Browsing Tag

Maud Skinner

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.

People Things

Unearthing a piece of a puzzle

May 19, 2017

What would get me to make a special trip to Northampton, Massachusetts, when neither Cornelia nor Emily ever attended Smith College?   It turns out, in fact, that Smith does have a tie to them, or at least to the story of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay:  it is at Smith College where Margaret Sanger’s papers are kept.  And those who have read Hearts will remember that when Cornelia, Emily and Cornelia’s parents went to H.G. Wells’ house at Easton Glebe, Ms. Sanger was also a guest there that day, as Cornelia recalls:

“There was another American present, Mrs. Sanger, better known as Mrs. Birth Control Sanger.  Mr. Wells said she was crusading for a noble cause and Emily and I, who hadn’t the remotest idea of what Birth Control even meant, said, Yes, indeed, wasn’t she?”

Along with Margaret Sanger, the girls met an additional guest, “a very distinguished gentleman with a shock of white hair.  Mr. Wells [introduced the man], ‘This is the greatest educationalist in all England’… And that was the nearest approach we got to an introduction to him.  We never did learn his name…”

One other tidbit of information which eluded the girls that day, and seemed to elude Cornelia and Emily even when they were writing their book twenty years later, was that Margaret Sanger and H.G. Wells were lovers at the time of the girls’ visit, and had been so for a couple of years.  From the first time they met in 1920 until his death in 1946, Sanger and Wells “carried on an infrequent, but often fervent [extramarital] love affair…” according to The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University.

One can’t blame Cornelia and Emily for not knowing this.  Heck, I had never heard it before I stumbled upon the NYU article.  And I must admit, once I found out about their relationship, I was eager to go snooping in Ms. Sanger’s papers and read some of the couple’s correspondence to each other.  What actually compelled me, though, to visit Smith College was not love letters between the couple, but a photograph of them with Otis Skinner, which appears on the Sanger collection website.

In Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, Cornelia and Emily write about taking photographs during their visit that day, and that Emily was the only one with a camera.  What is the likelihood that Otis Skinner and Margaret Sanger ever visited Easton Glebe simultaneously beyond this one occasion?  Next to nil, one would assume.  Which leads me to believe that the photo in the Margaret Sanger collection was taken on the day of the girls’ visit.

But that is still not the main reason for my visit.  According to Cornelia, “Emily managed to get one successful exposure and while it is not a thing of particular beauty… some day someone may recognize the Great Educationalist and be able to enlighten us concerning his identity.”  Could it be that this photo of the Mystery Man still existed?

Knowing that Margaret Sanger had at least one photo from the day led me to hope that she might have received and kept others that were sent to her by Emily, or Maud Skinner (who was an early supporter of Ms. Sanger’s, by the way).  It seemed worth a shot to look through the photo archives.  So, I paid a visit to the Special Collections Department of the Neilson Library.

The Sanger collection is so well organized that it didn’t take long to narrow down the search.  While I didn’t get to put my hands on any love letters, within twenty minutes I was looking at the picture I had seen on the website of Sanger, Wells and Otis.  And then, a couple of envelopes beneath it, in that same folder, it was there:  the mythical photo of The Great Educationalist.  Or at least I have to believe that is what it is.  The photo appears to be of Cornelia and Emily sitting on the steps in the garden with Mr. Wells, his son and his son’s friends (they are mentioned briefly in the book), and a man with a shock of white hair.

It was a needle in a haystack.  And it was there.  Sometimes you get lucky.

So who is The Great Educationalist after all?  That’s a story and a conundrum for another day, which involves the H.G. Wells Society, conflicting dates and a sudden, dramatic demise.

Gift Shop Report:  As a way to make up for postponing on the Bryn Mawr bookstore, I hit two gift shops today.  The first was at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Home and Museum in Hyde Park, New York.  It’s a nice size, right inside the front entrance at the Visitors Center, and it is loaded with marvelous books, good looking shirts and some nice tchotchkes.

The bookstore at Smith College, located in the Campus Center, seems to have a really pleasing stuff-to-books ratio.  I was able to score a cool sticker for my luggage (which survived two airline flights in good order, aside from some black marks here and there, that I’m thinking a magic eraser might just fix).