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Gordon, Ruth

GORDON, Ruth

Born 30 October 1896, Wollaston, Massachusetts; died August 1985

Daughter of Clinton and Anna T. Ziegler Jones; married Gregory Kelly, 1927 (died); Garson Kanin, 1942

An only child, Ruth Gordon grew up in a small New England town. At eighteen, she went to New York hoping for a career on the stage and the next year won her first professional role as Nibs in Maude Adams's 1915 production of Peter Pan. Several years of playing ingenues in touring companies followed, until Guthrie McClintic cast her as the shy spinster, Bobbie, in the 1927 Broadway production of Saturday's Children. This was succeeded by a long series of varied roles. After the death of her first husband she married Garson Kanin, with whom she wrote and produced plays. The two of them also coauthored scripts for three films: A Double Life (1947), The Marrying Kind (1952), and Pat and Mike (1952).

Her writing is largely based on autobiographical material and reflects a strong theatrical sense. Her plays are comic in structure, revealing a good ear for the clever line, but the total effect evolves more from situation than from witty dialogue. Over 21 (1944) was derived from her early marital experience with Kanin, when he served in the army during World War II. The leading characters—Gordon herself, Kanin, Herbert Bayard Swope, and a number of army acquaintances—were easily recognized by New York audiences. Topical references, amusing situations, and her own highly stylized characterization combined to make it a Broadway Success.

In 1939 Gordon found a diary she had kept as a stagestruck high school girl and at the suggestion of Edward Sheldon, used it as the basis for several articles published in Forum and the Atlantic Monthly. She returned to the material again for another successful comedy, Years Ago (1946). In this play, the setting is Wollaston, the characters are called by their actual names, and the only alteration of fact is in the compression of time to fit the dramatic form.

Gordon's third play, The Leading Lady (1948), written with Kanin, was not as popular as the other two. Here, too, she utilizes events from her own life to demonstrate a favorite thesis, namely, the necessity for an individual to be self-sufficient. The plot, however, is thin, the scenes so romanticized as to lack substance, and, except for a nostalgic portrait of Alexander Woollcott, the characters are sentimental recreations of companions she knew in her years of touring companies.

Gordon wrote several autobiographical books, including Myself Among Others (1971) and My Side: The Autobiography of Ruth Gordon (1976, reissued 1986), are collections of reminiscences, mostly of persons and events connected with Gordon's professional life. The first, written in a rapid-fire, staccato style, is a series of brief sketches, personal glimpses of well known people, descriptions of places, and comments on the world at large, punctuated with observations directed to the reader. It is essentially a self-portrait revealing an energetic woman who unashamedly enjoys the fact she has achieved her ambitions and has no intention of retiring into a comfortable oblivion.

My Side is a vivid recounting of Gordon's life, although not in chronological order. The emphasis is almost entirely on her professional experience, and the personal elements are related only as they relate to the theater. She is frank, almost brutally honest in discussing her early struggles and failures, her marriage to Kelly, her abortions, and her love affairs with Arthur Hopkins and Jed Harris. It is an uneven, at times confusing story, but it is a unique view of a kaleidoscopic and genuinely theatrical personality.

Gordon's work is neither profound nor timeless, but it is amusing, distinctly theatrical, and representative of an important as well as fascinating era of American drama. Yet she is probably best known as "Maude" from the quirky film Harold and Maude, first released in 1971, which on to become a cult classic and was released on home video in 1994.

Other Works:

Years Ago (1946). Ruth Gordon: An Open Book (1980). Shady Lady (1981, 1983). Children of Darkness: A True Story (1988).

Bibliography:

Groutt, K. M., "A Metahealth Analysis of the Lives of Gwendolyn Brooks, Dorothy Day, Ruth Gordon, Anaïs Nin, and Georgia O'Keeffe" (dissertation, 1986).

Reference works:

CB (April 1943, April 1972).

Other references:

Cinema (1976). NYTM (12 Jan. 1947, 5 Oct. 1969). Ruth Gordon: My Side (audiocassette, 1970, 1979). Ruth Gordon Talks About Greta Garbo and Her Own Life (audio, 1977).

—HELENE KOON

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