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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.


Mother Dolores Hart remembers Cornelia Otis Skinner

May 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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