Browsing Tag

Cornelia Otis Skinner

People Places

Know Where You Stand: In the Footsteps of Heroes

July 14, 2017

Le quatorze juillet, or the 14th of July.  French Independence Day or, as we Americans call it, Bastille Day.  Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, after being blasted out of their beds by celebratory cannon fire, spent their Bastille Day in 1922 on a remote hillside near St. Valery-en-Caux waiting for the big gun to stop firing.  In the evening, they attended a fete along the seaside promenade, where they danced with the locals into the wee hours.  It proved to be one of their favorite memories from their summer abroad – their own “Summer of Independence”.

Ninety-five years later, there was no cannon fire to roust me from my sleep, and there didn’t seem to be any activity in St. Valery to suggest that there was to be a party on the promenade.  So I felt perfectly fine about stepping out of the girls’ footsteps, leaving St. Valery to celebrate without me, and spending my July 14th with the American heroes who gave their lives so that French independence could still be celebrated today.  Offering a brief apology to Cornelia and Emily for pulling them away from their fun, I invited them to come with me, even though where I was going didn’t exist during their travels, or even when they penned the book in 1942.

I would be taking the girls with me to June 6, 1944 – D-Day – and the beaches of the Normandy invasion. 

My first stop:  the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer.  I began my visit with a tour of the museum, which was a moving experience from start to finish, yet there is one thing which stands out in my memory above anything else:  In a display case captioned, “What They Carried With Them”, along with personal items and some tins of rations, there were two copies of Armed Services Editions of books.

In an earlier post, I shared the poignant story of the Armed Services Editions, pocket-sized copies of classics and popular books which were distributed to American troops, and how they contributed greatly to the morale of the soldiers, offering them an escape from the war.  Our Hearts Were Young and Gay was one of the books selected to be sent to the troops and, remarkably, would end up figuring in a story from D-Day.  Recounted by Private Robert Healey, who had taken part in the Normandy invasion, the anecdote involves his return to Omaha Beach the day after D-Day, where he came across a fallen soldier, arm outstretched, and how just a few feet from the soldier’s hand was a copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  That tiny footnote in history is the main reason I wanted Cornelia and Emily with me for this part of my journey.

Spotting the two ASEs in the display case, I didn’t register what the books’ titles were.  Just them being there meant so much to me – they certainly didn’t have to be copies of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. Those books had been important to a couple of the young men who crossed that day.  I just prayed that the books’ owners weren’t beneath any of those headstones outside, but I feared that it was what the books’ presence signified.

Leaving the museum, I found outside that the day couldn’t have been more beautiful – sunshine with a light breeze and an occasional puff of a white cloud drifting across the sky.  But even its loveliness couldn’t ward off the heart-wrenching sadness of the cemetery filled with American soldiers.

Though I had steeled myself and braced for the hit, I wasn’t prepared for the scope of what I was seeing, and I felt as if my breath had been knocked out of my body. 

Containing the graves of over 9,000 soldiers, the cemetery is located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach.  Its gently curving hillside slopes so that you can’t see an end to the headstones which mark the resting places of the soldiers – the crosses and Stars of David seem to go on forever.  A painful forever.

It is worth noting that the grounds of the cemetery are captivatingly beautiful, and immaculate.  A place worthy of honoring these greatest of heroes.  For a time, I walked in and out of the rows upon rows of grave markers, stopping occasionally to read them.  There were boys from every state.  Some had been killed that very first day, June 6, 1944, while others had died days or weeks later from their injuries.

I felt compelled to walk the perimeter of the entire cemetery, around each of the four corners, in order to pay at least a passing visit to every grave.  In the far corner, away from any nearby visitors, I cried for the young men who had died and then remained so far from home.  I cried for their lost potential, and for the pain their families had to bear.

I thanked them for what they had done.  They had fought for the most noble cause in human history.  They stood up against the greatest, most far-reaching evil the world had ever seen, and they saved us.  I told them I was so sorry they had to do it.  And I said a prayer and a blessing for them to rest in peace.

And then I remembered the soldier who had died on Omaha Beach with the copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay next to his hand.  It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment, but I suddenly understood that he was somewhere in the cemetery, under one of the headstones.  Now my visit had become personal, about one young man in particular who had lost his life on June 6, 1944.  I wished that I could have known which headstone was his, and who that young man was.  But, really, he was all of them.

The day was slipping away, and there was still Omaha Beach to visit.  I only wished that I had allowed more time, and could have visited everything there was to see in this area teeming with history.  I would just have to come back again.  I was glad to have that on my to-do list.

It was a short drive from the cemetery to the beach, and soon I was making the turn onto the “Rue de la 1st Division”.  When I arrived, there were still loads of people out enjoying a day at the seaside, in the water and relaxing on the beach.  I parked at the top of a hill near the memorial to the 1st Division, and then walked down to the obelisk honoring those heroes.  Stopping there, I said a prayer of thanks to those young men who truly, literally, stared into the guns, unflinching and unrelenting.  Near their memorial stand remains of Nazi bunkers, where German soldiers mowed down those Americans as they tried, and eventually managed, to advance.  Seeing those bunkers got my blood up, and I spit on one of them on my way down the hill to the beach.

As I took my last steps down the slope and started towards the water, I met up with a golden retriever who was wandering around some old bit of bunker sticking out of the sand.  I stopped and petted the sweet fellow, then walked a few feet on, where I waded into a shallow pool made by the low tide.

Looking out at the Channel, it didn’t take much effort to see the landing crafts, and the soldiers coming towards shore.  I could feel them around me, running past me in the sand, and almost hear their voices and the noise of the guns, almost smell the smoke. They are still there.  Those brave young men invested too much of their souls into this place to just dissolve into the past.  I asked myself, what must the soldiers think of all these people here now, who are so carefree and unaware of their enduring presence on this sacred ground?

But then it occurred to me that perhaps – just maybe – this is the best way to heal the wounds of the past.  We move forward in joy, in peace, and in hope, filling the beaches of D-Day with laughter again.  Picnics, flying kites, playing in the water, soaking up the sunshine.  Hopefully it brings those soldiers some comfort.  It is what they would have wanted for themselves and their families.  Perhaps in its way, it is a tribute to the soldiers’ sacrifice.

After a while, I turned and looked back across the beach to the hillside, deliberately choosing to keep myself in the present moment.  I couldn’t bring myself to envision the young men attempting to cross the beach, some of them losing their lives, with the smoke and gunfire all around.

That young man with the copy of Cornelia’s and Emily’s book had fallen somewhere here in the sand where I now stood.

Fighting to remain in July 14, 2017, I focused on the families enjoying the beach, happy and relaxed, basking in the beautiful day.  And I watched delightedly as my golden retriever buddy made the rounds, saying hello to everyone he encountered.

Before I left, I wrote “Thank you” in the sand.  I wanted to make sure that the soldiers knew, even by my one little gesture, that they were remembered.  And with that, I put on my shoes and climbed back up to the memorial, taking the same hill those brave young men had taken.  It was my very humble way of honoring their courageous efforts and their fight.

Though my experience on this day was a world apart from Cornelia’s and Emily’s July 14th, my Bastille Day had proved to be one of my favorite memories from the entire journey.  Just like their Bastille Day had been for the girls.  Funny how it all comes around to that marvelous, strange synergy.

And I was glad I had asked Cornelia and Emily to come along with me.  Though their travels and their book pre-date this watershed moment in history, they are tied to this place by the soldiers who read, and were hopefully cheered by, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  Still, on this day, my focus wasn’t on the girls or their book, and I didn’t follow in their footsteps.

Instead, I walked in the footsteps of heroes.



Above:  The grave of a “A Comrade in Arms known but to God”.


Top Row:  Along with their cigarettes and rations, soldiers carried ASEs to D-Day; fresh flowers of remembrance for a soldier on the seventy-third anniversary of his death.

Bottom Row:  A bright and beautiful boy enjoying the day; looking across what must’ve seemed like miles of open terrain.

The title for this post comes from photographer Seth Taras’ iconic ad campaign for The History Channel, “Know Where You Stand” (below is one of his images from Omaha Beach, otherwise known as Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer)

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.

People Places

On the Town with Otis Skinner

June 23, 2017

Although most of the journey this summer is about following Cornelia’s and Emily’s story, I decided to spend one day searching out the London of Otis Skinner, Cornelia’s father.

Born in 1858, that dashing gentleman in the photo above became one of the finest and most popular actors on the stage for more than a quarter century.

In his early days, Otis was a matinee idol (he had a sort of Clooney-thing going, I think).  But it was his talent and range that made Skinner stand out as an actor.  He toured with theatre luminaries Augustin Daly, Helene Modjeska and Edwin Booth (yes, brother of John Wilkes Booth, but also considered by some to be America’s greatest actor).  By the mid-1890s, Otis had become a full-fledged star, and in 1895 he married his co-star, Maud Durbin.  In 1899, their only child, Cornelia was born.

In Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, Otis and Maud make a brief appearance at the beginning of the book, when they are seeing Cornelia onto the train to Montreal.  They next appear at the dock in Southampton, eager to greet Cornelia and Emily.  Cornelia explains, “They had no idea of cramping Emily’s and my style, but they thought it just as well to be in the same hemisphere as we.  They would be in England when we were and we might look them up if that wasn’t too much of a strain on our independence.”

As it turned out, the girls ended up spending quite a bit of time with Cornelia’s parents, even moving from their student lodgings in Tavistock Square to the Skinners’ swanky Hotel Victoria.  Emily and Cornelia recount going to dinners and plays with Otis and Maud, and also write, “Father took us on a few tours about town, showing us places he’d known and loved when he’d played there thirty years before with the Daly Company.”

I decided that I would like a day of my own with Otis Skinner, touring about town.  I started in the West End.  I had already happened upon and snooped around the Hotel Victoria (now the Grand Hotel, at 8, Northumberland Ave), and now I gave it a smile and a nod as I walked up from the Embankment Pier to Leicester Square.  My first stop was 3, Cranbourn St, once the site of Daly’s Theatre.  Sadly, the beautiful Victorian building is gone, torn down in 1937 by Warner Bros, who put in a movie theatre with a sculpted marble Art Deco façade which is supposed to be nice, but seems a bit dreary to me (and I love Art Deco architecture).  Interestingly enough, the place (now known as the “Vue Theatre”) was undergoing renovations when I was there, but I’m sorry to report that nothing was done to improve the façade.  Still, it was nice to see where Daly’s had stood, and I could picture a young, carefree, Clooney-esque Otis Skinner being met by adoring females as he left the theatre and stepped into Leicester Square.

Our next stop was the Trocadero restaurant in Shaftesbury Ave.  It took me a while to work out that the Trocadero tourist monstrosity in Coventry St was not what I was looking for, which was an overwhelming relief.  I had already had to accept that Marks and Co Booksellers of 84, Charing Cross Road was now McDonald’s.  I just couldn’t bear the thought that the unbelievably posh Trocadero restaurant had become one of London’s largest, most garish souvenir shops.

The restaurant on Shaftesbury Ave was opened in 1896, having taken over the space formerly occupied by the notorious Argyle Subscription Rooms, a “performance hall” where rich men picked up prostitutes.  Hmmm… of course, young Otis certainly wouldn’t have ventured into such a place when he was with the Daly Company.  But I wondered if he had reflected on the place’s lurid past while he was standing at the restaurant’s entrance in 1922, waiting for Cornelia and Emily to arrive.

This is one of my favorite passages in the book, involving the purchase by the girls of matching, enormous rabbit fur capes, and them deciding to debut them at dinner with Cornelia’s parents at the very fashionable Trocadero (those Argyle Rooms had come up in the world).  The girls pull up in a taxi, buried under their mountains of fur, and see Otis collapsed against the building in tears (tears of laughter, it turns out).

So I was delighted to find that the marble columns at the restaurant entrance were still there, although the grand palace of a restaurant that had been there is virtually gone.  It’s now a cinema and coffee house with a cloistered walkway that was somehow carved out from the building.  But no matter.  I could still picture the girls arriving at this spot, and I could see Otis leaning against the column, supporting himself through his fit of hysterical laughter.  It was a joy to almost be there with them for that wonderfully funny moment.

There was one more place I wanted to see, but I hadn’t had exact information to go on, like I had for the first two locations.  All I had was this passage from the book:

“[Otis] was especially fond of an old cemetery for actors.  It was in a shoddy out-of-the-way district and the ground was unhallowed.  Even in death, members of the profession were ostracized, because until well after the Restoration they were legally considered “Rogues and Vagabonds”, not fit to lie with gentle folk.  That pleased him highly.  It was evident that he felt it a sorry day when players turned respectable.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

After a lengthy tour around the internet, involving some creative search terms, I managed to narrow it down to one really strong contender: Bunhill Fields in Islington.  It was a burial ground from the 1660s to the 1850s, and was where many “Nonconformists” were buried.  There are artists, writers, and poets there, including William Blake and Daniel Defoe, and the ground was never consecrated by the church.  It was definitely worth checking out, even if I was wrong.

The district wasn’t shoddy, but it was somewhat out of the way, which matched the girls’ description.  I spent an hour or so walking along the cobblestone paths, doing my best to make out names on headstones worn down by centuries of rain and wind.  There were quite a few visitors to the cemetery that day – or should I say park, as it is now managed as a public garden?  One person told me about how a large part of the cemetery had been hit in World War II, and another mentioned that many of the dead were under the cobblestones we were walking on.  And another visitor and I pondered whether the unmarked mounds surrounded by low fences were the mass graves of those who died in the 1665 plague.

Even if I was in the wrong cemetery, I was still in a terribly interesting place.  But I was pretty certain I’d gotten it right.

All in all, my day with Otis Skinner had been a lovely one, though I felt that I never really got that close to his world.  I could only just barely touch it at best.  Which is a shame, because I would like to have known Otis Skinner better.  It’s the Clooney thing, I suspect.

Below:  A young George Clooney and a young Otis Skinner; the Daly Theatre; the Vue Theatre; waiting at the columns of the Trocadero; Bunhill Fields cemetery; screen credit for Otis Skinner from the movie “Kismet”, proclaiming him “America’s foremost romantic actor”.

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.


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 overstating it when she used the word distinguished for these men.  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 exercise, 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, these renowned doctors are just Joe and Paul, 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 had located pictures of Emily and Joe in their 40s, 50s and beyond, I had yet to come across a picture of either of them when they were young. There are quite a few nice photos of young Cornelia, and a couple of good pictures of young Paul White, but the other two have eluded me.

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

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

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


Mother Dolores Hart remembers Cornelia Otis Skinner

May 25, 2017

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

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

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


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.