Best known for her roles on Broadway and on television and for her Academy Award winning role in Rosemary’s Baby.
The Whirl of Life
Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet
Edge of Darkness
Action in the North Atlantic
Inside Daisy Clover
Lord Love a Duck
What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?
The Big Bus
Every Which Way but Loose
Any Which Way You Can
Jimmy the Kid
Voyage of the Rock Aliens
The Trouble with Spies
Ruth Gordon was nominated for five Academy Awards and won once.
- Best Writing, Original Screenplay for A Double Life (1947) Shared with: Garson Kanin
- Best Writing, Story and Screenplay for Adam’s Rib (1949) Shared with: Garson Kanin
- Best Writing, Story and Screenplay for Pat and Mike (1952) Shared with: Garson Kanin
- Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Inside Daisy Clover (1965)
- Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – Won
All I wanted out of a career was to look like Hazel Dawn and wear pink feathers. ~ Ruth Gordon
Ruth Gordon Jones was born October 30, 1896 in Quincy, Massachusetts. She was the only child of Annie Tapley (née Ziegler) and Clinton Jones, a factory foreman who had been a ship’s captain. 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. Prior to graduating from Quincy High School, she wrote to several of her favorite actresses requesting autographed pictures. A personal reply 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, in 1914 he took his daughter to New York, where he enrolled her in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
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 would become her friend and mentor.
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. 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.
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. In 1932 the family was living discreetly in a small, elegant New York City brownstone. Gordon continued to act on the stage throughout the 1930s.
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 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.
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 portrayed a murderous author on the 1977 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 1979 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.
On August 28, 1985, Ruth Gordon died at her summer home in Edgartown, Massachusetts, following a stroke at age 88. Her husband of forty-three 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 had made her last public appearance only two weeks before, at a benefit showing of the film Harold and Maude, and had recently finished acting in four films.