McKenney, Ruth (1911–1972)
McKenney, Ruth (1911–1972)
American author best known for her first book, My Sister Eileen , which was subsequently made into a Broadway play, two movies, and a musical . Name variations: Ruth McKenney Bransten. Born on November 18, 1911, in Mishawaka, Indiana; died on July 25, 1972, in New York City; daughter of John Sidney McKenney and Marguerite (Flynn) McKenney (a schoolteacher); sister of Eileen McKenney West; graduated from Shaw High School in Cleveland, Ohio; attended Ohio State University; married Richard Bransten (an editor and historian who wrote under the pseudonym Bruce Minton), on August 12, 1937 (died 1955); children: Eileen Bransten; Thomas Bransten; (adopted her sister Eileen's child) Patrick West.
My Sister Eileen (1938); Industrial Valley (1939); The McKenneys Carry On (1940); Browder and Ford: For Peace, Jobs and Socialism (1940); Jake Home (1943); The Loud Red Patrick (1947); (with Richard Bransten) Here's England: An Informal Guide (1950); Love Story (1950); All About Eileen (1952); Far, Far From Home (1954); Mirage (1956).
Born in 1911 in Mishawaka, Indiana, to John Sidney McKenney and Marguerite McKenney , Ruth McKenney moved with her family to Cleveland, Ohio, when she was six. Her mother, a schoolteacher and Irish Nationalist, died two years later. As a child she was smart, rather unattractive, and not very popular. Her sister Eileen McKenney (West) was just the opposite, and Ruth idolized her. At age 14, McKenney apprenticed as a printer in Cleveland. A few years later, she entered Ohio State University, where she reported for the college newspaper and for the Columbus Dispatch before dropping out of school to travel through Europe with a friend. On her return to the United States, McKenney became a reporter for the Akron Journal, winning awards for feature articles. In 1933, she accepted an offer from a newspaper in Newark, New Jersey, and moved East with her sister, only to find that the newspaper was on strike. She soon signed on with the New York Post as a feature writer, and moved with Eileen to Greenwich Village.
After leaving the Post in 1936, she began writing stories for The New Yorker based on her childhood experiences in Ohio and her experiences in New York City. Many of these later evolved into the humorous My Sister Eileen, an immensely popular book published in 1938 which, despite the title, is somewhat more concerned with the author herself than with her sister. The book was a bestseller and eventually became the basis for two plays, a musical (Wonderful Town), two movies and a television series. Shortly before the premiere in January 1941 of the first of these adaptations, a Broadway play of the same title that would prove hugely successful, Eileen and her husband, the novelist Nathanael West (author of Miss Lonelyhearts), were killed in an automobile accident. McKenney, who in 1939 had married Richard Bransten, an editor and historian who wrote under the pseudonym Bruce Minton, adopted her orphaned infant nephew Patrick. (She would later name her daughter after her sister.)
During the time she had been writing for The New Yorker, McKenney had interrupted her work long enough to gather material about the Goodyear rubber strike in Akron, Ohio, that led to the formation of the CIO (originally the Committee on Industrial Organization, later the Congress of Industrial Organizations). She developed her research into the novel Industrial Valley (1939), which was generally hailed by critics and won an award at the 1939 Writer's Congress. It is now considered the strongest of her books and an important depiction of a crucial development in American labor history. McKenney was proudest of this book out of all her work, a few years later commenting "I am not a humorist. I only wrote the funny stories to make a living…; I doubt if I shall ever write anything else funny, for the truth is, I have very little sense of humor, and suffer a good deal while writing what is supposed to be funny."
Although she did in fact go on to write other "funny" books, including The Loud Red Patrick (1947), about her grandfather, and All About Eileen (1952), McKenney preferred to consider herself a labor activist and sociologist. The writings closer to her heart, however, such as the short work Browder and Ford: For Peace, Jobs and Socialism (1940) and the novel Jake Home (1943), found little success with the public. In the early 1940s, McKenney and Bransten moved to Washington, D.C., and became members
of the Communist Party. For a while, McKenney wrote a column, "Strictly Personal," for the Communist weekly New Masses, but both McKenney and her spouse were ousted from the party in 1946 for deviating from party doctrine. They lived in various places during the war years, including Washington, D.C., Hollywood, Brussels (which she wrote about in 1954's Far, Far From Home), London, New York, and France. Her last book, Mirage (1956), set during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, received mixed reviews from critics. Ruth McKenney died in New York City from complications of diabetes and a heart ailment on July 25, 1972.
American Women Writers. Edited by Lina Mainiero. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1981.
Contemporary Authors. Vol. 93–96. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.
Current Biography, 1942. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1943.
Current Biography, 1972. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1972.
Encyclopedia of American Humor. Edited by Steven H. Gale. NY: Garland, 1988.
Twentieth Century Authors. Edited by Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.
My Sister Eileen (96 min. film), starring Rosalind Russell , Brian Ahearn, Janet Blair and June Havoc , directed by Alexander Hall, Columbia, 1942.
Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont