Today marks the 100th birthday of Ruth Ford. She was born July 7th, 1911 in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and she died in August 2009, at the age of 98. She lived a long and full life, much of it spent right here in the New York where she was an important figure, not just as an actress, but also as a muse to other artists and as a salonnière. Ruth made things happen for other people, people were introduced to others in her famous salons, and those meetings were often fruitful.
Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents met in Ruth’s living room one night and went on to collaborate with Leonard Bernstein on the movie West Side Story. Edward Albee, Isak Dineson, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and William Faulkner were all good friends of Ruth’s and spent many evenings in her living room. Allen Ginsberg supposedly washed his feet in Ruth’s sink. William Faulkner wrote his one and only play, Requiem for a Nun, specifically for her.
Because the end of Ruth’s life is so recent to me, right now the most vivid memories I have of her are from the last years of her life in the apartment at the Dakota. The parties had been over for a long time by then, and life was quiet and simple. But I also remember her very well from the day in 1974 when I first met her, when I was introduced to her in her living room by her brother, Charles Henri Ford.
At that time, I was 21 years old and I’d only seen my first movie the year before, so the fact that this lady I was meeting was a famous actress was meaningless to me. Her late husband Zachary Scott, who played the villain opposite Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, was equally meaningless, and I had no idea who Joan Crawford was either. I had no notion of the art world, or the theater world, or the world of literature. Needless to say, Ruth and Charles introduced me to a universe I could never have imagined, and they opened my eyes to art of all kinds, which has enriched my life immeasurably.
I will always remember my first impression of Ruth. I could see that she was strong and full of life. She was still a wild lady, beautiful and very glamorous. She had a much younger boyfriend, a writer who also lived in the Dakota then, named Dotson Rader. The age difference didn’t bother Ruth at all. She talked very openly about it in a story People Magazine did about the two of them in 1975. Ruth was a free spirit. I remember Dotson Rader well from that time, and funny enough, one of my most vivid memories is of him showing me how to operate the laundry machine down in the basement of the Dakota, which had slots for dimes and quarters.
By the time I came on the scene in the 70s, Ruth was no longer throwing her big famous parties, although she still hosted smaller gatherings there in her living room. She was still very outgoing and social, and she attended a lot of parties given by other people. Sometimes she would invite me to accompany her to one and I would go. I remember a birthday party for Anthony Perkins where they gave out little disposable cameras, and I took a snapshot of Richard Avedon that night.
There were many years of exciting and interesting things that I was fortunate to experience thanks to Ruth and to Charles, and then there were the many years after Charles passed away when Ruth was quietly at home, and I spent countless hours with her, just the two of us.
By that time, I was married and living in Queens, and driving to the Dakota every day was a familiar routine. So was the job of looking after Ruth. She liked to read the New York Times in the morning with her tea, starting with the weather report, and she would set aside articles she thought I might enjoy—anything about Nepal for example. And having outlived so many of her friends, she always scanned the obituaries, a habit that I got into myself and keep to this day.
In the evening, after cooking dinner for her and sitting with her in the kitchen while she ate, I would help her back into her bedroom. There was always the photograph of Zachary Scott on the bedside table, and a framed poster for a gallery show in Paris signed to her from Man Ray hanging on the wall. She’d settle in and I would make sure she had everything she needed for the night. There always had to be chocolate within reach since Ruth had a midnight sweet tooth. And each evening when I said, “If there’s nothing else, I’ll be going now,” she would say, “Goodnight, Indra Darling, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
There was a part of me that thought Ruth would live forever, but of course no one does. Today I will stand in the room where I met her 37 years ago and wish her a very happy 100th birthday and let her know I’m thinking of her.