Popcorn by Cornelia Otis Skinner

I read this one before the Cornelia Otis Skinner that ended up on my 50 Books You Must Read list, but somehow didn’t get around to reading it – but Popcorn (1943) is the book which started off my devotion. And it’s such a lovely copy, too. Even if I hadn’t already known the name Cornelia Otis Skinner, I think I’d have nabbed this book – the condition, the feel of the boards, and the lovely detail on the front basically sum up everything I love most in literature. As you can see in this photo which, lamentably, I’ve taken at dead of night instead of in the glorious sunshine.


Like Nuts in May, this is a series of comic episodes in the life of a hapless wife, mother, and actress. It’s a heightened version of C.O.S.’s own life, complete with the admirably silly illustrations of Alajalov and Soglow, whoever they might be. And it comes with a preface by F. Tennyson Jesse, no less.

The best way to show her is by quotation, of course, and here is a fun example of her visiting a parent of one of her son’s friends, and feeling completely out of her depth:

Once, harbouring the quaint notion that it might be a maternal duty to catch an inside glimpse of the houses to which my son has entrée, I committed the grim error of calling for him at a residence whose marble exterior and wrought-iron garage-door should have forewarned me of the exclusive nature of the juvenile goings-on within. A butler answered the bell. Butlers not only frighten, they have an over-refining effect on me, and I hear myself using the broad “a” on words like “hat”. I murmured my son’s name and the fact that I had come to fetch him. He took me for a governess and started in the direction of a waiting group of nursemaids when I managed to gasp out that I was the child’s mother. This overt confession shocked him considerably and for a moment I wondered if I should send home for my marriage licence. Reluctantly he led me up a staircase that can only be described as palatial and, opening a period door, thrust me into a room of complete darkness.

I love it so much! This collection has quite a lot on the perils and pitfalls of motherhood, but also looks at topics as varied as yoga, the telephone, being ‘the paintable type’ (it isn’t a compliment), sailing, and astrology. This last is not an activity she relishes (as in Nuts in May, many of the short accounts detail her incapabilities and inaptness for various undertakings), and the opening of it is an example of her particular: the amusing employment of simile.

Of the many varieties of bore, one of the worst I know is the person who wants to point out the stars and constellations. This is a form of midsummer pest which, like the sand-fly, tends to ruin beach parties.

And another from the same section…

Then too there is something about lying prone on the shore beside the type of creature who is generally a star-gazer that I find peculiarly distressing. It’s a little like dancing a tango with someone who is studying for the ministry.

It’s been a while since I read it, and any elaboration I would give would simply be repetitions of the same enthusiasm, but… if my previous excitement about Cornelia Otis Skinner didn’t make you dash out and get something by her then, this time, DO! Well, do if any of the quotations above amuse you, or if you find the Provincial Lady books amusing. Go on go on go on go on go on.

F. Tennyson Jesse’s preface starts off with an acknowledgement that ‘it may seem a strange time in which to publish such light-weight articles as go to make up this collection […] are we not all, including that vast country of which Miss Skinner is a citizen and which she has toured so often, engaged in a struggle for survival?’ The answer (of course) is yes – World War Two was waging, and America had entered it, but, like so many writers of the period, refuge was found in humour and an acknowledgement of the absurdity of everyday life at a time when it must have felt remote. ‘They stand, in their light-hearted way, for the very principle for which we are all fighting. There could not be a German Cornelia Otis Skinner – outside of a concentration camp.’ If this is not quite true, there certainly couldn’t have been a Nazi Cornelia Otis Skinner, and Popcorn certainly must have been not only a welcome diversion at the time, but a symbol of those who loved peace and longed for freedom. Today, whether for the same or different reasons, it is equally welcome.

16 thoughts on “Popcorn by Cornelia Otis Skinner

  • July 6, 2015 at 12:28 am

    “Today, whether for the same or different reasons, it is equally welcome.”

    Thanks for reminding me to look up more of her writings.

    • July 6, 2015 at 8:34 am

      I hope you find, and love, her!

  • July 6, 2015 at 12:33 am

    I do so love it when you feature a writer I also enjoy! Cornelia Otis Skinner is awesome. I don’t (yet) have Popcorn, but I have quite a delicious collection of her other books, and I will back up Simon’s recommendation. Go on!

    • July 6, 2015 at 8:37 am

      Hurray! We certainly share a lot of favourites from this era. I’m so thrilled I found out about her, as there is such a wonderful supply of new titles to me. (Btw, it sounds – via Lisa’s comment below – that Popcorn might be a best-of of her other books, so you probably have all of these somewhere else!)

  • July 6, 2015 at 12:48 am

    I am not familiar with Cornelia Otis Skinner, but I’ll certainly be on the lookout for her books. I love the writing style of the quotes you’ve included in your review.

    • July 6, 2015 at 8:38 am

      Excellent! Depending where you are in the world, they are either very easy or quite difficult to find…

  • July 6, 2015 at 2:36 am

    Simon, I’ve been intrigued by your mentions of this book, because I thought I had all of her volumes of essays (and I recently came across a copy of her biography of Sarah Bernhardt). When I read your post, the quotes sounded familiar, and so did the mention of yoga! So I went looking through my copies. The one about her son’s friends is in Dithers and Jitters, from 1938 (illustrated by Alajalov, who also illustrated my copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay and most of Emily Kimbrough’s books). The one on astronomy is in Excuse It, Please, from 1936 (illustrated by O. Soglow) – there’s also one on her trying to teach herself astronomy in D&J. I’m wondering now if Popcorn was produced just for the UK? and whether it includes essays from other books. Very intriguing!

    • July 6, 2015 at 8:42 am

      Ah, this is very probable! It certainly seems just for the UK market (the introduction is UK-centric) and I did spot that one of the essays was also in Dithers and Jitters, but had thought that perhaps Dithers and Jitters was a collection of other essays. Well, it just means that I’ll have to keep re-reading her essays as I go through the others… not a hardship!

      I saw the copy of Sarah Bernhardt in the US, but it was huge and would have taken too much space in my luggage, so I had to leave it behind regretfully…

  • July 6, 2015 at 8:18 am

    I’m certainly on the lookout for her books now – sound so delightful!

    • July 6, 2015 at 8:43 am

      Popcorn is pretty easy to find in the UK, though the others aren’t – happy hunting, Liz!

  • July 6, 2015 at 10:56 am

    I do wish you weren’t such a bad influence with your book reviews, Simon! This sounds glorious! She’s gone straight onto my list of authors to read!

    • July 7, 2015 at 11:12 am

      Haha! I am not even slightly sorry ;)

  • July 6, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    I’ve been re-reading Mrs Appleyard (Louise Andrews Kent) lately and this sounds as if it’s along the same lines!

    • July 7, 2015 at 11:12 am

      I’ve googled, and she seems to have written cookbooks – are there also other books in this line? Titles, please do!

  • July 6, 2015 at 7:15 pm

    I am going to have to go in search of Otis Skinner.

    • July 7, 2015 at 11:11 am

      And you did! Hurrah!

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