 1949. Six of the books by O’Casey that Smith owned were published between 1944 and 1949, and thus would have been available during the affair. O’Casey had died less than a year before the 1965 taped phone call with Valens and the New York Times ran a three thousand-word obituary. There was even a Hollywood movie—Young Cassidy, from MGM—based on O’Casey’s autobiography that had been released earlier in 1965. The playwright reverberated in the culture then far more than he does today.

But what if Smith was more or less bullshitting about O’Casey? Slightly eager to grandstand in the lonely, sad-hour phone call? Knowing his tape was rolling, having enough ego to believe that a researcher would one day be listening?

Sam Stephenson is a writer and a partner in Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials, a documentary enterprise based in Durham, North Carolina. He is the author of The Jazz Loft Project and is at work on a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.