...It Gives Me Great Pleasure, Emily Kimbrough
Bottoms Up!, Cornelia Otis Skinner
I'm working on a theory about book expectations: often it seems that the higher my expectations, the more disappointing the actual book. But on the other hand, I am frequently surprised and delighted by books of which I know nothing going in, or those I think will just be a pleasant diversion. I'm considering calling it "The Law of Inverse Bookish Expectations." I've had this theory confirmed lately with books by Emily Kimbrough and Cornelia Otis Skinner.
My recent Emily Kimbrough read-athon was sparked by Water, Water Everywhere, an account of a trip she took to Greece in 1955, which I bought with extremely low expectations. Instead, it became one of my favorite books of the year. The one I read next, Through Charley's Door, was very different but just as compelling. The emotional heart of both books for me was Emily Kimbrough's mother, who taught her daughter the Greek alphabet and raised her on the Greek myths, then later pushed her toward work and a career in the 1920s. I had previously read EK's first memoir of her childhood in Muncie, Indiana, How Dear to My Heart. After reading these other two books, I was most anxious to get my hands on her second memoir of childhood, The Innocents from Indiana. I knew that it was an account of the family's move to Chicago, one of my favorite cities. I was looking forward to a tour of the city in the 1910s, and I was hoping for more about EK's mother. On both counts, I found the book a disappointment. The first half focuses on her younger brother (known to everyone as "Brother"), and his boyish escapades. It's mildly amusing family comedy, along the lines of "Leave It to Beaver." In the second half of the book, EK is enrolled in an exclusive girls' school, where she is mocked and bullied as a hayseed country girl. The most interesting part of this book for me was the family's acquisition of a series of electric automobiles, which EK learned to drive at a young age. I had never heard of models like the Ohio and the Waverly. Nor did I know that in these cars, the driver sat in the back seat, with the passengers in the front - sometimes facing back toward the driver, but always I would imagine obstructing the view.
I did not have high expectations when I picked up ....It Gives Me Great Pleasure, a series of short pieces about her experiences on the American lecture circuit in the 1940s. In part, that was because I've been less than impressed with similar books that her friend and co-author Cornelia Otis Skinner wrote, around the same time. The book they wrote together, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, I first read thirty years ago or more, and it still delights me today. It was reading COS's memoir Family Circle that sent me off in search of her other books. In part I was hoping for more stories about her parents, particularly her father Otis Skinner, one of the most famous actors of his generation. Instead, they're mostly observational pieces about American society, with some accounts of her tours as an actress and monologist, with some domestic pieces about her husband and young son - in the Jean Kerr vein, but with less children. The only one that stands out at all in my memory is "In Quest of Tea," a rant about the poor quality of tea served in restaurants and hotels in the United States, which is sadly just as true today as it was in 1941. (It appears in Soap Behind the Ears.)
Once again, my expectations were confounded with ...It Gives Me Great Pleasure. For many years, Emily Kimbrough spent several weeks each winter on a lecture circuit, crisscrossing the United States by train, speaking to women's clubs and organizations. Her most requested talk was on her experiences in Hollywood, where she and Cornelia Otis Skinner worked on a screenplay for the film of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (which EK wrote about in We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood). These essays, written between 1945 and 1948, recount her experiences (and frequent mishaps) in traveling and in public speaking, as well as sketches of the people she met along the way. It's hard to picture now this web of women's groups, welcoming all sorts of speakers at their monthly teas and luncheons. I suppose the closest equivalent today would be book clubs, though I think only those hosted by bookstores bring in speakers.
I enjoyed this book very much. It's a quiet book, with some funny moments, but also some very touching ones. EK seems to have been genuinely interested in the people she met, often in waiting rooms between trains (the subject of one chapter, "A Railway Station, Every Time"). I heard about another chapter, "The Evening Train," on an NPR podcast (you can listen to it here). EK was due to speak in a small Pennsylvania town called Shamokin. Her hostess rather rushed her through the program, to be sure she would finish on time. Afterwards, she explained,
"I'll tell you now why we were so anxious about getting started on time. I didn't want to say anything about it earlier for fear it might upset you. We had to be sure you'd get through before the evening train comes in because they're bringing back on it to-night the bodies of the boys from overseas. All the church bells in town are going to ring when the train comes in, and everybody has been asked to stand in silent prayer for three minutes."EK joined the women outside, standing with them in silence, waiting for the bells to ring. It's marvelously done, heart-felt but not mawkish. It seemed a bit like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. And after reading this, I felt like I understood a little more of America in the 1940s.
After finishing it, I decided it was time to read the one last book of Cornelia Otis Skinner's on the TBR stacks, Bottoms Up! And of course, the first chapter is about a theatrical piece that she performed with her father. I don't know if I was just in a more mellow mood, but I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. Like Emily Kimbrough's, it is partly about life on the road, in her case as an actress. There are several chapters about living in Paris, including one on the "ugly American" abroad, and another about researching at the Bibliothèque Nationale (I kept wondering if she ever ran into Nancy Mitford there). Others concern life in the United States, specifically in New York City and on Long Island. The last really took me by surprise: an address that she gave to the American Gynecological Society at their annual convention in June of 1953. It's a humorous hymn of praise to gynecologists, whose care she often needed, apparently. It just reads really oddly to me, and the frequent reference to stirrups made me squirm a bit. So did the illustration to the chapter, which shows a female patient (resembling COS) in a hat and garters (and nothing else) facing an older male doctor sitting at his desk.
Cornelia Otis Skinner wrote a biography of Sarah Bernhardt, as well as a book about Paris in the Belle Époque. If I come across those books, I will probably read them, but I haven't been in a rush to find copies. Emily Kimbrough's books seem more to my taste, because she writes about interesting people and places, though to my mind none of their books will ever measure up to Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. I wonder if they ever felt that themselves.