Browsing Category


People Places Things

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.


Places Things

Declassified: A day at Bletchley Park

June 14, 2017

Last week, I hopped on a train and traveled about an hour northwest of London to Bletchley Park.  Pretty much everyone knows from history class, or the films “Enigma” and “The Imitation Game”, that this is the legendary site where men and women worked tirelessly during World War II to crack the codes and decipher the messages being sent from Axis intelligence.  It is estimated that their success in breaking the enemies’ codes shortened the war by two to four years, and that without Bletchley Park’s intelligence work, the outcome of the war would have been uncertain.  That is how important the efforts of these mathematicians, linguists, chess champions and crosswords experts were, and why their work was a closely-guarded secret even up until the mid-1970s.

It was sunny and warm, utterly perfect, on the day I visited Bletchley Park.  My tour began in a modern building which houses some cool interactive exhibits, such as trying your hand at finding and deciphering radio transmissions.  Visitors are surrounded by photos, films and recordings which place them squarely into the dark, early days of the war, before they venture out to explore the buildings, huts and grounds of Bletchley Park.

(And though it is meant to be the last stop on the way out, well, it couldn’t be helped – I got sucked in.  Bletchley Park has a divine gift shop.  There are candies and cookies in replicas of wartime tins, books, posters, postcards, numerous accessories and apparel, and – my favorite – Bletchley editions of puzzle books like crosswords and Sudoku.)

Before heading out to the grounds, I stopped and picked up a headset along with a nifty audio tour Gameboy-looking device.  Let me just say, audio tours are getting very sophisticated, and fun.  This one gives visitors options at every location, from offering a brief history of a particular spot, to hearing voices of those who worked there, to solving a puzzle or two.  Even with my chronic condition known by Cornelia and Emily as “museum legs”, I was able to take in and enjoy a great deal of the place before I got tired of my headset, went and bought an ice cream, and sat down on a bench by the lake to eat it.

(It should also be mentioned that Bletchley Park houses two cafes, each serving really tasty lunchtime fare made from locally sourced ingredients.  I recommend the one in Hut 4, which was formerly the Naval Intelligence Codebreaking hut.  Bletchley also has afternoon tea in the mansion on the weekends.  Way nice.)

What has any of this got to do with Emily, Cornelia and Our Hearts Were Young and Gay?  After all, the girls traveled to Europe in 1922, long before the hint of war.  Even in 1942, when they wrote the book, Cornelia and Emily certainly wouldn’t have had the slightest notion of the existence of Bletchley Park.

Well, there is in fact a specific and rather astonishing reason for my visit to this historic site, which has to do with Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  This Spring, while I was doing research, I came across a very surprising claim about the book, and I wanted to find out if the report was true.  It involved –

[NOTE:  The rest of this post has been deemed classified – by me – for the present moment, with hopes that the full story of the strange report I discovered this Spring can be brought to light in the near future.]

Below:  The blissful setting of Bletchley Park must’ve helped with the poor, frayed nerves of those working there; the “maudlin and monstrous pile” of the mansion house; proud swan parents and their fuzzy babies; the Enigma.

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.

Places Things

Getting it all wrong in the Big Apple

May 31, 2017

Even my photo of marvelous Lincoln Center looks dreary… and crooked

The next time I’m in New York City, I’m going to get tickets to at least one Broadway show.

Next time, I’m going to stay long enough to explore different parts of the city.  And allow myself at least one day of meandering through Central Park.

Next time, I’m not going to let some unpleasant weather mess with my visit, and make me cross.

Next time, I’m going to follow my nose into one of the amazing restaurants that seem to be every 20 feet in this city, even if it means having to dress up a bit.

And the next time I’m here, I’m going to find that I have correctly requested the research materials I wanted, and not majorly screwed that up.

… Yeah, so you know how I mentioned that I was going to be heading to the Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center to look through Cornelia Otis Skinner’s scrapbooks?  Well, see, when I submitted my request online, I entered a general reference number only, and when the system took it, I mistakenly assumed that this covered all of the materials I wanted to look at.  Which meant the only material pulled for me was the first item on Cornelia’s collection list, a scrapbook that wasn’t on my priorities list because it didn’t fall into the years I’m researching.

By the time I discovered my mistake, it was too late to get the correct materials sent over from the off-site storage facility.  The library staff was very kind, and said they would do their best to try to get at least a few things brought over by this morning (which would give me about two hours with the materials before I needed to head out to Brooklyn to board the ship), but they told me not to get my hopes up.

Maybe I was due for a little setback, after all of the amazing luck I’ve had so far on this journey.  A little yang to go with the yin.

It could be road fatigue catching up to me.  I’ve also started misplacing things, or just downright losing them.  I’ve gotten behind on my journal writing.  It’s been days since I’ve practiced with my French app.  And I cannot muster enough focus to figure out even one of the websites where I should be posting my blog.

It’s all a bit deflating.  More yang.

But on the other hand, the cool, cloudy, windy days have made for much better walking weather.  The hours that I had planned to be at a library desk were now freed up, and I had time to check out Emily’s old apartment building on the Upper East Side, which was originally the Joseph Pulitzer mansion.  I got to wander through the theatre district, searching for (and finding!) some of the venues where Cornelia and her father Otis had performed in their days.  I had time to slow down and chat with other visitors to New York, as well as some of the natives themselves.

And when I went ahead and looked at that rogue scrapbook which I hadn’t been interested in, it turned out to be from Cornelia’s one woman show, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”, the one I’ve been fascinated by ever since I read about it.  There were photographs of her as every one of those poor wretched queens, with captions for each, and a brief synopsis of each woman’s story on a separate sheet in the back.  It was a wonderful surprise, and just the thing to put a spring back into my step.

So it’s not the end of the world that I didn’t get my hands on those other scrapbooks yesterday.  When I told my parents about my mess-up, my mom was quick to say, “Just do it when you come back from your trip.  Change your flights and stay however many days you need in New York.”  She’s right.  It will cost a little money, but this situation is fixable.

It looks like my “Next Time” is already in the works.

Below:  Cornelia Otis Skinner as Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr.

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.

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.


Nerd alert in Quebec City

May 22, 2017

When we last left Cornelia and Emily, they were on the passenger steamer Montcalm, leaving port in Montreal and headed towards Liverpool, England.  But their boat would never make it beyond the St. Lawrence River because, as reported in the Shipping News of that year, the Montcalm ran aground on June 2, 1922, somewhere between Three Rivers and Quebec City, within only hours of leaving the dock in Montreal.

(According to Cornelia and Emily, they sailed on June 10th, and glossed over mentioning the exact year.  But, fortunately for the Montcalm, I could find only one incident of it running aground, and that was on June 2, 1922.  And from what I can work out, the Empress of France, on which the girls would eventually sail, departed on Monday, June 12, 1922.  So I have to think that the women, when they were writing the book, just picked the arbitrary date of June 10th, never thinking that 75 years later some obsessed fan would be fact checking them.)

It took almost two days to dislodge the Montcalm from the riverbed.  During that time, the ship rested at a fairly substantial angle, and though the situation hadn’t seemed dire enough to have the passengers taken off, “… a river steamer came up to stand-by” just in case the boat did capsize.  Eventually with the help of a few tug boats, the Montcalm was lifted off the rocks and towed into Quebec City.

That was where I was headed to now, to stay in the same hotel where Cornelia and Emily stayed after their adventure on the Montcalm.  Fortunately for them and me both, the CPO line, owners of the vessel, put the girls up at the glamorous (and now historic) Chateau Frontenac.

It took only two hours, as opposed to the girls’ two days, for me to get from Montreal to Quebec City.  I arrived in Old Town (le Vieux Ville) just as the most lovely narrow streets lined with ancient stone buildings were beginning to turn on their lights for visitors, who were coming out for the evening to the restaurants and bars.  It was love at first sight for me, even before I pulled Monty in under the arches at the Chateau Frontenac.

This magnificent hotel, built in the late 1800s, has played host to politicians, celebrities and royalty for over a hundred years, and they have done it in a grand style worthy of their five-star ranking.  For Cornelia and Emily, after the chaos of their first two days of travel, being welcomed into this “swanky hostelry”, as Cornelia called it, must’ve been a most joyous moment.

“The clerk at the Chateau Frontenac beamed kindly upon us and gave us a large and comfortable room overlooking the terrace promenade.  The place rather overwhelmed us, so much so that we thought we’d better dress for dinner…” – Cornelia Otis Skinner

In a happy coincidence, I was given a lovely room with the same view as the girls, and I, too, felt compelled to dress for dinner, but only to the extent that I would be presentable enough to enjoy some seafood chowder in the hotel bar (which was some of the best I’ve ever tasted, by the way).

Though I hadn’t just endured two days on a listing, sinking ship, I was still tired enough to curl up in bed straight after dinner (in a plush hotel bathrobe, of course), and spend some time reading Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, enjoying once again the bizarre, wonderful moments which occur during Cornelia’s and Emily’s crazy time on the shipwrecked boat.  There is the infamous deck chair caper.  And then, of course, the mortifying “safety pocket” incident, which makes me laugh whenever I read it.  My day, which had begun with tea at the Ritz, ended just as marvelously.

I drifted off to sleep, imagining Cornelia and Emily wandering these same halls, and possibly staying in this very room.

Cornelia and Emily spent only one night at the Chateau Frontenac before being whisked away the next morning by Miss Mary Dudley, a longtime friend of Cornelia’s mother, to her summer home in the bucolic hillsides of Les Eboulements.  For some misguided reason, I had felt that this should be my plan as well when I had originally made my reservation.  Needless to say, it was with some regret and disappointment (and perhaps even a smidgen of pouting about it) that I checked out of the Chateau Frontenac after just a few delightful hours here, and started the drive with Monty to Les Eboulements.

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.

Places Things

A day at the lake… and aboard the starship Enterprise

May 20, 2017

These few weeks before I leave for Europe are filled with days of research, appointments and visiting places mentioned in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  But at present, I have a couple of days in between book-related stops, which allows me to be a bit more spontaneous with my schedule.

Which is why I am currently in Lake George, New York, staying at an adorable little mom-and-pop motel on the lake, appropriately named the Lake Motel.  All of upstate New York seems to be beautiful, but I finally settled on Lake George because it is on the road up to Montreal, which is my next “book stop”.  The idea was that I would have two (or maybe three) nights here, take a break from the road, and get caught up on all of my writing and website-related stuff.  Also, with the temperature in the 90s, I was eager to enjoy some kayaking on the lake.

But, well, then a storm system moved in the night after I got here and I woke up the next morning to cloudy skies and 60-degree weather.  So with a promise to myself to work in the afternoon, I opted to take off in the car to explore the area.  Driving alongside Lake George past the most darling little decades-old resorts was a treat.  Lush forests, hills, the massive lake, and winding roads which occasionally passed through tiny towns with stone churches – it was just a marvelous way to spend the morning.

I made my way up to Ticonderoga, one of the largest towns along the lake (population around 5,000), about 35 miles north of Lake George to visit the Star Trek Original Series Set Tour.

No lie.

See, what happened was, I was speaking with my friend Allen (a longtime trekker, he was one of the creators of Dixie Trek), and when I mentioned that I was heading to Lake George, he told me about James Cawley, a fan so devoted to “Star Trek” that he has spent years building exact replicas of the sets from the 1960s series, which he has on display and available for tours, just a few miles from where I would be staying.  How is that for luck?

Even knowing that much of the experience would be lost on me, I still went in honor of Allen (and perhaps just to annoy him a little).  As a non-devotee of Trek, I was nevertheless impressed by Cawley’s attention to detail and resourcefulness in recreating the sets.  With guidance from some members of the original series design team, he has worked hard to create the feel of what it was like to walk onto the soundstage.  One of the best touches is the warning button which, when pushed, sounds an alarm, and red lights flash throughout the entire ship, just as they did in the show.

It is easy to see why trekkers come from everywhere to visit Cawley’s creation.  They must thrill in this experience the way I did when I made the pilgrimage to Highclere Castle, a.k.a. “Downton Abbey”.  Trekkers would be as delighted to step into the Enterprise’s sick bay as I was to be in the room where poor Mr. Pamuk died.

While I don’t share Cawley’s passion for “Star Trek”, I admire it, and I admire his commitment.  What started as his hobby project over a decade ago has grown into a remarkable creation which he can truly be proud of.  I just wish I had gotten to say this to him before I left, but he was with another tour as my own tour was ending.   Fans of “Star Trek” will be pleased to know, James is still adding to the display, using blueprints from the series to create some of the more memorable swing sets.

Gift shop report:  No gift shop as of yet, but James is working on that as well.

But that wasn’t my biggest discovery of the day.

As I was driving along the lake, on my way to Ticonderoga, I must’ve passed by twenty places that piqued my curiosity, but as I was trying to make it for the noon tour, I didn’t take time out to stop in any of the quaint little hamlets or at any of the numerous, beguiling antique shops.  Now, of course, I could’ve simply gone on a later tour, and allowed myself to stop the car.  But I come from a line of people who tend to speed past places like the Alamo and Stonehenge without so much as taking our foot off the gas pedal.  I did the Vatican 5-hour tour in 45 minutes.  And yesterday, even with the day being all my own, with no set time that I have to be in a certain place, I didn’t stop the car.

I’m still in a hurry.

This is probably a good realization to have early on in my travels.  Or perhaps it is the voice of everyone’s favorite teenager that somehow got placed into my subconscious while I was visiting Chicago:

“Life moves pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” — Ferris Bueller

Maybe in the upcoming days and weeks, I won’t whiz past a place, having twinges of regret as it disappears in the rearview mirror.  It’s at least worth a try once in a while.  I suspect that an occasional unscheduled stop might just enrich my experience.

Just about to get in the car and head to Ausable Chasm, the Grand Canyon of the Northeast.  But I will be taking my time getting there today.