On April 15, 1966, Celia Francis wrote to Louis Sheaffer, then writing a biography of the American playwright Eugene O’Neill, to set the record straight. “My father was half Portuguese, his father was Portuguese but his mother was Irish. That could have had some bearing on his original interest in O’Neill. She had left Ireland at 16 for New York, was shipwrecked on the way over, lost all contact with her family, was rescued by a Boston Brig and in that way met my grandfather.” Sheaffer replied: “Thank you for setting me straight about your father’s progenitors—I’ll make the correction. Not only as an Irishman but as one who loved the sea, O’Neill must have been much intrigued by the romantic manner in which your father’s parents met.”
Celia Francis kept a scrapbook of clippings, most of them memorializing her half-Portuguese father, John Francis, who died in 1937 at the age of sixty-four. One such obituary was sent to O’Neill by his friend the drama critic George Jean Nathan, the playwright replied: “I feel a genuine sorrow. He was a fine person—and a unique character. I am glad the article speaks of him as my friend. He was all of that, and I know he knew my gratitude, for I often expressed it.” Celia’s scrapbook also contains a single (loose) clipping about the death of her brother in 1963. It, too, brings up the Francis/O’Neill relationship, reminding its readers that “Mr. Francis’ father was a much appreciated benefactor of artists and writers who were contemporaries of his working here,—notably Eugene O’Neill to whom he was materially helpful and close in friendship.”
John Francis was the son of Joseph Francis, an Azorean emigrant from the island of São Jorge. There is not much known about the father, though in Ernest L. Meyer’s “Landlord on Parnassus,” we have a romanticized description: “The father of John Francis, a Portuguese who had married an Irish lass, was a fisherman with rings in his ears and full of tales of risks and rewards of the Grand Banks.” The son, a person of good will and many good offices, showed little interest in fishing but he did take to running the country story he inherited from his father. The Young Francis’s trade was business—store-keeper, landlord, realtor, insurance broker—but he was, perhaps above all, a benefactor, especially to eager young writers and cash-free artists. O’Neill called him, according to O/Neill’s biographers, critics, and acquaintances, a “fine person, a unique character,” “guileless,” “dogged and patient,” “beloved,” “benevolent and Buddha-like, simple and kind,” “rotund” and “tender-hearted,” “eccentric,” “avuncular,” “paternal,” “liberal-hearted,” “large round-faced” with “calm eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses,” “an ombudsman,” and “an almost saintly man.” For decades he was the friend and benefactor of Provincetown artists and writers, staking them to credit at his store and rooms and houses at low-rent, and when they were away—in Connecticut (Eugene and Agnes O’Neill) or Greece (“Jig” Cook and Susan Glaspell)—he watched over their local property, paying taxes and providing insurance coverage.
When in 1916 Eugene O’Neill walked down the gangplank of the Dorothy Bradford in the company of his friend, the free-spirited, free-thinking Terry Carlin, he was not the first of those artists and writers who would become beneficiaries of Francis’s good will and “material” support. Nor were all those others as needy as O’Neill. But some of those knew a good thing when they saw it. Mabel Dodge was one of them. Her dealings with Francis in 1914-15 involved both the make-over of the Peaked Hill Bars Life-Saving Station, work that would turn the place into what O’Neill, in a letter to Barrett Clark, would call his “chateau on the Atlantic” and—a more mundane task—finding Mabel a house to live in until the work across the dunes was finished to her satisfaction.
In Movers and Shakers, a memoir, Mabel Dodge Luhan tells the story of Sam Lewisohn, one of “those very wealthy people,” who are “often scrupulously generous, thoughtfully so,” and his decision to buy the Peaked Hills Bar Station and “share the place” with her, “turn and turn about.” Her part of her bargain was to “do it up for him exactly” as, of course, she “had intended to do” it all along. “I was always proud of the way I did that job at a distance,” she recalled. “I thought out the whole thing, every detail of it, ordered it, and got it executed by letter.” And then added: “I am so glad I saved the fascinating correspondence with John Francis, who kept the principal store in Provincetown and who carried out my orders! They form part of the long volumes of letters I have saved to while away the hours when I am too old to do more than remember!”
In all there are ten letters from Francis among Mabel’s papers at Yale University Library. The first letter, dated October 15, 1914, refers to Mabel’s desire to acquire the Peaked Hills Bars Life-Saving Station and, should the effort fail, her need for a seasonal rental in 1915. “Will say that the house you wrote me about is small and a widow lady lives up stairs it has no indoor toilet has the old fashioned out door kind and I do not think you would like that.” This is a typical Francis sentence, with its lack of punctuation until a thought and everything pertaining to it is set down.
In his next letter, three weeks later, he writes to say that the Coast Guard has not yet decided what to do with the Station. He offers to sell her one of his own houses. “This is no run down shack out of repair or one fixed up to sell,” runs the pitch, “it is a first class property.” Six days later he offers her other choice properties, including one located “opposite the property owned by Lombard the Millionaire.” Another six weeks elapse before he reports that “proposals for bids” on the Station are now open. “Think over what you want me to render in for a bid,” he tells her, “and be prepared to send check if you get it.” He closes with one last detail: “I think your letter of authority to bid on same should have 25 cents of Government stamps on it you had better consult some one about that to be sure.” Francis’s next letter, dated January 22, 1915, takes up two matters: Mabel’s renting a cottage from a Mr. Rogers, and advice regarding what Mabel might do to protect her rights to the land on which the Station stands. The Coast Guard does not own it.
Another of Mabel’s requests is to find her a horse.
I talked with a man in the next town who has eleven horses and he says that he has a good stout horse but old that is working every day that is of a moderate turn but good puller and worker that he would be willing to surrender the middle of June or the first of July to any one that wont abuse him for $40. on the following condition that when you get through with him you have him shot he does not want him knocked around by different people you can get him put out of the way in the fall for a couple of dollars this would make it pretty cheap as forty is no price to pay for an animal any one that handles horses will tell you that.