Saturday, July 9, 2011

Two innocents abroad

Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, Cornelia Otis Skinner & Emily Kimbrough

As I mentioned in my last post, about Cornelia Otis Skinner's Family Circle, I first read this book probably thirty years ago.  I've read it many times over the years, and found it just as hilarious and endearing each time.  It's been a while since I've re-read it, though, in part because I know it so well, and in part because I don't seem to re-read books as much as I used to.  There are just so many fascinating new unread books that I want to get to.

But reading Family Circle made me think so much of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay that I picked it up again as soon as I'd finished the other.  This book, published in 1942, is an account of a trip Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, who met at Bryn Mawr, took to England and France when they were nineteen, sometime in the early 1920s.  It was a great adventure of their lives, because they were traveling independently for the first time, on their own with no chaperones, though Cornelia's parents were also sailing for England:
"but on a different ship, and from New York. 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." 
The narrative voice here is Cornelia's, of course.  In my background reading on the Skinners' theatrical careers, I learned that Cornelia was an innovator in that she wrote and performed dramatic monologues.  She later collected these monologues into book form.  These is an easy flow to her writing, which carries the story along.  Emily Kimbrough had a later career in journalism, and she wrote several books about her own travels.  I've read one of these, Forty Plus and Fancy Free, and it is entertaining enough but to me lacks the vitality of Cornelia's.

Their voyage from Montreal got off to an unfortunate start when their ship ran aground within hours of sailing.  This set the tone for their travels, with mishaps galore, including measles, bedbugs, those unfortunate white rabbit evening cloaks, and an encounter with a house of ill-repute.

Reading this book again after several years, and after Family Circle, gave me a new light on it.  Both Cornelia and Emily felt like old friends met again, except that now I knew Cornelia not just as that nineteen-year-old, but as if I'd known her all her life, because I'd just been reading about her childhood and teenage years.  And her parents weren't simply supporting characters, but people in their own right, whose stories I also knew.

Two things especially caught my attention.  While they were staying in Paris, Cornelia wrote up a solo sketch about a young American woman visiting the Louvre.  She read it to Emily, who thought it was wonderful and asked why she couldn't do something with it as an actor. Monologue wasn't theatre, Cornelia told her, but "something Emily had said had given me an idea and gradually I began to say to myself, 'I wonder. Maybe someday I might do monologues in a theatre.'"  With hindsight, now I know that this was the germ of one of her greatest successes as an actor.

Also in Paris, Cornelia met a veteran of the Great War, hopelessly maimed and institutionalized.  She and Emily helped him sell the bead jewelry that he was able to make, to supplement his pension. The women also visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, at the Arc de Triomphe.  These reminders of World War I, of the human cost, struck me differently this time, after reading Vera Brittain and Helen Dore Boylston.


  1. How I adored this book when I read it last year! It was so funny, and I'm delighted that the two authors have written so much else - but I'm rather bewildered about where to start, so I shall be using your blog to guide me :)

  2. Simon, I think you'd really enjoy Cornelia's Family Circle. I'm still tracking down Emily's other travel books (which don't have quite the verve of this one).


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!