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Cornelia Otis Skinner

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.


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.  Both women were nominated for Tony awards in 1959 for their work in the play.

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 after talking with Linda Kimbrough about her Aunt Emily, 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 Things

Field Report: All over the place

May 18, 2017

Bryn Mawr College

Greetings from the Eastern Standard Timezone.  From Chicago, I flew to Philadelphia a couple of days ago and now I’m posting from upstate New York.

After an overnight stay at the Philly airport LaQuinta, I covered a lot of territory yesterday.  I started the day by picking up my companion for the next ten days, a rental car with a trunk large enough to store all of my belongings, which is where most of it will stay for the duration my East Coast roadtrip.  Now, as they say in the airline commercial, I am free to move about the country.

The car I received from the rental agency at the Philadelphia airport is a Hyundai Sonata with Ontario license plates.  When my friend Daron and I traveled to the Scottish Hebrides a few years ago, she named our rental car Heather.  Following her lead, I’m calling my ride Monty (for a number of reasons, none of them very clever – any guesses?).  I suspect he will be making appearances in some of the photos over the next ten days, and with any luck, he will develop his own weird little cult following.

On our first day together, Monty and I started the morning with a visit to Bryn Mawr College, where Cornelia and Emily met and became friends.  Emily graduated from Bryn Mawr, but Cornelia attended only for a couple of years before studying at the Sorbonne in Paris.  Thankfully, her short time at Bryn Mawr was enough to cement their friendship and inspire the girls to travel together.

I was taking a stroll through the oldest parts of the campus, enjoying the beautiful architecture and foliage, when it occurred to me that this was the first time I knew for certain that I was walking in the girls’ footsteps.  How many times had Emily and Cornelia walked these paths, and gone in and out of these buildings?  It was an unexpected delight to feel connected to them in that moment.

Too soon, I had to get in the car and hit the road, which meant that there was no time for a stop in the campus bookstore, but I left in good conscience, knowing I will be dropping in there on my way back through Philly.

On my way out of town, I had the good fortune to be passing through the Main Line area.  Cornelia mentions this place in Hearts when she is talking about Miss Mary:  “Her other name was Mrs. Charles B. Dudley and she hailed from the Main Line (Philadelphia, of course).”  The name references the railroad, which ran through a number of towns (now suburbs) into what is now downtown Philadelphia, and the Main Line would have been the Beverly Hills of Philly in Cornelia’s day.  From the looks of the heavenly, well-preserved homes (mansions) I saw in just a few minutes of driving, the Main Line has retained its stately beauty.

Then it was on to Allentown, Pennsylvania for an all-too-quick visit with my friend Craig Miller.  He and his partner William were my neighbors briefly in Springfield, and they are still very much missed by all the gang on Walnut St.  Craig gave me a tour of their sublime 1908 rowhouse, which faces a pretty Victorian park, before we headed downtown for a bite at Hamilton.  After lunch, we walked through his neighborhood, looking at the other wonderful old houses before I had to get on the road.  Happily, I will get to see him again in New York, along with William, right before I leave for Europe.

Another unexpected pleasure along the way is how much I am enjoying the drive.  This is the first time I’ve ever really explored the area, so each mile, each bend in the road, is fresh and new.  And it’s been some beautiful driving – divided highways lined with trees, from Philadelphia all the way to Fishkill, New York, which is where I stopped for the night.  It is far more picturesque than its name might lead one to believe.

Next stop:  Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts