The Queen Mary 2 leaving the dock in Southampton.
The story of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay is all about the magical, crazy, eye-opening, summer that forever changed the lives of Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough. And yet it came very close to not even happening at all. The girls’ journey almost ended before it began, right here in the ancient port town of Southampton.
When the Empress of France docked here on June 21st, 1922, Emily and Cornelia were in a real bind. By the time they reached the English shore, Cornelia was extremely ill with the measles, and the tell-tale spots were starting to form on her skin. This was a very precarious situation for her, because, in 1922, if the health inspectors got wind of her illness, they would have had her quarantined and sent to a German hospital/camp, where – Cornelia feared – she would “be nursed by a Valkyrie”.
Luckily for Cornelia and Emily, a couple of the conquests they made on the crossing from Canada to England just happened to be those dashing young doctors, Paul Dudley White and Joe Aub. Risking their budding careers, Paul and Joe pledged to keep the girls’ secret, and had even managed to score some meds from the ship’s doctor without raising suspicion (can you imagine passengers being able to do that with the shipboard medical staff these days?). Those had helped keep Cornelia’s illness in check, but they couldn’t conceal the truth much longer.
Joe had gotten off the ship in Cherbourg, France, but Paul stayed with the girls and helped Emily slip Cornelia through customs, immigration and the dreaded health inspection, then into the care of Cornelia’s parents, who had come to the dock to meet the girls’ ship. From there, according to the book, Otis and Maud Skinner, along with Emily and Paul, took Cornelia to a hotel a few blocks away, where they stayed for ten days while Cornelia went through her illness and recovery.
As a nod to their experience, when I arrived in England on the QM2 back to start my own journey with the girls, I had stayed in Southampton for a night before heading on to London. I figured it would give me a chance to explore this historically significant port, and also try to retrace the path of my 1922 traveling companions.
I had already booked a room at the White Star Tavern, which was right in the heart of Old Town, close to the piers. This was a new experience for me, as I had never had the opportunity before to stay in a pub.
It had been a surprise to me how few of these pubs-with-lodgings still existed in the UK. I thought those charming old tavern inns like the one at the beginning of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” were to be found everywhere. It’s a true shame that they aren’t.
After getting settled in at the White Star, I went for a walk around town. My first stop was South Western House, a beautiful 1897 building that now housed condos, but had been the hotel where the Skinners and Emily had stayed in 1922.
The girls had given a specific enough description that, even with the passage of 95 years, I could work out that I had the right place.
“The hotel was one of those British terminal ones, part caravansary, part ticket office, right on the tracks, the sort that gives the impression of having engines running in and out of the potted palms.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough
Some internet searching for the place they described had turned up the South Western House (formerly “Hotel”), a six story turn-of-the-century building adorned with white stone Victorian flourishes that resembled frosting on a cake. It was a hotel through the first half of the twentieth century, playing host to celebrities and royalty, including Queen Elizabeth. The hotel is also famous for welcoming many of the first class passengers – including Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line – on the night before the Titanic sailed from Southampton.
During the Second World War, the hotel was requisitioned by the military due to its close proximity to the docks and was used as the Headquarters for Combined Operations during the planning for D-Day, which was launched from this port. According to legend, a lot of the plans that went in to effect on the 6th of June 1944 were formed in this building, with Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower allegedly meeting here at least once to discuss important invasion matters.
Once again, another piece of the girls’ story is tied to World War II.
On the far side of the building, the railroad tracks which once carried those “boat trains” filled with passengers, were still set in the ground, though a bit unkempt from lack of use (the main railway station for Southampton is now located about a mile away). Cornelia and Emily had been right about just how startlingly close the hotel was to the tracks.
I circled back to the front of the building and stepped into the South Western Café. Though it was clear that things had been altered in the decades between when the girls were here and my visit now, one could still make out the remnants of an elegant showpiece of a restaurant dining room. On the walls, there were enlargements of vintage photos of the building, some circa 1920s, and I studied them all with delight as I explained to the woman working at the host desk about my project. At this, she stepped over and unlocked some nearby doors, inviting me to go through into what had been the lobby of the hotel. Needless to say, I was delighted.
Its furnishings were sparse, but what was now a foyer for the residents of South Western House, had retained the sumptuous marble paneled walls and columns, and high, elaborately carved ceiling mouldings worthy of a grand hotel. I was able to picture a front desk where Otis had checked into their rooms, and a seating area flanked by potted palms where, over a cup of tea, Maud had beguiled and staved off the Empress of France’s doctor, who had come to check out rumors of a sick Cornelia. I could even imagine Cornelia, in her hat with the red cock feather and big white veil, being whisked through the lobby to the very elevators I was standing in front of.
This had been unexpected, and I was thrilled to have gotten a glimpse at the lobby. I was very glad on that day in June that I was starting my travels abroad in Cornelia’s and Emily’s footsteps.
Leaving the South Western Hotel/House, I turned back the other direction and followed along the perimeter of the Roman wall through the oldest part of the city. A lot of it had been bombed in World War II and rebuilt, but the city was still rich with beautiful architecture from the Tudor period through the Edwardian. Set within the paving stones of the sidewalks were brass placards inscribed with bits of Southampton’s history. While the main tourist draw in Southampton seemed to be the Titanic connection, I was far more intrigued and moved by the placards noting that the Mayflower pilgrims had sailed from here, and how it was from here that many thousands of the D-Day invasion troops had been deployed.
It was staggering to contemplate how much history had been launched from this port town.
Later in the day, I ambled back over to the docks and watched the Queen Mary 2 as she pulled away from the pier, turning into the estuary, heading towards open water. Already sensing even then how quickly this enchanted summer would pass, I had felt a little sad knowing that the next time I saw the QM2, it would mean that my journey was over.
As expected, that next time came way too fast. Now here we were. I had blinked, and suddenly it was August 4th, the day the girls and I would board the Queen Mary 2 and head back to America.
Little could I know then what a grand finale that voyage would turn into.
Top row: The White Star Tavern; South Western House, formerly the South Western Hotel; the lobby seems almost ghostly, but retains its graceful charm.
Bottom row: A placard honors the two million American soldiers who passed through Southampton on their way to the D-Day landings; the Empress of France; the lighter which carried Joe Aub into Cherbourg, as noted by Paul Dudley White in his scrapbook.