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Cornelia Otis Skinner

Cornelia Otis Skinner

During her lifetime Cornelia Otis Skinner (1901-1979) received recognition as a talented writer, actor, and monologuist. Her writing varied widely, and included comical essays about herself, in-depth studies of women from a wide range of social and economic backgrounds, memoirs, and biographies. Her intelligent style, combined with her wit, allowed her to succeed in many genres. She was also a gifted actress, performing one-woman monologues that were unique to her time.

Cornelia Otis Skinner was born on May 30, 1901, in Chicago to Otis Skinner and Maud Durbin Skinner, both actors. In 1906, the family moved to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and Skinner's mother retired from the stage. Her father continued to tour, receiving widespread recognition and great fame, especially for his role in Kismet. As a child, Skinner was immersed in the theatre. She was continually surrounded by actors. Her father, often away on tour, wrote her long letters about his profession.

In 1918, Skinner attended Byrn Mawr College, where she became involved in theatre productions and played Lady Macbeth. During her sophomore year she left Byrn Mawr and moved to Paris. Skinner attended the Sorbonne and studied acting at the Jacques Copeau School and the Comedie Francaise, where she came under the influence of Emile Dehelly. Skinner, fluent in French, was very fond of Paris. This was reflected in her later writings.

Early Roles in the Theatre

Skinner returned to the United States in 1921. She made her dramatic debut as Dona Sarasate in the stage adaptation of Blasco-Ibanez's Blood and Sand (1921). Over the next five years Skinner established a reputation for her stage acting with roles in Will Shakespeare (1923), Tweedles (1923), The Wild Wescotts (1923), In His Arms (1924), and White Collars (1925).

In 1925, Skinner wrote her first play for her father titled Captain Fury, which was produced off-Broadway. In the same year she wrote and performed her first one-woman show. Skinner used sharp wit and keen observation to create characters that fascinated audiences. Over the next several years she traveled the across the United States, performing her monologues. In 1928, she married Alden S. Blodget; the couple had one son. She made her debut in England at the St. James Theatre in 1929.

The Monologues

During the early 1930s, Skinner focused on her interest in historical women. Researching her characters extensively, she wrote and portrayed a range of unique women in her monodramas, which included The Wives of Henry VIII (1931), The Empress Eugenie (1932), The Loves of Charles II (1933), and The Mansion on the Hudson (1935). Skinner earned considerable recognition for her adaptation of Margaret Ayer Barne's novel Edna, His Wife, which toured London in 1937 and the United States in 1938. Skinner wrote the one-woman play Paris '90 in 1952 along with Kay Swift, who provided the music and lyrics. The show, in which Skinner played fourteen different characters, was very successful. It also proved to be quite popular when released in a book adaptation as Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals in 1962.

Skinner enthralled her audiences with her uncanny ability to switch characters with only a simple prop or a slight change in posture. Although many of her monodramas were set in places foreign to her audiences, Skinner enjoyed touring the United States, performing in small towns for people seldom exposed to the theatre. Her sharp wit and insightful humor into the everyday occurrences in life appealed to a wide audience. It was this insight that made Skinner a monologuist unmatched in her day.

Traditional Theatre

In 1939, Skinner earned critical acclaim for her performance in the lead role of George Bernard Shaw's Candida during its 1937 London production and 1939 U.S. tour. When Shaw saw Skinner's performance, he cabled her the simple message "Excellent-greatest" to which Skinner replied, "Undeserving of such praise." The response from Shaw read, "Meant the play," and Skinner answered, "So did I." Skinner also played important roles in other classic theatre productions, including Angelica in Love for Love (1940), Emily Hazen in Lillian Hellman's The SearchingWind (1944), and Mrs. Erlynne in Lady Windermere's Fan (1946). In 1952, Skinner won the Barter Theatre Award for outstanding acting on the Broadway stage.

The Pleasure of His Company

The Pleasure of His Company (1958), co-written with Samuel Taylor, was a unique story for its time. In the story, Jessica Poole lives in San Francisco with her mother (played by Skinner) and stepfather, Kate and Jim Doughtery. She is about to be married to a handsome, wealthy rancher in a high-society wedding when her runabout, jet-setting father, Pogo Poole, appears on the scene, much to the dismay of Kate. Pogo, who wishes to be the father he never was, disapproves of the marriage. Jessica's grandfather agrees, believing that his intelligent granddaughter is being "cut down in the prime of her life by marriage." He adds to Kate's annoyance by questioning time-honored traditions, such as giving away the bride. "Why give her to somebody to use? She hasn't begun to use herself!" Although her husband-to-be is not a bad character, his obsession with ranching and bulls cannot compare to her father's exciting, adventurous life, and when Pogo and her grandfather suggest that she call off the wedding and go explore the world with her father, she can not resist. Kate, distraught over the upheaval in plans, reluctantly concedes, and the scene ends as Jessica and Pogo rush out the door.

Reviewers gave high praise to The Pleasure of His Company, particularly for its uncommon wit and intelligent dialogue. During a time when many theatre productions were deep psychological sketches of men, The Pleasure of His Company offered light comedy, filled with irony and satire. Interestingly, the play introduced a rather controversial idea in a manner that was not offensive to the audience. The idea that a young woman should aspire to a life filled with experiences and adventures and not look solely to marriage and motherhood as her source of identity was innovative for the late 1950s. The play was also critical of intelligent young women who married men of good looks and substantial wealth but without any interest in the arts or culture. Using satire, the authors challenged the role of women in society. When Kate defends her lifestyle by suggesting that she gives the best dinner parties in San Francisco, the audience hears its hollow ring, but they are never lectured or berated. Not only a critical success, The Pleasure of His Company was a popular success; it played on Broadway for a year and then toured the United States. The production was also made into a movie, starring Fred Astaire and Lilli Palmer.

The Essays

After touring with The Pleasure of His Company in 1960, Skinner gave her last performance in 1964 in The Irregular Verb to Love. Although retired from the theatre, she continued to write. Over her lifetime she contributed numerous essays to publications such as The New Yorker, Ladies' Home Journal, Vogue, Life, Harper's Bazaar, and Reader's Digest. Many of her writings were a satirical look at her own life. In her essay "Where to Look" she discussed her acute sense of unease when she encountered a "whereto-look" situation, such as waiting for an elevator: "The act of waiting for an elevator brings out a suspicious streak in people. You arrive before the closed landing door and push a button. Another person comes along and, after a quick glance of mutual appraisal, you both look quickly away and continue to wait, thinking the while uncharitable thoughts of one another. The new arrival suspecting you of not having pushed the button and you wondering if the new arrival is going to be a mistrusting old meanie and go give the button a second shove; … an unspoken tension which is broken by one or the other of you walking over and doing just that. Then back to positions of waiting and the problem of where to look."

Compilations of Skinner's essays included: Tiny Garments (1932), Excuse It, Please! (1936), Dithers and Jitters (1938), and Soap Behind the Ears (1941). Selections from these publications appeared in That's Me All Over (1948), which contained drawings by Constantin Alajálov. In the 1950s, three more volumes appeared, also with Alajálov's drawings: Nuts in May (1950), Bottoms Up! (1955), and The Ape in Me (1959). These essays focused on Skinner's personal insights into the comic nature of life and employed a great deal of self-deprecating humor. In The Ape in Me she writes about her days in college: "I was known as the Tall Girl of my set and the few callow youths who 'dated' me would hardly have been able to let linger a kiss on any feature much above my chin … even if I thrust it forward in the manner of an amorous heifer."

When Our Hearts Were Young and Gay

Skinner's highly celebrated autobiographical work, When Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, (1942) told the story of her experiences with her friend Emily Kimbrough, during their time together in Paris in the 1920s. Written with Kimbrough, When Our Heart Were Young and Gay takes a comical look at the two naive women and their encounters with such unexpected experiences as bed bugs and brothels. Once again told with Skinner's wit and talent for seeing the interesting in the ordinary, the book was a critical and popular success. It was a bestseller for eight weeks and sold over a million copies. In 1944, the book was made into a movie; in 1948, Jean Kerr developed it into a play.

Skinner completed her memoirs in 1948, focusing on her career and that of her father. The book was published in the United States as Family Circle and in England as Happy Family. In 1962, Skinner published Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals, adapting and further developing material from her one-woman play Paris '90. Her next writing project once again earned praise from reviewers. Madame Sarah (1967), a biography of Sarah Bernhardt, was both a critical and popular success. Life with Lindsay and Crouse, a biography of Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, was Skinner's final book. It was published in 1976, when Skinner was 75 years old. She died on July 9, 1979 in New York City.

Throughout her career Skinner made significant inroads for women in the theatre. Her one-woman monodramas were innovative and demonstrated her extraordinary ability to bring the women she portrayed to life in front of her audience. As a playwright, actress, essayist, and author, she earned the admiration of her peers, the critics, and her fans.

Further Reading

American National Biography, Vol. 20, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, fourth ed., edited by Bruce Murphy, HarperCollins, 1996.

Cambridge Guide to Theatre, revised ed., edited by Martin Banham, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Oxford Companion to American Literature, sixth ed., edited by James D. Hart, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Shafer, Yvonne, American Women Playwrights: 1900-1950, Peter Lang Publishing, 1995.

Something About the Author, Vol. 2, edited by Anne Commire, Gale Research, 1971. □

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