Skinner, Cornelia Otis
SKINNER, Cornelia Otis
Daughter of Otis and Maud Durbin Skinner; married Alden S. Blodget, 1928; children: one son
Cornelia Otis Skinner was the only child born to a theatrical couple. Her mother retired from the stage shortly after Skinner was born, but her father went on to gain national prominence as an actor and matinee idol. Otis Skinner spent much of his time on tour, but the family's desire for a stable and respectable home life led them to settle in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, where Skinner grew up.
Tall and lanky, Skinner thought of herself as an ugly duckling. The autobiographical Family Circle (1948) underscores the embarrassing contrast between her mother's effortless charm and Skinner's adolescent gawkiness. Nevertheless, from an early age Skinner gravitated toward the theater. After two years at Bryn Mawr, where she proved herself hopelessly unmathematical, Skinner departed for Paris. There she attended lectures at the Sorbonne while also receiving classical theater training from Jacques Copeau and Émile Dehelly of the Comédie Francaise. Skinner's father paved her way onto the Broadway stage by providing a small role for her in his own production of the Spanish novel Blood and Sand.
While undertaking small roles in a number of productions, Skinner wrote a play for her father. Called Captain Fury, it opened in December 1925. Soon Skinner was using her writing talents for her own benefit, creating lively theatrical monologues, which she performed in the U.S. and London. The monologues grew into a series of historical costume dramas, with Skinner herself playing all the roles.
From a sentimental novel of the day, Edna His Wife, Skinner developed a monodrama in which she portrayed three generations of women. This ambitious work toured the country in 1938, generating great public enthusiasm, although the New York critics were less kind. She was much better received by them in the title role of Shaw's Candida and in other full-fledged productions.
Skinner also contributed light verse and humorous essays to the New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar, Ladies' Home Journal, and other magazines. The witty depiction of human social foibles is her particular specialty, and her sketches often turn on comic self-deprecation. Skinner married in 1928 and had one son, and she often wrote of domestic matters. Her satirical treatment of her own ineptness as wife, mother, and social animal is good-natured enough so readers can identify easily with her tales of woe. Her essays have been collected into a number of genuinely funny volumes, among them Tiny Garments (1932), That's Me All Over (1948), and Bottoms Up! (1955).
Skinner's most famous volume is Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1942), an uproarious account of a youthful trip abroad in the company of a schoolmate, Emily Kimbrough. The book details how these two naive young ladies spent the night in a brothel, came down with childhood diseases at inopportune moments, and otherwise found themselves in hot water. It captured the public fancy, and a million copies were sold. Inevitably there was soon a motion picture version (1944), and in 1948 Jean Kerr adapted the book into a popular play. Through all of this, Skinner did not neglect her own stage career. With Samuel Albert Taylor she wrote a successful Broadway comedy, The Pleasure of His Company (1959), and played one of the key supporting roles to general acclaim. Her one-woman shows also continued.
Skinner's skills as a biographer were first displayed in Family Circle, which is as much about her parents as herself. Her major work on Sarah Bernhardt, Madame Sarah (1967), was well received, less for its scholarship than for the vivid and affectionate portrait it draws.
Skinner's reputation in the decades after her death in 1979 rested on the grace with which she moved in several directions at once. Both a master of the comic sketch and a serious researcher into theater history, she brought to her writing projects an effortless quality that tends to obscure her very real talent.
Excuse It, Please! (1936). Dithers and Jitters (1938). Soap Behind the Ears (1941). Popcorn (1943). Nuts in May (1950). The Ape in Me (1959). Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals (1962). Life with Lindsay & Crouse (1976).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
New Yorker (21 Nov. 1942). NYT (5 Sept. 1948, 10 July 1979). NYTBR (8 Jan. 1967). SR (19 Nov. 1938, 14 Nov. 1942, 11 Sept. 1948). TLS (27 April 1967).
—BEVERLY GRAY BIENSTOCK