Gordon, Ruth (1896–1985)

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Gordon, Ruth (1896–1985)

American actress and screenwriter who received Academy Award nominations for her screenplays Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike and an Oscar for her performance in Rosemary's Baby. Born Ruth Gordon Jones in Wollaston, Massachusetts, on October 30, 1896; died on August 28, 1985, in Edgartown, Massachusetts; daughter of Clinton and Anne Jones; married Gregory Kelly (an actor), in 1921 (died 1927); married Garson Kanin (a director and screenwriter), in 1942; children: (with producer Jed Harris) one son, Jones.

When a teenager, began appearing in silent films as a bit player and made her Broadway debut at age 19 (1915), followed by several well-received performances in both comedic and dramatic roles on stage and film during the next two decades; during a lull in acting career (1940s), turned to writing for the screen and received Academy Award co-nominations for screenplays of such films as Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike; resumed acting career (1960s), winning a new audience and an Academy Award for work in Rosemary's Baby (1968); worked steadily in film and television, along with publishing three volumes of memoirs and one novel, before her death.

Filmography—as actress:

Camille (1915); The Whirl of Life (1915); Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1939); Dr. Erlich's Magic Bullet (1940); Two-Faced Woman (1941); Edge of Darkness (1943); Action in the North Atlantic (1943); Inside Daisy Clover (1966); Lord Love a Duck (1966); Rosemary's Baby (1968); Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969); Where's Poppa? (1970); Harold and Maude (1971); Isn't It Shocking? (1973); The Big Bus (1976); The Great Houdini (1976); Every Which Way But Loose (1978); Perfect Gentlemen (1978); Boardwalk (1979); Scavenger Hunt (1979); My Bodyguard (1980); Any Which Way You Can (1980); Don't Go to Sleep (1982); Jimmy the Kid (1983); The Trouble with Spies (1984); Mugsy's Girls (also released as Delta Pi, 1985); Maxie (1985).

Filmography—as screenwriter:

Over 21 (1945); A Double Life (1948); Adam's Rib (1949); The Marrying Kind (1952); Pat and Mike (1952); The Actress (1953); Rosie! (1967).

The most remarkable thing about Ruth Gordon's 70-year career was the very fact of its existence. It could have come to an abrupt end on any one of several occasions, starting as early as 1915, on the day when the president of New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts called an 18-year-old Ruth to his office after her first year at the school. "We feel that you are not suited to acting," he bluntly told her. "You show no promise." Gordon was refused admission for a second term and was sent back to her suburban Boston home, only to return to the school in triumph, 53 years later, to receive an award and address the graduating class of 1968. "On that awful day when someone says you're not suited," she told them, "when they say you're too tall, you're not pretty, you're no good, think of me and don't give up!"

No one was more surprised than Ruth Gordon when she was struck by an overpowering desire to take to the stage while watching a performance of a long-forgotten musical called The Pink Lady at the old Colonial Theater in Boston during her last year of high school. She never forgot the force of the revelation, and the yellowed program was found among her effects at the time of her death. "I had gone into the Colonial the average human being beset by worry, doubt, questions," she wrote years later. "When I came out, I had taken off for the horse latitudes and have never lit since."

Gordon's parents were equally surprised by their daughter's announcement. "What makes you think you got the stuff it takes?" thundered Clinton Jones, a former sea captain who had settled in Wollaston, Massachusetts, and had found a job as overseer in a local food-processing plant. Ruth did not have a ready answer, for she was pert, rather than pretty, short of stature, and had no stage experience outside of a few school pageants. All she knew was that she had no interest in her father's plans for her to become a physical-education teacher. Ann Jones , who supplemented the family income by working as a secretary, was more sympathetic and persuaded her husband to allow Ruth to apply to the Academy in New York, for which Clinton paid the $400 tuition, along with $10 a week for Gordon's board at the genteel Three Arts Club for "young theatrical ladies" on East 85th Street.

The Academy was not what Gordon had been expecting, for she had been attracted by the theater's ebullience, not its discipline. She found the dramatic theories propounded in the classroom elusive; had considerable difficulty remembering lines for student productions, let alone speaking them convincingly; and had no idea how to comport herself gracefully and naturally on the stage. She was back in Wollaston within the year, but she persuaded her parents to let her return to New York in the fall of 1915 to look for work—a task that became even more critical when her mother suffered a stroke and had to be confined to a nursing home, leaving no money for Gordon's support. There followed long, dreary weeks of making the rounds of theatrical managers and agents with no work or offer, her only income being the five dollars a day she received as an extra in silent films then being shot across the Hudson River in Fort Lee, New Jersey. It was her first exposure to the film work that would bring her such a wide audience in later years.

Gordon's luck seemed to change when she landed her first Broadway role, albeit a small one, as one of the Lost Boys in Maude Adams ' 1915 production of Peter Pan. Fortunately for Gordon, the role featured little spoken dialogue. But still, The New York Times reported that "Miss Gordon is ever so gay as Nibs." Even more encouraging, Gordon successfully auditioned for the lead role in a touring company for a play called Fair and Warmer. The play had been successfully mounted on Broadway by the Selwyn Brothers, who proceeded to capitalize on their investment by sending out seven road companies. Gordon toured Ohio and Illinois on a months-long whistlestop journey through small towns with names like Crawfordsville, Hoopestown, and Circleville, during which her performances were universally panned. The Selwyn Brothers' inability to find a replacement was the only thing that saved her from being fired. Her difficulty remembering lines forced the road manager to suggest she remember only the general drift of each scene and improvise her dialogue, much to the confusion of those playing with her. Gordon put the best face on a bad situation in letters she wrote back home to a girlhood friend. "The manager of the company told the stage manager to let me create and ad lib," she burbled back to Wollaston. "That means put in business of my own and little offhand speeches, like stars do!"

Returning to New York late in 1916, Gordon rapidly went through the $60 a week she'd saved on the tour, leaving her desperate for four months before she landed a part in a stage adaptation of Booth Tarkington's Seventeen, which was to open in Columbus, Ohio, and travel eastward to a hoped-for New York run. Gordon was given the role of "the Baby Talk Lady" largely because of the efforts of the actor who would play her leading man, Gregory Kelly. Kelly happened to be at her audition and urged the producer to hire her after the first actress chosen for the role fell ill. Her employment with Seventeen lasted only as far as Boston, but it was long enough for Gordon's relationship with Kelly to develop romantically as well as professionally. Kelly, in addition to becoming her lover, gave Gordon her first practical acting lessons during the tour, teaching her badly needed memorization techniques as well as giving her a useful collection of stage mannerisms and line readings to carry her through. By the time the show reached Boston, Gordon was pregnant. Both she and Kelly feared that her condition, when discovered by the theater world, would put an end to her ability to earn a living. She quietly left the theater after one night's performance to have an illegal abortion which left her ill and weak for days afterward. When the tour ended, in the late fall of 1918, Ruth and Gregory Kelly were married.

Their years together were productive ones. Gordon landed her first leading role on Broadway in a play which she and Kelly produced themselves and in which Kelly played opposite her. It was another work from Tarkington, called Tweedles, and this time the critics loved her. "One must certainly mention Miss Gordon," wrote Alexander Woolcott in the New York Herald, "who has a genuine and forthright actuality which is immensely nourishing to a play like this." Fellow critic Heywood Broun, who just a year before had written, "Anyone who looks like that and acts like that must get off the stage," now viewed Gordon's work with a more sympathetic eye. "Miss Gordon's hands actually seem to blush," he wrote of her demure portrayal of Tarkington's heroine. Next, Gordon played a governess who falls in love with her employer (Gregory again) for the touring company of Clarence, also from Tarkington's pen.

By now Gordon was a well-established stage presence and one-half of an acting team that enjoyed a level of recognition rivaling that given to Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne . There were tours of Europe, friendships with some of New York's most prominent literary and show-business personalities (Woolcott became a good friend, as did Dorothy Parker , Robert Sherwood, and other members in good standing of the Algonquin Round Table), and summers spent sailing off Nantucket or in Long Island Sound. But in 1927, just as Gordon was rehearsing a new Maxwell Anderson play called Saturday's Children, Gregory Kelly suffered a massive heart attack and died shortly after being admitted to a New York hospital. Perhaps as a tribute to all he had done for her career, Gordon insisted on keeping to the show's rehearsal schedule and out-of-town opening date in Stamford, Connecticut. The show was being directed by Guthrie McClintic, to whom Gordon turned for help. "Gregory taught me how to act so I didn't get fired," she once wrote. "Guthrie taught me the kind of acting you remember." Saturday's Children was Gordon's greatest triumph to date, with a sold-out box office well before the show opened on Broadway after a successful run in Stamford. "It was the first real acting I ever did," Gordon said. "Acting in the deep sense. One emotion underneath, one on the surface. Isn't that how it is in real life?"

Anyone can be talented. To want to be talented is the first step.

—Ruth Gordon

Gordon had now come into her own as a commanding and skillful artist, with nearly unanimous praise for her work in such memorable Broadway productions as Phillip Barry's difficult, mystical Hotel Universe, S.N. Behrman's Serena Blandish, John Wexley's antiwar polemic They Shall Not Die, and a highly original interpretation of Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House. Gordon was especially commended for her versatility and the fresh outlook she gave to every role, in particular for the two diametrically opposed characters she brought to life in 1936. Gordon turned in a highly acclaimed performance as the hilariously scheming Mrs. Pinchwife in Congreve's The Country Wife, while in the same year giving a luminous interpretation of the tragic Mattie Silver in a stage adaptation of Edith Wharton 's Ethan Frome, in which she was again directed by McClintic. Theater historians still enthuse about Jo Mielziner's brooding set and the climactic scene in which Mattie and Ethan, played by Raymond Massey, sped down Mielziner's artificial snow hill on a sled toward their planned double suicide (with six burly stagehands waiting in the wings to stop them from crashing into the theater's exterior wall). Audience reaction to the play was rapturous, and even Edith Wharton wrote to Gordon from Paris that "the human and essential part of Ethan Frome does seem to reach your audience.… I know how largely your personification of Mattie contributed to their impression." Reviewers who, little more than ten years before, had dismissed her as a second-rate ingenue, were equally impressed by the startling freshness of each role she played. "There were no echoes of older parts in her performances and no repetitions of her personality," critic Brooks Atkinson wrote of her work. "Miss Gordon created herself as an actress."

As she battled her way with persistence and sheer stubbornness to the top of what once seemed like an ill-chosen profession, Gordon carried on an active romantic life. She reported in her autobiography, My Side, that a brief liaison with a producer shortly after Gregory Kelly's death resulted in a second terminated pregnancy; and her long-running affair with producer Jed Harris during the 1930s produced a son, Jones, born in Paris during a discreet European vacation. Harris acknowledged paternity and supported the child. Back in New York just after the outbreak of World War II, Gordon returned to the stage in a production of The Three Sisters directed by Elia Kazan, during the rehearsals for which she began appearing in public with writer Garson Kanin.

The two had seen each other socially at parties and theater functions for some years, but there seemed little attraction between them during their first extended conversation, at a dinner party at Sardi's given by director George Cukor, or some months later at the premiere of Gordon's first motion picture in some 20 years, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, in which she again played opposite Raymond Massey as Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln . Two more films followed—Dr. Erlich's Magic Bullet (1940) and Two-Faced Woman (1941)—before a third encounter with Kanin at which, Gordon recalled, "the sparks began to fly," although she admitted she never thought the relationship could succeed. "I was forty-five, he was twenty-nine. What kind of agony lay in store?" What lay in store was not agony but, following Gordon's marriage to Kanin in 1942, one of the most successful writing partnerships in entertainment history.

Their first collaboration was a play based on an idea of Gordon's, 1944's Over 21, the title being Gordon's indignant response to a doctor who asked her age. The pair's story, based loosely on their own relationship, told of the ups and downs of an affair between a young journalist and an older actress, and was adapted for the screen the next year. The first of a string of successful screen comedies was 1948's A Double Life, a sly, witty backstage story about an actor playing Othello who finds the role taking over his personal life. The picture was directed by

George Cukor, who had been responsible for their first encounter that night at Sardi's. Cukor was looking for ideas for two of his favorite actors, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, whose well-known relationship mirrored Gordon's and Kanin's. The first fruits of their collective labors was 1949's wry Adam's Rib, which recounted the rocky history of a decidedly adversarial marriage. The effort brought Gordon and Kanin Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay. Pat and Mike, in 1952, cast Hepburn and Tracy as a hard-headed athlete and her small-time manager. That same year, Gordon and Kanin turned out another popular comedy, The Marrying Kind, in which Judy Holliday and Aldo Ray reminisced about their marriage on the eve of their divorce. Gordon turned to her own adolescence as the source for 1953's The Actress, which she adapted from a play she had written some years earlier and which told the story of a young woman's struggle to become an actress against her father's wishes.

Although Gordon's successful writing career kept her away from stage or screen, there was a more practical reason for her absence, one which every middle-aged actress faces—the paucity of parts written for women "of a certain age." Although Gordon would not appear again in a major legitimate theater, she returned to films with a vengeance in 1965, when she was 69, with the first in a long series of eccentric, sprightly, sexy, or sometimes malevolent, elderly women. She appeared in director Robert Mulligan's Inside Daisy Clover, the dark tale of a childhood actress turned neurotic star, playing opposite Natalie Wood 's Daisy, as "The Dealer" who supplies Daisy's habit (earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress). There followed, the next year, the quirky Stella Bernard in George Axelrod's dark comedy, Lord Love a Duck; and in 1968, the role for which Gordon is most famous, the witch Minnie Castevet, in Roman Polanski's eerie Rosemary's Baby. Her work in the film won her an Academy Award that year as Best Supporting Actress and another appearance in the same role in a later TV sequel to the film.

From then on, hardly a year passed without an appearance from Gordon in a growing collection of weirdly funny or uncomfortably menacing little old ladies. "She is neither cozy nor sentimental," film reviewer David Thomson once wrote of her. "She has the authority of a woman who knows she has grown perversely sexy and commanding with age." Her usual vehicles were dark comedies like 1970's Where's Poppa?, in which George Segal attempts unsuccessfully to induce a heart attack in his nagging, querulous mother; or cheerily offbeat pictures like Clint Eastwood's Everyone Which Way But Loose in 1978. She won a whole new, younger audience with her work in what have since become cult films, most notably her performance in Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude, the story of a peculiar love affair between an elderly, life-affirming woman and a death-obsessed young man. The film was a commercial disaster and was almost universally panned, but so passionate was Gordon about the film's message that she wrote a strongly worded defense of the picture to Vincent Canby, who had delivered one of the more scathing reviews. Nor did Gordon ignore television, a medium that wasn't even imagined during her unpromising early days in the theater. She made notable guest appearances on "The Bob Newhart Show," "Columbo," "Rhoda" (as Carlton the Doorman's mother), and on "Taxi" (as "Sugar Mama"), for which she won an Emmy; she also wrote a television film in 1980, Hardhat and Legs.

Gordon spent her time between acting jobs in New York and on Martha's Vineyard, where she and Kanin had purchased a home in Edgartown. It was here that she wrote three volumes of memoirs, starting with 1971's Myself Among Others, and a mystery novel, Shady Lady, published in 1984. That same year, she accepted the part of Mrs. Lavin in the film Maxie, playing a dotty landlord and former vaudeville performer who unwittingly calls forth the spirit of her long-dead stage partner. But before the film was released, Gordon died quietly at home in Edgartown, on August 28, 1985, at the age of 89. (A film she had shot earlier in 1985, Mugsy's Girls, was actually Gordon's last released film, reaching theaters in early 1986.)

From that day in 1912, when a young high-school girl gazing down from a dim balcony in a dusty theater decided on her future, Gordon's determination and sheer willpower brought her the success her father once predicted would elude her. "She proved that acting is a craft as well as an art, and not a form of exhibitionism," Brooks Atkinson once wrote of her. "She belongs to no tradition; she founded her own."


Atkinson, Brooks. Broadway. NY: Macmillan, 1970.

Gordon, Ruth. My Side. NY: Harper & Row, 1976.

——. An Open Book. NY: Doubleday, 1980.

Thomson, David. "Ruth Gordon," in The Blockbuster Guide to Movies and Videos. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York