Ruth Gordon

Ruth Gordon

Ruth Gordon with Garson Kanin (1946)
Born Ruth Gordon Jones
(1896-10-30)October 30, 1896
Quincy, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died August 28, 1985(1985-08-28) (aged 88)
Edgartown, Massachusetts, U.S.
Occupation Actress, writer
Years active 1915–1985
  • Gregory Kelly
    (married 1921–1927)
  • Garson Kanin
    (married 1942–1985)
Children Jones Harris (born 1929)

Ruth Gordon Jones (October 30, 1896 – August 28, 1985), better known as Ruth Gordon, was an American film, stage, and television actress, as well as screenwriter and playwright.[1] Gordon began her career performing on Broadway at age nineteen. Known for her nasal voice and distinct personality, she gained international visibility and critical acclaim for film roles which continued into her seventies and eighties. Her later work included performances in Rosemary's Baby (1968), Harold and Maude (1971), and the Clint Eastwood films Every Which Way but Loose (1978) and Any Which Way You Can (1980).

In addition to her acting career, Gordon wrote numerous plays, film scripts and books, most notably co-writing the screenplay for the 1949 film Adam's Rib. Gordon won an Academy Award, an Emmy and two Golden Globe awards for her acting, as well as receiving three Academy Award nominations for her writing.

Early life

Ruth Gordon at age four

Ruth Gordon Jones was born at 31 Marion Street in Quincy, Massachusetts.[2] She was the only child of Annie Tapley (née Ziegler) and Clinton Jones, a factory foreman who had been a ship's captain. She was baptized an Episcopalian.[3][4] Her first appearance in the public eye came as an infant when her photograph was used in advertising for her father's employer, Mellin's Food for Infants & Invalids.[5] Prior to graduating from Quincy High School, she wrote to several of her favorite actresses for autographed pictures. 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.[2] Although her father was skeptical of her chances of success in a difficult profession, in 1914 he took his daughter to New York, where he enrolled her in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Early career

Ruth Gordon in 1919
Jed Harris in 1928
Ruth Gordon in 1930

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.[6] 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.[2]

In 1918, Gordon played opposite actor Gregory Kelly in the Broadway adaptation of Booth Tarkington's Seventeen. The pair continued to perform together in North American tours of Frank Craven's The First Year and Tarkington's Clarence and Tweedles. Then in 1920, Gordon and Kelly were wed.

In December 1920, Gordon checked into a Chicago hospital to have her legs broken and straightened to treat her lifelong bow-leggedness.[7] After a three-month recovery, she and Kelly relocated to Indianapolis where they started a repertory company.

Kelly died of heart disease in 1927, at the age of 36. Gordon at the time had been enjoying a comeback, appearing on Broadway as Bobby in Maxwell Anderson's Saturday's Children, performing in a serious role after being typecast for years as a "beautiful, but dumb" character.[2]

In 1929, Gordon was starring in the hit play, Serena Blandish, when she became pregnant by the show's producer, Jed Harris. Their son, Jones Harris, was born in Paris that year and Gordon brought him back to New York. Although they never married, Gordon and Harris provided their son with a normal upbringing and his parentage became public knowledge as social conventions changed.[8] In 1932 the family was living discreetly in a small, elegant New York City brownstone.[9]

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 a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film contract for a brief period in the early 1930s but did not make a movie for the company until her supporting role in Greta Garbo's final film, Two-Faced Woman (1941). Gordon 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 her 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.

The Actress (1953) was Gordon's film adaptation of her own autobiographical play, Years Ago, filmed by MGM 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 Academy Award 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 onstage, Gordon thanked the Academy by saying, "I can't tell you how encouraging a thing like this is ..." (exhorting laughter from the audience; at the time she had been in the business for fifty years and was seventy-two years old) "And thank all of you who voted for me, and to everyone who didn't: please, excuse me", prompting more laughter and applause.

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).[10]

She went on to appear in 22 more films and at least that many television appearances through her 70s and 80s, including such successful sitcoms as Rhoda (as Carlton the unseen 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.[11]

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 Theater 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 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.[12]

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.


On August 28, 1985, Ruth Gordon died at her summer home in Edgartown, Massachusetts, following a stroke. She was 88. Her husband of 43 years, Garson Kanin, was at her side, and said that even her last day of life was typically full, with walks, talks, errands and a morning of work on a new play. She made her last public appearance only two weeks before – at a benefit showing of the film Harold and Maude – and she had recently finished acting in four films.

"She had a great gift for living the moment," said Glenn Close, who co-starred with Gordon in Maxie, one of her last films, "...and it kept her ageless."

In November 1984, a small theater in Westboro, Massachusetts and an outdoor amphitheater in Quincy, Massachusetts were named in her honor.[13]

Body of work


Year Film Role Notes
1915 The Whirl of Life Extra Uncredited
Madame Butterfly Minor Role Uncredited
Camille Party Guest Uncredited
1940 Abe Lincoln in Illinois Mary Todd Lincoln
Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet Hedwig Ehrlich
1941 Two-Faced Woman Miss Ruth Ellis, Larry's Secretary
1943 Edge of Darkness Anna Stensgard
Action in the North Atlantic Mrs. Sarah Jarvis
1965 Inside Daisy Clover The Dealer – Mrs. Clover Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture
Nominated – Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
1966 Lord Love a Duck Stella Bernard
1968 Rosemary's Baby Minnie Castevet Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress
Laurel Award for Top Female Supporting Performance (3rd place)
1969 What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? Alice Dimmock
1970 Where's Poppa? Mrs. Hocheiser
1971 Harold and Maude Maude Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1976 The Big Bus Old Woman
1978 Every Which Way but Loose Senovia 'Ma' Boggs
1979 Boardwalk Becky Rosen
Scavenger Hunt Arvilla Droll
1980 My Bodyguard Gramma Peache
Any Which Way You Can Senovia 'Ma' Boggs
1982 Jimmy the Kid Bernice
1985 Delta Pi Mugsy
Voyage of the Rock Aliens Sheriff Filmed in 1983
Maxie Mrs. Lavin Nominated-Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress
1987 The Trouble with Spies Mrs. Arkwright Filmed in 1984 and released after Gordon's death, (Last appearance)


Year Title Role Notes
1950 The Prudential Family Playhouse Paula Wharton episode: Over 21
1966 Blithe Spirit Madame Arcati TV movie
1973 Isn't It Shocking? Marge Savage TV movie
1975 Kojak Miss Eudora Temple episode: I Want to Report a Dream
Rhoda Carlton's Mother episode: Kiss Your Epaulets Goodbye
Nominated – Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Comedy or Drama Series
Medical Story Emily Dobson episode: The Right to Die
1976 The Great Houdini Cecilia Weiss Nominated – Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Comedy or Drama Special
Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby Minnie Castevet TV movie
Emergency! Lenore episode: The Nuisance
1977 Columbo Abigail Mitchell episode: Try and Catch Me
Saturday Night Live Host episode: Ruth Gordon/Chuck Berry
The Love Boat Mrs. Warner episode: Joker Is Mild, The/First Time Out/Take My Granddaughter, Please
The Prince of Central Park Mrs. Miller TV movie
1978 Perfect Gentlemen Mrs. Cavagnaro TV movie
1979 Taxi Dee Wilcox episode: Sugar Mama
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series
1980 Hardhat and Legs Grandmother uncredited
also writer
1982 Don't Go to Sleep Bernice TV movie
1983–1984 Newhart Blanche Devane episode: Grandma, What a Big Mouth You Have
episode: Go, Grandma, Go (1984)


Year Title Notes
1944 Over 21
1947 A Double Life Nominated-Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (shared with Garson Kanin)
1948 The Ford Theatre Hour episode: Years Ago
1949 Adam's Rib Nominated-Academy Award for Best Story and Screenplay (shared with Garson Kanin)
Nominated- Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written American Comedy (shared with Garson Kanin)
1950 Prudential Family Playhouse episode: Over 21
1952 Pat and Mike Nominated-Academy Award for Best Screenplay (shared with Garson Kanin)
Nominated- Writers Guild of America Award Best Written American Comedy (shared with Garson Kanin)
The Marrying Kind Nominated- Writers Guild of America Award Best Written American Comedy (shared with Garson Kanin)
1953 The Actress Nominated- Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written American Comedy (shared with Garson Kanin)
1957 The Alcoa Hour episode: A Double Life
1960 DuPont Show of the Month episode: Years Ago
1967 Rosie!
1973 Adam's Rib (TV series) episode: The Unwritten Law
1980 Hardhat and Legs

Broadway appearances

Year Title Role Notes
December 21, 1915 – January 1916 Peter Pan Nibs Revival
January 22, 1918 – August 1918 Seventeen Lola Pratt
August 13, 1923 – November 1923 Tweedles Winsora
January 5, 1925 – March 1925 Mrs. Partridge Presents Katherine Everitt
August 31, 1925 – October 1925 The Fall of Eve Eva Hutton
January 26, 1927 – April 1928 Saturday's Children Bobby
January 23, 1929 – April 1929 Serena Blandish Serena Blandish
January 31, 1929 – May 25, 1929 Lady Fingers Ruth also in ensemble
April 14, 1930 – June 1930 Hotel Universe Lily Malone
September 29, 1930 – November 1930 The Violet and One, Two, Three Ilona Stobri The Violet
April 6, 1931 – May 1931 The Wiser They Are Trixie Ingram
October 12, 1931 – March 1932 A Church Mouse Susie Sachs
September 6, 1932 – October 1932 Here Today Mary Hilliard
March 16, 1933 – May 1933 Three-Cornered Moon Elizabeth Rimplegar
February 21, 1934 – April 1934 They Shall Not Die Lucy Wells
October 8, 1934 – November 1934 A Sleeping Clergyman Harriet Marshall, Hope Cameron, Wilhelmina Cameron
January 21, 1936 – May 5, 1936 Ethan Frome Mattie Silver
December 1, 1936 – February 1937 The Country Wife Mrs. Margery Pinchwife
December 27, 1937 – May 1938 A Doll's House Nora Helmer
May 19, 1942 – May 30, 1942 The Strings, My Lord, Are False Iris Ryan
December 21, 1942 – April 3, 1943 The Three Sisters Natalya Ivanovna
January 3, 1944 – July 8, 1944 Over 21 Paula Wharton Written by Ruth Gordon
December 3, 1946 – May 31, 1947 Years Ago Written by Ruth Gordon
September 30, 1947 – November 22, 1947 How I Wonder Produced by Ruth Gordon
October 18, 1948 – October 23, 1948 The Leading Lady Written by Ruth Gordon
January 12, 1949 – January 15, 1949 The Smile of the World Sara Boulting
December 5, 1955 – February 2, 1957 The Matchmaker Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi Nominated – 1956 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play
March 2, 1960 – March 19, 1960 The Good Soup Marie-Paule I
March 21, 1963 – April 6, 1963 My Mother, My Father and Me Rona Halpern
September 30, 1965 – October 23, 1965 A Very Rich Woman Mrs. Lord Written by Ruth Gordon
October 6, 1966 – October 22, 1966 The Loves of Cass McGuire Cass
October 17, 1974 – October 26, 1974 Dreyfus in Rehearsal Zina
February 18, 1976 – April 4, 1976 Mrs. Warren's Profession Mrs. Kitty Warren


  1. Obituary Variety, September 4, 1985.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Current Biography 1943. pp.238–41.
  3. Gordon, R. (1986). My Side: The Autobiography of Ruth Gordon. D.I. Fine. ISBN 9780917657818. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
  4. Gordon, R. (1947). Years Ago: A Play. Viking Press. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
  5. LIFE. Time Inc. p. 58. ISSN 0024-3019. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
  6. Ruth Gordon at the Internet Movie Database
  7. The Pittsburgh Press, Dec 24, 1920: "Actress, to continue her career, has bowed legs broken and straightened"
  8. Wada, Karen (August 29, 1985). "Ruth Gordon Dies; Stage, Film Career Spanned 7 Decades". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2015-12-29.
  9. Lanchester, Elsa (1983). Elsa Lanchester Herself. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 102. ISBN 0-312-24376-6.
  10. "Ruth Gordon". Retrieved 1 November 2016.
  11. "Saturday Night Live - TV Series - Seasons and Episodes -". Retrieved 2015-08-25.
  12. ParkWard5 Archived November 2, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
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