About Ruth Gordon
Ruth Gordon Jones (October 30, 1896 – August 28, 1985), better known as Ruth Gordon, was an American actress and writer. She was perhaps best known for her film roles such as Minnie Castevet, Rosemary's overly solicitous neighbor in Rosemary's Baby, as the eccentric Maude in Harold and Maude and as the mother of Orville Boggs in the Clint Eastwood film Every Which Way but Loose. In addition to her acting career, Gordon wrote numerous well-known plays, film scripts and books. Gordon won an Academy Award, an Emmy and two Golden Globe awards for her acting, as well as three Academy Award nominations for her writing.
Gordon was born at 31 Marion Street in Quincy, Massachusetts. She was the only child of Annie Ziegler Jones and Clinton Jones, a factory foreman who had been a ship's captain. Prior to graduating from Quincy High School, she wrote to several of her favorite actresses for an autographed picture. A personal reply she received from Hazel Dawn (whom she had seen in a stage production of The Pink Lady) inspired her to go into acting. Although her father was skeptical of her chances of success in a difficult profession, he took his daughter to New York in 1914, where he enrolled her in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Ruth Gordon began her career early, posing as a picture baby for Mellin's food. In 1915, Gordon appeared as an extra in silent films that were shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, including as a dancer in The Whirl of Life, a film based on the lives of Vernon and Irene Castle.
That same year, she made her Broadway debut in a revival of Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, in the role of Nibs (one of the Lost Boys), appearing onstage with Maude Adams and earning a favorable mention from the powerful critic Alexander Woollcott. Woollcott, who described her favorably as "ever so gay," would become her friend and mentor. In 1918, Gordon played Lola Pratt in the Broadway adaptation of Booth Tarkington's Seventeen opposite actor Gregory Kelly, who later acted with her in North American tours of Frank Craven's The First Year and Tarkington's Clarence and Tweedles. Kelly became her first husband in 1921, but died of heart disease in 1927, at the age of 36. Gordon in 1927 and 1928, had been enjoying a comeback, appearing on Broadway as Bobby in Maxwell Anderson's Saturday's Children, performing in a serious role after having been typecast for years as a "beautiful, but dumb" character.
In 1929, Gordon was starring in the title role of "Serena Blandish" when her only child, a son, Jones Harris, was born out of wedlock from a relationship with that Broadway show's producer, Jed Harris.
Gordon continued to act on the stage throughout the 1930s, including notable runs as Mattie in Ethan Frome, Margery Pinchwife in William Wycherley's Restoration comedy The Country Wife at London's Old Vic and on Broadway, and Nora Helmer in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House at Central City, Colorado, and on Broadway.
Gordon was signed to an MGM film contract for a brief period in the early 1930s but did not make a movie for the company until she acted opposite Greta Garbo in Two-Faced Woman in 1941. She had better luck at other studios in Hollywood, appearing in supporting roles in a string of films, including Abe Lincoln in Illinois (as Mary Todd Lincoln), Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (as Mrs. Ehrlich) and Action in the North Atlantic, in the early 1940s. Gordon's Broadway acting appearances in the 1940s included Iris in Paul Vincent Carroll's The Strings, My Lord, Are False and Natasha in Katharine Cornell and Guthrie McClintic's revival of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters, as well as leading roles in her own plays, Over Twenty-One and The Leading Lady.
Gordon married second husband, writer Garson Kanin, who was 16 years her junior, in 1942. Gordon and Kanin collaborated on the screenplays for the Katharine Hepburn – Spencer Tracy films Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952). Both films were directed by George Cukor. The couple were close friends of Hepburn and Tracy, and incorporated elements of their real personalities in the films. Gordon and Kanin received Academy Awards nominations for both of those screenplays, as well as for that of a prior film, A Double Life (1947), which was also directed by Cukor.
In 1953's The Actress, Gordon's film adaptation of her own autobiographical play, Years Ago, became a Hollywood production, with Jean Simmons portraying the girl from Quincy, Massachusetts, who convinced her sea captain father to let her go to New York to become an actress. Gordon would go on to write three volumes of memoirs in the 1970s: My Side, Myself Among Others and An Open Book.
Gordon continued her on-stage acting career in the 1950s, and was nominated for a 1956 Tony, for Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play, for her portrayal of Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, a role she also played in London, Edinburgh and Berlin.
In 1966, Gordon was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe award as Best Supporting Actress for Inside Daisy Clover opposite Natalie Wood. It was her first nomination for acting. Three years later, in 1969, she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Rosemary's Baby, a film adaptation of Ira Levin's bestselling horror novel about a satanic cult residing in an Upper West Side apartment building in Manhattan. In accepting the award, Gordon thanked the Academy by saying, "I can't tell you how encouraging a thing like this is...And thank all of you who voted for me, and to everyone who didn't: please, excuse me", which drew laughs because at the time she had been in theater for fifty years and was seventy-two years old.
Gordon won another Golden Globe for Rosemary's Baby, and was nominated again, in 1971, for her role as Maude in the cult classic Harold and Maude (with Bud Cort as her love interest).
She went on to appear in twenty-two more films and at least that many television appearances through her seventies and eighties, including such successful sitcoms as Rhoda (as Carlton the invisible doorman's mother, which earned her another Emmy nomination) and Newhart. She also guest-starred on the episode Columbo: Try and Catch Me. She made countless talk show appearances, in addition to hosting Saturday Night Live in 1977.
Gordon won an Emmy Award for a guest appearance on the sitcom Taxi, for a 1978 episode called "Sugar Mama," in which her character tries to solicit the services of a taxi driver, played by series star Judd Hirsch, as a male escort.
Her last Broadway appearance was as Mrs. Warren in George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, produced by Joseph Papp at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in 1976. In the summer of 1976, Gordon starred in the leading role of her own play, Ho! Ho! Ho! at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts. She had a minor but memorable role as Ma Boggs the mother of Orville Boggs (Geoffrey Lewis) in the Clint Eastwood films Every Which Way but Loose and Any Which Way You Can.
In 1983, Gordon was awarded the Women in Film Crystal Award for outstanding women who, through their endurance and the excellence of their work, have helped to expand the role of women within the entertainment industry.
Harold and Maude and Adam's Rib have both been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the United States Library of Congress.
Gordon died from a stroke in Edgartown, Massachusetts in 1985. A small theater in Westboro, Massachusetts and an outdoor amphitheater in Quincy, Massachusetts were named in her honor.
Body of work