Sunday, June 30, 2013

Our Hearts Were Young and Gay ~ book review

In the 1920s, Bryn Mawr classmates Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough ventured abroad to England and France. In 1942, they regaled the world with stories from this prolonged visit by collaborating to write memoir/travelogue Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.

I very much enjoyed the authors’ colorful descriptions and humorous observations. They poked fun at their own mistakes, innocence, and language, culture, and fashion gaffes. Some incidents, like Emily’s throwing a deck chair to a drowning man, are laugh-out-loud funny. Three of my favorite descriptions are:
“I was tall and moved like a McCormick reaper.”
“We looked like a pair of igloos out for a stroll.”
“I had tried camouflaging my face with slathers of foundation cream and half the contents of a box of face powder. The effect was that of someone who had been ducking for apples in a paper-hanger’s bucket.”
Between goofy incidents, funny metaphors and similes, and clever, vivid language, I found myself laughing a lot while reading this book. Whether these women found humor, or humor found them, I am not sure. Either way, the book is light-hearted.

The book holds some historical interest as well. What was it like crossing the ocean on a steamship? How did ships avoid icebergs in dense fog? What was it like depending upon a porter to move mountains of trunks and luggage and garment bags? Once in Europe, the girls traveled mostly by train, but I got to learn of various 1920s conveyances such as “open Daimler” and “tally-ho” and “torp├ędo.” The girls also had a broad classical education in those days, as their conversations were peppered with mythical, literary, and artistic references. Not too many 19-year-olds today would liken a sight to a “Stygian tunnel” or Macbeth seeing Banquo’s ghost, or Millet’s “The Angelus.”

References that didn’t fascinate me so much were to stage actors of the day. Skinner’s father was a famous actor, so she traveled in that milieu. I don’t recall recognizing any entertainer’s name she mentions in the book. The girls had a number of personal experiences with Cornelia’s family’s connections. Also, Cornelia and Emily describe in some detail fashions and their wardrobes for different events. Except where their clothing added to the humor of a story, I wasn’t so interested in those descriptions, but that’s just me.

I was charmed by the authors’ innocence and emotional honesty. As impressively educated as they were, as resourceful as they were to study French while in France, and as proud of their first independent adventure as they were—they were still girls. For example, when the ship stopped briefly in Cherbourg, “Emily put her head down on the rail and cried again because the French were turning out just as she thought they would.” Another example was when measles-ridden Cornelia admitted she just wanted her mother. And in their fear of abandonment in the Rouen cathedral bell tower, they concocted such an elaborately frightful worst-case scenario—including imagining tossing bits of clothing from the deserted tower so that passers-by finding sweaters floating down would look up and see the girls stranded in the tower, but instead the clothing would catch on gargoyles and never reach the ground—that they scared themselves into rushing down and out of the cathedral so fast, their exit created enough wind to blow out the votive candles.

Parts of this European adventure took me back to my own European “firsts,” reminding me of pensions with shared bathrooms down the hall, the wonder of standing where Charlemagne stood, and the leisure of wandering. I loved that the day before Cornelia and Emily left Paris, they visited their favorite places; and what they chose was sweet. The book ends with the statement that both authors have been back to Europe since, but this was the trip when “Our hearts were young and gay and we were leaving a part of them forever in Paris.”   

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