Cornelia Otis Skinner: Sui Generis

Cornelia Otis Skinner (1899-1979) was one of those impossible-to-pigeonhole artists whose fame gives one hope that the world need not be a howling mad wilderness. She was a writer and an actress, who wrote and performed her own solo theatrical monologues; wrote and published humor pieces, essays, memoirs, biographies and fiction; and acted in theatre, film, radio, and television. In her early years, she seemed a modernist; in her later ones, a throwback to another era. She was above all a personality and she dined out on that for decades.

And she was bred for the role. She was the daughter of the great actors Otis Skinner and Maud Durbin (better known as Mrs. Otis Skinner as was the style of the time), and she was educated at Baldwin, Bryn Mawr and the Sorbonne. She had a small role in her father’s silent film Kismet (1920); it would be her last screen appearance for over two decades. In 1921, she and her college friend Emily Kimbrough (later a successful author and journalist) made a tour of Europe. They later turned their experiences into the bestselling 1942 book Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, which was then adapted into a 1944 movie, a 1946 play, a 1950 TV sitcom, and a 1960 musical.

Initially, she was a conventional Broadway actress, with roles in productions of Blood and Sand (1921), Will Shakespeare (1923), Tweedles (1923), The Wild Wescotts (1923-24), In His Arms (1924) and White Collars (1925). Then, inspired by the work of Ruth Draper, from 1926 through 1929 she toured the U.S. with an evening of short, diverse, monologues. This evolved naturally into a series of solo Broadway shows The Wives of Henry VIII (1931-32), Cornelia Otis Skinner (1932), The Loves of Charles II (1933-34), Mansion on the Hudson (1935), The Empress Eugenie (1937), and Edna His Wife (1937-38).

At the same time, she was writing short humor pieces for The New Yorker and other magazines. These were compiled and published in a series of books: Tiny Garments (1932), Excuse It, Please! (1936), Dithers and Jitters (1937), Soap Behind the Ears (1941) Popcorn (1943), That’s Me All Over (1948), Nuts in May (1950), Bottoms Up! (1955) and The Ape in Me (1959).

In 1939 she co-starred with Orson Welles on an episode of the radio show Campbell Playhouse. Throughout the ’40s she was in demand as an actress, now often playing some version of herself. On Broadway she was in productions of Love for Love (1940), Theatre (1941-42), The Searching Wind (1944-45), and Lady Windermere’s Fan (1946-47). During the same period she was in the films Stage Door Canteen (1943) and The Uninvited (1944). In 1948 she published her autobiographical book Family Circle. In 1952 came Paris ’90, her first solo Broadway show in over a decade, this time with songs by Kay Swift. In 1955 she had the scene-stealing role of Harry Thaw’s mother in The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. Then she returned to Broadway to play Lady Undershaft in Major Barbara (1956-57), and then co-wrote The Pleasure of His Company (1958-59) with Samuel Taylor, in which she appeared with Charlie Ruggles, Cyril Ritchard, Walter Abel, George Peppard and Jerry Fujikawa. This was made into a TV version in 1961.

Starting in 1949 Skinner had become a frequent presence on the small screen herself. In addition to the 1950 sitcom adaptation of Their Hearts Were Young and Gay, she took the occasional TV acting role. But much more frequently she was in demand as herself on television variety and talk programs like The Ed Sullivan Show, Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, Kraft Music Hall, The Arthur Murray Party, and The Mike Douglas Douglas Show.

In 1962 she published Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals a non-fiction book about La Belle Epoque in Paris. This was followed by Madame Sarah, her 1967 biography of Sarah Bernhardt. She had a small role in the 1968 movie The Swimmer, and on a 1970 show called NET Playhouse (NET was a precursor to PBS). Her 1976 book Life with Lindsay and Crouse appears to have been her last project.

To learn more about show business, including television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous