Ruth Gordon Dies; Stage, Film Career Spanned 7 Decades

Times Staff Writer

Actress Ruth Gordon, whose roguish heart and enduring grace lighted the world’s stages and motion picture screens for seven decades, died “peacefully in her sleep” Wednesday in Edgartown, Mass., police said.

She was 88 and was with her husband of 43 years, writer-producer Garson Kanin, at the summer home they shared on Martha’s Vineyard.

Kanin said Miss Gordon had awakened early in the morning and complained that she was not feeling well but wanted to go back to sleep.


“She went to sleep and I was holding her hand. Presently, I was aware . . . she wasn’t breathing right and I couldn’t find a pulse,” said Kanin, who then called police.

There will be no funeral or memorial service, Kanin added. “She didn’t approve of that.”

Miss Gordon’s life transcended the length and breadth of the 20th Century. She started acting as an ingenue in 1915, and her final film, “Maxie”--in which she portrays a landlady, the friend of a deceased flapper who invades the body of a housewife--is to be released next month.

In the intervening years, she appeared in dozens of plays, films and television programs, wrote novels, plays and three sets of her memoirs, and with her husband, co-authored several movie scripts, including the Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn classics “Adam’s Rib” and “Pat and Mike.”

Once considered one of the first ladies of the American stage, later generations knew her best as a movie and television comedienne who played geriatric rebels with peculiar causes, including Mia Farrow’s devilish neighbor in “Rosemary’s Baby” (for which she won an Academy Award in 1968), and the feisty heroine of the cult classics, “Harold and Maude” and “Where’s Poppa?”

“Harold and Maude,” the bizarre but comedic tale of an old woman and a teen-age boy who share a penchant for funerals, was released in 1971 but did not make a profit until 1983.

When Miss Gordon finally received a $50,000 check that year, she said she almost threw it away.

“I thought it was one of those sweepstakes from Reader’s Digest,” she said.

She and American acting grew up together, from the touring shows and Broadway extravaganzas of the 1920s, through the heyday of the Hollywood studios of the 1930s and 1940s to the modern world of videos and TV sitcoms.

Along the way, she was friend and colleague to some of the great figures in arts and entertainment: Mrs. Patrick Campbell (the original Eliza in “Pygmalion”) and Humphrey Bogart, Edith Wharton and J. D. Salinger, Louis B. Mayer and Roman Polanski.

Miss Gordon shared wit and wine with Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woolcott at the fabled Algonquin Hotel literary round table in New York and dined at the White House with the Franklin D. Roosevelts. She ate “bread sandwiches” in train depots with other troupers and drank Dom Perignon with Artur Rubinstein in a swank San Francisco cafe.

Through it all, she lost neither her sense of adventure nor her sensitivity to life’s hidden blessings. She said she inherited the former from her father, a retired seaman, and learned the latter from her sickly mother, whose infirmities were a painful reminder of missed opportunities, but whose strength of spirit inspired Miss Gordon’s simple philosophy on living correctly: “Don’t be helpless.”

She seldom was--as a faltering young actress or as an aging star. Even in her 80s, Miss Gordon was surprising audiences, who were prepared to applaud politely at her longevity but who ended up rolling in the aisles, astounded by her bravura.

Although time had its way with her beauty, nothing ever dimmed the sparkle in her eyes. Or the spunk.

Miss Gordon said she was born an actor and a fighter, a lucky thing because as a late bloomer she needed the skills of both to endure the years of public disappointment and personal tragedy that preceded her successes.

Of her adopted home, New York, she once said:

“We’re tough, and I can’t tell ya’ how I admire people who are tough. . . . People go, they dodge the cars, brakes screech, the taxi drivers yell. It’s a challenge. You don’t relax. You don’t sit back, and you don’t take it easy.”

Perhaps because her stardom was so hard-won, she believed in savoring every triumph, from her shaky beginning in the theater (“I was in the sixth worst touring company, but I was the leading lady “) to her first stage appearance abroad in “The Country Wife,” when she brought an Old Vic crowd to its feet by showing London theatergoers that an American could interpret that 17th Century, bawdy classic.

Breathless Rave

Her performance prompted this breathless cable from a New York Times correspondent: “Last night, Ruth Gordon took London by storm!”

That triumph marked her as a prominent stage actress, a reputation that helped open the door to Hollywood. Miss Gordon made her movie debut in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (1939), then began a lifelong East Coast-West Coast shuttle between stage and screen.

Honors--great and small--aside, Miss Gordon may have gained the most satisfaction from showing her skeptical father that she could make it in the theater. Throughout her life, she mentioned the defiant pride that drove her to build a career grand enough to dispel Clinton Jones’ bemusement when he asked his starry-eyed daughter back in 1912, “What makes you think you’ve got the stuff it takes to be an actress?”

At the time, that question seemed reasonable. Ruth Gordon Jones was born Oct. 30, 1896, in Quincy, Mass., and had what she called a pleasant but frill-less childhood. New England sensibility and general hard times made the theater seem an outlandish career. Nonetheless, Miss Gordon fell in love when she saw her first musical comedy, “The Pink Lady,” in Boston in 1912.

After graduating from high school, she convinced her father that she should be an actress, not a “physical culture instructress” as he had wished. In 1914, she went to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, armed with raw talent, guts and the $50 year’s tuition pinned to her corset.

Broadway Debut

Her junior year audition was disappointing. “They said I showed no promise. And I didn’t,” she recalled. But she persevered. Living in cheap boardinghouses, taking odd jobs--as long as they were connected to acting--and stealing an occasional dime off a roommate’s dresser, she finally made her Broadway debut in 1915 as Nibs in Maude Adams’ “Peter Pan.”

She won a one-line rave in the New York Times and thought she was an actress. Her mother died during the show’s first week, and after a sleeper car trip home and back she was on stage again. After that ordeal, she said she knew she was an actress.

After “Peter Pan” closed, Miss Gordon went through a hit-and-miss period of touring shows and small national company work. She traveled the Great Lakes and Midwest by train, playing to the culturally deprived small towns made famous by Sinclair Lewis.

She returned to New York and talked her way into a major role in “Seventeen,” and a year later married its star, Gregory Kelly. They appeared together in a string of shows on the Chicago-New York circuit. After a brief hospital stay in which she had her bowlegs broken and straightened (crude but necessary for the aspiring actress, she said later), the Kellys started a repertory company in Indianapolis. There, she said, he showed her how to act.

Early reviews were unpleasant. One critic said the barely 5-foot-tall Miss Gordon “set his teeth on edge.” But she won raves in the later ‘20s in plays by Booth Tarkington and Anita Loos. She drew acclaim for a performance in “Saturday’s Children,” a 1927 play in which Bogart was her co-star. But during the run, Kelly’s congenital heart condition worsened. He was hospitalized and, for the second time in her life, Miss Gordon played one drama on stage while agonizing through another off. She left a second act curtain to rush to her husband’s bedside and was with him when he died.

Discreet Romance

During “Saturday’s Children,” Miss Gordon had met producer Jed Harris, who cast her as the lead in “Serena Blandish” (1929), another hit. From their romance, necessarily discreet since he was married, they had a son, Jones Harris, born in Paris. His birth was a loosely kept secret (which Miss Gordon said meant that her family knew, but not friends or fans). Mother and child stayed in Europe for several months before sailing to New York, where Miss Gordon raised her son with the help of a nurse and later a governess.

Producer Harris was a frequent visitor during the early years, and until his death in 1979 both he and Miss Gordon tried to provide Jones with as normal a life as could be expected for a child of prominent Broadway parents. As times--and social mores--changed, Jones’ life became more public. He grew up with birthday parties at Sardi’s, and summers in the Catskills (while his mother was on tour). He eventually married a Vanderbilt.

After establishing a home in New York for her son, Miss Gordon returned to the theater and built an impressive repertoire that included “Hotel Universe,” “Three-Cornered Moon,” “Ethan Frome,” “The Three Sisters” and “The Matchmaker,” written by her friend Thornton Wilder.

She married writer-director Garson Kanin in 1942. They had met briefly twice before but, she said, the third time “was a go.” She admitted being apprehensive about their romance because he was 16 years younger and under the pressures of starting a career while she was becoming comfortable in an established one.

But their marriage proved to be a triumph. Miss Gordon called Kanin the guiding force in both her life and career. “Thank heavens for Garson!” she told an interviewer as she approached her 80th birthday. “I wouldn’t have come this far if I weren’t married to the most wonderful man in the world.”

Joins Inner Circle

Her film career bloomed through the Golden Era of the 1940s and into the ‘50s. She joined Hollywood’s inner circle, working and playing with Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Merle Oberon, Raymond Massey, George Cukor, Jack Warner and Lillian Gish.

She continued full speed into the ‘60s, the era of Polanski, Mia Farrow and Natalie Wood. As a supporting actress she won a Golden Globe for the film “Inside Daisy Clover” with Miss Wood (1966), and the supporting actress Oscar for Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.”

As a tribute to both her career and her life, Miss Gordon’s hometown of Quincy dedicated an amphitheater to her in 1984, shortly after her 88th birthday. “I’m the first person in my family to have a theater named for her,” she said at the dedication. “It took a long time (to become a star). . . . I never face the facts. I never listen to good advice. I’m a slow starter, but I get there.”

Her recurring television appearances resulted in an Emmy for an appearance on “Taxi” in 1979 and a pending Emmy nomination for “The Secret World of the Very Young” a drama about the baffling world of the preschooler, which aired last September.

She gloried in her success, telling the Associated Press last year, “I don’t want to boast, but I walk through New York and policemen stop and yell, ‘We love you, Ruthie. We just love you.’ ”

She found it ironic, yet somehow proper, that the comic timing that eluded her in youth (when she set critics’ teeth on edge) became her trademark as a senior citizen. “By the time you know how to act,” she once quipped, “you’re too old to do it.”