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Ruth Gordon Dies; Stage, Film Career Spanned 7 Decades

August 29, 1985|KAREN WADA | 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.

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