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If It’s Two O’Clock, It Must Be Bayeux

July 15, 2017

Road trip!

During my time in Normandy, I needed a rental car in order to visit some of the more remote villages I had on my list.  This was my first time driving alone on foreign soil, but (naively) I’d always felt up to the task.  For some inexplicable reason, I had been under the misguided notion that I could find my way through the French countryside simply by using old-school road maps.  I clung to this belief in the weeks, then days leading up to the “Time in the Car” portion of my summer journey, and staunchly fended off the international smartphone data plans which would provide me with satellite navigation.

It was only when I was picking up the car at the Rouen train station that doubts began to creep in about how I might manage reading an unwieldy paper map while simultaneously driving, and I was beginning to suspect that this road trip could (and probably would) end in any number of disastrous ways.

Thankfully, there was a guardian angel looking out for me somewhere because, by some act of Providence, the rental car assigned to me came equipped with a built-in navigation system.

Now, it was set up to deliver instructions in French.  But, summoning every last bit of French I could remember, I managed to work out from the car manual how to get my navigator speaking to me in English.  And not just that, but I had my choice of what kind of accent my navigator would have – either British English or Australian English.  Without pausing to dwell on the “oversight” of there being no American English option, I selected the Brit because he sounded a bit like a butler, which made me feel rather elegant.

The rental car itself was a Renault (this being France and all), just spacious enough for me and my luggage.  Its exterior color was an unmissable “rouge clair”, which translates roughly to “screaming red” in English.  Not even the most retina-burning shades of fingernail polish could rival the car’s neon glow, so the pressure was on for me to get through my road trip without putting any nicks in the paint job.

It had been in Claire the car that I had visited St. Valery-en-Caux, and then Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery.  After an afternoon spent on the hallowed sand and soil of the D-Day invasion, I was emotionally spent by the time I was in the car and on the road to Bayeux, which was my next destination and stopping point for the night.  God bless that navigation system, for it made quick work of my journey, and delivered me without incident to my hotel in the center of the city.

Stepping through the hotel’s front door, I instantly fell head over heels for the place.  Housed in an ancient building – a converted something-or-other – the hotel was a sublime mix of medieval architecture and swinging modern furnishings.  My appointed room was huge, with three tall windows and a fireplace.  The bed was modern groovy – padded white vinyl with some sort of remote-controlled colored lighting effects built into the underside of the frame.

(It would turn out, unfortunately, that I would never figure out how to work the remote, and in the end I would be too tired to pursue the matter.  Oh well.  I wasn’t cool enough for the bed anyway.)

As soon as I dropped my bags, I hit the streets of Bayeux, and it was love at first sight there, too. Creamy yellow sandstone buildings, ancient, narrow cobblestone streets, a gorgeous cathedral.  It was one of the prettiest cities I had ever visited.

If Bayeux wasn’t already wonderful enough, I discovered walking around town that when it came to restaurants, I was spoiled for choice.  It took a while, but finally I elected to have dinner at a place where I could have some of those delicious mussels in curry sauce.

It was a cozy place, with the tables quite close together.  To my left, there was a French couple who were very polite and very patient with me as we exchanged a bit of small talk in their language.  On my right side was a German family complete with two adorable dogs, one of whom put his paws in my lap and gave me kisses. The family was friendly and we were able to speak a little as well, in French — a second language for both of us.

After my day on the Normandy coastline – the French soil where that watershed battle between Americans and Germans known as D-Day had taken place – Bayeux had brought me back to a happier time: now.  The French, the Germans and my American self all enjoyed our food and wine together, and there was only friendship amongst our tables.

It was just what I needed to reaffirm that goodness and the human spirit can – and always will – prevail.

After a heavenly sleep that night, in the bed that was way too cool for me, I was ready the next morning for a day of balls-to-the-wall sightseeing that would make any “12-countries-in-6-days” tour company proud.  I hit the ground running, starting with a hot-footed trek through the Bayeux Cathedral.  While perhaps not as storied or famous as Notre Dame or Rouen, it is exquisite, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, and worth every moment of the eight and a half minutes I spent touring it before heading onto the next stop, which was a biggie:  The Bayeux Tapestry.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this iconic piece of needlework, especially what sort of reaction I would have to it.  Like most people, I find that when something is historic, legendary, and altogether a huge deal, it’s a real roll of the dice whether or not it can live up to one’s expectations, and what sort of response it will elicit.

Take the La Brea Tar Pits, for example.  One would be lead to believe, simply from Bugs Bunny’s insatiable quest to see them, that they would be “all that”.  Not so.  As many of us have learned upon making that pilgrimage, it’s really a pretty serious letdown.  Yes, the Tar Pits have geological significance (luckily for everyone’s sake, I can’t expound on what it is).  But, for me at least, the whole thing looked like nothing more than a pond with a cloudy black puddle in one corner.  I found myself more excited over a random pool of tar that had broken through the asphalt in the parking lot.

As for its power to inspire awe, the Bayeux Tapestry seemed a bit iffy, and so I prepared myself to be underwhelmed.

Happily, I found the tapestry to be both exceptionally beautiful and interesting, impressive in its scope (but who wouldn’t be dazzled by 68 meters, or 230 feet, of intricate needlework), and I applauded not only its artistry, but marveled over the amount of effort it must’ve taken to produce the piece.  I was so taken with it, in fact, that I even lingered over the tapestry for longer than the allotted fifteen minutes I’d given it – to the point of robbing myself of precious time in the gift shop – before I headed out to where Claire the car was waiting to get on the road to Falaise, our next stop.

As I steered Claire out of Bayeux, I got it into my head to switch the accent on the navigation system from British to Australian.  I was now on Day Five of my isolating Time in the Car, without even Cornelia and Emily to keep me company.  After St. Valery-en-Caux, I had veered off their path, with every place I visited a detour I had designed for myself.  These were my travels.  I was on my own, and wouldn’t meet up the girls again until I returned to Rouen.

Seeing as how I’ve always had a soft spot for Aussies, I figured it would be nice to have someone from the land down under keeping me company as I drove.  With just a little bit of imagination, an Australian navigator could perhaps start to feel like a companion, almost-kinda-sorta like having a boyfriend in the car, riding shotgun and sharing the journey with me.

At first, it was nice.  But soon, I began to feel like my Aussie boyfriend wasn’t so much navigating, as he was telling me how to drive.  Which I really didn’t care for.  Whether it was something about the accent, the voice of the speaker, or just my imagination, it really seemed as if the Aussie was second-guessing my driving.  He began to irritate me, and I grew increasingly annoyed with him each time he told me to turn here or stop there.  It wasn’t long before I had to pull Claire over to the side of the road, and go back to my reliable British butler/navigator.

Still, we made good time to Falaise.  The town of Falaise is famed for its statue of William the Conqueror and his predecessor Dukes of Normandy.  Being a descendant of William the Conqueror – one of many, many millions of descendents – this visit to my grandfathers’ statue was a sort of mini-pilgrimage.  Leaving Claire at the first certain parking space I could locate, I made my way through town over to the square where the monument stands.  Just a few steps away, there was a mammoth castle which perhaps needed exploring.  I took a few minutes to study the figures who encircled William the Conqueror, as well as the Big Duke himself, before making a start towards the castle entrance.  Thankfully, cooler heads quickly prevailed and I chose instead to blow it off.  After all, I’d already done a cathedral, a tapestry and a statue today.  And I can take only so much culture before “museum legs” set in.  That’s what Cornelia and Emily call it.  They suffered from this affliction during their travels as well.

Plus, I still had miles to go before I slept.  So I hustled back to Claire the car and got on the road to Combourg, a neighboring town to Mont St Michel, which I would be visiting the next day.

Full disclosure:  I stopped at a McDonald’s on the way to Combourg.  Yes, in France.  I was in France, with all of that fabulous French food, and I went to McDonald’s.  In my defense, I need say only this:  Coke with ice, free wi-fi, and a respectably clean restroom stocked with toilet paper.

And a parking lot for Claire.

It had been a hectic day, but I managed to make it to Combourg while it was still afternoon.  Combourg turned out to be a handsome little town. The hotel I had booked turned out to be quite nice, with an unexpected sort of New England feel to it, and I managed with half-French, half-English to communicate with the staff.  I was finding that as time went by, at least I wasn’t including as many Spanish words in my sentences as I had been early on.

This was my third town in six hours.  Not normally the way I travel, but sometimes a full-on, hardcore tourist day is called for.  I got to set my own schedule and go anywhere I wanted to.  And it was all made possibly by Claire and my navigational butler (with help from the overbearing Aussie as well, I suppose).

 

Photos:

Above:  Looking up to the statue of William the Conqueror from the base.  In the foreground is William Longsword, his great-great-great-grandfather.

Below:

Top Row:  The Villa des Ursulines, second from the left (my room spans the three windows on the second floor); my way cool hotel room; no, it’s not a movie set, it’s Bayeux.

Bottom Row:

An imposing bit of the Bayeux Cathedral; the Cordeliers’ Gate, part of the ramparts surrounding the city of Falaise (Claire the car can be seen waiting outside the gate); photo-op with some of my kin (a small hint of the massive castle can be seen to the right of the statue).

People Places Things

A Fishing Village With a Great Divide

July 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only that church didn’t exist anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photos:

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

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

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

Places Things

The Eternal Embarrassment of Safety Pockets

July 1, 2017

The Victoria & Albert Museum.

An incident which I consider to be one of the funniest in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay involves an item known as a “safety-pocket”.  A forerunner to today’s money belts, this Victorian accessory served the same purpose for female travelers in the late 19th century, safeguarding their passports, money and important papers.

At the very beginning of the Our Hearts, Cornelia explains that her mother has coerced her into wearing one for her journey abroad, describing it as, “a large chamois purse that dangled at the knees in the manner of a sporran and was attached… to an adjustable belt around the waist.  It was worn, supposedly inconspicuously, under skirt and slip…”

But Cornelia’s slinky, skin-tight 1920s wardrobe is no match for this bulky object, which not only protrudes from the outline of her dresses, but also tends to swing out of control at the slightest movement.  Her only consolation comes when she discovers that Emily has been forced by her mother to wear a safety-pocket as well.  There is a darling illustration in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay of the girls showing each other those dreadful appendages that have been fastened onto them by their mothers.

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take long for these items to become a terrible embarrassment to the girls.  It happens when they try to make the best of the fact that the ship they’re traveling on to Europe is stuck on a sandbar and listing to one side.  They attempt to dance on a slippery, tilted floor with some nice young men whom they had met earlier in the day.  Cornelia explains:

“Gradually I became aware that something soft and strange was bumping against my knees… [My partner] began glancing downward uneasily and I realized that something was, in all probability, hitting him too.  Then, with a wave of horror, it dawned upon me what was happening.  That mortifying safety-pocket of mine had got swaying and was rhythmically and indiscriminately thudding first against my limbs then against those of the mystified young man.”

At that same moment, Cornelia sees Emily, her face beet red, walk off the dance floor with her partner.  Clearly the same thing has just happened to her.  That pretty much spells the end of the safety-pockets.

On my first sojourn abroad, my mother sent me off with a 20th century version of the safety-pocket, which was a pouch suspended by a cord worn around my neck, that hung down to my waist.  So instead of flapping beneath my skirt (as if I was wearing skirts as I backpacked through Europe!), my pouch bounced beneath my shirts and tended to give me the appearance of being roughly five months pregnant.  The next time I traveled, I went with the much-derided fanny pack, which strangely enough has suddenly made a (presumably short-lived) comeback in the fashion world.

I decided early on in this project that I wanted to make the safety-pocket one of the subjects for a blog post.  Riveting, I know.  Hey, they can’t all be tabloid-salacious.  But don’t worry, there’s one of those coming.

Safety pockets.  Try as I might, I hadn’t been able to locate a photo of anything that resembled the illustration in Our Hearts.  But in my research, I had come across references to early women’s pockets in some books and articles from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textiles and Fashion Collection, which sounded similar to Cornelia’s description of their safety-pockets.  And yes, there are whole books written about the evolution of pockets.  Makes my post seem electrifying in comparison, doesn’t it?

Armed with these bits of information, I headed over to the sublime V&A Museum.  It was buzzing with large crowds who were there to take in the Pink Floyd exhibition and/or view a collection of over one hundred garments from designer Balenciaga – just two of many focus-pulling attractions the V&A had on offer.  My plan was to knock out the safety-pocket question first, then spend some time looking at the pretty fashions before having tea in the Gamble Room.  It was going to be the most lovely, girly, prissy day.

I went to the general information desk to ask one of the nice ladies behind the counter where I should inquire about an item in the textile and fashion archives.  She asked for specifics, and I explained that I was doing research on a safety-pocket, and stated ever-so-helpfully, “It’s sort of a 19th century version of a fanny pack.”  The woman blinked a bit at what I said and then hastily pointed me in the direction of the textiles hall, saying, “they might be able to help you better”, while another woman passing nearby with a group of school kids in tow looked at me somewhat disapprovingly.

There wasn’t any sort of research desk in the textiles and fashion area, so I stepped up to the reception counter where a couple of staff members were collecting tickets from a steady stream of visitors to the Balenciaga collection.  The young woman noticed me and moved over to help.  Once again, I explained what I was looking for, again making the fanny pack reference.  She hesitated, then got the young man’s attention and she took tickets while he helped me.  For the third time I went through my spiel, at which the young man drew in his breath before breaking into a wry smile.  In a flash, it hit me why everyone seemed so perplexed and a bit put off about helping me, and I was mortified.

Had it really been so long since I lived here that I could have forgotten about the word fanny?  How that gentle American word for backside, as innocuous as “tushy” or “derriere”, to the English, is a vulgar slang term for lady parts.  Though not as bad as the c-word, it’s still quite crass, pretty much on par with the kitty-cat word.

I had just been a potty-mouth in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

I had basically been telling everyone I encountered that I was looking for a “pussy pack”.  On realizing this, I apologized profusely to the two people at the counter and then explained again, using the proper English term “bum bag”.  At this, they suggested I speak with one of the curators, who didn’t seem to be anywhere in sight, and then gave me the names of a couple of books they had on display which might contain what I was looking for.

I checked out the two books, but couldn’t find any photos which resembled the illustration in “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay”.  Still stinging a bit from embarrassment, I decided not to seek out a curator, and gave up the search.  I even skipped on tea in the Gamble Room.  I wasn’t feeling very prissy anymore.

Cornelia and Emily had been humiliated by safety-pockets, so in keeping in sync with their journey, I suppose it’s only fitting that I should be humiliated by them as well.  There seems to be no end to the trouble those silly things can cause.

Top Row:  Cornelia and Emily expose their shameful secret in an illustration by Alajalov; my vintage, sweat-stained travel pouches.

Bottom Row:  The closest thing I ever found to a photo of a safety-pocket; the Gamble Room at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where I didn’t have tea.

People Places Things

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

June 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Things

When “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay” Went to War

June 29, 2017

The pocket-sized Armed Services Edition of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay

And now, a brief timeout from my travels to share a bit more of the story surrounding Our Hearts Were Young and Gay

In December 1942, when Cornelia’s and Emily’s book was published, America had been at war for over a year, and the country was galvanized to not only supply the troops and arms needed to defeat Germany and Japan, but to support in any way they could the soldiers fighting on those fronts.

A number of New York’s largest publishing houses had formed the “Council on Books in War”, as a response to reports that had been coming out of Germany for almost ten years of state-sanctioned book burnings.  The Nazi campaign to obliterate any literature they deemed “un-German” was so pervasive that it is estimated, by the end of the war, Germany had destroyed over 100 million books.

The Council on Books came up with a plan to supply American soldiers with books, not only for entertainment and to boost morale, but to fight against Hitler’s “war on ideas”.  Working within the severe paper rationing restrictions which had been in place ever since the US entered the war, the Council designed small paperback versions of popular books which could be sent overseas.

Printed on magazine paper, the books, known as Armed Services Editions (ASEs), could withstand damp weather conditions and rough handling better than traditional books.  They were lightweight and cut to the exact measurements of a soldier’s uniform.  Smaller books were designed to fit into a soldier’s pants pocket, while larger books fit exactingly into the shirt’s breast pocket.

Beginning in September 1943 and continuing until 1946, the Council printed and the US government supplied over 123 million copies of 1,227 different book titles to the troops.  The selections included both fiction and non-fiction books, with genres ranging from history to humor, thrillers to romance, great works of literature to current bestsellers.  Instantly, they became widely popular with the troops, as Molly Guptill Manning explains in When Books Went to War:

“… Armed Services Editions… were everywhere:  servicemen read them while waiting in line for chow or a haircut, when pinned down in a foxhole… They were so ubiquitous, one sailor remarked that a man was ‘out of uniform if one isn’t sticking out his hip pocket’… Books of humor made them laugh when there was nothing funny about their circumstances.  Tales of life back home transported them to the places they missed and hoped to see again.  By reading, the men received the closest thing to a respite from war.”

“With books in their pockets, American GIs stormed the beaches of Normandy, trekked to the Rhine and liberated Europe; they hopped from one deadly Pacific island to the next, from the shores of Australia to the backyard of Japan.” — Molly Guptill Manning

Having spent five weeks at number one on the New York Times Bestseller List at the beginning of 1943, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay was selected as one of the titles to be printed in the second series of books being sent to the soldiers in October 1943.  Emily would write to the Council on Books to thank them for the honor, stating that she and Cornelia were more proud of the Armed Services Edition than of being chosen as a book of the month.

And do you know, as it would turn out, this sweet, funny story of two girls traveling to Europe in 1922 would be such a hit with the battle-hardened GIs that it would be reprinted and sent to the troops again in February 1945?

What’s more, there would be, not just one, but two anecdotes which would emerge from the war about the ASE version of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  The first was recounted by Private Robert Healey, who had taken part in the Normandy invasion.  On returning to Omaha Beach the day after D-Day, he came across a fallen soldier, his arm outstretched, and just a few feet from his hand was a copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.

On the other side of the world, a similar story would come from Saipan, by a Captain J.H. Magruder, who wrote to the Saturday Evening Post about coming across a fallen marine with an ASE sticking out of his pocket.  The book was Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  This incident would later be taken up by Hollywood, and fictionalized in the John Wayne movie, “The Sands of Iwo Jima”.

It’s astonishing that, with over 1,200 different books distributed to the soldiers, there should be two of these accounts involving Cornelia’s and Emily’s book and, as far as I could find, no similar anecdotes about any of the other ASE titles.

Especially given that, on its surface, Cornelia’s and Emily’s book seems like an odd choice to send to the soldiers.  But then again, in between those most-welcome, laugh-out-loud moments, the book must have also served as a reminder of better times, of what the boys were fighting for.  And the lively, lovely England and France that Cornelia and Emily had captured was very much worth fighting for, a world very much worth saving.

Which is what those young men did.  We can never thank them enough for that, but we can try.  Thank you, boys.

It’s amazing where a story can take you.  When I started out to follow the journey of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, I was completely unaware of its compelling connections to World War II.  I use the plural “connections”, because there is a strange flip-side to this tale, which involves that mysterious trip to the Bletchley Park archives.

I will divulge the rest of that story in my next post.

 

(With many thanks to Molly Guptill Manning, author of “When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II”, for telling this little-known story.  Many of the details I’ve included here are taken from her beautifully written book.)

Left: A first edition and an Armed Services Edition, both complete books.  The pocket-sized ASE is 3/4″ thick.

Right: A display case at the American Cemetery in Normandy, captioned “What They Carried With Them”, containing copies of Armed Services Editions.

Places Things

A Day at the Races

June 22, 2017

While the majority of this summer’s journey is all about me following in the footsteps of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay – going where Cornelia and Emily went, doing the same things they did whenever possible – there have also been times where I ventured off and did things that the girls didn’t.

Royal Ascot was one of those occasions.

Full disclosure:  I have absolutely no interest in horse racing, but I am a big fan of the movie My Fair Lady and, in particular, the scene where Audrey Hepburn attends the Ascot opening day in that liquid silver gown with the enormous, simply delectable confection of a hat.

This summer was my first opportunity to attend Ascot, or, more accurately, it was when I discovered that there was no mystery or magic or secret handshake, to going to the races.  One simply got online and ordered tickets.  Even for the oh-so-exclusive Royal Enclosure, yes, there were tickets available inside that inner sanctum.  As lovely as that would have been for my first time going to the race, to be in the Eliza Doolittle Royal Enclosure, I was pretty certain that I hadn’t brought anything elegant enough to wear for that level of formality.  So I purchased a ticket in the Queen Anne enclosure, which appeared to be geared toward a younger, more lively crowd.  And as long as I wasn’t going to be in the Royal Enclosure anyway, I opted to attend on Ladies Day instead of Opening Day because it also sounded more fun.

When it came to the check-out webpage, the first drop down menu item was “Title”, which offered not just the standard choices of “Mr, Mrs, Ms and Miss”, but everything from “Admiral” to “Dowager Duchess” to “The Marquess of”.  For a wild moment, I considered listing myself as “Viscountess”, but then got panicked that there might be “poser police” who would bust me for falsely claiming to be a member of the peerage.

Once the ticket was booked, all I needed was a really good hat.  Ladies always wear hats to Ascot.  Audrey Hepburn had worn a hat.  A really good hat.

I spent the better part of a day in the stores on Oxford St, and finally settled on a quite pleasing fascinator in electric orange – less Eliza Doolittle and more Aunt Eller in Oklahoma, which was where I had first heard of a fascinator.  Of course, everyone knows – right? – that a fascinator is basically a headband adorned with frills, feathers and frippery, formed into a wonderfully sculptural bit of nonsense.  Well, I was simply over the moon about mine, especially when the saleslady wrapped it up in its own hatbox.

Ever since my arrival in London two weeks earlier, I had been seeing numerous women walking along the streets carrying hatboxes, and now it was intensely satisfying to be joining their ranks.  I felt transported to a different time, when ladies routinely wore hats and gloves and pretty dresses – so glamorous.  I suspect it was like how Cornelia and Emily felt when they purchased their white rabbit fur coats, and carried home their enormous boxes from the store.

On the day of the race, I took the train from Waterloo station, which was a treat in itself.  Everyone was dressed for Ascot, and the champagne and various beverages were flowing.  There was laughter and high spirits even with a standing room only crowd in the train car.  In no time we arrived at Ascot, and I found my way to the Queen Anne enclosure in the center of the racetrack oval.  There was music and food and cocktails.  And milling around amongst the crowd was like being in the middle of an enormous, incredible fashion show.  It was all quite splendid.

I managed to maneuver into a spot on the front line in time to see the royals arrive in a procession of carriages.  It had taken me almost 30 years to see a royal in person, and now within the span of five days, I had seen a whole pack of them – twice!

I mingled and chatted with a number of fellow attendees, sampled the dainty sandwiches and pastries, had a couple of glasses of champagne, and never again made it close to the track to see the races.  Occasionally there would be the low rumble of horses’ hooves, and some cheers, and I might glance at a TV monitor to see the finish.  But that was pretty much the extent of my experience with the races themselves.  As I mentioned earlier, horse racing really isn’t my thing.

By mid-afternoon, I was ready to head back to London.  I left before the races were done and the after-parties began, but I needed to get out of my shoes.

I had seen the fashions.  I had worn my fascinator.  That is what Ascot had been about for me – the pomp and pageantry of it all.  And I had not been disappointed.  My day had been perfect and complete.

There is a wee bit more to the story of my day at the races, involving the train ride back to London with a Bafta Award-winning actor dressed as a woman, who led me to consider, for the first time ever, the notion of dating a transvestite.  But I think I’ll save that bit for the book.

Top Row:  So pretty, so prissy, my fascinator in its hatbox; Audrey at Ascot; a lively morning commute on the train.

Bottom Row:  The only horses I saw on race day were the Queen’s; a proper dandy, surrounded by hats; end of the day selfie, and I just want to be out of my shoes.

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, in homage to 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 it 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.  An ideal ending for a day of successes in matching up my world to Cornelia’s and Emily’s.

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:  Ghostly 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; the Riverside Brasserie dining room, probably much as it would have looked to Cornelia, Emily, Otis and Maud; a view from the bridge of the Riverside Brasserie (formerly the Mitre Bar) today; the Mitre Inn and Bar, circa 1920s.

  

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 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.