Although most of the journey this summer is about following Cornelia’s and Emily’s story, I decided to spend one day searching out the London of Otis Skinner, Cornelia’s father.
Born in 1858, that dashing gentleman in the photo above became one of the finest and most popular actors on the stage for more than a quarter century.
In his early days, Otis was a matinee idol (he had a sort of Clooney-thing going, I think). But it was his talent and range that made Skinner stand out as an actor. He toured with theatre luminaries Augustin Daly, Helene Modjeska and Edwin Booth (yes, brother of John Wilkes Booth, but also considered by some to be America’s greatest actor). By the mid-1890s, Otis had become a full-fledged star, and in 1895 he married his co-star, Maud Durbin. In 1899, their only child, Cornelia was born.
In Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, Otis and Maud make a brief appearance at the beginning of the book, when they are seeing Cornelia onto the train to Montreal. They next appear at the dock in Southampton, eager to greet Cornelia and Emily. Cornelia explains, “They had no idea of cramping Emily’s and my style, but they thought it just as well to be in the same hemisphere as we. They would be in England when we were and we might look them up if that wasn’t too much of a strain on our independence.”
As it turned out, the girls ended up spending quite a bit of time with Cornelia’s parents, even moving from their student lodgings in Tavistock Square to the Skinners’ swanky Hotel Victoria. Emily and Cornelia recount going to dinners and plays with Otis and Maud, and also write, “Father took us on a few tours about town, showing us places he’d known and loved when he’d played there thirty years before with the Daly Company.”
I decided that I would like a day of my own with Otis Skinner, touring about town. I started in the West End. I had already happened upon and snooped around the Hotel Victoria (now the Grand Hotel, at 8, Northumberland Ave), and now I gave it a smile and a nod as I walked up from the Embankment Pier to Leicester Square. My first stop was 3, Cranbourn St, once the site of Daly’s Theatre. Sadly, the beautiful Victorian building is gone, torn down in 1937 by Warner Bros, who put in a movie theatre with a sculpted marble Art Deco façade which is supposed to be nice, but seems a bit dreary to me (and I love Art Deco architecture). Interestingly enough, the place (now known as the “Vue Theatre”) was undergoing renovations when I was there, but I’m sorry to report that nothing was done to improve the façade. Still, it was nice to see where Daly’s had stood, and I could picture a young, carefree, Clooney-esque Otis Skinner being met by adoring females as he left the theatre and stepped into Leicester Square.
Our next stop was the Trocadero restaurant in Shaftesbury Ave. It took me a while to work out that the Trocadero tourist monstrosity in Coventry St was not what I was looking for, which was an overwhelming relief. I had already had to accept that Marks and Co Booksellers of 84, Charing Cross Road was now McDonald’s. I just couldn’t bear the thought that the unbelievably posh Trocadero restaurant had become one of London’s largest, most garish souvenir shops.
The restaurant on Shaftesbury Ave was opened in 1896, having taken over the space formerly occupied by the notorious Argyle Subscription Rooms, a “performance hall” where rich men picked up prostitutes. Hmmm… of course, young Otis certainly wouldn’t have ventured into such a place when he was with the Daly Company. But I wondered if he had reflected on the place’s lurid past while he was standing at the restaurant’s entrance in 1922, waiting for Cornelia and Emily to arrive.
This is one of my favorite passages in the book, involving the purchase by the girls of matching, enormous rabbit fur capes, and them deciding to debut them at dinner with Cornelia’s parents at the very fashionable Trocadero (those Argyle Rooms had come up in the world). The girls pull up in a taxi, buried under their mountains of fur, and see Otis collapsed against the building in tears (tears of laughter, it turns out).
So I was delighted to find that the marble columns at the restaurant entrance were still there, although the grand palace of a restaurant that had been there is virtually gone. It’s now a cinema and coffee house with a cloistered walkway that was somehow carved out from the building. But no matter. I could still picture the girls arriving at this spot, and I could see Otis leaning against the column, supporting himself through his fit of hysterical laughter. It was a joy to almost be there with them for that wonderfully funny moment.
There was one more place I wanted to see, but I hadn’t had exact information to go on, like I had for the first two locations. All I had was this passage from the book:
“[Otis] was especially fond of an old cemetery for actors. It was in a shoddy out-of-the-way district and the ground was unhallowed. Even in death, members of the profession were ostracized, because until well after the Restoration they were legally considered “Rogues and Vagabonds”, not fit to lie with gentle folk. That pleased him highly. It was evident that he felt it a sorry day when players turned respectable.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough
After a lengthy tour around the internet, involving some creative search terms, I managed to narrow it down to one really strong contender: Bunhill Fields in Islington. It was a burial ground from the 1660s to the 1850s, and was where many “Nonconformists” were buried. There are artists, writers, and poets there, including William Blake and Daniel Defoe, and the ground was never consecrated by the church. It was definitely worth checking out, even if I was wrong.
The district wasn’t shoddy, but it was somewhat out of the way, which matched the girls’ description. I spent an hour or so walking along the cobblestone paths, doing my best to make out names on headstones worn down by centuries of rain and wind. There were quite a few visitors to the cemetery that day – or should I say park, as it is now managed as a public garden? One person told me about how a large part of the cemetery had been hit in World War II, and another mentioned that many of the dead were under the cobblestones we were walking on. And another visitor and I pondered whether the unmarked mounds surrounded by low fences were the mass graves of those who died in the 1665 plague.
Even if I was in the wrong cemetery, I was still in a terribly interesting place. But I was pretty certain I’d gotten it right.
All in all, my day with Otis Skinner had been a lovely one, though I felt that I never really got that close to his world. I could only just barely touch it at best. Which is a shame, because I would like to have known Otis Skinner better. It’s the Clooney thing, I suspect.
Below: A young George Clooney and a young Otis Skinner; the Daly Theatre; the Vue Theatre; waiting at the columns of the Trocadero; Bunhill Fields cemetery; screen credit for Otis Skinner from the movie “Kismet”, proclaiming him “America’s foremost romantic actor”.