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Grand Hotel

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

Time traveling in the West End

June 13, 2017

The lobby and bar of the Grand Hotel… or is it the Victoria Hotel?

It’s been a busy few days here in London, ever since I came up from Southampton last Thursday.  Twenty-four hours after leaving the Queen Mary 2, I settled in to my home base, a studio flat in the Imperial Wharf area of Chelsea (which, according to an English friend of mine, is very “swish”). When I was first shopping for a place to live on AirBnB, I tried to find something near where the girls had stayed in 1922, which were some “digs” in Tavistock Square.  Nothing came up for that exact area, so I opted for sunny, modern digs in Chelsea.

Perhaps I should have gone in for something more traditional, or Art Deco – basically something more in keeping with Cornelia’s and Emily’s world.  But I think that maybe, subconsciously, I knew I needed for part of this journey to be exclusively my own, and in no way linked to Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  Even after the most fun-filled and remarkable days spent with the girls, finding their old haunts and stomping grounds, it’s nice to come home to an apartment that didn’t exist when they were here.  Just as it would be with any friends I travel with, at some point I need time and space to myself.

But back to Cornelia and Emily, and Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.

In the book, the majority of the girls’ time in London was spent going to dinner and the theatre with Cornelia’s parents.  So for my first book-related outing, I happily headed up to the theatre district via the riverbus from Imperial Wharf to Embankment.  Once off the boat, it would be just a quick walk up to the West End to my first stop:  the half-price theatre ticket booth in Leicester Square.  But on my way up there, without intending to, I stumbled into Cornelia’s and Emily’s footsteps.  My route to the West End took me up Northumberland Avenue, which I remembered as the street on which the Victoria Hotel (where Otis and Maud Skinner stayed) had once been.  I had already done research on the hotel, and knew that it had been at 8 Northumberland Avenue, which was now home to the Grand Hotel.  As like most things, the place has changed some since the Skinners stayed there, but the building had withstood the Blitz, and is still a fashionable place to stay.  I had a quick look in at the lobby and bar, with their sublime marble floors, walls and columns, and it didn’t take much imagination to picture Otis and Maud, along with the girls, coming through the hotel’s revolving door.

Then it was on to Leicester Square.  The queue at the half-price ticket booth was just the right length – short enough to move quickly, and long enough to give me time to decide which show to see.  I opted for a musical called “Half a Sixpence”, mainly because the script (known as “the book”) had been written by Julian Fellowes.  Being a longtime fan of his, particularly of his “Downton Abbey”, well, I knew I had to see “Half a Sixpence”.  What I didn’t know about the musical until I sat down that evening in the theatre is that it is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by H.G. Wells.  Now there was some symmetry I never saw coming.

Once I had scored my ticket to the show (at a wonderfully reasonable price – New York theatres please take note of this!), I strolled over to Charing Cross Rd, searching for number 84, which has nothing to do with Our Hearts Were Young and Gay and everything to do with another of my favorite books, the appropriately titled, 84, Charing Cross Road.  This story from Helene Hanff is essentially a collection of her twenty-year correspondence with Frank Doel, the chief buyer at Marks & Co booksellers, which at one time was located at 84, Charing Cross Rd.

This famous street was once lined with booksellers of all sorts, and some of those shops still exist today.  But, sad to say – in fact, very sad to say – the enchanting antiquarian bookshop where Frank Doel, George Martin, Cecily Farr, Megan Wells and Bill Humphries worked is no longer there.  In its place is a McDonald’s.

For lovers of 84, Charing Cross Road – and all books, for that matter – the transformation could not be more crushing.  All that remains of Marks and Co is a small brass plaque embedded in the wall, commemorating the bookshop.

After that knife to the heart, I spent a little time browsing through the other bookstores in and around Charing Cross Rd, then had a pre-show drink and dinner at the pub across the street from where “Half a Sixpence” is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre (as in Noel Coward, my buddy from the celebrity portraits gallery on the QM2 – yep, more random symmetry).  The show was charming, and I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation I had with the two college students who were sitting next to me in the theatre.  They were over from the States, visiting Europe for the first time, on a study abroad course in London.  Kindred spirits.

A terrific day all around, but it turns out that my favorite part had been those moments of leaving the present and venturing into the past – Cornelia’s and Emily’s, Helene Hanff’s, and even my own, as I walked through Trafalgar Square, glancing over to where a 20-something me had once stood by one of the fountains and been kissed as the sun set.

Of course it’s important to keep moving forward, to keep making memories, to have each new moment count for something.  And I hope to come away from this summer with adventures to rival Cornelia’s and Emily’s, or at least my own past.

But one of my initial reasons for wanting to go on this journey was my desire to bring Our Hearts Were Young and Gay to life for myself.  To step inside the book, and feel as if I were part of a story that I have long wished was mine.

You know, many modern physicists ascribe to the theory that time is just an illusion.  That everything which we differentiate as the past, present and future is, in fact, all happening at precisely the same instant.  So it hardly seems far-fetched of me to let the boundaries of time and space blur once in a while, and to look for shadows and outlines of those who are standing in the same spot as myself, only in a different moment in history.

Please, indulge me a little in this.  After all, aside from the Butterfly Effect, what harm can a bit of time-traveling really do?

Below:  The walk sign at Trafalgar Square features two unisex people holding hands as they walk, which forms a heart; fountain in Trafalgar Square; 84, Charing Cross Road then; and now.