Tuesday 22 November 2011

Penguin no. 1393: Our Hearts were Young and Gay
by Cornelia Otis Skinner & Emily Kimbrough

We had been planning the trip for over a year. Pinching, scraping, and going without sodas, we had salvaged from our allowances and the small-time jobs we each had found the preceding vacation the sum of $80.00, which was the cost of a minimum passage on a Canadian Pacific liner of the cabin class. Our respective families had augmented our finances by letters of credit generous enough to permit us to live for three months abroad, if not in the lap of luxury, at least on the knees of comfort. For months we had been exchanging letters brimming over with rapturous plans and lyric anticipation and now June really had rolled around and the happy expectancy of the brides-to-be of that year had nothing on us.

This is a simply delightful book, and easily the most amusing I have read in years. It must have been quite a different experience to read it when it was first published in 1943, as it is clearly anticipated that any reader will have some idea of just who these people are. But I picked it up knowing nothing of Cornelia Otis Skinner or Emily Kimbrough, or of Cornelia's father Otis Skinner, or of Eisenhower's cardiologist Dr Paul Dudley White, all of whom are featured rather affectionately in these recollections.

It seems that Cornelia was a writer and an actress who successfully wrote and performed monologues on the stage during the 1920s, and who was clearly reasonably well known by the 1940s (there is footage of her here featuring on What's my Line?) . Perhaps that is why the book has been written from her perspective, even though it was co-authored by both women; the sections in which she relates Emily's lone experiences inevitably read a little oddly. It was a very successful publication, spending five weeks at the top of the New York Time's bestseller list, before being made into a film the following year. Emily then wrote a sequel about the making the film, We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood, although that doesn't seem to have made it into the vintage Penguin list.

Our Hearts were Young and Gay is a tale of two innocents abroad: looking back across 20 years, Americans Cornelia and Emily recall the trip they took to Europe together in the early 1920s just after graduating from Bryn Mawr college, when they were young, naïve, and largely uninformed. It was a kind of supervised aloneness, as Cornelia's parents took a parallel holiday, crossing the ocean at the same time but in a different ship, and staying in many of the same locations, but in different hotels.

Cornelia and Emily cherish this illusion of independence, and perhaps some delusions of youthful sophistication. As they head off on their adventure, Fate does them rather a favour in terms of the interestingness of their story, by delivering a series of unanticipated misfortunes, along with some very fortuitous saviours. Barely have they waved farewell to their parents before their plans begin unravelling: their ship runs aground, they are left stranded in Canada as the only passengers for whom an alternative passage could not be organised, and they are exposed to measles during the delay at the worst possible time for two girls shortly to pass through customs. Their memoirs read like farce as they blunder from one absurd predicament to another.

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. They invariably do so, but usually not the one they were hoping to make. They detail their rivalries, their affectations, their mistaken purchases, their imaginative fears, and their dreams, and through it all their sense of wonder at the experiences they are having.

They describe a world which has vanished, one in which girls are very innocent, measles is terrifying, and travel is leisurely and unhurried. They stay for long periods in hotels, and seem unperturbed by setbacks that cost them weeks. As the adventures settle down, they include wonderful anecdotes of the people they encounter, such as lunch with H.G. Wells, and a visit with a First World War veteran almost imprisoned due to his injuries in the hospital at Invalides.

It is a light-hearted read, hilarious in places, and such a charming tale.


  1. This sounds so charming - thank you for highlighting it this week. And good luck with continuing the hunt in the UK.

  2. Lovely review of this very lovely book! I read a borrowed copy - must procure another.

  3. I really like the sound of this - so charming. I love books that are humorous without being snarky.

  4. I knew as soon as I saw the title and authors that this would be either lovely or dreadful. I'm glad it's the former. There's something very appealing about travel memoirs of a certain age, when the ability to travel was seen as being more special than it is now.

  5. I'd heard of Cornelia Otis Skinner but only in the vaguest sense. (Old lady memory, what can you expect?) She did play the evil Miss Holloway in THE UNINVITED, one of my all time favorite movies, so that's how I've always remembered her.

    I will definitely be wanting to read this. Thanks for a great review. :)

  6. This sounds like a lovely read. I'll look out for it.



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