Some new book discoveries are so exciting that you can’t help but want to tell everyone about them, I think that might be a little how Simon felt when he wrote about Cornelia Otis Skinner. Certainly it was his enthusiasm that had me rushing off to buy not one but three Cornelia Otis Skinner books and begin to read one right away. I was quite delighted in the editions that arrived too, this one such a sweet little vintage copy from the mid 1940’s with wonderful little illustrations.
Cornelia Otis Skinner, an American actress, writer and screenwriter co-wrote Our Hearts were Young and Gay with her good friend Emily Kimbrough, a memoir about their travels in Europe in the 1920’s. It is difficult to see where Kimbrough’s collaboration is exactly as the book is written in Skinner’s first person narrative. None of that seems important however as the book is full of charm and humour, and both women come across quite hilariously full of adorably lovable quirks and eccentricities.
Having finished college Cornelia and Emily embark on a European tour which they have planned for some time. There is much excitement, at their first independent adventure and not a little horror over the peculiar safety pocket both girls had been made to wear beneath their clothes by anxious parents. They set sail for England on board the Montcalm, their relatively cheap ticket meaning their cabin is well below decks. Barely do the two get themselves settled than they are uprooted again. The ship becomes stuck, run aground and starting to tip, thankfully still just in sight of shore. When the ship is finally freed they limp on to Canada where the girls spend a week with an Aunt of Cornelia’s before finally setting off once more on another ship. Aboard the Empress of France Cornelia and Emily can finally enter in to life aboard an Atlantic going vessel. Their often hapless shipboard life is recounted with the sort of gentle humour which is reminiscent of E M Delafield’s A Provincial Lady. There is deck tennis to be negotiated, and blushed over, a concert to take part in, and ‘nice women’ to try and befriend. Then Cornelia falls victim to measles. Waiting to meet the girls in London are Cornelia’s parents, who with Emily’s help must smuggle poor Cornelia – who has plastered herself with makeup to hide the beginnings of a rash – past the health inspector.
In London the two friends’ new found independence is somewhat diluted by the comforting presence of Cornelia’s parents nearby, who provide them with a good meal or two. In England the two American young ladies are introduced to all manner of new experiences including English rain, Hampton Court, encounter H G Wells, a potentially exploding hot water geyser and particularly inexplicable to Emily – British currency.
“It was in vain that I tried to show her the difference between a half-crown and two shilling piece. She refused to admit they were anything but two versions of fifty cents and persisted in being so stubbornly obtuse about it I finally told her if she’d just bring herself to read what was written on them she’d know. This didn’t work out so well either, because she’d keep taxi drivers waiting interminably while she’d scan the reading matter of each coin, turning it round and round, sometimes breathing on it and rubbing it clear. When I suggested that people might think her awfully queer she said not at all, they’d merely mistake her for a coin collector. I tried explaining to her that “one florin” meant two shillings but that made her madder. The day we received a bill made out in guineas, and I told her there was no such thing as a guinea, it was a pound and one shilling, only the swanker shops charged you guineas, and you paid in pounds and shillings, but you called it guineas although, as I had said, there really was no such thing, she slapped me”
Leaving Cornelia’s parents in England, the two friends continue their travels to France. In Normandy they stay in a small French pension and in Rouen a house of ill-repute which the two innocents mistake for a guest house – much to the bemusement of the inhabitants.
“Some of the doors were open, and we caught glimpses of the other guests who seemed quite surprised to see us and we were indeed surprised to see them. They all appeared to be young women in very striking evening dresses. This was certainly unusual, but we concluded they must all be waiting to go out to a dinner party. It never once occurred to us that we weren’t exactly in keeping with the ton of the place, I, in mu Buster Brown panama and Emily in her pepper and salt tweeds.
Madame led us up several flights of stairs and allotted us a modest room quite removed from the more elaborate ones below. She explained we’d be tranquille there. Then in a faint, far-away voice, she asked how we’d happened to come to her place.”
After Normandy the girls finally get to Paris, they see the Eiffel Tower, encounter bed- bugs, visit the Ritz bar and catch up again with Cornelia’s parents who have now arrived in Paris too. Cornelia even manages to take a few acting lessons with an acting hero. Soon it is time to leave, the adventure at an end. While Emily heads off with friends on a motor trip, Cornelia heads home to the states.
This hugely entertaining memoir with its hilarious illustrations is deliciously infectious and has quite definitely whetted my appetite for the two essay collections Nuts in May and Popcorn that I have waiting.