Skinner, Cornelia Otis (1901–1979)

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Skinner, Cornelia Otis (1901–1979)

American stage actress and author. Born on May 30, 1901, in Chicago, Illinois; died on July 9, 1979, in New York City; daughter of Otis Skinner (a stage actor) and Maud (Durbin) Skinner (an actress); attended the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr; attended Bryn Mawr College; studied with Émile Dehelly; studied theater at the Jacques Copeau School in Paris; married Alden Sanford Blodget, in October 1928; children: son Otis; stepchildren: two.

Selected writings:

Tiny Garments (1932); Excuse It, Please (1936); Dithers and Jitters (1938); Soap Behind the Ears (1941); (with Emily Kimbrough) Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1942); Nuts in May (1950); Bottoms Up! (1955); The Ape in Me (1959); Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals (1962); Madame Sarah (1966); The Life of Lindsay and Crouse (1976).

Born in Chicago on May 30, 1901, Cornelia Otis Skinner seemed destined for an acting career. Her father Otis Skinner earned renown in American theater during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly for his performance in Kismet, and her mother Maud Durbin Skinner was for a time the leading lady in his company. Even though Maud stopped performing to devote herself to the family, she and Cornelia joined Otis on several of his tours, and both parents fostered a love of the theater in their daughter. The Skinners settled in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, when Cornelia turned five. Otis was frequently away on tour, but Cornelia grew up treasuring his affectionate letters and weekends home.

Already interested in the theater, Skinner did not relish her studies at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, an apathy that extended into her brief college career at Bryn Mawr College. After leaving during her sophomore year, at age 19 she traveled to Europe with her mother. There she studied acting in Paris under the private tutelage of Émile Dehelly and at the Jacques Copeau School.

In August 1921, Skinner made her first professional stage appearance in Buffalo, New York, performing a small part in Blood and Sand with her father in the starring role. A month later, she moved with the show to the Empire Theater on Broadway. Throughout the 1920s, Skinner appeared in several plays, while also fostering a writing talent that first blossomed in 1925 with Captain Fury, a play written for her father.

Skinner found her niche in writing monologue-driven character sketches in which she also performed. These one-woman shows were memorable for their wit as well as her satiric yet sympathetic portraits of human nature. Transforming into new characters often with no more than the aid of a prop, she toured the United States and eventually England. Among her productions were The Wives of Henry VIII (first performed in 1931), The Empress Eugénie (1932), The Loves of Charles II (1933), and The Mansions on the Hudson. Another audience favorite was her adaptation of Margaret Ayer Barnes ' novel Edna, His Wife (1937), which required Skinner to portray three generations of women. She recreated her love of turn-of-the-century Paris in the grand production of the musical revue Paris '90 in 1952, another solo show in which she commanded 14 different roles.

Skinner did not neglect ensemble acting in her career, although critical recognition in this area did not come until her starring role in George Bernard Shaw's Candida in 1935. Other much-acclaimed performances included her 1944 portrayal of the wife of an American diplomat in The Searching Wind by Lillian Hellman , and her depiction of the ex-wife of a playboy in the comedy The Pleasure of His Company (1958), which Skinner co-wrote with Samuel Taylor.

In a multifaceted career, Skinner also had success with her several humorous, lighthearted books based on her own experiences, starting with Tiny Garments in 1932. In 1942, she and Emily Kimbrough were co-authors of the bestselling Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, a chronicle of a trip they had taken together. Two years after its publication, the story became a movie starring Diana Lynn , and in 1948 Jean Kerr

adapted the work for the stage. Skinner's later books earned her critical recognition as a serious author, with Rose MacMurray writing in the Washington Post of Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals (1962): "As we read Mrs. Skinner's lively prose, we are compelled by her headlong narrative, beguiled by her humor, and likely to forget that we are in the presence of genuine scholarship." Her last book, The Life of Lindsay and Crouse, appeared in 1976. She was also a longtime contributor of essays and light verse to magazines, including Vogue, The New Yorker, and Harper's Bazaar, and many of Skinner's writings appeared in published collections of her work over the course of three decades. She also wrote scripts for the radio series "William and Mary" and narrated for radio and television programs, including the NBC-TV show "Debutante '62." The day after her death of a cerebral hemorrhage in her home on July 9, 1979, The New York Times remembered Skinner as "one of the favorite stage personalities of devoted audiences for more than thirty-five years because of her ability to provoke laughter that was balm for her barbs."


Herbert, Ian, ed. Who's Who in the Theatre. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1977.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1964. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1964.

Robinson, Alice M., et al., eds. Notable Women in the American Theatre. CT: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Kimberly A. Burton , B.A., M.I.S., Ann Arbor, Michigan

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