Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bantam No. 105 (1947)

Title : Our Hearts Were Young and Gay
Author : Cornelia Otis Skinner
Cover art : S. B. (Boomey) Valentine

[ N. Y. : Bantam, 1947. No. 105. "They invaded Europe" -- back cover.  Co-written with her friend Emily Kimbrough. Cover art by S. B. (Boomey) Valentine. Drawings by 'Alajalov.'  First published in hardcover, New York, Dodd, Mead & company, 1942. An early account of women traveling independently, Our Hearts is the story of two young women’s experiences traveling in France and especially Paris in the early 1920s.]
style ***
substance ***
collectibility **

  ''There is a noticeable trace of mild humor to Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, but it is very mild indeed, about as tasty as junket or cornstarch pudding. Why it should be a co-selection for December by the Book-of-the-Month Club is a dark mystery.'' -- Orville Prescott, review in the New York Times, 1942

  Cornelia Otis Skinner had an acting and literary background via her East Coast upper-class upbringing which included an Ivy League & Sorbonne education. In addition to acting for the screen and stage, she wrote extensively, with her credits including both fiction and nonfiction books, as well as pieces for the New Yorker. Film buffs remember her as the sinister quack psychiatrist Miss Holloway in the quasinoir ghost story The Uninvited [1].  
  But as for Bantam 105 . . .  that’s some cover! Two nattily dressed women stroll down a Paris boulevard. Love those hats! Cornelia must be the one on the right. Admirers include Adolphe Menjou lookalike and baker (tailor?), and how about sneaking in a dog in the design! Cover artist S. B (Boomey) Valentine is a new name to me, about whom very little information seems available, online or otherwise. The style here is fairly representative of Bantam’s early look which favored flat, cartoonish figures. But this cover simply has a lot more energy and texture than the usual Bantam offerings of the period. In particular the perspective, tone, sensibilities and mostly the colors scream FRANCE! 

  Our Hearts clearly overshadows all of Cornelia’s other creative endeavors, even her considerable acting career. How to explain its nearly universal good press today, given the quaint and dated sensibilities? To a large extent it must be the very innocents abroad quality that’s so engaging to our more jaundiced eyes and ears. Indeed Our Hearts was fairly light and frothy even for its time; it appeared only a few years after the Great War and just before the more edgy travel writing of the 1930s and 1940s. It also stands as a lighter contrast to the more somber fiction of the period which had a travel element.   

  Curiously - a bit a trivia that only a librarian could love - spot checks reveal that the book is invariably classified by libraries as fiction though the subject matter is clearly personal recollections of a nonfiction nature . . . such are the mysterious whys and wherefors of library catalogers.

  In any case Cornelia remains a fascinating character and, Orville Prescott's aforequoted dissent notwithstanding, Our Hearts
ranks as her literary masterpiece and major creative contribution. 

   [1] This was a role with decidedly lesbian overtones, quite remarkable for the strait-laced Forties. Indeed viewed today from a seven decades distance, Cornelia’s brilliant performance leaves little doubt as to the character’s orientation*, and it’s a bit of a mystery that the film got past the censors. Which, in a roundabout way, brings us back to the present book, and we wonder if the ‘gay’ in the title refers to the term in the more contemporary sense (after all Our Hearts is the story is of two unattached women traveling together in the more open, less homophobic Twenties). But not the case -- the modern usage of the word didn’t take until 1965 or thereabouts, and thus the more prosaic explanation for the book's title is that it simply refers to the contents as being a lighthearted travel frolic**
A formidable character in The Uninvited
(with Gail Russell)
  Her entrance is a master stroke of subtlety and suggestion -- she sits imperiously at her desk in the inner sanctum of the gloomy, dungeon-like ‘retreat center‘ which she presides over. A gigantic, Laura-esque portrait of the deceased Mary Meredith looms over the massive office, while Wagner, Tristan & Isolde no less (Love & Death indeed!), gently wafts nearby (this is a nice ambiguous touch since it’s not made clear whether the music is source or background). Her high priestess chic clothes, stilted manner of speech, and severe hairstyle establish her as an exotic, mysterious character with quasi-supernatural powers, who exerts an unlikely, and uncanny, in any case decidedly malevolent hold over the film’s nominal heroine Stella and - even more so, and even more surprising - Stella’s pathologically protective but otherwise no-nonsense grandfather. This is paralleled by the hold, from beyond the grave, which Mary Meredith has over Miss Holloway, further contributing to the forbidden, diseased eroticism which hovers, hothouse-like (after all, they’re always talking about the strong scent of mimosa!) throughout the film and in particular is associated with Miss Holloway's obsession with Mary, and which seems to spill over to the other characters.

 ** Although at least one source suggests a mildly lesbian subtext. 
Black Dog & Leventhal reissue, 2005


  1. That is a whale of a cover! Fascinating write up about the author as well. How fleeting is fame, eh?

  2. My Great Uncle did the cover. He was an illustrator in the 40s and 50s for advertisements (Tide, etc). He was an artist as well. The family still has some of his art.

  3. My Great Uncle did the cover. He was an illustrator in the 40s and 50s for advertisements (Tide, etc). He was an artist as well. The family still has some of his art.