In the early 1920’s, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, freshly graduated from Bryn Mawr, took a transatlantic voyage to England and then to Paris. As far as travel memoirs are concerned, this does not fall into the camp of intrepid daring or visiting obscure corners of the earth. On the scale of adventure, it was perhaps the equivalent of the backpack-and-hostel trip my friend and I undertook in France when we were college students, except Skinner and Kimbrough’s trip was much longer and was without 21st century conveniences such as planes and internet cafes. Cornelia’s parents make appearances in England and in Paris, careful to let the young women have their independence, but thankfully on-hand for various health crises (a bout of German measles, bedbugs) and nice hotel meals.
The memoir is told completely from Cornelia’s first-person perspective – though Emily is credited for remembering most of it. Cornelia and Emily’s ship departs from Montreal, but it runs aground before reaching the Atlantic and they have to arrange for another passage. This is merely the first of a series of misadventures. The memoir is told in a voice of artful self-deprecation, and the authors have a fond indulgence for their younger selves. Most of the humor derives from Cornelia and Emily’s attempts to be worldly-wise, fashionable adults.
Our Hearts Were Young and Gay is definitely a very funny, very witty book. The tone is reminiscent of E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady (which I just saw was Simon of Stuck in the Book’s comparison too). When I was deciding whether to buy this book (having never heard of it before), I read a little of the first page and immediately knew that I was going to get along with it famously.
I, clutching and occasionally kissing our steamship passage, was arriving from New York, Emily from Buffalo. That is, I hoped Emily was arriving. Emily’s notions concerning geography, like some of her other notions, were enthusiastic but lacking in accuracy. Some weeks previous she had sent me a rhapsodic letter which ended with the alarming words, “I live for the moment when our boat pushes out from that dock in Winnipeg.” I had written back in a panic and block letters stating, somewhat crushingly I thought, that the C. P. O. seldom sent its ships overland, that we were sailing from Montreal, Province of Quebec, that the name of our vessel was the Montcalm and the date June 10th, the year of our Lord I shan’t say which, because Emily and I have now reached the time in life when not only do we lie about our ages, we forget what we’ve said they are.
Skinner has a talent for turning herself, Emily, her family and everyone she meets into lively characters who stumble merrily into comic set-pieces. These characters include famous people. Due to a connection with Cornelia’s father, a successful stage actor, Cornelia and Emily, and Cornelia’s parents are invited to H.G. Wells’ house in England and end up playing a sort of train-wreck badminton game with the other guests (Margaret Sanger plays on Emily’s team.)
For the most part, any dated aspects of the book came across as quaint or fascinating. I looked up some cultural references now and again, but the narrative didn’t rely overmuch on them. Less quaint, but important to acknowledge, were the reminders that Cornelia and Emily grew up accustomed to segregated society: the young women gulp a bit when they are seated next to two Senegalese dignitaries during dinner at their Parisian pension. Further ventures into Parisian society lead to a conversation where Cornelia’s mother “explains” homosexuality to the young women in such vague but somber terms that they leave “feeling that even if we had not quite grasped the essentials, this had all been extremely momentous.”
In and around all the misadventures, Skinner does allow for some more contemplative touches. While in Paris, Emily and Cornelia visit regularly with a maimed victim of World War I and help him sell crafts to American tourists. When the man is allowed to leave the veterans’ home for a week’s stay with his family, he invites Cornelia and Emily to visit him at his home, where they “suddenly realized that for this week he was a man of property, a citizen of a community, not just a number in a bleak government hospital.”
There is indeed a poignant layer to Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. Published in 1942, its initial readers must have contrasted the exuberance of Paris depicted in the book with the Nazi-occupied Paris, and the peacetime London with the London suffering through the Blitz. Or perhaps for its many readers (for it was a popular book), it served as some much needed entertainment and escapism. Skinner and Kimbrough’s book was selected as one of the titles packaged as Armed Services Editions to be distributed to the troops. As quoted in Molly Guptill Manning’s When Books Went to War, Emily Kimbrough said she was “more proud of that edition than of being selected Book of the Month.” In Steven Ambrose’s The Good Fight, he relates a private’s account of returning to Omaha Beach the day after D-Day:
I came across what was probably the most poignant memory I have of the whole episode. Lying on the beach was a young soldier, his arms outstreched. Near one of his hands, as if he had been reading it, was a pocketbook [paperback]. It was Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner. This expressed the spirit of our ordeal. Our hearts were young and gay because we thought we were immortal, we believed we were doing a great thing, and we really believed in the crusade which we hoped would liberate the world from the heel of Nazism.
I feel a little bad for ending this review on such a somber note for what is really a hilarious, laugh-out-loud book, but I definitely think that the context adds to the reading without diminishing its light-hearted spirit. Cornelia Skinner went on to have a career as an actress and writer. Emily Kimbrough had a career in journalism.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
A Penguin A Week – “One of the most endearing qualities of their humour is that there is nothing cruel about it; they have fun only at their own expenses. They celebrate what it is to be young, enthusiastic, and desperate to make an impression.”
Not really a review, but a piece reflecting on the book on The Toast
Danielle of A Work in Progress mailed the book to members of her postal reading group.