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Tips for visiting Hampton Court Palace

June 15, 2017

Just fifteen or so miles outside of London in the village of Molesey is Hampton Court Palace, once owned by Cardinal Wolsey before being taken over by Henry VIII.  This is where legend has it that Katherine Howard, under arrest for adultery, escaped her guards and ran through the long gallery in an attempt to reach her husband, the King, and beg his forgiveness (her efforts failed, and she was soon beheaded).

Cornelia and Emily, along with Otis and Maud Skinner, visited Hampton Court in 1922, and I made my second visit there last week.  Culled from their experiences and mine, here are some tips on planning the perfect trip to the Palace, from those of us who didn’t get it quite right.

Thanks to Maud Skinner’s savvy perusing of Muirhead’s Guide Book (the Frommer’s of its day), she and the rest of her foursome traveled from London to Hampton Court by coach – as in stage coach (or more correctly, mail coach), not coach as in the Anglican word for “bus”.

“One rode on the swaying top of a tally-ho behind four spanking greys, while Lord Somebody drove.  This opportunity for displaying four-in-hand skill was, we learned, a pastime of the peerage and a few horsey American millionaires who, in the interests of tradition, kept up the old mail-coach service between London and Hampton Court.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

What sounded like a charming mode of transport to the Palace proved to be rather more harrowing than what the group had bargained for.  Add to which the fact that, sitting atop the coach (and not inside it), they got rained on along the way.  But in the end, Emily, Cornelia, Maud and Otis made it in good time to Hampton Court.

Mercifully, this tourist experience is no longer offered, not that I would have felt conflicted about whether or not to travel in this fashion myself.  I had already gotten it wrong by taking the riverboat to Hampton Court when I visited the Palace for the first time back in the early 1990s.

Oh, yes, it does sound picturesque, traveling by boat, and it is, for a while.  But this ferry down the river inexplicably takes anywhere from three to four hours, something I didn’t know when I hopped onto the boat that day, expecting it to whisk me down the Thames in short order to Hampton Court, where I could spend the day.

Instead, I got there with 50 minutes left until closing.  I raced through the Palace, practically matching the speed of poor Katherine Howard in the gallery.  I didn’t get to explore the grounds, let alone the maze, which I had been hoping to do, because of Cornelia and Emily.  Even as early as the 1990s, I wanted to walk in their footsteps.

Travel tip:  Central London to Hampton Court Palace by car, 40 minutes.  Train, 45 minutes.  Bus, one hour.  Any of them will do.  Just no boat.  Or horse drawn mail coaches.

Cornelia and Emily don’t go into too much detail about their tour through Hampton Court Palace, but they are effusive in the impression it made on them, from the magnificent public rooms to the kitchens with “the forests of chimney pots”, which are all still there, possibly in the same sort of display that the girls would have seen them in.

I was thrilled to have more than 50 minutes this time to tour the Palace, and I poked my head into every nook and cranny that wasn’t marked “Private” or “Staff Only”.  I took pictures of tapestries, and architectural details, and stone passages where lords and ladies, as well as pages and chambermaids, would have walked.  A photo that quickly became my favorite is a selfie I took in one of the hallways, which appears to have a couple of green orbs floating in it, right around my neck.  Skeptics, call them dust or whatever you like.  I know they are spirits of those from a different time who are showing themselves in my photo, even making an effort to coordinate with my blouse.  You can tell by looking.

Although I’m sure Hampton Court was a lovely place to visit in the girls’ day, I have to think they would have enjoyed in far more today.  Audio tours, good food to be had at the restaurants, and multiple, excellent gift shops.  The kitchen gift shop was my favorite, and it took a tremendous amount of restraint for me to not purchase the enchanting set of measuring spoons they had for sale.

All of the Palace and its grounds is a treat, from the perfectly manicured formal gardens to the extensive lush and luscious flower beds, to the indoor tennis court, which is still used today by those belonging to what I’m sure must be a pretty exclusive club.  I explored every bit of it and, just like Cornelia and Emily, managed to do it without coming down with what they call “museum legs”.  Throughout the day, I thought of them (and Maud and Otis too), knowing their eyes had fallen on all of these same, remarkable things.

“And then we came to the maze, or labyrinth.  It was my idea to go into it.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner

This time it was my idea to go into it, and I whispered to Cornelia and Emily that they were coming with me, and that everything would be all right.  I would get us out.

You see, Cornelia and Emily went into that famous hedge maze which had been at Hampton Court for hundreds of years… and quickly proceeded to get lost.  There was no one else in there that day to help them out.  There were only Maud and Otis, waiting for them on a bench outside of the maze, who could hear the girls, but not tell them how to get out.  Emily and Cornelia were lost in the maze for 45 minutes (during which there was a torrential rainstorm), before a member of staff climbed onto a platform and shouted instructions to lead them out.

I certainly didn’t want a repeat of the girls’ misfortune, which was entirely possible because the weather on the day of my visit matched theirs: sunshine with periods of fast moving rain showers.  As a precaution, I had the good sense to take a picture of an aerial view of the maze, that happened to be on the sign outside the entry (by the way, I had to pay to enter the maze – I don’t recall the girls mentioning that they were charged for this pleasure).

Yes, very smart of me to take a picture.  What would have been even smarter was if I had checked to make sure the picture had actually taken and was in my phone (turns out it hadn’t, which I discovered only after I was well into the bowels of the maze).  My healthy faith in my navigational ability and my memory had already been wiped out in just a few short turns along the hedges, and I quickly began to fear that I was about to recreate Cornelia’s and Emily’s experience.

Travel tip:  Don’t go into the maze without taking a picture of the aerial photo of it first.

Then in one lucky turn, I found myself at the exit, which was only steps from the center of the maze.  With extreme satisfaction in having reached both, I put on an air of nonchalance as I breezed out of the labyrinth, in case anyone happened to be nearby to witness my escape.

Right near the exit, tucked away in a small dead end of hedges, was a set of steps with a small platform on it, where staff members could stand and call out instructions to lost tourists, just as someone had done for Cornelia and Emily.  And just outside the exit was a long hedge with an inset carved into it, which held a lone bench, probably in precisely the same spot where Otis and Maud had sat waiting for the girls.

In 1922, after the girls had emerged from the labyrinth, they and Cornelia’s parents left Hampton Court Palace.  Cornelia describes, “Drenched and soaked, we scuttled across to a quaint-looking inn which hung precariously over the green bank of the Thames.”  I took my exit from the maze as my cue to leave the Palace as well, even though I had escaped the rain.

It was pretty easy to sort out which might be the inn Cornelia describes, as there is only one that fits the bill.  Directly across the street from Hampton Court Palace is The Mitre Hotel, which has the same name and roughly the same appearance as it did in 1922, with the restaurant being located at the far end of the building, more adjacent to the hotel than part of it.  When I arrived, I found a sign stating that the restaurant (now called the “Riverside Brasserie” was closed, but that the bar downstairs was open.  So I ventured down the stairs to a nice, airy space with a large patio right on the river (where I took the opportunity, after hours of walking, to stick my feet in the cold water).

Travel tip:  After a full day at the Palace, stop in for a drink (or more) at the Riverside Brasserie just across the street.  A great place to refresh one’s sore tootsies.

Though I was disappointed that I wasn’t where my 1922 traveling companions had gone for tea, I decided to stay for a bit and have a drink.  Which led to a conversation with a couple of members of the staff (it was the middle of a rather slow afternoon at the bar).  I asked them if there was a fireplace in the restaurant upstairs.  I didn’t know if they looked surprised because I knew this, or just because I was asking such a weird question, but the manager said, yes, there was.  I explained the reason for my question, and she offered to take me upstairs to see the restaurant.  Once I had finished my drink (and soaking my feet), I took her up on the offer.

Things were almost identical to how Cornelia and Emily had described them.  The configuration of the entrance had been changed, but other than that, it could have been 1922 in that room.  “Tables were set, but there was nobody to wait on them.  A fire was laid in a vast fireplace but it wasn’t going”.  Exactly.  A match I would call perfect.

Postscript to the day:  On the train back to London, I met a very interesting woman named Ysanne, who gave me a copy of her book called, “The Time Catcher”.  Though her book is about “how to time your actions to turn challenges into opportunities”, the title seemed to fit in well with my own journey.

Below:  Lords and ladies made of Tyvek populate a royal cards room; me in the hall with a couple of orb friends; emergency stairs hidden within the maze; from the bridge, a view of the Riverside Brasserie (formerly the Mitre Bar) today; the Mitre Inn, circa 1920s; a refuge from the weather for Cornelia, Emily, Otis and Maud.


People Places

Time traveling in the West End

June 13, 2017

The lobby and bar of the Grand Hotel… or is it the Victoria Hotel?

It’s been a busy few days here in London, ever since I came up from Southampton last Thursday.  Twenty-four hours after leaving the Queen Mary 2, I settled in to my home base, a studio flat in the Imperial Wharf area of Chelsea (which, according to an English friend of mine, is very “swish”). When I was first shopping for a place to live on AirBnB, I tried to find something near where the girls had stayed in 1922, which were some “digs” in Tavistock Square.  Nothing came up for that exact area, so I opted for sunny, modern digs in Chelsea.

Perhaps I should have gone in for something more traditional, or Art Deco – basically something more in keeping with Cornelia’s and Emily’s world.  But I think that maybe, subconsciously, I knew I needed for part of this journey to be exclusively my own, and in no way linked to Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  Even after the most fun-filled and remarkable days spent with the girls, finding their old haunts and stomping grounds, it’s nice to come home to an apartment that didn’t exist when they were here.  Just as it would be with any friends I travel with, at some point I need time and space to myself.

But back to Cornelia and Emily, and Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.

In the book, the majority of the girls’ time in London was spent going to dinner and the theatre with Cornelia’s parents.  So for my first book-related outing, I happily headed up to the theatre district via the riverbus from Imperial Wharf to Embankment.  Once off the boat, it would be just a quick walk up to the West End to my first stop:  the half-price theatre ticket booth in Leicester Square.  But on my way up there, without intending to, I stumbled into Cornelia’s and Emily’s footsteps.  My route to the West End took me up Northumberland Avenue, which I remembered as the street on which the Victoria Hotel (where Otis and Maud Skinner stayed) had once been.  I had already done research on the hotel, and knew that it had been at 8 Northumberland Avenue, which was now home to the Grand Hotel.  As like most things, the place has changed some since the Skinners stayed there, but the building had withstood the Blitz, and is still a fashionable place to stay.  I had a quick look in at the lobby and bar, with their sublime marble floors, walls and columns, and it didn’t take much imagination to picture Otis and Maud, along with the girls, coming through the hotel’s revolving door.

Then it was on to Leicester Square.  The queue at the half-price ticket booth was just the right length – short enough to move quickly, and long enough to give me time to decide which show to see.  I opted for a musical called “Half a Sixpence”, mainly because the script (known as “the book”) had been written by Julian Fellowes.  Being a longtime fan of his, particularly of his “Downton Abbey”, well, I knew I had to see “Half a Sixpence”.  What I didn’t know about the musical until I sat down that evening in the theatre is that it is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by H.G. Wells.  Now there was some symmetry I never saw coming.

Once I had scored my ticket to the show (at a wonderfully reasonable price – New York theatres please take note of this!), I strolled over to Charing Cross Rd, searching for number 84, which has nothing to do with Our Hearts Were Young and Gay and everything to do with another of my favorite books, the appropriately titled, 84, Charing Cross Road.  This story from Helene Hanff is essentially a collection of her twenty-year correspondence with Frank Doel, the chief buyer at Marks & Co booksellers, which at one time was located at 84, Charing Cross Rd.

This famous street was once lined with booksellers of all sorts, and some of those shops still exist today.  But, sad to say – in fact, very sad to say – the enchanting antiquarian bookshop where Frank Doel, George Martin, Cecily Farr, Megan Wells and Bill Humphries worked is no longer there.  In its place is a McDonald’s.

For lovers of 84, Charing Cross Road – and all books, for that matter – the transformation could not be more crushing.  All that remains of Marks and Co is a small brass plaque embedded in the wall, commemorating the bookshop.

After that knife to the heart, I spent a little time browsing through the other bookstores in and around Charing Cross Rd, then had a pre-show drink and dinner at the pub across the street from where “Half a Sixpence” is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre (as in Noel Coward, my buddy from the celebrity portraits gallery on the QM2 – yep, more random symmetry).  The show was charming, and I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation I had with the two college students who were sitting next to me in the theatre.  They were over from the States, visiting Europe for the first time, on a study abroad course in London.  Kindred spirits.

A terrific day all around, but it turns out that my favorite part had been those moments of leaving the present and venturing into the past – Cornelia’s and Emily’s, Helene Hanff’s, and even my own, as I walked through Trafalgar Square, glancing over to where a 20-something me had once stood by one of the fountains and been kissed as the sun set.

Of course it’s important to keep moving forward, to keep making memories, to have each new moment count for something.  And I hope to come away from this summer with adventures to rival Cornelia’s and Emily’s, or at least my own past.

But one of my initial reasons for wanting to go on this journey was my desire to bring Our Hearts Were Young and Gay to life for myself.  To step inside the book, and feel as if I were part of a story that I have long wished was mine.

You know, many modern physicists ascribe to the theory that time is just an illusion.  That everything which we differentiate as the past, present and future is, in fact, all happening at precisely the same instant.  So it hardly seems far-fetched of me to let the boundaries of time and space blur once in a while, and to look for shadows and outlines of those who are standing in the same spot as myself, only in a different moment in history.

Please, indulge me a little in this.  After all, aside from the Butterfly Effect, what harm can a bit of time-traveling really do?

Below:  The walk sign at Trafalgar Square features two unisex people holding hands as they walk, which forms a heart; fountain in Trafalgar Square; 84, Charing Cross Road then; and now.

People Places Things

Crossing with the girls

June 9, 2017

The bridge of the Queen Mary 2, as seen from the giant fish sculptures (actually, they are spare propellers)

It was just a little over a week ago that I boarded the Queen Mary 2 in Brooklyn and sailed for Southampton, England.  It was a bit of a rough – and somewhat dramatic – start, just getting under way.  All of us passengers who arrived after 3pm were kept in a holding area for an hour and a half before we were permitted to board the ship.  Once we were allowed on, we had to race to a special evacuation drill for latecomers, and then I had only a few minutes to dig something out of my suitcase and dress for dinner.

In keeping with the notion of retracing Cornelia’s and Emily’s footsteps, I had opted for the early seating at dinner.  They weren’t given a choice.

“… [I tried] to create an impression of being a seasoned, cultivated traveler.  The impression apparently didn’t take with the Chief Steward because after one look at me, he allotted us two cards for First Service (Second was the chic meal)… Our table was off to one side near the swing-doors where stewards in order to get past had to graze our heads with their trays.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner

It actually tickled me when I was shown to my table, only to find it was the one closest to the kitchen, complete with swing doors and stewards coming in and out (although happily we didn’t have an issue with trays grazing our heads).  Not a chance I would’ve requested a better spot to sit.  It seemed quite perfect.

We still hadn’t left the dock by the time dessert arrived.  We were about two hours behind schedule when Captain Wells came over the loudspeaker with an explanation for the delay.  It seems that we weren’t permitted to get on earlier because the FBI had been on board at the time, investigating a report that a female passenger who had boarded in Southampton eight days before had not disembarked in New York City, and was nowhere to be found (to be clear, the transatlantic crossing hadn’t stopped in any ports of call along the way).  The FBI investigators had spent the day performing an exhaustive search of the ship along with combing through the closed circuit footage, before determining that the woman was “no longer on the ship” when it arrived in New York.

The captain didn’t elaborate, so we were left to conclude that the woman had gone overboard by choice.  If there had been foul play, or if it had been an accident, the FBI certainly would have stayed on board and we wouldn’t have sailed that evening.  It was a thought that offered only the very slightest comfort.

The next day, I made friends with Charlene, a fabulous woman from Valencia, California, who just happened to have the cabin directly across from the woman who jumped (she knew this because there was police tape across the door).  She reported later that, though no one was allowed to stay in that cabin, the police tape had been taken down, so clearly the FBI had closed the case.

When Cornelia and Emily sailed on the Montcalm and the ship got stuck on a sandbar, there was an incident involving an immigrant who was being deported, who jumped overboard and tried to swim to shore.  He was prevented from doing this because Emily, in an effort to be helpful, hoisted a deck chair over the rail and dropped it smack on top of him (amazingly, he survived with only a concussion, but you will have to read the book to get the rest of the story).  Though the girls and I both had a delay and a “man overboard”, it seemed to be a grim correlation to have.  I could only hope that there wasn’t more tragedy in store.

Thankfully, the QM2 never ran aground and made it safely across to England.  But just like it had been for the girls 95 years before, barely 48 hours into our voyage, we encountered fog that lasted for two days.  And just like it had been for the Empress of France (the girls’ second ship, remember?), the foghorn blew every few minutes for the entirety of those two days.  Even with all of the amazing technology on board the QM2, the ship still followed the century-old maritime protocol.

But then just like it had with the girls’ voyage, the fog lifted after two days.  Okay, perhaps this isn’t so extraordinary, because it all has to do with the time of year and passing along the coast of Newfoundland.  But I don’t recall there being two days of fog when I sailed 14 years ago on the QE2 (June 1, 2003, to be annoyingly exact).

There were other instances of symmetry between our sailings.

Whereas Emily took part in a deck tennis tournament (one of the more embarrassing and hilarious episodes that takes place on the ship), we had a ring toss tournament, but we used the same style of rope rings (“quoits”) that they had used.

Two evenings before we were to land, we had a passenger talent show, followed by a masquerade ball (no costumes, just masks worn with tuxes and evening gowns).  When the girls sailed, Cornelia performed in their talent show, two evenings before the ship was to dock (a budding actress, she performed a few monologues while being hepped up on cold medicines and brandy).  Their talent show was followed by a gala where everyone wore, not masks, but festive paper hats.  A nice parallel.

On the morning of the talent show, Cornelia had woken up with what she thought was a cold, which later proved to be the measles.  I, too, woke up on the morning of our talent show (not that I was going to perform, God forbid!) with the start of a cold.  Once again, symmetry.  It seemed fitting, so I didn’t mind a few sniffles, knowing that my case wouldn’t turn into something I could get quarantined for.

All of this may seem like a lot of insignificant details, and that I’m not giving you the meat of the story.  But the moments in this journey when my travels match up with the girls’ experience mean so much to me.

I set out on this adventure to travel with Cornelia and Emily, and in those times, I feel like I really am. It is a joy when I find bits of a world that they would still recognize today.  It makes me feel connected to them and their enchanting story.

At least, I can report that I had a wonderful time, with numerous delightful experiences.  Too many to recount here, in fact.  I will save them for the book.  I met an awful lot of amazing people.  From my table mates – the adventure cyclist from Estonia, the former ballerina – to the retired Oxford don who closed down the disco at 3am every night, to the Russian couple who, even with speaking very little English, had just driven (and loved!) Route 66.  So many remarkable stories (again, for the book).  And I made quite a few terrific new friends.

For those who had expressed hopes that I would have some great romance during the crossing, I am sorry to disappoint you (and myself, too) but it just wasn’t the case.  Not even any nice young doctors like Cornelia’s and Emily’s Joe Aub and Paul White, who might go on to be prominent figures in the medical world.

Of course, there was the hot-blooded Turkish Uber driver who brought me from Manhattan to the ship (Downton Abbey fans, think Mr. Pamuk, only still alive).  He said he wanted to be a story in my book.  Perhaps he will be.

Below:  Leaving New York (brand new friend, Carmel, an Irish writer of Celtic history and lore, is the shadowy figure in the foreground); the fog rolls in; inserting myself into the gallery of celebrity passengers (cutting in on Joan Crawford as she dances with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr); quoits tournament; my Poseidon Adventure moment (my favorite photo from the trip!); and finally, sunny skies… and vertigo.

People Places

Meet the leading men of “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay”

May 27, 2017

Joseph Aub, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Paul Dudley White in the gardens at Versailles

It turned out to be a stroke of good luck for Cornelia and Emily that the Montcalm ran aground, and they had to switch vessels. Sailing to Europe on the Empress of France, not only did they have nicer accommodations on a fancier ship, but they also met two young doctors on board who would prove to be the closest thing they had to beaus during their travels.

Writing about them in 1942, Cornelia explains, “Their names were Paul White and Joseph Aub and they are now among Boston’s most distinguished physicians, but at that time were freshly hatched out of medical school.”

Cornelia wasn’t kidding.  In their later lives, both Joseph Aub and Paul White became extremely important figures in the field of medicine.

Joe Aub was an endocrinologist focusing not just on cancer research, but he also was an early authority on industrial contamination, collaborating with the World Health Organization to promote industrial safety.  He would hold high positions at Massachusetts General Hospital, and serve as the Chairman of the Department of Medicine at Harvard.

Paul Dudley White was a cardiologist and a founder of the American Heart Association.  He became President Eisenhower’s physician following the President’s heart attack in 1955. White was a strong advocate of preventive medicine, and he developed protocols for diagnosing patients that are still used today.  He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and later was commemorated on a U.S. Stamp.  Part of the Charles River Greenway in Boston was named the Dr. Paul Dudley White Bike Path in his honor.

In the book, Joe and Paul are two nice young men who spend time with Cornelia and Emily during the crossing to Europe.  I won’t give away the story, but the doctors come to Cornelia’s rescue when disaster strikes.  Later, when the girls are in Paris, the two doctors show up again and take them out for a day at Versailles, followed by dinner, a show and dancing back in Paris that evening.  It turns out to be one of the high points of the girls’ entire summer abroad.

I felt it was important to spend some time getting to know these two men, so on May 26th, right in the midst of Harvard’s Commencement Weekend, I braved a visit to the Countway Library of Medicine, which houses collections of both doctors’ papers.

In Joe’s papers, I found a fascinating set of correspondence having to do with the movie version of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, and Joe’s refusal to sign a very aggressive release form from Paramount Pictures.  There are copies of letters Joe sent along with letters he received from Paul and Emily, as they tried to work out a solution and a response to the studio’s request.  In the end, Paramount had to make due with a watered down version of a release, along with a character in their movie that didn’t resemble either Paul or Joe.

Paul White’s collection of papers is extensive.  As Jessica, my contact at the Library who facilitated my visit, put it, “Dr. White never threw away anything”.  Just from the few boxes of material I looked through, covering only personal papers from 1920 to 1924, I came across receipts from his tailor.  There were hotel bills (one was extremely pleasing in that it had columns that were to be marked for various expenses, and included a category for “servants” – this column was not checked off).  And there was an interesting letter from some London solicitors regarding a box of cigars he had given to a waiter at a hotel he had stayed in, which had led to an altercation between the waiter and a doorman, and the doorman having to appear in court for assault.

But the prize I was eager to get my hands on was Paul’s photo album from 1920 to 1922.  Wearing purple surgical gloves (it is a medical library, after all), I gingerly turned the album’s pages and at about halfway through, I came upon some photos entitled “Europe”.  It began with a photo of the St. Lawrence River, with the caption, “Leaving the dock at Quebec, June 13, 1922”.  This is good and bad news for me.  It’s confirmation of the year that Our Hearts Were Young and Gay took place, but the sailing date is a day later than what the book led me to believe.  I could go into all of that right now, but I said I would try not to go nerd, didn’t I?

It was a solid start, but then in the next page there were photos of terra firma.  Paul hadn’t taken any pictures on the ship.  And I was so hoping for a photo of the girls and their doctors, partly because… well, wouldn’t that just be so cool?

But there is another reason for me wanting a photo of the four of them:  though I have located pictures of Emily and Joe in their 40s, 50s and beyond, I have yet to come across a picture of either of them when they were young. There are quite a few nice photos of young Cornelia, and a couple of good pictures of young Paul White, but the other two have eluded me.

Paul’s journey to Europe seems to have been a solo trip, or at least one where he wasn’t traveling with Joe (in fact, Joe departed the Empress of France at Cherbourg, while Paul went on to England).  Paul traveled to a few cities in Germany (or was it Austria?) before spending what seemed to be quite a bit of time in Andorra.  Just another reason he is such an interesting and impressive person – after all, how many people do you know who travel to Andorra?

As I neared the end of the album, my hopes were fading fast.  But then as I turned to the next to last page, there it was:  The caption read, “The garden at Versailles”.  And there were Joe, Cornelia and Paul, right in the middle of their wonderful day out together. I thrilled at finding a photo that ties directly to the book, but I was overjoyed that I finally had a picture of Joe. Of course I still lamented, why did it have to be Emily taking the picture?  If only Cornelia would’ve snapped the shot, then I would have scored both of my elusive stars at once.

Next stop, the New York Public Library, to go through Cornelia’s scrapbooks, which are part of the Billy Rose Collection at the Performing Arts Library.  They are from her career as an actress, but maybe I will find Emily there.  Hope springs eternal.


Mother Dolores Hart remembers Cornelia Otis Skinner

May 25, 2017

Mother Dolores Hart, and a young Dolores on the set of “The Pleasure of His Company”

When I first got the idea to follow in the footsteps of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, I couldn’t have imagined all of the remarkable, diverse places this journey would take me.  But almost from the beginning of my research, there has been one marvelous (and sometimes surprising) discovery after another.

I was able to learn a lot about Emily Kimbrough through her niece Linda, but Cornelia Otis Skinner doesn’t have any living blood relatives for me to speak with about her.  Thankfully and most wonderfully, though, Cornelia has Mother Dolores Hart.  In 1958, the two starred together in the Broadway play, “The Pleasure of His Company”, where Dolores played Cornelia’s daughter.  The play ran for over a year, and Dolores formed a deep bond with her on-stage mom.  Both women were nominated for Tony awards in 1959 for their work in the play.

Many of you already know Dolores Hart’s story:  Talented, beautiful rising star in Hollywood, gave Elvis Presley his first screen kiss, starred alongside Anthony Quinn, Myrna Loy and Montgomery Clift, just to name a few.  And then in 1963, she walked away from her successful showbiz career to become a nun at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut.

There is so much I want to say about going to the Abbey and meeting the woman I had loved for decades as Merritt in “Where The Boys Are”, but it’s probably best to save all my gushing over Mother Dolores for another post or the book.  The topic here is supposed to be “Who was Cornelia Otis Skinner?”

A brief bio on Cornelia:  She was the daughter of a famous stage actor of the time, Otis Skinner, and his wife, actress Maud Durbin.  Considered to be the offspring of theatre royalty, Cornelia found that many times she wasn’t hired for a role because producers felt it was too small and beneath her pedigree.  So, harnessing her sharp wit and talent for writing, Cornelia started creating monologues for herself, and began performing them wherever she could find a willing audience.  Soon she had built a career by starring in her own one-woman shows (I hope desperately that someday I will come across a script for her “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” because it sounds like it was brilliant!).  By 1958, when she was starring in “The Pleasure of His Company”, Cornelia was considered Broadway royalty in her own right.

Dolores Hart, age 20, beat out over 500 other actresses from both coasts for the role of “Jessica”, and found herself working alongside not just Cornelia but other legends of the theatre like Cyril Ritchard and Charles Ruggles.  For her first time on Broadway, she couldn’t have gotten luckier.  What could have been a terribly intimidating experience turned into a joyful one, mostly due to the reception she received from Cornelia.

“I knew I was working with a mountain of a woman, but when I first met her, she was so endearing.  She never put me off with a feeling that she was “the one”, and I was just coming in on it.  She was just a dear mother in the part, and, ‘Ah, it is so nice to have you with us, and if there is anything I can do let me know.’”

Back in Chicago, when I had interviewed Linda Kimbrough, I asked her if she had ever met Cornelia, and she said that she had been around her occasionally, and that Cornelia had always struck her as being shy.  I asked Mother Dolores about this.

“Shy?  I could say that I could see that in front of people she didn’t know, that she would be reserved.  She knew us very well, so she had a certain freedom with us, but with others, I could see that.”

“She had such a stability.  She was never full of herself in any way.  I’ve seen some of the bigwigs walk onto a set and turn it into a circus just because they were there.  She didn’t demand attention.  She was just so completely a lady.”

Growing up in the theatre and her decades on stage had made Cornelia a consummate professional, as unflappable as she was talented.  Mother Dolores shared a story about one  night when the lights went out on stage during a scene between her and Cornelia.  Without missing a beat, Cornelia whispered to Dolores to follow her lead, and then launched into a monologue about how the electricians had been messing with the lights and she must check all of the sockets to get them working again.  She moved around the set, improvising lines about what could possibly be the trouble, until the lights finally came back on.

“Her doing that monologue while the house was dark really struck me, and it struck me that possibly one of the reasons she could do that – and no other actress could do that – was because of her monologues.  She could put it together, and she could do something like that in the dark.  She kept the audience with her.  She had it in her bones.  I just don’t know how many actresses could have pulled that off.”

Mother Dolores appreciated and enjoyed Cornelia’s sense of humor, spirit and wit, but what she remembers with the most fondness is her “play mom’s” kindness.  Off stage, Cornelia looked after her young co-star, giving Dolores furnishings for her apartment, inviting her to parties in her townhouse, and becoming a doting and affectionate surrogate mother.  The men who played Dolores’ father and grandfather in the play, Cyril Ritchard and Charlie Ruggles, also developed a similar, paternal affection for her.

“I think probably that was one of the most saving experiences in my life in the theatre, working in that show, because it put me into a family that I never experienced [in my own life].  They treated me like their grandchild, like their child, very sweet and very giving to me on that line.  And that was a whole year of my life.”

What a magnificent woman that girl from “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay” turned out to be.  Just as I felt after talking with Linda Kimbrough about her Aunt Emily, I wish so much that I could have met Cornelia.  If only to say thank you to her for bringing me together with my wonderful new friend, Mother Dolores Hart.  Thank you, Cornelia.

Below:  A young Cornelia Otis Skinner, publicity photo of “The Pleasure of His Company”, and me with Mother Dolores


People Places

One language at a time, s’il vous plait

May 24, 2017

My much-too-quick jaunt through Canada continued on Monday, when I drove about 70 miles east from Quebec City to the little town of Les Eboulements.  In Cornelia’s and Emily’s day, the name “Les Eboulements” referred to two villages that resided on the same hillside.  Today the former lower village is known as St. Joseph, while the upper village is Les Eboulements (“Falling Rocks”).

I mention this only because Cornelia and Emily talk about staying in Miss Mary’s log cabin located halfway between the upper and lower villages.  This is, coincidentally enough, pretty much where the hotel I stayed in is located.  It is immensely satisfying when I manage to be that spot-on in treading in the girls’ footsteps, so that little factoid seemed worth mentioning.

But it occurred to me after I wrote my Quebec City post that as I travel to the same specific places as the girls, I have this compulsion to share all of the minutest details from Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, sort of like rattling off baseball statistics or movie trivia.  Hopefully I will manage to keep these Cliff Claven moments to a minimum in my posts, and save the majority of these captivating tidbits for my book.  That will be something for you all to look forward to.

In the province of Quebec, French is the first language, but most folks also speak English.  Thank goodness for that!  Only bits and pieces from my high school years of French have stayed in my head.  Further complicating matters is the fact that for almost a year, I have been studying Spanish.  When I made the decision in January to take the trip this summer, it seemed like a good idea to brush up on my French, so I started trying to study Spanish and French at the same time.  This turned out to be a bad idea, as all I seemed to be doing was jumbling the two languages in my brain.  So about a month ago I stopped with the Spanish and have been focusing solely on French.

Even with that, what I discovered during my time in Les Eboulements, where I was called upon to use my French more often, was that, not only am I peppering my French with Spanish words, it turns out that when I’m unsure of how to say a word, I tend to pronounce it as if it were Spanish.  So I’m speaking French with a Spanish accent, and it’s all a big mish-mash coming out of my mouth.  Well, at least I got to have this trial run at French before I start driving through the rural areas of Normandy and Bordeaux in July, and have to stop and ask for directions.

But back to Les Eboulements.  While the girls waited, literally, for their ship to come in, Cornelia and Emily spent about a week in Les Eboulements (June 5th to 12th, 1922… oh, wait, you don’t need to know that, do you?).  Cornelia wrote this about the place:

“It was unspoiled by trippers then and I hope it still is, for the country was incredibly beautiful, the houses quaint and the natives charming.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner

While there don’t seem to be any traces of Miss Mary’s log cabin, and it’s clear that some of the old houses have given way to more modern ones, Cornelia and Emily would be pleased to find that the enchanting little hamlet they visited in 1922 is in many ways exactly the same today.

The auberge (French for “inn”) where I stayed – L’Aunthentique Auberge de Charlevoix – is owned and operated by a warm and welcoming family.  Matthew (or is it Mathieu?) greeted me as if we were old friends, and we talked about his years as a tour guide, and how he brought groups of Canadians to Venice Beach (talk about culture shock!).  Joanne, who spoke very little English, was very sweet and patient with my French, and we managed a few brief but pleasing conversations.  And in the mornings, they prepared the most divine breakfast, with cheeses made in nearby Charlevoix and crepes added to a generous plate of eggs, tomatoes, sausages and roasted potatoes.  If that wasn’t enough to recommend the place, directly across the street from the auberge is the town chocolaterie and ice cream shop.  Just as it had been with Quebec City, it was crushing to have to leave here.

While I was here, one book-nerd item that I managed to check off my list was sorting out the story of the Seigneur and his manoir.  I will spare you a lot of the story, but this is the man whom Cornelia felt was partially to blame for her contracting the measles.  The girls talk about meeting this man at his home:  “The manoir, the Versailles of Les Eboulements, was a sweet old rambling frame house.”  I didn’t try to track down the descendants of le Seigneur, whose name I learned was Edmond de Sales Laterriere.  But after a bit of searching, and driving past the place a few times, completely oblivious, I located le Manoir.  The sign “Camp Le Manoir” should have tipped me off.  Turns out, the house was sold in the 1940s to the Freres du Sacre Couer (Brothers of the Sacred Heart – look at me with that French, eh?), and with the addition of a few cabins, the Brothers have turned the place into a camp for kids.  So not everything is exactly as it was when Cornelia and Emily were here.

All too soon, it was time to head out and return to the States, but first I stopped in and picked up some wildly tempting chocolates to take to my next interview (more on this in my next post!).  Even with a 500-mile drive, I am proud to say that the box of chocolates made it all the way to Hartford, Connecticut without being touched.  But the other box I bought for myself was gone before I got to Baie Saint-Paul.

Below, the Versailles of Les Eboulements in 1925 (source: National Archives of Quebec), and as it is today.

People Places

Making new friends over afternoon tea at the Ritz

May 21, 2017

While all of the stops along my journey up to now have had a purpose (often combined with some good fun and a surprise or two) my visit to Montreal is what Cornelia and Emily would call “a momentous occasion”.

This is because it is in Montreal where the story of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay begins.  Cornelia’s and Emily’s tale opens with them meeting up “at whatever hotel it is that isn’t the Ritz” on the day before they are to sail to Europe.  It doesn’t start out well, at least for Emily, who mistakenly walks into the wrong hotel room, “to what, when she looked up, proved to be an elderly gentleman, completely nude.”

It still makes my cheeks hot with sympathetic embarrassment for poor Emily whenever I read that part, but she manages to recover quickly.  That evening, the girls are taken out by friends and treated to a lavish dinner at the Ritz, where they attempt to appear nonchalant about consuming quail and champagne, but don’t manage to pull it off.  Cornelia explains:

“This was when [Emily] discovered that champagne makes her slightly deaf.  Its effect upon me was to make me look distant and sad, and I hoped everyone would think I had had an unhappy love affair.”  Cornelia Otis Skinner

The Ritz-Carlton of Cornelia’s and Emily’s day still exists today, to a certain extent.  Some of the public rooms retain the style from when the hotel was built in 1912, but the glass-walled condo spaces which protrude out of the stone at one end and along the top of the building are clearly a 21st century addition.  This may have been part of the reason why I didn’t feel compelled to stick completely to the book, and have quail and champagne for dinner in a modern restaurant.  Afternoon tea seemed like a better option — quicker and less formal.  And even without a reservation, I was able to secure a table at the 12:30 service, thanks to some creative rearranging done by the staff.

When it came time to place my order, I included a glass of champagne as a nod to the girls’ experience, and also so that I could toast to Cornelia and Emily, and the official start of our journey together.  I had a quick flash of regret that I hadn’t brought my book along as the girls’ representative, but my gloomy thoughts were broken by conversation coming from the next table, where two women were discussing whether or not to have champagne.  I broke in on the conversation and offered that it was very good (which it was – dry and flavorful, just right).  A little while later, after they had received and tasted their champagne, one of the ladies turned to me and agreed that it was very good.  And from there we began a chat that lasted until the next tea service at 3:30pm, and I found that I had made two new friends, Isabel and Marie-Helene, all because of champagne.  I had started afternoon tea with two old friends, and ended it with two new ones.

It meant I got a late start with exploring Le Vieux Port (The Old Port) of Montreal, but it was totally worth it.

The Old Port is quickly becoming a revitalized, exciting area of Montreal, with shops, museums, restaurants and a marvelous bike path.  Of course I hadn’t gone there to see the new and improved port.  I was looking for the dock from the 1920s where the girls’ passenger steamer Montcalm would have sailed from.  But there were no historic markers, no traces from the past that a civilian like me would’ve recognized as a clue, so I could only guess at where Emily and Cornelia stood, “dewey-eyed… holding up a line of less sensitive passengers” as they took in their momentous occasion.

Happily, I found that it was enough just to know they had been somewhere in this vicinity, feeling overjoyed and awed by the amazing adventure they were to undertake.

All too soon, I had to get on the road to Quebec City, where I would be meeting up again with Cornelia and Emily, who arrived there two days after they sailed from Montreal.  As readers of the book know, it was an unplanned but necessary stop, after the Montcalm ran aground a few hours after it left the dock in Montreal, and had to be towed to the nearest port city.

Next stop:  A bit of a rocky start for the girls, but a treat for me, as we all end up staying at the simply divine Chateau Frontenac.

People Things

Unearthing a piece of a puzzle

May 19, 2017

What would get me to make a special trip to Northampton, Massachusetts, when neither Cornelia nor Emily ever attended Smith College?   It turns out, in fact, that Smith does have a tie to them, or at least to the story of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay:  it is at Smith College where Margaret Sanger’s papers are kept.  And those who have read Hearts will remember that when Cornelia, Emily and Cornelia’s parents went to H.G. Wells’ house at Easton Glebe, Ms. Sanger was also a guest there that day, as Cornelia recalls:

“There was another American present, Mrs. Sanger, better known as Mrs. Birth Control Sanger.  Mr. Wells said she was crusading for a noble cause and Emily and I, who hadn’t the remotest idea of what Birth Control even meant, said, Yes, indeed, wasn’t she?”

Along with Margaret Sanger, the girls met an additional guest, “a very distinguished gentleman with a shock of white hair.  Mr. Wells [introduced the man], ‘This is the greatest educationalist in all England’… And that was the nearest approach we got to an introduction to him.  We never did learn his name…”

One other tidbit of information which eluded the girls that day, and seemed to elude Cornelia and Emily even when they were writing their book twenty years later, was that Margaret Sanger and H.G. Wells were lovers at the time of the girls’ visit, and had been so for a couple of years.  From the first time they met in 1920 until his death in 1946, Sanger and Wells “carried on an infrequent, but often fervent [extramarital] love affair…” according to The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University.

One can’t blame Cornelia and Emily for not knowing this.  Heck, I had never heard it before I stumbled upon the NYU article.  And I must admit, once I found out about their relationship, I was eager to go snooping in Ms. Sanger’s papers and read some of the couple’s correspondence to each other.  What actually compelled me, though, to visit Smith College was not love letters between the couple, but a photograph of them with Otis Skinner, which appears on the Sanger collection website.

In Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, Cornelia and Emily write about taking photographs during their visit that day, and that Emily was the only one with a camera.  What is the likelihood that Otis Skinner and Margaret Sanger ever visited Easton Glebe simultaneously beyond this one occasion?  Next to nil, one would assume.  Which leads me to believe that the photo in the Margaret Sanger collection was taken on the day of the girls’ visit.

But that is still not the main reason for my visit.  According to Cornelia, “Emily managed to get one successful exposure and while it is not a thing of particular beauty… some day someone may recognize the Great Educationalist and be able to enlighten us concerning his identity.”  Could it be that this photo of the Mystery Man still existed?

Knowing that Margaret Sanger had at least one photo from the day led me to hope that she might have received and kept others that were sent to her by Emily, or Maud Skinner (who was an early supporter of Ms. Sanger’s, by the way).  It seemed worth a shot to look through the photo archives.  So, I paid a visit to the Special Collections Department of the Neilson Library.

The Sanger collection is so well organized that it didn’t take long to narrow down the search.  While I didn’t get to put my hands on any love letters, within twenty minutes I was looking at the picture I had seen on the website of Sanger, Wells and Otis.  And then, a couple of envelopes beneath it, in that same folder, it was there:  the mythical photo of The Great Educationalist.  Or at least I have to believe that is what it is.  The photo appears to be of Cornelia and Emily sitting on the steps in the garden with Mr. Wells, his son and his son’s friends (they are mentioned briefly in the book), and a man with a shock of white hair.

It was a needle in a haystack.  And it was there.  Sometimes you get lucky.

So who is The Great Educationalist after all?  That’s a story and a conundrum for another day, which involves the H.G. Wells Society, conflicting dates and a sudden, dramatic demise.

Gift Shop Report:  As a way to make up for postponing on the Bryn Mawr bookstore, I hit two gift shops today.  The first was at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Home and Museum in Hyde Park, New York.  It’s a nice size, right inside the front entrance at the Visitors Center, and it is loaded with marvelous books, good looking shirts and some nice tchotchkes.

The bookstore at Smith College, located in the Campus Center, seems to have a really pleasing stuff-to-books ratio.  I was able to score a cool sticker for my luggage (which survived two airline flights in good order, aside from some black marks here and there, that I’m thinking a magic eraser might just fix).

People Places Things

Field Report: All over the place

May 18, 2017

Bryn Mawr College

Greetings from the Eastern Standard Timezone.  From Chicago, I flew to Philadelphia a couple of days ago and now I’m posting from upstate New York.

After an overnight stay at the Philly airport LaQuinta, I covered a lot of territory yesterday.  I started the day by picking up my companion for the next ten days, a rental car with a trunk large enough to store all of my belongings, which is where most of it will stay for the duration my East Coast roadtrip.  Now, as they say in the airline commercial, I am free to move about the country.

The car I received from the rental agency at the Philadelphia airport is a Hyundai Sonata with Ontario license plates.  When my friend Daron and I traveled to the Scottish Hebrides a few years ago, she named our rental car Heather.  Following her lead, I’m calling my ride Monty (for a number of reasons, none of them very clever – any guesses?).  I suspect he will be making appearances in some of the photos over the next ten days, and with any luck, he will develop his own weird little cult following.

On our first day together, Monty and I started the morning with a visit to Bryn Mawr College, where Cornelia and Emily met and became friends.  Emily graduated from Bryn Mawr, but Cornelia attended only for a couple of years before studying at the Sorbonne in Paris.  Thankfully, her short time at Bryn Mawr was enough to cement their friendship and inspire the girls to travel together.

I was taking a stroll through the oldest parts of the campus, enjoying the beautiful architecture and foliage, when it occurred to me that this was the first time I knew for certain that I was walking in the girls’ footsteps.  How many times had Emily and Cornelia walked these paths, and gone in and out of these buildings?  It was an unexpected delight to feel connected to them in that moment.

Too soon, I had to get in the car and hit the road, which meant that there was no time for a stop in the campus bookstore, but I left in good conscience, knowing I will be dropping in there on my way back through Philly.

On my way out of town, I had the good fortune to be passing through the Main Line area.  Cornelia mentions this place in Hearts when she is talking about Miss Mary:  “Her other name was Mrs. Charles B. Dudley and she hailed from the Main Line (Philadelphia, of course).”  The name references the railroad, which ran through a number of towns (now suburbs) into what is now downtown Philadelphia, and the Main Line would have been the Beverly Hills of Philly in Cornelia’s day.  From the looks of the heavenly, well-preserved homes (mansions) I saw in just a few minutes of driving, the Main Line has retained its stately beauty.

Then it was on to Allentown, Pennsylvania for an all-too-quick visit with my friend Craig Miller.  He and his partner William were my neighbors briefly in Springfield, and they are still very much missed by all the gang on Walnut St.  Craig gave me a tour of their sublime 1908 rowhouse, which faces a pretty Victorian park, before we headed downtown for a bite at Hamilton.  After lunch, we walked through his neighborhood, looking at the other wonderful old houses before I had to get on the road.  Happily, I will get to see him again in New York, along with William, right before I leave for Europe.

Another unexpected pleasure along the way is how much I am enjoying the drive.  This is the first time I’ve ever really explored the area, so each mile, each bend in the road, is fresh and new.  And it’s been some beautiful driving – divided highways lined with trees, from Philadelphia all the way to Fishkill, New York, which is where I stopped for the night.  It is far more picturesque than its name might lead one to believe.

Next stop:  Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts


And I thought I knew Emily Kimbrough

May 17, 2017

With Linda Kimbrough

Spending an hour with her niece, Linda Kimbrough, at Eva’s Café in Chicago was a real eye-opener for me about the co-author of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  Linda, who very generously agreed to speak with me about her aunt, told me that she did so quite gladly.  Linda admired and adored her aunt, and she shared not just fond memories, but also insights into Emily’s personality, which very much made me rethink the way I perceive the young woman from the book.

Linda, of course, knew her Aunt Emily not as the girl from Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, but as a woman – and a famous one at that – who, as a divorced mother of twin daughters (in a day when no one got divorced), worked as a magazine editor, radio broadcaster and travel writer.  In fact, the first thing Linda mentioned to me was in regards to Emily’s job as editor of the “Ladies’ Home Journal”:

“An early feminist, before anyone knew what that term meant, she reframed that magazine from something about taking care of your husband to something about taking care of yourself, and shifted the whole way in which women started to perceive their matrimonial vows.”

Emily, according to Linda, was indeed the gracious, effervescent woman whom I pictured her blossoming into, but she was also sharp and extremely intelligent.  She did the New York Times crossword puzzle religiously (even Saturday’s puzzle), and was a “profoundly killer Scrabble player.”  When one sat down to a friendly Scrabble game during a weekend visit to Emily’s country home, that guest was invariably trampled and left for dead.

Even Emily’s voice was different to what I imagined.  The Midwest accent from her childhood in Indiana disappeared, and her voice was deep and clipped and “upper crust”.  Linda described it in this way:  “She had this incredible, low, very powerful voice and when she would call you on the phone, it was frightening… She set you back on your heels.  You did not relax with Emily… She was a tough lady.”’

Emily?  Funny, flighty little Emily?!

I asked Linda if she recognized her aunt in the girl in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay and she was quick to respond quite simply, “No.”  So why did Cornelia and Emily, writing as successful, intelligent women, choose to portray themselves as such light creatures?  Linda offered this theory, “I think some of it is their sense of what would sell.  They wanted to write a book that people were going to identify with, and how many people had daughters with as much guts and sand as those two had?  So I think they made a few alterations.”

“But then of course… I didn’t get to know my aunt until she was a force to be reckoned with, the kind of woman who took no prisoners and stood up for herself and framed her own career.”

What a thing it must’ve been for Linda and her brother Charles, as children, to be exposed to such a larger-than-life figure.  Linda is an actress of both stage and screen (I didn’t bring up her film with the brilliant Phillip Seymour Hoffman, “State and Main”, even though I very much wanted to), and Charles Kimbrough, along with decades of performing on New York stages, is probably best known for his role as anchorman Jim Dial on “Murphy Brown”.  Both of them give credit to their Aunt Emily for inspiring them to take the leap of faith and pursue careers in the theatre.

I wish I could’ve met the free-spirited, irreverent young Emily, but I would have liked even more to have known the remarkable woman she became.  Even though she probably would’ve intimidated the heck out of me.