I’d said a fond farewell to Rouen, and on a hot, sunny afternoon, I arrived in Paris, where I would be staying for a week.
Almost a quarter of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay takes place in Paris, and there was a lot to cover. During their stay here (for what I figured was about two months), Cornelia and Emily took summer classes at the Sorbonne, and worked on their French. In addition, Cornelia was taking acting classes with one of the leading men of the French theatre of the day, Emile Dehelly. The girls often attended French plays and, probably in part due to Otis and Maud Skinner (Cornelia’s famous actor parents), being in Paris as well, Cornelia and Emily mingled with the theatre crowd, including stars from the Comedie Francaise.
I didn’t know how to recreate the girls’ summer in Paris, nor did I feel compelled to create any big experiences for myself. But then it was not my first time visiting The City of Lights.
From a spur-of-the-moment weekend away with a boyfriend, to a month-long stay in the Latin Quarter, I had built up a good stockpile of memories from various visits over the last thirty years. This time around, though, I would simply be a tourist, taking in nothing more than a passing glance at this monument or that site, as I made rapid-fire stops at a long checklist of places which had meant something to the girls.
I decided to start at the heart of the city: Notre Dame Cathedral. Even late in the afternoon, there was a massive line to get into the Cathedral. Thankfully, Cornelia’s and Emily’s only mention of Notre Dame was in regards to visiting the rose window, which could be done from the outside. It may have been a cheat, but I figured it counted. Done and checked off the list.
From there I went over to the Right Bank and walked along the Rue de Rivoli and past the Louvre, being wildly grateful that Cornelia and Emily hadn’t mentioned actually going inside that behemoth of a museum. And then it was on through the enchanting Tuileries Gardens, to the Place de la Concorde, where Cornelia and Emily had passed through on their first day in Paris.
Check. Check. Check.
I was definitely short-changing a large part of the girls’ journey, but it wouldn’t have mattered how long I stayed in Paris – I simply couldn’t follow in their footsteps here. Still, I did my best. I was able to power through most of the Paris checklist, hitting all of the “biggies” – the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Elysees, the Eiffel Tower. But it was those moments and places which were more personal to Cornelia and Emily that brought our two journeys together, and became my memories of our trip to Paris.
Like at the Café de la Paix, next to the opera house. Otis Skinner had taken refuge here from the girls as they obsessed over an upcoming date with their handsome young doctors. I spent a lovely afternoon here sipping an aperitif, people watching and enjoying one-on-one time with Otis’ memory.
And then there was the morning when I stopped in at The Ritz. I was in search of the restaurant where Cornelia and Emily had brought their new dogs along to lunch.
Ah, the dogs, Lili and Gamin. Brussels Griffons (think Verdell, the fluffball in the film “As Good As It Gets”). Cornelia and Emily had seen some in London, and had searched for weeks until they found a couple to adopt for their very own. The pups went everywhere with the girls, and were always greatly fussed over. This emboldened Cornelia and Emily to have lunch one day at The Ritz. Needless to say, things didn’t go quite as planned.
The Ritz has multiple dining options, but in speaking with the staff, who were all very kind – even interested – in my story, we determined that the girls must have eaten where the restaurant L’Espadon is currently located. It is sumptuous and elegant, with the stately atmosphere of a restaurant that has a long, rich history.
Dressed in their finest daywear and wielding Lili and Gamin, the girls were immediately greeted by the major domo, who gushed over the pups and placed the foursome at one of the best tables, seating them in chairs of pale rose brocade. Lili and Gamin sat in their own chairs, dining on chopped filet mignon, as Cornelia and Emily “ate under the rapt scrutiny of every other occupant of the dining room.” The girls felt a bit too embarrassed to eat much, but it was still a lovely lunch… until it was time to leave, and Cornelia picked up Lili from her chair.
“I hadn’t lifted her five inches before I hastily dropped her back again, for there in the center of the pale rose brocade, was a small, round puddle… [and underneath Gamin, Emily discovered] the twin of Lili’s puddle. We sat there, silent and horrified, not knowing what to do. We lingered endlessly over our coffee, hoping that maybe, as Emily optimistically suggested, it might just dry up.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough
But it didn’t. Eventually the girls paid their bill and, casually dropping their napkins over the wet spots as they picked up the dogs, “… managed to make a fairly dignified exit as far as the hall, but from there we scooted like rabbits across the lobby and out the main door.”
I had come at an off hour, but even though L’Espadon wasn’t open, the staff let me go in and take pictures. If just the look and location of the restaurant wasn’t enough to convince me I had the right place, the dining room was filled with rose brocade chairs! Of course, it couldn’t possibly the exact same fabric that had been on the chairs 95 years ago. But no question these chairs looked like the ones which Cornelia’s and Emily’s dogs soiled that day. I was thoroughly delighted.
Having no dog of my own to take for lunch at The Ritz, I opted instead to dine at Angelina. Famous for their works-of-art pastries, Angelina had been known as Rumpelmeyer’s in Cornelia’s and Emily’s day, and it is here that Emily met up with her school friend, Agatha Clarke, for afternoon tea. During my week in Paris, I indulged in Angelina twice: Once for lunch, where I discovered that even the sandwiches are pretty – mine resembled a bouquet. And then once for afternoon tea, or, in my case, afternoon hot chocolate, probably the best I’ve ever had. This I paired with Angelina’s signature pastry since 1903, the Mont Blanc, a jumbo-sized confection made of meringue, whipped cream and chestnut cream “vermicelli”. It’s a wonder I didn’t collapse right there from sugar shock.
On another day, I paid a visit to the pension where Cornelia and Emily had stayed, a one-time mansion belonging to one of Napoleon’s most loyal friends, a gift from the emperor himself. It was here that the girls learned to tango in the parlor, and where Cornelia was bitten by bedbugs the night before the girls’ big date with Drs. White and Aub. The infamous 18th century bed Cornelia slept in is long since gone, and happily these days, the hotel is known for its exquisite garden instead.
I would later learn from Emily’s writings that while the girls were living here, that once a week, they would go out with the same taxi driver, telling him to drive in any direction, ten francs worth, and then they would walk home. Each time he would drop them at a different location. This seems like a wonderful way to explore Paris, or anyplace, and the girls’ intrepid spirit during their stay here at the pension added to my fondness for the place.
It also reminded me of how important it is, when one is traveling, to really be in a place. Otherwise, there’s no point in making the journey at all.
As if my days of playing frantic tourist hadn’t been enough to remind me of this already…
As for Cornelia’s and Emily’s date with their beaus, they and I meet up again with Dr. White and Dr. Aub, as we all pay a visit to the Palace of Versailles, in my next post.
Top row: The Cafe de la Paix and the Opera national de Paris; lunch at The Ritz; Gomez, as good as a Griff can get.
Middle row: Reminscent of the Harmonia Gardens from “Hello, Dolly”, the iconic Angelina tea house; what you get when you order a sandwich at Angelina; scrumptious, stylish, intensely-caloric and totally worth it, Angelina’s afternoon snacks.
Bottom row: The converted mansion where Cornelia and Emily stayed, now the Regent’s Garden Hotel; the parlor where the girls learned the scandalous new dance called the tango; the hotel garden, one of the most beautiful in all of Paris.