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And I thought I knew Emily Kimbrough

May 17, 2017

With Linda Kimbrough

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

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

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

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

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

Emily?  Funny, flighty little Emily?!

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

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

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

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