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Emily Kimbrough

People Places

Winchester and the Evolution of the English Gentleman

July 4, 2017

A Regency gentlemen’s suit, from the Victoria & Albert collection.

You just never know how a day will turn out.

There were multiple reasons for me to visit Winchester, England, and for me to be excited about it.  The first was that it was where Otis Skinner had taken Emily Kimbrough one day while they were staying in Southampton, waiting for Otis’ daughter Cornelia to recover from the measles.

The second reason was that it would give me the chance to revisit Winchester Cathedral (not to be confused with the similar sounding Westminster Abbey in London).  It had been more than a quarter century ago that I was here, working as general backstage crew on a production of a play written by Francis Warner, the Oxford University professor who ran my study abroad program.  His plays are really more like works of poetry, whose lyrical beauty I didn’t fully appreciate in my 20s, when I was here with that production of “Byzantium”, the story of the emperor Constantine.

But the main reason I was eager to visit Winchester was that, in remembrance of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, there was a big exhibition happening at their Discovery Center, which included a couple of her handwritten letters, some rarely seen portraits of Austen, and a silk pelisse (a Regency-era overcoat sort of garment) believed to have been worn by her.  In anticipation of my visit, I had stayed up the night before to finish streaming the last episodes of the 1995 miniseries version of “Pride & Prejudice”.  In Winchester, I would be able to peek at Jane Austen’s personal things, then offer remembrance and a word of thanks at her grave in the Cathedral, all hot on the heels of my evening with her Mr. Darcy.

It was a lovely morning with Jane Austen at the Winchester Discovery Center.  I pored over every item in the exhibit, from the astonishingly small coin purse she had made for herself, to the movie posters from the myriad film productions of her works.  But what meant the most to me was reading her letters.  The writer of all those enchanting novels was herself fearless and unapologetic for who she was and what she was doing.  If Austen ever had self-doubt, she didn’t record it anywhere.  She is my hero.

After the exhibit, I headed to the Cathedral.  As I was walking through its gardens, a tall, nice-looking guy in his 30s came up and spoke to me.  I had noticed him earlier when we crossed paths on the High Street.  He introduced himself (let’s call him James), and asked if we could go somewhere for coffee.  It was flattering that this young man was interested in me, but I tend to shy away from situations in which I might get labeled a “cougar”.  So I declined, but thanked him for the sweet invitation.  He then asked if we could at least just sit in the garden and talk for a bit.  That I could do.

James and I found an unoccupied bench, where we sat and talked about his job, and about my book project, and I gave him my website info.  He was like so many of the young men I remember from my years living in England – just very polite and very charming.

That is something that young Englishmen have always had over young American men:  they really, really know how to romance women.  They go about it in such a gentlemanly way.  And yes, most of the time, it’s just a line.  But it’s a very good line.

We had been chatting for maybe ten minutes when he leaned in and kissed me.  It was sweet, and it was lovely.  Then he kept on kissing me.  Part of me thought that I probably shouldn’t let this continue.  But the other part of me could only think of how this would make a good story for the book.  It was utterly mercenary, yes, I know.

He was cute, he was charming and this was nice, so I let it go on for a bit.  But then when James suggested we go somewhere a little more private, I was done, and told him that I really needed to get in and tour that Cathedral.  He asked if he could see me again.  I told him that I was leaving for France in just a few days, and James said he would keep in touch with me, with the hope that we could meet up again before I returned to the States.  We said our goodbyes, and I walked away feeling more pleased than not about the encounter.

Back to Jane Austen.  Inside the magnificent, towering Gothic walls of Winchester Cathedral, I took my time visiting dear Jane’s grave marker.  For decades, I have laughed and cried and taken comfort in this remarkable writer’s words. I never tire of hearing her voice.  She is my role model as a writer and as a woman.  There at her grave, I thanked her for everything she has given me.  Which is a lot.

As I wandered in and out of the transepts and back down the nave, studying the Cathedral’s breathtaking architecture, I thought back with great fondness to the people and that play all those years ago.  I could picture it so clearly, and it was wonderful to bring those memories to life again.  But all too soon, it was time to get back to London.

After an obligatory stop at the Cathedral gift shop, I headed back to the train station, but not before picking up some scampi and chips, soaked in malt vinegar and wrapped in newsprint, from the local chippy.  It was the first one I’d come across since arriving in England.  In a land of smoothie bars, fast fusions, and generally healthy eats, this beautiful, traditional fish and chips shop may be one of the last remaining holdouts.  I salute them.

Back in London, I arrived at my flat in Chelsea to find that I had received a lovely email from young James, telling me how pleased he was to have met me.  Darling.

But then there was the postscript.  He explained that he had taken a naughty picture of himself to show me just exactly how excited he was about it, but that he was too much of a gentleman to send the photo without asking me first.

Excuse me?

Strangely, it wasn’t so much the thought of receiving my first unsolicited dick pic that bothered me as much as it was the “gentleman” reference.  Is this what distinguishes a gentleman these days, that he asks first before sending a nude selfie?!

With that, my Jane Austen day evaporated into mist.  And poor Mr. Darcy. The quintessential English gentleman had just been run through with a sword.

But I refuse to let them go without a fight.  So as a public service announcement, I am saying to all young men everywhere – well, men of all ages, for that matter – exactly what I told James in my very clearly-worded reply that day:

No, thank you.

Actually, forget the “thank you” part – it should just be, “no”.  NO.  Believe me.  I cannot emphasize strongly enough that no woman ever, ever, ever wants to receive a picture of your penis.  Not a single one of us.

If you choose to ignore my words, as James eventually did (a story for another time), you proceed at your own peril.

 

Top row:  Delighting in every detail of the Jane Austen exhibit; the lady herself, whom I hopefully didn’t cause to spin in her grave.

Bottom row: Awesome in the truest sense of the world, Winchester Cathedral; scampi and chips for the train ride home.

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.  Yeah, I know, 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 Adams.  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

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 and talking with some of his neighbors (just like it used to be for both of us on Walnut St) 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

People

And I thought I knew Emily Kimbrough

May 17, 2017

With Linda Kimbrough

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

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

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

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

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

Emily?  Funny, flighty little Emily?!

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

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

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

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