Thursday, July 7, 2011

A great theatrical family

Family Circle, Cornelia Otis Skinner

I can't remember the first time I read Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough.  It had to be thirty years ago or more.  I've read it so many times over the years that I can visualize some of my favorite scenes, like Cornelia and Emily's arrival at the Trocadero in London, wrapped in their new, tent-sized white rabbit evening cloaks. Emerging from their taxi in billows of white fur, they discover Cornelia's father helpless with laughter. "'Oh my God!' he managed to choke forth. 'How could you get so many rabbits?'"  I never really thought much about Cornelia's parents, they were there in the background for help with bedbugs and financial crises.

I picked up Family Circle at Half Price Books a few years ago, because it was written by Cornelia Otis Skinner (my copy, which may be a first edition, is even autographed).  But it sat on the TBR pile for years, until this past week, when for some reason I took it off the pile and sat down with it.  I found it a bit slow going at first, as it starts with a biography of Cornelia's mother, Maud Durbin, who grew up in a large family under unstable conditions, with an alcoholic and often absent father.  Maud, who showed talent in private theatricals, wanted a career in the theater, and she found a mentor in the Polish actress Helena Modjeska.  And by the point that Maud joined her theater company, I realized that I was reading in part a history of American theater.

This wasn't a subject I know much about, except for the tragedy of the Booth family.  That's pretty clear by the fact that I never realized who exactly Cornelia's father Otis Skinner was.  The second strand of Cornelia's book is his story, how a Unitarian minister's son became one of America's great actors, in a career spanning fifty years. Otis Skinner was often under contract to theater companies, like Helena Modjeska's, where he met Maud in 1893 (it was mutual indifference at first sight).  But between seasons, he loved to tour, despite the hardships of travel and the primitive conditions of many local theaters.  This part of the story reminded me so much of other well-loved books, Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series.  Touring companies bring excitement and glamour to Deep Valley, Minnesota, in the 1910s, and there is even a reference to Otis Skinner in the books; and Cornelia quoted a letter from her father dated from Mankato, the real-life Deep Valley.

Cornelia herself entered the story she was writing a third of the way into the book, when it became the family's story.  Maud retired from the stage at that point, and she made a home with Cornelia while Otis continued his career.  At times mother and daughter joined him on tour, and the three also traveled to Europe for work and pleasure.  All three of them were such high characters, and Cornelia a most unusual child, that there is so much humor just in their daily lives.

Maud had many great plans for Cornelia's future, none of them involving a career on the stage.  Cornelia, who had a firm conviction that she going on the stage, never bothered to argue with her about it. Otis supported her decision, gave her much wise counsel, and arranged her debut in New York in one of his plays.  The book ends after she takes a curtain call with him, then retreats to the wings to watch as he returns to take still more.

I finished the book last night feeling very much part of their family circle, and wanting to know more, what happened next.  I did learn that Our Hearts Were Young and Gay takes place the year following, and I knew I'd need to read it again, now that Maud and Otis have become so real to me, much more than just the parents in the background, the supporting characters.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!