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Know Where You Stand: In the Footsteps of Heroes

July 14, 2017

Le quatorze juillet, or the 14th of July.  French Independence Day or, as we Americans call it, Bastille Day.  Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, after being blasted out of their beds by celebratory cannon fire, spent their Bastille Day in 1922 on a remote hillside near St. Valery-en-Caux waiting for the big gun to stop firing.  In the evening, they attended a fete along the seaside promenade, where they danced with the locals into the wee hours.  It proved to be one of their favorite memories from their summer abroad – their own “Summer of Independence”.

Ninety-five years later, there was no cannon fire to roust me from my sleep, and there didn’t seem to be any activity in St. Valery to suggest that there was to be a party on the promenade.  So I felt perfectly fine about stepping out of the girls’ footsteps, leaving St. Valery to celebrate without me, and spending my July 14th with the American heroes who gave their lives so that French independence could still be celebrated today.  Offering a brief apology to Cornelia and Emily for pulling them away from their fun, I invited them to come with me, even though where I was going didn’t exist during their travels, or even when they penned the book in 1942.

I would be taking the girls with me to June 6, 1944 – D-Day – and the beaches of the Normandy invasion. 

My first stop:  the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer.  I began my visit with a tour of the museum, which was a moving experience from start to finish, yet there is one thing which stands out in my memory above anything else:  In a display case captioned, “What They Carried With Them”, along with personal items and some tins of rations, there were two copies of Armed Services Editions of books.

In an earlier post, I shared the poignant story of the Armed Services Editions, pocket-sized copies of classics and popular books which were distributed to American troops, and how they contributed greatly to the morale of the soldiers, offering them an escape from the war.  Our Hearts Were Young and Gay was one of the books selected to be sent to the troops and, remarkably, would end up figuring in a story from D-Day.  Recounted by Private Robert Healey, who had taken part in the Normandy invasion, the anecdote involves his return to Omaha Beach the day after D-Day, where he came across a fallen soldier, arm outstretched, and how just a few feet from the soldier’s hand was a copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  That tiny footnote in history is the main reason I wanted Cornelia and Emily with me for this part of my journey.

Spotting the two ASEs in the display case, I didn’t register what the books’ titles were.  Just them being there meant so much to me – they certainly didn’t have to be copies of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. Those books had been important to a couple of the young men who crossed that day.  I just prayed that the books’ owners weren’t beneath any of those headstones outside, but I feared that it was what the books’ presence signified.

Leaving the museum, I found outside that the day couldn’t have been more beautiful – sunshine with a light breeze and an occasional puff of a white cloud drifting across the sky.  But even its loveliness couldn’t ward off the heart-wrenching sadness of the cemetery filled with American soldiers.

Though I had steeled myself and braced for the hit, I wasn’t prepared for the scope of what I was seeing, and I felt as if my breath had been knocked out of my body. 

Containing the graves of over 9,000 soldiers, the cemetery is located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach.  Its gently curving hillside slopes so that you can’t see an end to the headstones which mark the resting places of the soldiers – the crosses and Stars of David seem to go on forever.  A painful forever.

It is worth noting that the grounds of the cemetery are captivatingly beautiful, and immaculate.  A place worthy of honoring these greatest of heroes.  For a time, I walked in and out of the rows upon rows of grave markers, stopping occasionally to read them.  There were boys from every state.  Some had been killed that very first day, June 6, 1944, while others had died days or weeks later from their injuries.

I felt compelled to walk the perimeter of the entire cemetery, around each of the four corners, in order to pay at least a passing visit to every grave.  In the far corner, away from any nearby visitors, I cried for the young men who had died and then remained so far from home.  I cried for their lost potential, and for the pain their families had to bear.

I thanked them for what they had done.  They had fought for the most noble cause in human history.  They stood up against the greatest, most far-reaching evil the world had ever seen, and they saved us.  I told them I was so sorry they had to do it.  And I said a prayer and a blessing for them to rest in peace.

And then I remembered the soldier who had died on Omaha Beach with the copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay next to his hand.  It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment, but I suddenly understood that he was somewhere in the cemetery, under one of the headstones.  Now my visit had become personal, about one young man in particular who had lost his life on June 6, 1944.  I wished that I could have known which headstone was his, and who that young man was.  But, really, he was all of them.

The day was slipping away, and there was still Omaha Beach to visit.  I only wished that I had allowed more time, and could have visited everything there was to see in this area teeming with history.  I would just have to come back again.  I was glad to have that on my to-do list.

It was a short drive from the cemetery to the beach, and soon I was making the turn onto the “Rue de la 1st Division”.  When I arrived, there were still loads of people out enjoying a day at the seaside, in the water and relaxing on the beach.  I parked at the top of a hill near the memorial to the 1st Division, and then walked down to the obelisk honoring those heroes.  Stopping there, I said a prayer of thanks to those young men who truly, literally, stared into the guns, unflinching and unrelenting.  Near their memorial stand remains of Nazi bunkers, where German soldiers mowed down those Americans as they tried, and eventually managed, to advance.  Seeing those bunkers got my blood up, and I spit on one of them on my way down the hill to the beach.

As I took my last steps down the slope and started towards the water, I met up with a golden retriever who was wandering around some old bit of bunker sticking out of the sand.  I stopped and petted the sweet fellow, then walked a few feet on, where I waded into a shallow pool made by the low tide.

Looking out at the Channel, it didn’t take much effort to see the landing crafts, and the soldiers coming towards shore.  I could feel them around me, running past me in the sand, and almost hear their voices and the noise of the guns, almost smell the smoke. They are still there.  Those brave young men invested too much of their souls into this place to just dissolve into the past.  I asked myself, what must the soldiers think of all these people here now, who are so carefree and unaware of their enduring presence on this sacred ground?

But then it occurred to me that perhaps – just maybe – this is the best way to heal the wounds of the past.  We move forward in joy, in peace, and in hope, filling the beaches of D-Day with laughter again.  Picnics, flying kites, playing in the water, soaking up the sunshine.  Hopefully it brings those soldiers some comfort.  It is what they would have wanted for themselves and their families.  Perhaps in its way, it is a tribute to the soldiers’ sacrifice.

After a while, I turned and looked back across the beach to the hillside, deliberately choosing to keep myself in the present moment.  I couldn’t bring myself to envision the young men attempting to cross the beach, some of them losing their lives, with the smoke and gunfire all around.

That young man with the copy of Cornelia’s and Emily’s book had fallen somewhere here in the sand where I now stood.

Fighting to remain in July 14, 2017, I focused on the families enjoying the beach, happy and relaxed, basking in the beautiful day.  And I watched delightedly as my golden retriever buddy made the rounds, saying hello to everyone he encountered.

Before I left, I wrote “Thank you” in the sand.  I wanted to make sure that the soldiers knew, even by my one little gesture, that they were remembered.  And with that, I put on my shoes and climbed back up to the memorial, taking the same hill those brave young men had taken.  It was my very humble way of honoring their courageous efforts and their fight.

Though my experience on this day was a world apart from Cornelia’s and Emily’s July 14th, my Bastille Day had proved to be one of my favorite memories from the entire journey.  Just like their Bastille Day had been for the girls.  Funny how it all comes around to that marvelous, strange synergy.

And I was glad I had asked Cornelia and Emily to come along with me.  Though their travels and their book pre-date this watershed moment in history, they are tied to this place by the soldiers who read, and were hopefully cheered by, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  Still, on this day, my focus wasn’t on the girls or their book, and I didn’t follow in their footsteps.

Instead, I walked in the footsteps of heroes.

 

Photos:

Above:  The grave of a “A Comrade in Arms known but to God”.

Below:

Top Row:  Along with their cigarettes and rations, soldiers carried ASEs to D-Day; fresh flowers of remembrance for a soldier on the seventy-third anniversary of his death.

Bottom Row:  A bright and beautiful boy enjoying the day; looking across what must’ve seemed like miles of open terrain.

The title for this post comes from photographer Seth Taras’ iconic ad campaign for The History Channel, “Know Where You Stand” (below is one of his images from Omaha Beach, otherwise known as Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer)

People Places Things

A Fishing Village With a Great Divide

July 13, 2017

Twenty miles west of Dieppe along France’s Normandy coastline is the town of St. Valery-en-Caux.  It is in this picturesque village that Cornelia and Emily spent numerous days honing their French skills, and filling their afternoons with bike rides through the countryside and swims in the sea.

It was with a lot of affection that they wrote of St. Valery and its people.  From their stay in Madame Corue’s charming and homey pension to their adventures with Therese, the daughter of the local wine merchant, it’s clear that Cornelia’s and Emily’s time here was one of the best parts of their entire summer.  Which made me eager for my own visit to the town, to see how much I could step into their world and share their memories.

I arrived in St. Valery-en-Caux on a cool, gloomy, drizzly day, but the weather couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm.  So after getting settled into my hotel in the Place du Marche (the market square), I hurried out to go exploring.

Cornelia and Emily don’t mention in the book specifically how long they stayed in St. Valery, but it was probably at least two to three weeks.  They wrote extensively about their time here, providing detailed descriptions of the town, so there was a lot for me to look for.  And I had given myself just three days to cover it all.

I began with a stroll around the bassin, or “inner harbor”.  Right in the thick of it all, the Henry IV house was there, exactly as Cornelia and Emily described.

“There was a 16th Century gem with leaded casements and ornately carved beams known as the Henri IV House, no one knew why, but it was a popular belief, or hope, rather, that the amorous monarch spent a night of love there.”

And then it was back around to the other side of the bassin for a stroll along the promenade, where the girls most likely went in for their swims.  I crossed my fingers that the weather would improve enough for me to swim at least once while I was in St. Valery.  It was a biggie on my checklist, but I would need a sunny day for it.  But it wasn’t looking good.

The next day was a repeat of my first – cold, gloomy, blustery, with the added attraction of choppy seas.  So I opted to climb up one of the hills to get pictures of paths that the girls had talked about:

“Rising on either side of St. Valery were great chalk cliffs, twins of the Dover ones… along the edge of these cliffs went winding paths, worn by the generations of lonely women who, of an evening, after their work was finished, would pace the high promontories, sometimes knitting a sock or crocheting a bit of lace, their eyes searching the horizon for the sight of a home-coming sail.”

The day before, I had noticed a set of stairs cut into one of the hillsides flanking the town, and now I set off to climb them.  Taking a different route through town to the stairs, I came upon something I hadn’t seen, or noticed, on my first day’s outing.

There, cut into the white cliff that the girls had written of, were the remains of a Nazi bunker. 

It was an ugly, concrete rectangular box, which would have served as a great vantage point for scouting and for firing weapons.  Suddenly I felt very much on my own.  The girls weren’t with me now.  Cornelia and Emily wouldn’t have ever laid eyes this atrocity.

It was in this moment that I first began to understand, and what would be made painfully clear in the days which followed, that the idyllic village which the girls had visited was not the place I was seeing today.

I felt as if a defining line had been drawn between their experience and mine:  the line of World War II.  And as the days went on, in spite of the nice moments I would have, and the charms which St. Valery offers today, that line would seem to widen into a chasm.

A bit unnerved, I made my way up the hill, stopping at the point along the steps which sat directly over that hideous bunker.  I was standing where Nazis had once stood.  It had happened before, in my past travels through Europe.  I knew that for a fact.  But this was the first time that it felt so personal.  The sensation of time and space blurring was not a welcome one now.  I took a few photos from that spot, but didn’t remain there long.

I made my way up to the top of the cliff, and found a winding dirt path that ran along its edge – well-worn as if it had been tread by those fishermen’s wives that the girls had written of.  Cornelia’s and Emily’s world did exist in this place.  At least some of it did.  I was just happy that this one lovely, poignant detail from the book was still intact.

Whatever miscalculations I might have made with Cornelia’s and Emily’s journey timeline, I was in no doubt that by Thursday, July 13th, they were in St. Valery.  As if to reward me for my efforts in bringing the girls back here exactly 95 years later, the heavens offered up a sunny day, just warm enough to go swimming.

I walked along the sea wall to where steps lead down to the shoreline.  The girls had prepared me for the rocky beach, but even their use of the word “agony” didn’t seem strong enough for the punishment my feet took as I made my way to the sea.

At first, the water was cold to the point one might call bracing, but soon it seemed to get better and was really quite pleasant.  I swam for about half an hour, and had wanted to stay in longer but the tide was coming in, pushing me most fervently back to shore.  I obliged its wishes, allowing the waves to deliver me to water’s edge.  Once again I traversed the brutal rocks, and made my way back up to the sea wall, where I sat soaking in the sunshine as the summer breeze dried me off.

There was still one major item left on my St. Valery checklist, the one I had been putting off.  Leaving my happy spot on the sea wall, I walked around to la Place de la Chapelle.  It had been important for me to find the church that Cornelia and Emily visited in 1922, and I was pretty certain it would have been situated in the “Chapel Square”.

Only that church didn’t exist anymore.

A late 20th century church now stands in la Place de la Chapelle and as soon as I entered, I knew I had the right building, or at least the right location.  This church, like the one the girls had visited, was dedicated to la Vierge Marie.  I found further confirmation of my hunch in the form of a large picture of the former church, displayed on the vestibule wall.  In the corner of that picture was the shrine to the Virgin Mary that the girls wrote about.

“… before her altar, a touching assortment of offerings, some dating from days past, some freshly recent… Some were in payment for a vow made when a ship had been nearly lost in a tempest, some waited there in prayer for those who had set forth gaily with the fishing fleet but had not returned.”

Knowing that I was standing where the girls had been, but not exactly, I became a bit weepy for what had been lost, and that chasm between our worlds.  I lit a candle for Madame Corue and Therese and all of the inhabitants of St. Valery who in 1940 would’ve had to witness a brutal battle for their town, then its surrender to General Rommel and enemy forces.

What had never occurred to me in my first hundred readings of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, was all too painfully apparent now:  At the time Cornelia and Emily would’ve been putting words to paper about the people of St. Valery, these dear souls would’ve been living under Nazi rule and undoubtedly enduring losses about which I could only speculate.

That connecting strand between the girls’ world and mine now felt twisted and strained as it stretched across the widening divide between our experiences.

Soon after, I returned to the sunshine.  The day was still bright and lovely, and as it was to be my last one here, I made the most of it, taking pictures of the shoreline at high and low tides, and of fishermen bringing in their catch, which they would then sell right there on the dock.

From there, I trekked over to other side of the harbor, and meandered through narrow cobblestone streets lined in ancient buildings which had been spared from the bombs that had taken down so much of the village.  As I made my way along a picturesque medieval street, I met a lovely older lady who spoke to me as I was taking photos.  I managed a brief conversation in French with her, asking about the age of her home and complimenting her on its beauty.  I couldn’t tell if she had made sense of anything I said, but she was very gracious nevertheless.

It was a happy note on which to end my days in St Valery, and I was awfully thankful to have it.  For tomorrow I would be heading to what was surely to be a profound and emotional experience:  the beaches of Normandy and the American Cemetery.

 

Photos:

Above:  A medieval street in St. Valery which was spared by the bombs.

Below, top row:  Fishing nets and lines rest along the bassin; white cliffs and a Nazi bunker on a sunny day; a well-worn path overlooking the sea.

Below, bottom row:  The rocky beach; a new church on an old foundation; a photo of the original church’s interior.

People Places

First Beguiled, Then Regaled

July 11, 2017

I pride myself on traveling light.

Anyone who has done the “backpack thing” in their travels, learns quickly to be a minimalist when it comes to packing.  My first time out, the rule amongst our study abroad group was, “Bring as much as you want, buy as much as you want, but you have to carry it.”

Which is worlds away from Cornelia’s and Emily’s sojourn.  By the time the girls arrived in Dieppe, France, they were each traveling with a steamer trunk, a large suitcase, at least one enormous hatbox, and various other smaller pieces of luggage too numerous to count.

What is most amazing to me about this is that they never seemed to give a thought to the idea of moving around with such a mountain of stuff.  Whereas for me, each new item, each new bit of weight added to the bag, gives me pause.  It’s all about being able to move as effortlessly as possible from place to place.  I can’t even begin to fathom traveling with a steamer trunk.

Now, after a month of being happily unpacked in London, it was time for France.  Time to start handling my luggage again.  I had managed to stash all of my belongings in one suitcase and one carry-on, but the bags had turned out to be heavier than I was expecting (after all, I was traveling with a number of books).  So, despite those wonderful quartets of wheels on the bottoms of my suitcases, I wasn’t looking forward to pulling them around for two weeks.

My travels with Cornelia and Emily were to begin with a trek through Normandy, before heading on to Paris — just as they had done in 1922.  And like the girls, my first stop was an overnight stay in Dieppe.  For Cornelia and Emily, Dieppe had merely been a layover, a place to bed down for a night before they traveled to the village of St. Valery-en-Caux the next day.

I’d come over on the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry, just as the girls had done.  In Newhaven, I’d met Anne and Alan, a lovely English couple who were meeting their daughter, Stacey, in Dieppe.  And I’d interfered in a spat involving a darling young woman and her sulky boyfriend (see previous post for all the scintillating details of the crossing).  Aside from those two brief encounters, this was to be nothing more than a day of logistics for me – making the train, making the boat, getting to my pension (hotel), confirming my rental car.  Tomorrow would be the day that my adventures in France would really start.

As I was bouncing my suitcases off the ferry and onto the dock in Dieppe, I couldn’t help but be in awe (and, truth be told, somewhat jealous) of Cornelia’s and Emily’s situation, living in their glamorous Golden Age of Travel, where every terminal and train station was teeming with porters who would swarm their luggage, whisking them off to the girls’ next stop.  Those lucky ladies never had to carry anything more than their handbags.

But then again, in Dieppe, it wasn’t so glamorous for Cornelia and Emily after all.  The girls got smooth-talked into letting a porter haul their luggage to their pension in what turned out to be, not a taxi, but an ox cart, while they walked along behind him.

“We, who had seen ourselves whipping through the city in a handsome equipage, found ourselves progressing on foot, and high heels, stumbling and lurching over the cobble stones behind a glorified wheelbarrow.  It was a much longer trek than our cicerone had led us to believe, and in the heat of the afternoon sun we became disheveled and exhausted.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

From what I had worked out from the book, the girls had stayed at one of the pensions on the long beachfront street, which I had seen from the deck of the ferry as we were coming into the harbor.  They hadn’t been kidding — it was a seriously long hike from the dock to their hotel, and I felt for them.  Especially in those heels.

For my one night in Dieppe, I had booked a room at the Chambres d’hote Atypik, which appeared to be quite a bit closer to the ferry landing than where the girls had stayed.  But on arrival at the dock – just as Emily and Cornelia had discovered – I learned that my pension was actually a greater distance than it seemed.  Which was no great crisis, except that there were no taxis waiting to meet the boat.  Perhaps because there simply weren’t many passengers who came over sans car, no cab driver bothered to cruise the dock.  And there was no Uber in Dieppe.

There wasn’t even the option of the ox cart like the girls had.

Well, I told myself, the girls had arrived at their pension on foot, so it only makes sense that this is what is happening for me right now.  Synchronicity.  Instead of attempting to locate the phone number of a taxi service, then order one, which would involve me having to speak French, I would just hoof it to my pension.  It would be a bit of a hike, but it was certainly walkable.  And after all, I had just the two pieces of luggage, which were on wheels.  And I was wearing flats.

With that, I summoned up some fortitude and started across the parking lot.  I hadn’t gone more than a few feet when I heard Anne and Alan call to me.  They had met up with daughter Stacey, and were just getting into her car.  They offered me a lift which, after one feeble attempt at declining their offer, I accepted most gratefully.  “Sorry, Cornelia and Emily,” I thought to myself, “but forget synchronicity.  I’m not going to walk to the pension if I don’t have to.”

Immediately, as I had with her parents, I liked Stacey, and her dog Luna, too, who rode in the front seat with Stacey and Alan.  Stacey punched in the address I had for my pension, and within a few minutes, they were dropping me off at number 3 rue cite de limes.  I thanked them heartily and we joked that maybe we might run into each other in town.

As they drove off, I turned and, ringing the doorbell, braced myself:  no avoiding it now — it was time to start speaking French.

Laurent, one of the proprietors of the pension, answered the door, and was as warm and kind as anyone could hope for.  Inside, he introduced me to his wife and co-owner, Isabell, who was equally lovely and gracious, especially about my abysmal French.  Laurent gave me a quick tour, and then showed me to my room.  I was enchanted — the pension exceeded its photographs and was as charming and welcoming as its owners.

My room was large and comfortable, with a cozy, shabby chic vibe, and an enormous soaking tub in one end of the room.  I was already wishing I could stay for longer than one night.

After I got cleaned up a bit, I headed into town, and hadn’t been walking for ten minutes before I ran into Anne, Alan, Stacey and Luna.  We had a good chuckle about it, then ended up spending the rest of the day and evening together.

The sun had come out and it was warm and lovely.  We sat at an outdoor café and had a couple of drinks, over which I got to know Stacey as well as her parents.  Stacey was a few years younger than me, a powerhouse fitness instructor living in Paris with her French husband and her kids, and she was an absolute riot.  Everything she said was zany and funny, and she was full of energy.  Her parents were an equal match for her marvelous sense of humor, and we all laughed uproariously there at the café for a good two hours.

As the afternoon turned into evening, we took Luna for a walk by the beach, along the crescent of hotels where Cornelia and Emily had stayed (I had told my new friends all about my travels with the girls — thankfully, they hadn’t been put off by this).  We then ambled past the Cathedral and into some of those magical, winding cobblestone streets.  After a while, we stopped for dinner at a seafood restaurant close to where we’d earlier had drinks.  We dined on different flavors of marvelously fresh mussels and wine, and once again we laughed so much it made my sides hurt.  It was superb.

After dinner, I bid farewell to my friends, and made it back to my beguiling pension feeling energized and excited for whatever adventures might lie ahead.  In my cozy room, I wrote in my journal about my travel day to France and about how it had been unexpectedly brilliant.  I’d had the good fortune of falling in with three wonderfully witty people, who had turned a necessary layover into a real occasion.

You just never know how a day will go.

 

Photos:

Above:  That dollop of pure bliss, the gorgeous tub in my room at the pension.

Below:  The breakfast room of the pension, featuring Isabell’s homemade marmalade, and where tea is served the French way – in a bowl; the boat-filled harbor, framed by a blue bridge and a blue sky; one of Dieppe’s graceful churches basks in the sunset atop its white cliff.

People Places

Crossing the English Channel, Not Without Incident

July 10, 2017

Somewhere around July 10th, just after Cornelia and Emily visited Mr. Wells’ house, they left for France.  Which meant it was time for me to pack my bags, leave my lovely London flat, and catch the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe, just as the girls had done 95 years before.

The first half of my journey with the girls was over.  It had gotten here way too fast.

On the morning of the crossing, I took a train that put me in Newhaven at 7:10am, and sitting in the waiting room to board the 9am ferry by 7:20am, along with about a dozen others.  It seemed that the staff had no imminent plans to let us on the ferry, so I went into the café to order some breakfast.  It was too early to manage anything substantial, so I opted for tea and wheat toast.  A very nice woman named Anne who had been looking at the menu alongside me ordered the same thing, and we chatted for a bit about our travels.  She and her husband, Alan, were going over to look for a second home in the Normandy countryside.  In Dieppe, they were to meet their daughter, who was driving up from her home in Paris.  I told her about my book project, and she was very kind, and interested in my journey.

When our food arrived, we moved to separate tables which weren’t very close together.  A moment later her husband joined her at her table, and I heard her telling him about me, explaining that I was a writer.  It took me quite by surprise to hear myself referred to in this way.

Up until then, whenever I had spoken to anyone about what I was doing, it was always in almost apologetic terms, that this was my first attempt at writing a book, it was a new thing for me, I was giving it a try, etc.  But Anne had only heard, within all of my spluttering, that I was a writer.  That is how she saw me, defined me.  To her, I was a writer.  It was a lovely, unexpected gift which I hadn’t known I needed.

After I finished eating, I went back out to the waiting room and sat down in one of the long rows of seats.  Directly behind me was an attractive young woman with a darling manner and funky style, sitting with her boyfriend who could have come from Central Casting, if anyone had been looking for a nerdy, intellectual type with long scraggly hair whose clothes suggested he had just rolled out of bed wearing them.  He was intermittently griping about having to sit around for so long, and was blaming his girlfriend for his present predicament.  I could hear her quietly trying to reason with him, and I considered interjecting into the conversation that we were all here way too early thanks to the ferry company’s boarding requirements, but this was England, and I didn’t want to be the pushy American butt-insky.  So I kept quiet and listened to him snipe at her until he finally stomped off, stating that he wasn’t going, and she was left sitting there, fighting back tears.

Shortly after he disappeared, a staff member called us all to get on the bus which would shuttle us to the ferry.  The young woman remained seated as the rest of us went out to the bus.  Once aboard the shuttle, I sat down and watched for her, growing angrier every moment at that stupid guy, if she had decided because of him not to go.  Almost at the very end, the sniveling boyfriend appeared and headed towards the back of the bus.  A few passengers later, she got on and, in what I considered to be an act of providence, sat down next to me.

Not for nothing had I been raised by strong-minded women and attended a strong-minded women’s college.  The idea that a moody, mopey guy could spoil a woman’s travels was a personal affront to me, and I wasn’t going to let that boob in the back of the bus get away with his behavior.

I forced conversation on her, and after a minute or two of polite chit-chat, in which I learned her name was Katie and this was supposed to be a fun, quick (omitting the word “romantic”) getaway, I dove right in.

“I’m sorry to be so forward, and if I’m making you uncomfortable, but we’ve all been there with the pouty boyfriends.  And right now you need a girlfriend to have your back about the situation with that guy of yours.  I overheard everything in the waiting room.  He was so off-base, and I’m glad that you didn’t let his childish behavior stop you from going on your trip.”

Without giving Katie the chance to protest my interference, I continued, “But I’m telling you now, that if he says one more word of complaint at any time – about anything – for the rest of your trip, you need to just leave him where he is.  Ditch him right there where he’s standing.  He shouldn’t get to spoil your fun.”

This made her laugh a bit.  I said, “I’m not kidding.  If your girlfriends were here right now, they would be saying exactly the same thing to you.”  She agreed, and told me that she was still bothered by him, but that she was going to enjoy her time away.  This was supposed to be a happy thing for her, and she was going to make sure it was.

About this time, we got to the ferry and went our separate ways once on board.  I figured she had met up with the whiny boyfriend and he was still being enough of a douchebag to upset her, because a while later, as we were leaving the port in Newhaven, I saw her standing alone on the top deck, looking wistful and rather sad.  But I didn’t attempt to approach her again.

I, too, was having my own issues as the boat pulled away from the shoreline.  I was struck by the sadness of leaving a country which was a home to me.  It was that same feeling I got every time I was at Heathrow or Gatwick airport, stepping on a plane bound for another country.

But it was more than that now.  I looked out at the chalk cliffs we were leaving behind, and knew that the next time I set foot on English soil, my journey would be over.  The girls’ story finishes in Paris, so at the end of July, when I stepped onto the Eurostar train at the Gare du Nord, I would be declaring an end to my travels with Cornelia and Emily.  They were not only my old friends at this point, but my close friends.  My traveling companions.  And, as I was quite certain that I would never replicate this journey, I knew that we would never again travel together.

The weather had grown cold the night before, and it became increasingly gloomy as we headed out across the channel, so I went inside and did some refresher reading on the Dieppe portion of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  It had been a much prettier day when Cornelia and Emily sailed.  They wrote,

“Dieppe, with its church towers, its snug, deep harbor, the line of summer hotels bordering the wide plage (beach), and the 15th Century chateau crowning its white cliff, is a charming port of entry into France.  It all looked just as it should…” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

It took four hours to cross from Newhaven to Dieppe.  Aside from running into Anne from the café in Newhaven, and chatting some more with her and her husband Allen, there was nothing terribly exciting about the trip.  There seemed to be a lot of families on board, who were headed over for a few weeks of holiday.  They already looked worn out.  Nowhere on the boat did I encounter anyone who was teeming with enthusiasm about their upcoming plans.

When we got close to port, I went out on deck to look for Cornelia’s and Emily’s Dieppe.  Happily, it was there.  One of the first things I saw was a church atop one of the cliffs, its tower rising proudly above the town below.  I saw the wide “plage” and the crescent of hotels which lined it.  And there, crowning the white cliff was the chateau, somewhat obscured by newer buildings which had sprouted up around it, but still proud.

It all looked just as it should.

I also saw Katie, standing at the rail, this time with her boyfriend, his arms wrapped lovingly around her.  She looked a lot happier than she had been.  She noticed me looking at them and smiled up to me.  I gave her a thumbs-up sign with a questioning face and she nodded.  Her boyfriend saw the exchange between us, and if she hadn’t mentioned our conversation to him before, then she was probably about to enlighten him now.  Because a bit later, when we were getting off the ferry, he very graciously smiled as he let me off in front of him.  I gave him a wan smile in return, just to make sure he knew I had his number, and that I was personally rooting for his girlfriend to leave him by the side of the road the first chance she got.

Next up: Arriving in Dieppe, and my first night on French soil.

 

Photos:

Above:  The white cliffs of the English coastline slip away.

Below, top row:  Cornelia and Emily, beginning to show some wear, arrive in Dieppe; a lovely young woman is wistful and sad over her barnacle of a boyfriend.

Bottom row:  The beach and chateau at Dieppe; a vintage poster, just to add a bit of color.

People Places

In the Company of Friends Old and New

July 8, 2017

Definitely one of the highlights of my summer with Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough was the day I went to Easton Glebe, the one-time home of H.G. Wells.  You might recall from an earlier post regarding Margaret Sanger’s papers, I briefly mentioned that the girls had gone to Mr. Wells’ house for lunch one day – a heady and (not surprisingly) embarrassing experience for them, as it turns out.

“Father had met H.G. Wells in Switzerland a year or two before the war… My pride in my parent increased considerably when [H.G.Wells] wrote inviting us all to spend Sunday at his country place.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner

In 1922, the year of the girls’ trip, H.G. Wells and his family were living at Easton Glebe, a graceful Georgian home on the Easton Lodge estate, which belonged to Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick.  This home would be the setting for his novel, Mr. Britling Sees it Through, and Emily would later recall in her writings that when she stepped from the house onto the terrace and walked through the garden, she felt as if she were walking through the novel.

The girls’ day at Mr. Wells’ house is one of my favorite parts of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, and I wanted to get as close to their experience as possible (minus the humiliations they both suffered while they were there).

In the spring, I had learned that in 1950 the Easton Lodge estate had been broken up into pieces, and that the Countess of Warwick’s great manor house had been almost completely torn down (strangely, one wing of the house had been left standing, and had been converted into a home of its own).  But blessedly, Mr. Wells’ Easton Glebe still stood.

Going on the premise that it never hurts to ask, I wrote to the current owners of Easton Glebe, explaining my project and asking if I might imposition them with a visit to the house.  Quite quickly, I received a very kind reply from Vincent, inviting me to come for lunch one day when I was in England, and he and his wife Diana would be happy to show me around.  I was over the moon!

I had the exact day in mind for my visit:  Sunday, July 9th.  The obsessed, geeky part of my brain had pretty much worked out that this would have been the day the girls went to Mr. Wells’ home 95 years ago, given the “clues” they offer in the book regarding their timeline (and thanks to the calendars from 1922 and 2017 matching exactly, the 9th of July fell on Sunday in both years – how is that for synchronicity?).

Unfortunately, Vincent and Diana already had plans for that day, but were happy to host me on Saturday, July 8th.  So exactly 95 years (minus one day) after Cornelia and Emily visited Easton Glebe, I was arriving in that same driveway, pulling up to the lovely Georgian house that H.G. Wells could recognize today as the one he’d lived in.

It was all a mirror image of the afternoon 95 years ago which Cornelia and Emily described – the beautiful, sunny day, the ride through the enchanting countryside, turning in at the gate marking the entrance to the house.

Sometimes life is perfect.

Vincent and Diana were warm and welcoming, and immediately put me at ease.  I presented my hosts with a first edition copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, along with a bottle of wine, and a framed copy of that photo from Margaret Sanger’s collection, of her standing between Otis Skinner and H.G. Wells.  Diana offered me something to drink, then took me on a tour of the house before we sat down for lunch.

Passing through the rooms which Cornelia and Emily had written about made my blood rush – this was the closest by far I would get to the girls, as well as Otis and Maud Skinner.  I did my best to stay in the present, to make conversation, and cover the profound reaction I was having, but I felt as if I was as much in the room with H.G. Wells and Margaret Sanger and my girls as I was with Diana.  I didn’t dare try to explain this to my hostess – certainly there was no need to have Diana worry that she had invited a crazy person into her home.

After she had shown me the house, we stepped out onto the terrace Emily had mentioned, and Diana pointed out the building which had once been the barn.  This is where the girls had played “the Wells game” (a version of volleyball), and Cornelia had inadvertently smashed the ball into the face of the Great Educationalist,

“…who was on my own side and no further from me than a couple of feet.  It was the only time during the course of the day his face changed expression… I was too horrified at what I’d done even to apologize.  After going over his face with his fingers and making certain his features were still there, the eminent worthy changed places with the person furthest from me, and the game continued…”  – Cornelia Otis Skinner

That’s the sort of embarrassment one doesn’t forget.

When the estate was divided up, the barn had been separated from the Easton Glebe property and was made into a home.  A wall with a gate divided the two properties, and peeking through the wrought iron, I could just make out the fountain area and steps where Cornelia and Emily had been photographed in 1922.

We then had lunch in the same dining room where Emily had gotten her turn at being utterly humiliated.  As she had stood to leave after their lunch that day, Emily somehow had become ensnared in a servant’s bell cord which was attached underneath the table, ripping it loose from its mounting.  To her bewilderment, the cord wrapped around Emily’s leg, and Mr. Wells had to crawl under the table and untangle it from her.  The rest of the party had sat in silent mortification, all except Cornelia, who had smothered her face in one of the curtains to silence her peals of laughter.

As Diana, Vincent and I enjoyed our lunch, I once again attempted to splutter out my gratitude for my hosts’ unbelievable kindness and hospitality, in letting a virtual stranger barge into their home.  Vincent and Diana explained that they’ve had a number of Wells enthusiasts come to the house over the years, including the H.G. Wells Society, and I told them about enlisting the society’s help in my attempt to solve the mystery of the Great Educationalist.

We dined on coronation chicken and salad made from Diana’s garden, followed by strawberries and cream – again, fresh from the garden.  Delicious, and all so marvelously, quintessentially English.  It was simply sublime.

After lunch, we sat in the sunshine on the terrace for a little while, where Diana worked out that the photo of Otis, Margaret Sanger and Mr. Wells was taken in front of the doors to Mr. Wells’ study.  She was intrigued that in the photograph, there appeared to be a pergola that had framed the study doors, which was no longer there.  She and Vincent felt that this was a very smart idea, as the study faced west, and that room often became intolerably hot in the afternoon.  They seemed most pleased with the idea that they would put in a pergola like the one which had been there before.  This gave me a good deal of satisfaction – after all of their kindness towards me, I was able in return to give them a bit of practical history that could prove useful to them.  It was a drop in the bucket compared to what my wonderful new friends had given me on that lovely Saturday afternoon, but at least it was something.

Below, top row:  Arriving at the house; the elegant Georgian dining room; new friends Vincent and Diana.

Bottom row:  Mr. Wells at play; the best photo I could get of the barn, with Siggy, one of my two canine hostesses; above, the doors to the study, where the pergola once stood and below, Otis, Margaret Sanger and Mr. Wells.

People Places

Winchester and the Evolution of the English Gentleman

July 4, 2017

A Regency gentlemen’s suit, from the Victoria & Albert collection.

You just never know how a day will turn out.

There were multiple reasons for me to visit Winchester, England, and for me to be excited about it.  The first was that it was where Otis Skinner had taken Emily Kimbrough one day while they were staying in Southampton, waiting for Otis’ daughter Cornelia to recover from the measles.

The second reason was that it would give me the chance to revisit Winchester Cathedral (not to be confused with the similar sounding Westminster Abbey in London).  It had been more than a quarter century ago that I was here, working as general backstage crew on a production of a play written by Francis Warner, the Oxford University professor who ran my study abroad program.  His plays are really more like works of poetry, whose lyrical beauty I didn’t fully appreciate in my 20s, when I was here with that production of “Byzantium”, the story of the emperor Constantine.

But the main reason I was eager to visit Winchester was that, in remembrance of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, there was a big exhibition happening at their Discovery Center, which included a couple of her handwritten letters, some rarely seen portraits of Austen, and a silk pelisse (a Regency-era overcoat sort of garment) believed to have been worn by her.  In anticipation of my visit, I had stayed up the night before to finish streaming the last episodes of the 1995 miniseries version of “Pride & Prejudice”.  In Winchester, I would be able to peek at Jane Austen’s personal things, then offer remembrance and a word of thanks at her grave in the Cathedral, all hot on the heels of my evening with her Mr. Darcy.

It was a lovely morning with Jane Austen at the Winchester Discovery Center.  I pored over every item in the exhibit, from the astonishingly small coin purse she had made for herself, to the movie posters from the myriad film productions of her works.  But what meant the most to me was reading her letters.  The writer of all those enchanting novels was herself fearless and unapologetic for who she was and what she was doing.  If Austen ever had self-doubt, she didn’t record it anywhere.  She is my hero.

After the exhibit, I headed to the Cathedral.  As I was walking through its gardens, a tall, nice-looking guy in his 30s came up and spoke to me.  I had noticed him earlier when we crossed paths on the High Street.  He introduced himself (let’s call him James), and asked if we could go somewhere for coffee.  It was flattering that this young man was interested in me, but I tend to shy away from situations in which I might get labeled a “cougar”.  So I declined, but thanked him for the sweet invitation.  He then asked if we could at least just sit in the garden and talk for a bit.  That I could do.

James and I found an unoccupied bench, where we sat and talked about his job, and about my book project, and I gave him my website info.  He was like so many of the young men I remember from my years living in England – just very polite and very charming.

That is something that young Englishmen have always had over young American men:  they really, really know how to romance women.  They go about it in such a gentlemanly way.  And yes, most of the time, it’s just a line.  But it’s a very good line.

We had been chatting for maybe ten minutes when he leaned in and kissed me.  It was sweet, and it was lovely.  Then he kept on kissing me.  Part of me thought that I probably shouldn’t let this continue.  But the other part of me could only think of how this would make a good story for my book.  Utterly mercenary, yes, I know.

He was cute, he was charming and this was nice, so I let it go on for a bit.  But then when James suggested we go somewhere a little more private, I was done, and told him that I really needed to get in and tour that Cathedral.  He asked if he could see me again.  I told him that I was leaving for France in just a few days, and James said he would keep in touch with me, with the hope that we could meet up again before I returned to the States.  We said our goodbyes, and I walked away feeling more pleased than not about the encounter.

Back to Jane Austen.  Inside the magnificent, towering Gothic walls of Winchester Cathedral, I took my time visiting dear Jane’s grave marker.  For decades, I have laughed and cried and taken comfort in this remarkable writer’s words. I never tire of hearing her voice.  She is my role model as a writer and as a woman.  There at her grave, I thanked her for everything she has given me.  Which is a lot.

As I wandered in and out of the transepts and back down the nave, studying the Cathedral’s breathtaking architecture, I thought back with great fondness to the people and that play all those years ago.  I could picture it so clearly, and it was wonderful to bring those memories to life again.  But all too soon, it was time to get back to London.

After an obligatory stop at the Cathedral gift shop, I headed back to the train station, but not before picking up some scampi and chips, soaked in malt vinegar and wrapped in newsprint, from the local chippy.  It was the first one I’d come across since arriving in England.  In a land of smoothie bars, fast fusions, and generally healthy eats, this beautiful, traditional fish and chips shop may be one of the last remaining holdouts.  I salute them.

Back in London, I arrived at my flat in Chelsea to find that I had received a lovely email from young James, telling me how pleased he was to have met me.  Darling.

But then there was the postscript.  He explained that he had taken a naughty picture of himself to show me just exactly how excited he was about it, but that he was too much of a gentleman to send the photo without asking me first.

Excuse me?

Strangely, it wasn’t so much the thought of receiving my first unsolicited dick pic that bothered me as much as it was the “gentleman” reference.  Is this what distinguishes a gentleman these days, that he asks first before sending a nude selfie?!

With that, my Jane Austen day evaporated into mist.  And poor Mr. Darcy. The quintessential English gentleman had just been run through with a sword.

But I refuse to let them go without a fight.

So as a public service announcement, I am saying to all young men everywhere – well, men of all ages, for that matter – exactly what I told James in my very clearly-worded reply that day:

No, thank you.

Actually, forget the “thank you” part – it should just be, “no”.  NO.  Believe me.  Trust in the truth and accuracy of what I am saying to you now.  Because I cannot emphasize strongly enough that no woman ever, ever, ever wants to receive a picture of your penis.  Not a single one of us.

If you choose to ignore my words, as James eventually did (a story for another time), you proceed at your own peril.  After all, the ether of the internet is forever.

 

Top row:  Delighting in every detail of the Jane Austen exhibit; the lady herself, whom I hopefully didn’t cause to spin in her grave.

Bottom row: Awesome in the truest sense of the word, Winchester Cathedral; scampi and chips for the train ride home.

People Places Things

The Day Saw Advances, None Miraculous: Spelunking in the National Archives

June 30, 2017

I’ll get right to it.  I am almost OCD in my drive to explain every pop culture reference (of which there are hundreds) and solve every puzzle within Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  During my time in England, this zeal led me to making an appointment at the British National Archives at Kew, where I hoped to cross off a number of items from my laundry list of questions.

Kew is best-known for having some of the finest gardens in all of the UK… but there’s no time to discuss that here.

After arriving at the Archives on the day of my appointment, and following the check-in protocol (which involved stashing everything but my phone, notepad and a pencil in a locker, then placing those remaining items in a see-through bag and passing through a check point where it was all inspected by a guard), I found the research cubby assigned to me, which was supposed to contain all of the materials I had requested.

The only item in the cubby was a book written in the early 1900s about the mail route that ran through southern England.  I had hoped that it might be a starting point for enlightening me on who was at the reins the day the Skinners and Emily rode on top of an old mail coach to Hampton Court.  All that I had to go on was that the man looked like Rudyard Kipling, and was a member of the British peerage.  But the book offered no information about the Royal Mail route to Hampton Court, or the four-in-hand club members who drove the coaches.  It was a bust.  Not a promising start to the day.

The other items I had requested, a staff member informed me, would have to be viewed inside a special room with stricter access.  Wow, classified info!  It would take twenty minutes or so for someone to bring the materials to the room.

I used that time to access a record that I had learned of in earlier research, which would verify the exact dates of Cornelia’s and Emily’s journey.  It was a crisp photo image of a page from an immigration log book, with a header showing that the “Empress of France” had docked in Southampton on June 21, 1922.  Below this header, the list of the ship’s passengers included the names Emily Kimbrough, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Paul Dudley White.

It was a victory tinged with defeat.  I was thrilled to have proof that I had worked out the correct year of the girls’ journey, but this information simultaneously deepened another mystery for me.

It had started with that photo in Margaret Sanger’s papers of the girls with The Great Educationalist in the garden of H.G. Wells’ house.  As far as I could tell, Cornelia and Emily went the rest of their lives never knowing the identity of that man.  I wanted to crack this case, and had enlisted the help of the H.G. Wells Society in my investigation.

I sent them all of the information I had, along with a copy of the Sanger photo.  Within a week, they had gotten back to me with a name:  F.W. Sanderson.  He had been a longtime headmaster at the Oundle School in Northamptonshire, and Mr. Wells had thought so highly of the man that he had written a book about him, The Story of a Great Schoolmaster.  A schoolmaster was certainly an educationalist, and a portrait of Sanderson which I located seemed to resemble the small, blurry image of the man in the photograph.  Jackpot!  It simply had to be him.

There was just one problem.  F. W. Sanderson died six days before Cornelia and Emily arrived in England.  I wish I was kidding.  Six days!

It seems that on the evening of June 15th, 1922, F.W. Sanderson had just delivered an address to the National Union of Scientific Workers at University College, London.  Suddenly, right there at the podium, he dropped dead of a heart attack just as – does this surprise you? – H.G. Wells, who was moderating the event, asked him his first question.

Just for good measure, while I had access to the periodical records, I pulled up Sanderson’s obituary, and then some:  all of the London newspapers had carried the story of his shocking, unexpected death.

For weeks I had clung to a crazy, desperate hope that one of those two dates had been recorded wrong, but there was no mistake, and no question about it now.  F. W. Sanderson couldn’t have been the man Cornelia and Emily met.

Unfortunately, he had been the one and only name proposed by the experts who know H.G. Wells the best.  There were no other viable candidates.  If H.G. Wells scholars couldn’t sort out this mystery, then there was no chance I would.

For a good while, I was disheartened by the fact that I would never know the identity of The Great Educationalist.  Truth be told, I’m still a bit bummed about it.  But then again, Cornelia and Emily never knew the answer, so it’s only right that I shouldn’t either.  It’s in keeping with the symmetry between their journey and mine.

After the partial win with the immigration record, I was ready to enter the inner sanctum of the special reading room, and hopefully locate the source of a seemingly unlikely story.

A staff member let me into the small, locked room where a few others were inspecting photos, ancient-looking papers, and other bits of history.  I sat down to a set of large log books labeled “Secret” and “Most Secret”, which contained the correspondence of a man named Hugh Trevor-Roper to his superiors in the British intelligence office during World War II.

This was follow-up research to the visit I had made a few weeks earlier to Bletchley Park, where Hugh Trevor-Roper had been stationed for part of the war.  I had been searching there for the origin of an odd reference I had come across on Wikipedia, claiming that Mr. Trevor-Roper had discovered that Our Hearts Were Young and Gay was used by the Nazis as a codebook for their Enigma machine.

Say what?

In the Spring, I had contacted the editor of the digest cited as the source of the reference, and he had referred me to a college history professor who was the author of the article itself.  I got in touch with the professor, who couldn’t recall, let alone physically locate in his records, the origin of this information.  All we could conclude was that the story had to be true, only because it was a very precise statement, about a specific person and a specific book (which the professor had never heard of).  It was highly implausible that the professor could have invented the story himself, given that it included the title of a book he didn’t know existed.

This proved nothing, though.  And I wanted to be certain of the truth.  The answer, the proof, had to be somewhere in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s papers.   So I scoured the top secret logbooks, but came up empty-handed.

How could that professor have stumbled upon a discovery which I, who had spent months actively looking for that same information, couldn’t locate?  It was wildly frustrating.

But I came away from those logbooks feeling more unsettled by something that I hadn’t known to prepare myself for:  my first experience reading about World War II in the present tense.

It caught me completely off guard.  I felt like I’d been sucker-punched as I read Hugh’s missives about upcoming Nazi military campaigns which, he noted, were being financed with assets stolen from the Jewish community, while they themselves were presently being rounded up and sent to work camps.  Presently?  Work camps?  A passing reference to an unspeakable horror.  And it was happening right there, in that moment as those words were being typed onto the page.

There were notes on spy operations involving Agents ZigZag and Snow, two names I knew from the history books.  But here in these pages, those men were alive, moving in and out of intelligence reports which were tracking their current movements.

Page after page, there were details of events that I had only ever studied in the past tense, with the reassuring knowledge that the Allies had triumphed in the end.  But within these logbooks, those uncertain, frightening days in 1943 were happening in the here and now.  Once again, I found that the edges of time and space were blurring, but this time it was not a welcome experience.

It had been a roller coaster of a day, my first foray into serious research.  I was wrung out by the time I left Kew, thankful to have the strain on my brain over and done with.  It was time to get back to the spirit of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, to the lighthearted pleasure of traveling and seeing the sights with the girls.  Which I would definitely do.  There was just one more thing I needed to check first…

In my next post, I make an ass of myself in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

 

(Fans of the TV series “Deadwood” might recognize the title of this post as a line spoken by the infamous Al Swearingen, owner of The Gem Saloon.)

Top Row:  My work table in the National Archives; illustration of a mail coach, the only useful bit I found in the entire book.

Bottom Row:  Passenger list from “The Empress of France”; a book of reports written by Hugh Trevor-Roper.

People Places

Best Not To Leave It So Long

June 28, 2017

Punts and punters on the River Cam.

“We would come back again, but it would never be the same… There would never again be a ‘first time’”. – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

Those were the words I inscribed into the front flyleaf of the journal I was to keep of my own ‘first time’ abroad.  Those words and that book, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, had whetted my appetite to travel, and when I was given the opportunity to spend a college semester abroad, I brought my copy of Hearts along with me to Europe.

I was a year younger than Cornelia and Emily when I spent the summer and fall semester of my senior year studying in England, first in Cambridge and then later in Oxford.  So it seemed fitting that I should pay a visit to my old stomping grounds in Cambridge, where my whole “first time” had begun.

It had been at least a quarter of a century since I had last been in Cambridge, so I took my time on the walk from the train station to the center of town to really take in where I was, and hopefully connect to this place which held so many joyful memories for me.

As I got close to the city centre, I unexpectedly came upon a massive 21st century shopping mall called the Grand Arcade.  There was no telling what it had swallowed up when that behemoth had been wedged into the cozy streets of Cambridge.  Yes, yes, time marches on and you can’t stop progress and all that, but this was not a welcome discovery for me, nor a happy beginning to my stroll down memory lane.

I walked from there over to the entrance to King’s College, one of Cambridge University’s most revered colleges.  It had been here that I had stood almost 30 years ago, frozen in wonder as a young man with dark hair and glasses came through the college’s gate in his motorized chair, followed by a small entourage.  It was the summer of 1988, when ‘A Brief History of Time’ was taking the scientific world and the bestseller lists by storm.

And there I was, face to face with its author, Stephen Hawking. 

He and his posse were past me within an instant, and I could only stand and stare after them, marveling in disbelief that I had just crossed paths with the most brilliant mind on the entire planet.

But had it been right here?  Or had this happened at the other entrance to the college, the one facing the Queen’s Road?  It had been such a profound moment, a treasured memory, and yet it had slipped a little from my grasp.  How could I have let my recall become fuzzy like that?

From there I wove through a small, winding street to the tucked-away entrance to Clare College, where my study abroad program had been held.  I passed through the main quad, where we had come for classes and meals in the buttery (the college cafeteria), to the Clare College bridge, arguably the prettiest bridge along the Backs (the name given to the area along the River Cam where a number of colleges back up to the water).  The view from the bridge is the stuff of picture postcards – the exquisite gardens, punters on the river, the sublime King’s College Chapel overlooking a meadow filled with lazy, grazing cows.

For a while I watched the punts pass beneath the bridge, going up and down the river.  Some of my happiest memories of Cambridge were of punting alongside the colleges with my fellow Stephens women, and I delighted in watching nervous, intrepid souls attempt to steer their little boats.  But not all of the punts were small.  Outnumbering the traditional punts were supersized versions of the boats that seated four across.  They were filled with as many tourists as could cram in, and these “puntoons” took up most of the space on the crowded waterway.

Disheartened by this sight, I directed my attention to seeing if I could still locate a secret I knew about the bridge.  It was as I remembered.  That buoyed my faltering spirits.  And then I took a moment to stand in the spot where I had been kissed by a cricket player named Andrew on one of those lovely summer evenings in 1988.  Speaking as a rabid anglophile, I feel compelled to say that it is very satisfying to have been kissed by a cricket player on the Clare College bridge.

I continued on across the Queen’s Road and walked down the drive to Thirkell Court, the residence hall where our group of nine Stephens women had stayed that summer.

Things had changed there, too.

The Henry Moore sculpture that had resided in the courtyard was nowhere to be seen.  Inside, the hallways which were once lit only by the natural light coming through the windows and a smattering of single bulbs, now appeared to be perpetually under interrogation, almost glowing from the white glare of oversized fluorescents in the ceiling.  Upstairs, the bathroom’s subway tiles and swimming pool-sized cast iron tub had been replaced by a pair of shower units with an unfortunate tile design that never had been nor ever will be fashionable.

They were insignificant changes, really, but they all made me feel disconnected and a bit sad, and I was ready to get out of there.  Adding insult to injury, I couldn’t find the building’s “secret passageway” – i.e. the after-hours way to get in and out once the gates to the courtyard were locked for the night.  How could this be lost to me, after all of the times I’d traipsed through there?  Ah, misspent youth…

Frustrated by this, I left through the front door and headed back across the Queen’s Road to the footpath that ran along the Backs.

I made my way along the path, pausing at Trinity College and Newton’s Mathematical Bridge.  Spanning the River Cam, this 18th century wooden structure had been designed by Sir Isaac Newton, and was constructed without using nails or bolts.  Somewhere along the line, one of our professors had explained to us, a group of scholars had disassembled the bridge in order to understand Newton’s design, and then found that they could not put it back together, and had to resort to using nails and bolts to reassemble it.  What an idiotic thing for them to have done.  Such a waste and a shame.

Except none of it is true.  And here’s the kicker:  I didn’t know that the Newton story was an urban legend until just now, this very moment, writing this post, when I was double-checking the college on Wikipedia. At least this one illusion hadn’t been shattered for me right there in Cambridge that day.

I crossed to the other side of the Silver Street bridge, passing a large group of tourists waiting in line for their turn on the river.  I went down the ancient set of steps from the bridge to the landing where a number of proper punts floated idly next to the crowded boarding area for the puntoons.

It was here at this landing by The Anchor pub that we had docked that day almost thirty years, on our first outing in a punt.  Having been given a 90-second tutorial in how to move and steer the boat by one of our professors, a few of us had taken on the challenge and quickly succeeded in learning at least the rudimentary points of punting.  Figuring that the occasion called for some celebratory wine, Sally, Deborah and I waited in the boat while Jennifer and Stephanie went to The Anchor to score a couple of bottles.  Ten minutes later they returned with not only the wine, but some cute English boys as well, who joined us in the punt.  Our one-hour excursion turned into five hours on the river, filled with flirting, riotous laughter, and a few of us ending up with dates for that evening.  Tourists take note:  That is how you go punting.

After grabbing a few photos of the boats, I went back up and over the bridge to The Anchor itself where, mercifully, I found that the place had hardly changed at all.

This stop was to be the big finish to my day, where I would raise a glass to times past, and to all of those with whom I had shared my youthful adventures.  And what better way to toast on a warm, sunny day, than with the quintessential English summer drink, Pimms and lemonade?  I had been introduced to that marvelous concoction right here in this very establishment, by that cricket player from the Clare College bridge.

I took my drink out to the platform area overlooking the river and silently toasted to old friends and glorious memories, then took a sip of my Pimms.  After the discouraging morning I had just experienced, it was only fitting, really, that the drink tasted watered down and flavorless, and not as I had remembered it.  Appropriately symbolic of the day I was having.

It had been a rougher landing than I had expected, here in Cambridge.  Clearly, the long stretch of time between my visits had caused small, gradual changes to appear large and drastic.  Or maybe my memories had gone awry.  I left The Anchor feeling as flat as my drink had been.  It was time to return to London.

Back on the train, I reflected on the day, trying to work out if I had gotten any of… well, whatever it was I had come for.  Why had it been easier to connect to Cornelia’s and Emily’s past than to my own?  And then in a moment of clarity, I remembered the postscript I had written for my first journey abroad.

In 1988, on the back flyleaf of that journal of mine, I had inscribed, “I would come back again, but it would never be the same.  There would never again be a first time”.  Those prophetic words had come back around to me today, and were ringing in my ears.  There was no surprise nor sting in them, but nevertheless I had been blindsided.  I had gone to Cambridge anticipating a day of happy nostalgia, only to find myself standing precisely in the moment where that postscript of mine had become reality, a fact, completely and utterly true.

Below: The Clare College Bridge and Gardens; Punting beneath Trinity College’s Mathematical Bridge.

People Places

The Tudors and the Troops

June 25, 2017

Hever Castle on a sublime summer day.

It would seem like from my latest posts that I must’ve lost interest in following Cornelia’s and Emily’s story, but that is hardly the case.  Every day I read a bit of the book, and write about the girls, and continue my research on them and their travels.  And any time I am in the West End, especially when I’m going to the theatre, I think of them and imagine them strolling through these same streets (sometimes in those crazy white rabbit fur capes).

Because of the mishap with the Montcalm, and the eight days waiting in Canada for another ship, compounded with Cornelia being bedridden in Southampton with the measles for ten days, the girls were severely delayed in getting to London, so their time in the city was cut rather short.  Whereas I’m spending nearly five weeks here, the girls barely got more than two.  So aside from a few passing references to places they visited, and their stories from Hampton Court and Easton Glebe (more on that in a later post), there is very little for me to search out in London.  Which I don’t mind, as it gives me some free time to have a few new experiences of my own, while also allowing me to revisit parts of my own past travels.

Something I was keen to do, which I had never done before, was tour Hever Castle, the onetime home of Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves and, a few centuries later, William Astor.  I have a fascination with Tudor history, and since my early days have always been staunchly in the Boleyn camp, so I was eager for the chance to finally visit their home.

My neighbor and new friend Sabrina and I went out to Hever Castle on June 25th (the wedding anniversary of my parents, John and Janet Crow, by the way).  We were pleased to learn that the castle would be hosting special activities and attractions that day, as part of Armed Services weekend.  All the better, we thought.  I was especially pleased, since Our Hearts Were Young and Gay has its own tie-in to World War II (once again, more on that in a later post).

The train ride through the countryside of Kent couldn’t have been prettier or more pleasant.  At one of those picturesque little stations decked out with hanging baskets, we changed from the big Southeastern Railway train to a smaller, regional train which took us to Hever Station.

It was then just a brief walk through some fields and country lanes, and up past an ancient half-timbered pub and the village church and graveyard, to reach Hever Castle.  Immediately we were struck with the beauty and the layout of the grounds.  Whereas some of the great estates have elaborate, ostentatious grounds, Hever Castle and its surroundings were beautiful in an understated, natural way.

The grounds were buzzing with all sorts of interesting sights. In the center of everything was a World War II spitfire, being watched over by gentlemen dressed as members of the Home Guard.  Further on, in front of the castle was parked a vintage double-decker bus, which had been turned into an interactive experience called “London During the Blitz”.  There were activities for kids, such as the sobering craft project of making their own gas masks.  And I was proud to see some tents and a trio of left-hand drive jeeps representing the American troops who had flooded into England once the US had entered the war.

But first we wanted to step a little further back into history and tour the castle.  Sabrina and I viewed a lot of the rooms together, but soon got separated as we went at our own paces.  I was glad she had been spared my lengthy conversation with one of the docents about Henry VIII, the Boleyns, and who murdered the Princes in the Tower.

After being on Henry’s turf at Hampton Court, it felt good to be here in Boleyn territory, where the king had been just the lovesick suitor of Anne.  Of course, later he would have her beheaded, seizing Hever Castle from her family and then giving it to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, who of all of Henry’s wives, on balance, probably fared the best of the lot.

Sabrina and I met up at the gift shop and cafe, and after a tasty bite of lunch, we headed over to the gardens and a series of tents.  The largest tent was serving as the grand stand for a trio of female singers in period dress, who were performing big band hits of the war years.

Next to the tents, a pick-up game which appeared to be half-cricket and half-baseball, was being played by people dressed in G.I. uniforms – soldiers and sailors both – as well as a few women who were sporting “A League of Their Own” baseball uniforms.  There were also a few “civilians”, also in period dress, who had joined the game, while a large group of men and women, 1940s from head to toe, merrily cheered them on.

There was something about that game, everyone laughing and delighting in the spectacle – the mood was ebullient and infectious, and Sabrina and I were swept up in the joy and spirit of it all.  The uniforms, the clothes, even the hairstyles, with “Chattanooga Choo Choo” being sung in the background – it all looked and felt so authentic, that this easily could have been the summer of 1942, with everyone taking a brief respite from the worry of the war for a bit of happiness and fun.  Once again I found the edges of time and space blurring, and it was quite a wondrous sensation.

After enjoying the game for a while, we checked out the tents and were particularly struck by the one selling handmade reproductions of 1940s hats.  Oh, there were some heavenly creations!  It made me want to come back next year in vintage apparel.  And to think, not so long ago, I had been haughty about re-enactors.  Now I very much wanted to be part of that homefront ballgame crowd, and slip into their 1940s world for just a moment or two.

Our last stop, albeit an extensive one, was touring the flower gardens and enormous man-made lake.  All of this had been installed by William Astor when he purchased Hever Castle in 1903.  On the lake, folks were out boating, while a mother swan sat at the water’s edge with her offspring – though larger than babies, they still had all of that sweet, soft-looking grey fluff and were quite adorable.

Museum legs had begun to set in a bit for both of us, so we made our way back to the train station, then on to London and the 21st century.  Along the way, we looked through our photos, and talked about the centuries of history we had just taken in, all in a matter of a few short hours.  Sabrina and I agreed that the ballgame had been the best part of an all-around terrific day.  And I had no doubt that Hever Castle day would end up being one of my favorite days of the entire trip.

Top Row:  The charm of a village train station; Hever Castle, the London Blitz double-decker bus, and a glimpse of William Astor’s Tudor Village; Henry VIII, that jerk, slept here.

Middle Row:  … And the crowd is ecstatic; Winston Churchill embraces his American side and bats baseball-style; safe at third, to everyone’s delight.

Bottom Row:  A treasure trove of hats; Sabrina photographing roses; a swan and her little ones head to the water.

People Places

On the Town with Otis Skinner

June 23, 2017

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”.