I WAS 13 and an aspiring actress. I had just won the part of Jo in a scaled-down version of ``Little Women'' and expected Broadway would be knocking on my door momentarily. So naturally when our Careers class in eighth grade was assigned the project of doing research papers on our chosen professions, to include an interview with a professional in whatever field, it was a foregone conclusion that I would write about ``The Stage.'' I had one problem. I didn't know anyone -- professional, amateur, or otherwise -- whom I could interview. One other girl was doing her paper on acting and I was a bit jealous because she knew someone in a local repertory theater. I think I forged ahead under the assumption that my paper would convey such fervor and dedication that the absence of an interview would hardly be noticed.
Then a really remarkable experience took place. Cornelia Otis Skinner was starring on Broadway in ``Lady Windermere's Fan.'' Of course, I knew who she was. Most of my baby-sitting money went toward theatrical magazines, and when I was in the city with my mother, one of my favorite spots was a second-floor establishment on Fifth Avenue where I could browse through scripts and books on the theater to my heart's content. I frequently encountered Miss Skinner's name as well as that of her father, Otis Skinner.
My aunt, who lived with us and knew of my project, decided to take matters into her own hands. One lunch hour she picked up the phone and by some remarkable stroke of genius managed to get through to Miss Skinner's secretary and explained the story of her stage-struck niece. The result was that at the dinner table that evening I was informed that I had an appointment with the star in her dressing room just before the next Saturday matinee. It was almost too much to comprehend!
As I look back at the chain of events, I must surely have come across as an utter nitwit. I tried desperately to appear businesslike and at least ask intelligent questions. In an effort to bolster my image I was even allowed to wear nylons for the first time -- and in the middle of World War II rationing that was no mean feat. But even that didn't help.
When I was ushered into Miss Skinner's dressing room, my mother and aunt close on my heels, I was quite literally struck dumb with awe. I recall attempting to write something on the steno pad I carried while my aunt fired away with questions and I sat with my mouth hanging open watching the star do her makeup while her wardrobe lady fussed around.
As if that weren't humiliating enough, this lovely and gracious lady sent me a telegram about 10 days later saying that three tickets in the first row balcony would be waiting for us the following Saturday, and would we please come backstage to see her after the show. I felt as if I were being given a second chance to prove I really could talk and make some sort of sense. But this was not to be, either.
I was so wound up, anything would have set me off -- and it did in the form of a very sad and emotional final scene that caused me to break into uncontrollable sobs. I didn't even want to go backstage with my swollen, red eyes and runny nose, but my mother took me aside to collect myself and told me how disappointed Miss Skinner would be if we didn't show up. So, trying to look presentable, I mustered all the poise I could and back we went.
I was doing pretty well until Miss Skinner opened the door, still wearing her final-scene gown, and my floodgates opened. Trying to talk between sobs was a lost cause, and anyway I was running out of Kleenex and about to make matters even worse. Our visit was brief.
I went on to take part in high school productions and then my theatrical career wound down and other interests emerged. I think I figured I had arrived at the top by simply sitting in Cornelia Otis Skinner's dressing room. It's pretty hard to follow an act like that.