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.
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.