Mention the name of Ruth Gordon and most people remember her as an actress ranging from Abe Lincoln in Illinios (1940) to Harold and Maude (1971) or for her Academy Award-winning role in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The impromptu acceptance speech she made that night identified her as the writer she actually was. Being 72 at the time she quipped, “I can’t tell you how encouraging a thing like this is.”
Ruth Gordon Jones came into the world on October 30, 1896 in Quincy, Massachusetts. Though her sea captain father seemed steeped in the past, she convinced him to let her move into the new century by moving to New York as a single nineteen-year-old to study acting. She began appearing on Broadway in Peter Pan in 1915. Acting in movies soon beckoned, as did writing them, which was enhanced when she married her second husband, director Garson Kanin.
From the start Gordon and Kanin had a writing career like few other writers in the Hollywood of their era, which earned them praise as “probably the greatest pure screenwriting collaboration in all Hollywood history” by film historian Patrick McGilligan. While Gordon had written plays solo, she wrote four films with Kanin on speculation, not under the auspices of a particular studio producer, and the same personal friend, George Cukor, helmed all four. The result? None of their films underwent major studio rewrites and Gordon and Kanin were involved in the production of each film through the pre-production, filming and post-production periods; a privilege not granted many writers then or now.
In his introduction to an interview with Kanin in 1991, McGilligan stated that the films the couple wrote together “signaled, to a large extent, the high tide of American sophisticated comedy.” His words are backed up by the fact that three of the four films (1947’s A Double Life, 1949’s Adam’s Rib, 1952’s Pat and Mike) earned Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay. One film falls into the genre of traditional romantic comedy (Pat and Mike); one (A Double Life), concerned the life of an actor overwhelmed by his role as Othello. The other two delved deeply into the study of a marriage (Adam’s Rib and 1952’s The Marrying Kind); one a comedy, one a drama, yet both dealt with the gender politics of the day. The diversity of the films in tone and genre shows that Gordon and Kanin were given rare privileges by the studio system in a period when most Hollywood artists – writers, directors, actors - were typecast in one genre or another for the duration of their careers.
The other aspect of Gordon’s influence in film comes from the fact that Gordon essentially invented Katherine Hepburn’s popular culture reputation as a feminist, a reputation she seems to have earned more from the power of her fictional characters than the events of her real life. Upon Gordon’s death in 1985 New York Times writer Mel Gussow wrote in his appreciation of her work with Spencer Tracy in Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike: “Gordon and Kanin's contribution to the symbiosis of the Tracy-Hepburn team is inestimable.”
Biographers and critics of Hepburn often claim that she based her independent women persona and characters on a combination of her mother and of Eleanor Roosevelt. Not being a wife herself, Hepburn was also, even if subconsciously, basing the wives in her Tracy/Hepburn films on Ruth Gordon. As actress and writer Elaine May once observed to Garson Kanin about his wife, “She really is about the only person who gives you the feeling that maybe it could be a woman’s world.”
While they only wrote four films together, Gordon and Kanin continued to collaborate on each other’s individual creative efforts without taking public credit for the rest of their careers. The marriage fed on their mutual creative work but the act of documenting that in credits harmed things enough to make it worth sacrificing to the chance to continue working together.