Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ruth's day with Cleopatra

Ruth Ford. 
Photo by George Platt Lynes

Today marks the third anniversary of Ruth Ford’s passing. Ruth died at home at the Dakota on August 12th, 2009, and in some ways it feels as if a lot of time has passed since her last day. But sometimes her passing feels like yesterday.  I had been prepared for it I thought, but when it happened it was still a surprise. She was such an important person to me, every day and for so many years, that there was really no adequate preparing for her suddenly not being there.

Ruth was a very important person to many people, especially in New York, and for a very long time. She was famous for her beauty and for her theatrical work, but she was also famous for her salons where people met and important collaborations happened as a result. I think it’s for her salons as much as anything else that Ruth was legendary. She affected the lives and creativity of people who in turn made art that affected the whole culture. And so it seems fitting that Ruth died on the very same day in August—the twelfth—as did Cleopatra. Ruth and Cleopatra both lived lives full of drama and consequence, even if Ruth’s drama was a different kind, and unlike Cleopatra, Ruth lived a very long life and left the date of her passing to fate.

In reality, the closest Ruth ever got to Cleopatra was in 1963, when she co-starred with Tallulah Bankhead in Tennessee Williams’s play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Ruth’s friend Ned Rorem, who still lives in the neighborhood not far from the Dakota, composed the music for that production, which also starred Marian Seldes, a wonderful actress and another old friend of Ruth’s. Marian Seldes is still working, as far as I know, and she’s been working consistently for many years. It was Tallulah Bankhead who had the starring role in William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra a long time ago. The show closed after just a few performances and Tallulah got a terrible review in the New York Post: "Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra, and sank." That happened in 1937, which for Ruth was a year full of glamorous photo shoots. 

During her time as a fashion model, all the great photographers of the day photographed Ruth, including George Platt Lynes, Cecil Beaton and Man Ray. Both Ruth and Tallulah Bankhead were photographed by Carl Van Vechten, whose novels were on the shelf in Ruth’s bedroom when she passed away. I still have them, and quite a few other books from Ruth’s shelves, many of them by famous friends who inscribed them to her. Ned Rorem’s numerous published diaries were always among Ruth’s favorite books.

On the first anniversary of Ruth’s death I was in Montana visiting my daughter on the big ranch where she and her husband are caretakers. It had been a long time since I’d been free to travel too far away from Ruth, and after being so long in New York, the sky really did seem big in Montana. Last year on August 12th, I was way down South, having driven with Ruth and Charles, both in their urns, to let them be buried in the cemetery near their parents. It was my first trip there, down to Mississippi where Ruth and Charles were born, and it was their last trip home.

This year on August 12th I will be on my way to Canada for a family trip, and on the road I will think of Ruth and Cleopatra. I used to think that Ruth would never leave, that she’d just stay forever in her apartment at the Dakota. For me, the day of her passing will always be a solemn one, and wherever she is, I hope that her spirit is happy and at peace. 

Ruth Ford. Photo by Louise Dahl-Wolf

-Indra Tamang
 12th August, 2012

Thursday, August 2, 2012

On the passing of Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal
October 3, 1925 – July 31, 2012
 Wherever they were, both Charles Henri Ford and his sister Ruth always surrounded themselves with the most interesting people.  All the best writers and artists and composers and playwrights and filmmakers and actors and thinkers, those were the people they knew. And each time one of them passed, newspapers from around the world would report an immeasurable loss. Charles and Ruth are themselves among those immeasurable losses now, and like each individual in that world they inhabited, they are part of truly irreplaceable group.  The most recent of their old friends to leave is Gore Vidal. 

In the book Conversations with Gore Vidal, edited by Richard Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole (University Press of Mississippi 2005) Mr. Vidal recalls his first meeting with Charles. It happened one night when he was taken by Anais Nin to a party at Peggy Guggenheim’s, where along with Charles he met Parker Tyler, Andre Breton and James Agee. “Ford and Tyler used to put out View Magazine,” he says, “and I was charmed and intrigued. After all, I was a war novelist in the tradition of Stephen Crane, and it was miles different from what I thought Literature to be. Later, I was to absorb some of the paradoxes of surrealism—which you can find in Myra/Myron.”

There is a famous Gotham Book Mart photograph taken in 1948, a group photograph of famous poets sitting together in Gotham Book Mart. Charles himself was the person who arranged to have that photograph taken on the occasion of a visit to New York from The Sitwells. Charles suggested the idea to invite The Sitwells to the owner of the book shop, Frances Steloff, who at first was reluctant to believe that such famous poets would come to visit her small book shop. But Charles convinced her to invite them along with other poets, and they all came. Among those famous poets there was young Gore Vidal. Charles asked Life Magazine photographer, “What is Gore Vidal doing here? He’s not a poet.”  And the photographer answering something like, “Well, he said he was.” Charles always like to tell this story to others when they asked or talked about Gore Vidal.

I’m not sure how well Charles knew Gore Vidal before the day in 1948 when the photo was taken at the Gotham Book Mart, but certainly from that day on, Charles counted him as a good friend.  Very often I heard Charles speak about him. I’m sure I was introduced to Mr. Vidal by Charles at some point in late 70s at a screening or a literary event. A poet or not, Gore Vidal is one of the most elegant and sharp-witted writers we’ve had, and he will be very missed.

Rest in peace, Mr. Vidal. 

Gotham Book Mart Photograph, 1948.
(Pictured in the photo are: Osbert and Edith Sitwell (seated, center) W. H. Auden, on the ladder at top right, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Charles Henri Ford (cross-legged, on the floor), William Rose Benét, Stephen Spender, Marya Zaturenska, Horace Gregory, Tennessee Williams, Richard Eberhart, Gore Vidal and José Garcia Villa.)