You know those reality TV shows where a couple of slightly dim-witted and over-privileged teenagers go off on a voyage of self discovery? They spend far too much time worrying about their hair and their clothes, and seem to have no common sense whatsoever. And they get into ‘hilarious’ situations because they don’t think things through. But they know they will always be bailed out anyway, so don’t care. Those shows? Well, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay is more or less exactly that, but it’s the 1920s.
What's it all about?
Yes, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimborough are off to Europe! It’s their first solo trip abroad, and as skittery 19 year olds, they are extremely excited. They have planned the trip for a year, and have scrimped and saved a whole $80 for their tickets (now around $1k). They wave goodbye to anxious parents, batting away their advice like pesky flies, and trip off to start their adventure in Montreal. Of course, despite the new travelling outfits and the brave faces, they are actually complete nervous wrecks. But they don’t like to admit this to anyone, or to each other.
Over the course of the trip, they manage to get stuck on a grounded ship, contract measles, party with HG Wells, get locked in Notre Dame and accidentally stay in a house of ill-repute. Just like today’s reality TV teenagers, they are naïve and incompetent and ever so slightly annoying. But you somehow can’t help but find them quite endearing.
And apparently lots of other people found them endearing too. Our Hearts Were Young and Gay spent several weeks in the US bestseller charts when it was published in 1942. It was made into a movie in 1944, a play in 1946, a television comedy series in 1950 and even a musical in 1960.
Why read it?
1. It’s written with a great deal of warmth. You do get a sense of the genuine friendship between Cornelia and Emily, even if you don’t learn a huge amount about them. It’s told in first person by Cornelia, so it’s hard to know if Emily had any influence on the writing besides adding in some of her own anecdotes. But they both went on to write several books individually, so perhaps she did have a greater hand in the writing than is obvious.
“Emily’s notions concerning geography, like some of her other notions, were enthusiastic but lacking in accuracy.”
2. It really gives you a sense of the period, and its fun to see Paris and London in the 1920s. If I could visit any historical era, I would definitely pick the 1920s. It always looks likes it was a lot of fun and dancing, and that people didn’t really take themselves too seriously. Cornelia and Emily certainly give a lot of evidence to support this. They gaily whisk themselves through life, enjoying themselves immensely. It really does make you want to go back in time to experience all the fun and glamour for yourself.
3. Two girls getting on a cruise ship in the 1920s. I don’t know about you, but I just can’t help but expect some awful murder to take place and for Hercule Poirot or Albert Campion to pop up to solve the crime. It was quite nice to read a book set in the 1920s which wasn’t a murder mystery.
4. The illustrations by Constantin Alajalov are wonderful. They are a perfect accompaniment to the text and really bring out the humour. I wondered why they seemed so familiar and to so epitomise the 1920s, until I discovered that he also drew cartoons and designed covers for the New Yorker for many years. Cornelia also later wrote for The New Yorker, which is presumably how the collaboration came about.
What's not so great?
1. A great deal of the name dropping (and there’s a lot of it) is lost on modern audiences. Cornelia mentions famous celebs on what feels like every other page, but I’m afraid I didn’t know who most of them were. I started off looking them up, but got bored after a while and decided to act like Cornelia herself and to just pretend I knew what she was talking about.
“those were the days of …Pola Negri, when people swooned over Ben Ali Haggin”
2. Much like the cruise ship from Montreal to Southampton, the book moseys along at a leisurely pace. But though the girls do get themselves into some slightly sticky situations, you never really get the sense that they are in any real bother. This is the 1920s afterall. There is always a dapper gentleman at hand to help them out and Mummy and Daddy pop up several times during their trip, so you never really get the sense that they are ‘slumming’ it on their own.
“To be sure, we were being independent, but we began to think that as far as creature comforts were concerned, independence wasn’t so hot… the family suggested ever so delicately that we might like to change to their hotel and we leapt at the chance like hungry trout to a succulent fly”.
Without the sense of peril, the book really relies on humour to move it along, and whilst it is amusing, and raised a few smiles, it’s not laugh-out-loud funny. So I did find myself dipping into a chapter here and there rather than reading it avidly.
3. I think I put this book on my TBR because someone somewhere at some point told me that if I liked Betty MacDonald, I would like this too. I did enjoy it, but I had really high expectations because I adore Betty. And sadly it didn’t come close in my opinion.
After their European adventures (but before the book was published), Cornelia became a bit of a celebrity. After appearing in a few plays, she started writing and performing short character sketches on stage as a ‘diseuse’ (or monologist) – much like our own Joyce Grenfell. She apparently later dropped the ‘diseuse’ name from her programmes, after a Scottish newspaper called her ‘an American Disease’.
I have no idea if this is true, but I did read somewhere that Our Hearts Were Young and Gay was used as a codebook by German intelligence during the Second World War.
It isn’t the most dramatic, the most interesting or the most dramatic memoir ever written. But if you want something lighthearted and frothy which will raise a smile and pass the time, give it a whirl.
Our Hearts Were Young and Gay is out of print. You can find secondhand copies for around £7 - though at this price they might be a bit beaten up (like mine!) Biblio is a good place to look - I get a small commission if you use this link: