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Ruth Gordon Dies; Stage, Film Career Spanned 7 Decades

August 29, 1985|KAREN WADA | Times Staff Writer

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

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