Words That Men Live By
Cornelia Otis Skinner (1953)
LAKE PLACID, N. Y., June, 1953 - Standing on a convention lecture platform instead of a stage, with the members of the American Gynecological Society assembled in annual convention as her audience, the celebrated monologist, Cornelia Otis Skinner delivered here a forthright commentary on the manner in which a woman and mother views the doctors in her life.
The organization of leading obstetricians switched from the usual routine of inviting an eminent colleague to address them and their wives. Despite her surprise upon receipt of the invitation, which she at first thought must be a joke, Miss Skinner came fully prepared to leave the doctors with a new perspective on the woman who crowd their waiting rooms and who, as Miss Skinner reminded them, always shudder at the order to remove everything but their shoes and stockings.
For her part, Miss Skinner told them, she had carried rebellion to the point of invariably leaving on also her hat, for reasons duly explained.
Ladies and gentlemen of the profession…if not the oldest in the world, at least one of the most timed-honored. You find me in a more awkward position than any in which I have ever been placed by certain of your distinguished members. I am as bewildered by my presence here as you must be. In fact I feel as uncertain of the issue as I did on an occasion when, giving monologue performance a number of years ago in a New England town, I started off under the handicap of a far from encouraging introduction. (I rather liked this introduction because it is such a fine example of New England’s traditional thrift.) The lady of the organization which was…having me…(that highly obstetrical expression!) rose and with fluttering apology said “Ladies and gentleman, owing to the high price of Rear Admiral Byrd, we have Miss Skinner with us this evening.” Well, let’s face it…you have Miss Skinner with you this evening and it’s not owing to the high price of any of the fees you have charged me over the years.
As I understand it, the yearly address to this learned gathering should be of an instructive or enlightening nature. It is an odd and I must admit a somewhat pleasant sensation to be in the position of offering advice to the physician.
Well, whether or not you’ll take mine, I think this is a golden opportunity for giving the medical profession a bit of the patient’s point of view. In other words to hear from the person at the other end of the stethoscope or, in this case, the other end of the…shall we say the stereopticon? As the humble presenter of this angle…this seldom heard from point of view (I am referring to opinion, not position) I really feel, without undue modesty, that I am a good choice. Over the years I have had the privilege…or shall we call it the dubious pleasure…of considerable contract with your branch of the profession, due to the fact that my profession has obliged me to travel extensively throughout the length and breadth of the United States, and that the birth of a son, plus certain defects of my anatomy, have required frequent consultations, inspections and repairs to the extent that, in the words of Somerset Maugham, you have left me only the bare necessities of life. I have perhaps had more experience than most patients…(I’d rather say “clients”…the word “patient” immediately reduces me to a state of apprehension and general debility)…I have had more opportunities to see you at work…if see is what I mean…to compare your methods, your relationships with your clients…your manners…your beside ones, your desk-side ones and your table-side ones. And I have also had occasion to speculate as to how much you know…not of your science…but of the point of view of your clientele...
For the nicely brought-up girl, there is something that is hard to reconcile with her genteel sensibilities about walking into the inner sanctum of a complete stranger, solemnly describing her symptoms and at the end of the recital hearing the stranger say “Will you please go into the next room and take off everything except your shoes and stockings?” It wouldn’t seem so bad if it weren’t for that shoes and stockings clause! To my impressionable mind it has always smacked of the more erotic refinements of Berlin during its decadence. Be it to the honor of my upbringing, I have always kept on not only my shoes and stockings, but also my hat! If a costume made up of a sheet and a John Fredericks model is not the smartest of attire, God knows it’s the most respectable.
Now, Gentleman (I say gentleman because while I am well aware of the number of feminine members of the brotherhood-sisterhood there are, the harvest of my experience has been gleaned chiefly from the brothers), there is one aspect of your business of which you know nothing whatsoever and regarding which I believe it’s high time you were made aware…of. And that is what goes on in your waiting-rooms…particularly when they are replete with women who in turn, are replete with child. Of course none of you ever pause to see…when occasionally you make an impressive dash from your outer door to your inner office – because you’re late or because you couldn’t face the prospect of looking at us all, or because you’ve an emergency phone-call, or because you’re just plain late.
Women in the office of an obstetrician have a behavior all their own. It’s a continuous scene of mutual inspection and speculation. One eventually gets accustomed every two weeks or so to seeing the same old familiar faces…but the old familiar contours are a constant source of interest far more fascinating than those old copies of Life, Time and the New Yorker which must have been read by all the members of a doctor’s family, thumbed up, torn and jumped upon and eventually placed on the table of his waiting-rooms. The obstetrician’s waiting-room is the one place of gathering where women inspect not each other’s clothes…but each other’s outlines. A newcomer enters, the eyes of the waiting sorority go straight to the midriff.
You know, you can do some pretty fancy calculating if you know how and what to observe. The beginner, as one might call her, comes blithely in, her hat at a smart angle, picks up one of those mangled periodicals, chooses either the sofa or an armchair, and relaxes into its depths. When her turn is called, she leaps nimbly to her feet, drops the periodical, picks it up with easy agility and skips in through the inner door. The more advanced…both in regard to condition and shape…say the 5 to 6 monthers, enter in slower motion. That same chic hat has gone further back on the head. She picks up a periodical (undoubtedly the same one as before) chooses a more upright chair, sits with less abandon and when her turn is called, rises slowly, drops the periodical, stoops to pick it up, but finding she can’t reach it, bends her knees and retracts it, and with injured dignity plods through the inner door. Last scene of all that ends this strange, eventful history is Mother Nature-Ceres who waddles in, her hat, this time on the back of her head, as if to balance all that precedes her… picks up that same copy of Life, looks about for a place to sit down and finding no possible contour model, perches gingerly on the arm of the armchair, when her turn comes, again drops the magazine, again tries to pick it up forward, sideways, at an angle, even knee-bending, utters a mental “To hell with it!” and waddles majestically through that inner door.
Another aspect of the waiting-room I’d like to mention is the receptionist nurse. She has a cozy way of talking shop with the more loquacious clients… and she does so in a jargon that seems peculiar to the race of obstetrical nurses. “Mrs. Brown delivered last night,” she’ll tell someone brightly, or “We’re expecting Mrs. White to delivered last night,”…(that mail-carrier phraseology…”Neither rain nor heat,” etc.) Then she uses another interesting term… she’ll say “We’ve been having a run on girls lately” or “Better hurry, Mrs. Robinson, we’re in the midst of a run on boys!” However, she is always a pleasant and sympathetic person…always most co-operative, especially when it comes to that sporadic little drama that is enacted at the beginning of these visits…when a patient comes in and, with arch discretion the receptionist asks “Mrs. Jones, have you something for me?” Sometimes a crisis arises when Mrs. Jones, in sudden panic, realizes she hasn’t…but someone else may have…in which event, there is a whispered consultation between Mrs. Jones and the receptionist picking up the phone, dialing a number and an ensuing conversation which may go somewhat like this…”Hello? Schrafft’s restaurant? I’m calling for Mrs. Cadwallader Jones. She was there for lunch today and she thinks she may have left a small parcel…second table to the left.”
Of course, conditions may have changed. It was 23 years ago that I began these exhaustive researches…or rather they were begun on me. When I was in what is laughingly known as the state of expectant motherhood, I was also in the state of having to fulfill the obligations of a theatrical tour. (The actress’ greatest difficulty is the acquiring of proper timing. Dramatic critics manage these things better. John Mason Brown’s second son, he tells me, was born between CHARLEY’S AUNT and GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE.) For five months, I and little Nemo toured the Middle-West trailing clouds of sweetness, light and nausea. Being neither as pioneer woman nor a Mme. Schumann-Heink, For whom it was apparently nothing to be a Rhine maiden one evening and the next morning the mother of a new little Heink, I don’t recommend a lyceum tour as the best of regiments.
All nonsense aside, I can’t tell you how happy and proud I am that you should have chosen me to speak to you this evening. Surely yours must be the most rewarding of all the branches of medicine…the happiness you bring us, the health and new life you restore to us. As self appointed spokesman…spokeswoman…for my sisterhood, may I tell you of our gratitude and affection…I’ll even say our love…(you know it is true that every new mother falls in love for a time with her obstetrician). May I herewith propose a toast from the ladies of America in words which are singularly apt…gentleman of the profession, BOTTOMS UP!!!