"Signs prohibiting 'theatricals' were prevalent in hotel lobbies well into this century, and conscientious parents from all ranks of society warned their children, particularly their daughters, of the poverty, moral decay and disdain they would encounter were they to pursue such a shady enterprise as the stage."
Social Register Observer, 1996
A number of terms have been applied to Ruth Draper and the art she practiced professionally from 1920 to 1956, including monologuist, recitalist, and diseuse. She preferred to be known as a character actress. "My God, how brilliant she was!" exclaimed Katharine Hepburn of Draper. "With her essential, her enormous personal distinction. What fascinated me was to see this enormously distinguished creature turn into a peasant—instantly!" For someone of Draper's "enormously distinguished" bearing and background, her career as an actress was as unlikely as it was triumphant.
Ruth Draper was born in Manhattan in 1884 to William H. Draper, a prominent doctor and professor of clinical medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Ruth Dana Draper, daughter of Charles A. Dana. Dana had been part of the Brook Farm experiment in Massachusetts, and later worked with Horace Greeley at The New York Tribune before becoming editor and part owner of The New York Sun. While serving as assistant secretary of war to Abraham Lincoln, Dana has an enormous influence on the career of Ulysses S. Grant.
The seventh of Dr. Draper's eight children (the first two were from an earlier marriage), Ruth showed early talent as a mimic. The inspiration for her first fully realized sketch was a Jewish tailor who regularly serviced the Draper family. Years later, she described him as "a pathetic and lovely little man. I can see him now. 'It's could be fixed,' he would say. 'It's could be fixed. Little padding on the shoulders. Pearl buttons here. Velvet collar.'" Discussing her creative process late in her career, she acknowledged that her ability to depict imagined worlds was the same one she'd possessed as a young girl. "I think that what I do is something that, as a child, I never lost," she told Studs Terkel in 1955. "Which is the child's capacity to throw themselves completely into what they pretend to be ... [and] if you're completely given over to what you're trying to portray, you will convince the other people too."
At first Draper's sketches amused only family and close friends. Though the stage at that time held many negative connotations for Manhattan's social elite, drawing-room entertainment was another matter entirely. Nearly every family had at least one child trained to take a seat at the piano after dinner, or to stand before guests and recite. It was obvious that Ruth Draper's recitations were not the average debutante's diversion. Ignace Paderewski, the great pianist and a friend of Dr. and Mrs. Draper, advised that Ruth's talents were unique and required nurturing. In the century's second decade, she expanded her performance purview to schools and charity events and to parlors presided over by the era's most prominent hostesses and patrons of the arts.
Though technically still an amateur, Draper began occasionally to be paid for her appearances. A glance through the first several pages of an engagement book she maintained from 1910 through 1956 shows performances in the U.S. at the homes of Mrs. James Speyer, Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt, Mrs. Felix Warburg, Mrs. Jacob Schiff, Mrs. Payne Whitney, and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish. In London in those early years, she honed her skills at the invitation of Mrs. Waldorf Astor, Mrs. Jon Astor, and Mrs. H.H. Asquith, wife of the prime minister. Before turning professional, she also performed for Alice Keppel, King Edward VII's mistress and the great-grandmother of Camilla Parker Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall.
Draper became a favorite of the legitimate British royal family as well—of royalty throughout Europe, in fact. In 1950, she wrote to her sister Dorothea from the Netherlands: "All the world is coming tonight. Sold out as usual. The mourning for the King in Sweden will prevent any attendance of Royalty in all three capitols; very inconvenient of the old gentleman not to wait until my season is over!" Her first invitations to perform for British royalty came in 1913. Preparing for her first appearance before Queen Mary, she dashed off to Paris to acquire an appropriately regal wardrobe. "My friends insist on my going to Worth," she wrote to her mother. "He is to choose the color and stuff and façon and I shall have little to say! He has been told that I am a professional and that the dress is to appear before the Queen, so he is much interested and will attend to it himself. Uncle Henry is much excited."
"Uncle" Henry Adams, the author and historian, and a friend of the Draper family, considered Ruth Draper "a little genius" and was delighted to assist in her sartorial enhancements. In a letter to a friend, Adams recorded that Draper "rushed my Social Secretaries about like wild gazelles, but goes today, so that I shall probably pass only a part of my time at Worth's henceforward. The two lovely dresses I have had made for her are of course too good for Queens, but what could I do?" Draper was later presented at court as a member of society—an unusual distinction for a performer.
Henry James was another of Draper's avuncular counselors and friends in pre-World War I London. When she went to him for advice about her future—should she go on the stage as an actress in other people's plays, pursue a career as a writer, or continue to develop what James referred to as "her strange brilliant impersonations"?—he responded with an exhortation much repeated by Draper in later years. "My dear child,” he told her, “you have woven your own little Persian carpet. Stand on it!" In a letter to her mother, Draper described an afternoon in his company:
I went to see Mr. James at three and had a delightful talk with him and at four got up to go—he said he was going out and offered to drop me anywhere. Then he found a lot of things he had to get for the flat, and I said I was too early for tea and I'd go and shop with him. So we first went to the Atheneum Club and got some money and then we went to the [Army & Navy] Stores and bought an icebox, a kitchen scale, prunes, a wall brush and three teapots and a clock. We had a lovely time and then he brought me to Mrs. Rathbone's door. Really it was too funny for words.
When not helping the great novelist select prunes and teapots, Draper spent some of her time in London posing for John Singer Sargent. She used his drawing of her as Lesley MacGregor, a Scottish immigrant at Ellis Island, on posters and theater programs throughout her career. In a letter to a friend written in 1920, after she had gone professional and toured on Britain's music-hall circuit, Draper enclosed a snapshot of a poster from the Brighton Hippodrome featuring both the Sargent sketch and a likeness of one of her costars, a trained seal: "I saw Mr. Sargent last week and told him his sketch was just above one of a seal and did he mind? He seemed much amused."
Draper's younger brother Paul, an aspiring singer of German lieder, and his flamboyant wife, Muriel, were also in prewar London, establishing in those years what became a legendary musical salon in their home at 19 Edith Grove in Chelsea. The violinists Jacques Thibaud, Pierre Monteux, and Pedro Morales, and the cellists Pablo Casals and Ernest Schelling were among the many musicians who regularly dropped by after their concerts for late suppers and star-studded classical jam sessions. In his memoirs, Arthur Rubinstein describes a scene at Edith Grove that was common in Draper's early days as an entertainer: after it was suggested that she recite, guests unfamiliar with her talents rolled their eyes. "Here we were ready to play great music," writes Rubinstein, "And the Drapers were going to impose upon us some prattle fit for a family celebration at Christmas or for grandpapa's birthday!" But as Ruth Draper clicked into character, the apprehension dissolved. As she finished, Rubinstein recalled, "enchanted and excited, we shouted our bravos and praises."
Often described as handsome rather than beautiful, Draper was small—about five-foot-four—with a distinctive profile and deep-set dark brown eyes regularly singled out as her most striking feature. In Memoirs of an Aesthete, Harold Acton, who knew Draper through their mutual friend Bernard Berenson, wrote that "behind the prim spinsterish façade lurked the Henry James heroine with smouldering eyes."
Ruth Draper was 29 years old in 1914, an age far beyond that thought suitable for women of her station to marry. Despite her success at select private gatherings, Draper was essentially a product of her times—demure and diffident, except in front of an audience. Her letters record interest from the occasional eligible man and longing for a permanent attachment, while at the same time reporting interference from her mother, a controlling figure wary of leaving her daughters alone with gentlemen callers. (Draper's father had died in 1901.) That didn't stop two of Draper's three sisters from marrying and leaving home, but Draper continued to live most of the year with her mother. Ruth Dana Draper died in August of 1914, the same month World War I began. The two events were critical in finally pushing Draper onto the professional stage.
The next year, accompanied only by Christine, her mother's old Scottish maid, Draper set off on a tour of the United States. For the forty private recitals she gave over a five-month period, Draper made $4,813.46. Her expenses, "including Christine and a new hat," totaled $1,420.
As the war progressed, Draper gave dozens of benefit concerts, including a three-week tour in 1917 that raised over $10,000 for the Red Cross. After briefly working in a munitions factory in New Jersey (she signed one letter as "Drill Hand No. 20921"), she traveled to Europe to entertain American troops under the auspices of the YMCA. The Armistice was declared soon after her arrival, but the troops remained, and the ten-month tour of France in which she took part would have a major influence on the rest of her life and career. A fellow performer, a singer named Harriet Marple, became one of Draper's closest friends; in her letters to Marple over the years, we learn more of her intimate thoughts than from any other source. During the tour she fell in love for the first time, with an American officer from North Carolina. For more than a decade after the war, he would be referred to as "N.C" in letters to Marple in which Draper dolefully described her unrealized dreams of a serious relationship.
In battle-scarred towns, performing before men who had survived the terrors and privations of the war, Draper was exposed to people and situations far outside society's cloister, and several dramatic pieces, including "The Return" and "Vive la France–1916" were drawn from her wartime experiences. When the tour ended, Draper's days as a bauble on limited display were over. Though she had performed a few times at theaters in New York, Draper up until her wartime experiences, had essentially considered herself an amateur. No longer. She booked Aeolian Hall in London for a matinee on January 29, 1920. The reviews were ecstatic, and with that performance, the 35-year-old Draper moved officially into the ranks of working actresses.
The war had destroyed social barriers that would never be rebuilt, but Draper's shift from private to public entertainer did not mean that polite society automatically considered denizens of the stage worthy of its ranks. Still, it helped to be a hit. The novelist Louis Auchincloss knew Ruth Draper through his parents, who also lived at 66 E. 79th St., the apartment building that was Draper's New York residence for the last twenty-seven years of her life. According to Auchincloss, Draper's career never threatened her social standing. "You can get away with absolutely anything," he said in an interview in 1999, "if you succeed."
She was not a saint, however. According to Louis Auchincloss, Draper indulged in wicked impersonations of her sister Dorothea. Though the two were close, Dorothea, who was prominent in New York society, was envious of her sister's global fame and accomplishments. When Dorothea made a late-in-life second marriage to Harry James, nephew of Henry the novelist, and son of William the psychologist and philosopher, she made much of her connection to the two men, though both were dead and she had never met either one. This gave her sister Ruth much to lampoon.
Auchincloss did not feel that Draper would have reacted well to being parodied herself, however. Marc Connelly, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Algonquin Round Table regular, concocted a spoof of "In a Railway Station on the Western Plains," a melodramatic Draper sketch, and performed it at parties. "He called it 'Train Wreck on the Western Prairies,'" recalled Auchincloss, "It was absolutely hysterical." Particularly because Connelly was "overweight and bald, and he did the gestures so well." Said Auchincloss: "I don't think [Draper] would have been amused." But she was apparently entertained when Arthur Rubinstein imitated her at a benefit they did together. "He came in with a shawl around that marvelous face of his and pretended to be Aunt Ruth," recalled Draper's niece Penelope Buchanan. "But I don't think she played the piano."
According to Auchincloss, Ruth Draper was a snob, though not a social one. In fact, he said, she always could be counted on to include the "the lame duck, someone who'd been rescued" at her parties. Rather, she was a snob about culture. "It was a snobbery based on a sense of more attractive and higher things," explained Auchincloss. "It was a snobbery at people who have never lived a creative life."
That would include most of Hollywood. "I've never been so oppressed by a sense of materialism and vulgarity," Draper wrote to Harriet Marple during a 1923 trip to Southern California, "such utter lack of spiritual and intellectual values—or rather, such suffocation of them. The contrast of the perfection of natural beauty, with man's work, is so constant and obvious, it hurts. The 'Movie Colonies' are appalling—the evidences of wealth and second-rate taste, hit you every moment, mixed up with wisteria, roses and orange blossoms, and real estate advertisements obstruct every view and the roar of motors pierce every silence."
Though she traveled in lofty circles, Draper remained an essentially modest person. Her confidantes were friends of long standing such as Aileen Tone, companion-secretary of Henry Adams' final years, and Harriet Marple, her World War I traveling companion. She was also very close to her seven siblings, particularly her younger brother Paul, the only other artist in the family. A chronic alcoholic and gambler, he caused Draper much anguish. In February 1925, at the age of 38, he died, overcome by alcohol and drugs.
Draper was devastated by the loss of her closest childhood companion, and later that year wrote to a friend, "Paul and my work were the two realities, the two anchors in my life; with him gone the other is doubly precious." As the decade continued, she threw herself into her work with increased fervor.
Though she had not abandoned hope of someday finding a mate, Draper had come to accept how difficult it would be, given the course her life had taken and the level of her success. At times suffering from severe depression over her single state, she confided to close friends that she would give it all up for the right man. None really believed her. Some years earlier she had written to Harriet Marple, "As I stood on the great stage of the Coliseum and held that audience of 3,000 with my 'Vive la France' the revelation came to me that in thus giving all I had to give to those thousands, I must accept it as the alternative to giving myself to one."
Thou dost triumph now in the heavenly spaces and dost impose the will of mortals on the skies: immune at last from earthly struggles, free though singest, and crownest thyself with stars.
From Ruth Draper's translation of Icaro, by Lauro de Bosis
Even if she had not met the love of her life at lunch, March 14, 1928, it would have been a memorable day for Draper: her calendar shows "Tea with Mussolini" scheduled for late that afternoon. As the true nature of Fascism had become apparent, the universal regard for the man who made the trains run on time had faded. But Draper often performed for heads of state when visiting their countries, and agreed to do so in Italy at the request of her friend William Garrett, then the American ambassador.
While lunching earlier that day at the home of an American friend, Draper made the acquaintance of Lauro de Bosis, an Italian poet and translator. His Icaro, based on the myth of the boy who flies too close to the sun, would later win an international poetry prize. Twenty-six years old, son of an Italian father and an American mother, de Bosis was handsome, charming, and romantic to the core. He found himself drawn to the acclaimed actress, then 43. They met again a few days later, and for nearly three weeks after that saw each other every day. She later sent him a list of all their activities: "Here is the record of our happy days!" To Harriet Marple she wrote: "Never have I dreamed that such love and such beauty could come to me."
Though Draper was inexperienced at love affairs, she quickly found herself involved in one so intense that after departing Italy she expressed "terror" at encountering de Bosis again. But she did, when he came to the United States in the fall of 1928 to accept a position with the Italy-America Society. Though the two believed their affair to be secret, it was obvious to friends.
Over the next three years, as Draper's tours took her back and forth between Europe and the U.S., she and Lauro spent many weeks together, including several with his family at their summer home on Italy's Adriatic coast. They shared a love of literature and art and of such simple pleasures as swimming, boating and bicycling. "Lauro grows to me in beauty all the time," she wrote to Marple in 1929.
De Bosis was intent that his role at the Italy-America Society would involve only the furthering of cultural ties between the two countries, not the dissemination of Fascist propaganda. Like many of his countrymen, he had become disgusted with Mussolini, and in the summer of 1930, he decided to take action by founding an organization known as the Alleanza Nazionale. To concentrate on the group's mission—the clandestine circulation of anti-Fascist newsletters in Italy—he resigned from his job. In December of that year, while he was traveling back to Europe from the U.S., he learned that his two chief collaborators had been arrested along with his mother, who had helped reproduce the newsletters. Senora de Bosis was freed, but de Bosis’ collaborators were sentenced to fifteen years in prison. When he heard of their fate, de Bosis became intent upon making his own sacrifice. Inspired by another anti-Fascist who earlier had flown over Milan dropping leaflets denouncing Il Duce, de Bosis decided to embark upon a similar flight over Rome, the city in which Mussolini made his headquarters. To plan his next move, he settled in Paris in early 1931. It was not until April, when Draper arrived in Paris after a North American tour, that she learned of his plans. Though stunned, she never wavered in her support.
De Bosis signed up for flying lessons and in the summer of 1931, with funds gathered from fellow anti-Fascists, bought his first plane. Badly damaged on a flight from mainland France to Corsica, the plane had to be abandoned with its incriminating cargo of leaflets. His plan revealed, de Bosis went into hiding in Switzerland, then Germany. Draper joined him for brief periods, during which the couple moved from hotel to hotel to avoid detection. Unable to send her usual dispatches, she did write to Marple: “If anything should ever happen to me, I think I’d like my sisters to know ... how happy I’ve been and how perfect is the love we had.”
In Germany, de Bosis used an assumed name to purchase another aircraft, and arranged to have it flown to southern France. On October 2, after a meandering trip by train, he and Draper arrived in Marseilles, where they said their farewells at the station. The following afternoon, with only seven-and-a-half hours of solo flying experience, de Bosis took off with a single reserve tank of fuel. The Germans who delivered and serviced the plane thought that “Mr. Morris” was bound for Barcelona with packets of advertising material. But his planned flight path--Marseilles to Rome and then on to Corsica--was far longer.
At about eight o’clock that evening, a small plane appeared over Rome, blanketing squares and streets, cafes and even an open-air cinema with its cargo of anti-Fascist rhetoric. It flew so low, witnesses later reported, that it appeared to climb the Spanish Steps. The effect was spectacular. The Italian Air Force was taken by surprise, and by the time they rallied to pursue de Bosis, he was gone. Mussolini was said to be furious.
Before leaving Marseilles, de Bosis sent two letters to a friend in Belgium, one to be forwarded to Draper if he did not return from his flight. The third contained a remarkable treatise entitled “The Story of My Death.” In the event that he did not survive his mission, de Bosis asked his friend to release it to the press. No trace of his small wooden plane was ever found.
On October 14, eleven days after the flight, The Times of London, Le Soir of Brussels and The New York Times were among the newspapers that published de Bosis’ manifesto. It begins: “Tomorrow at 3 o’clock in a meadow on the Cote d’Azur I have an appointment with Pegasus. Pegasus is the name of my airplane....It is as strong as eighty horses and as slim as a swallow. Sometimes drunk with petrol, it leaps through the sky like its brother of old, but in the night it can glide at will through the air like a phantom ... to bear a message of liberty across the seas to a people in chains.”
Devastated by her loss, Draper lingered in Europe for nearly a year after de Bosis’ disappearance. In time she abandoned all but the most impractical dreams that he was alive, but he forever remained at the center of her life. She translated his epic Icaro into English, and later funded with a $50,000 grant the Lauro de Bosis Foundation for Italian Culture at Harvard.
Though they had spoken of marriage during their three-year affair, it is doubtful the union would have taken place. Draper’s way of living was established, and she herself acknowledged apprehension at the compromise required by such a commitment. Those who knew de Bosis well said he would have disappointed her had he survived; with the difference in age, friends feared he would have moved on to another woman. And that was something Draper could not have endured. Comforted by the memory of his youth, his idealism, and the joy of their time together--their “perfect” love--she was never involved in another serious relationship. Among those who consoled Draper after de Bosis’ disappearance was Edith Wharton, who sent a brief note: “I know the heartbreak and I know the emptiness.”
“Be happy. ‘Sta allegra’ and work...If you do that, I will feel that my love continues after death to protect you.”
From Lauro de Bosis' final letter to Ruth Draper, October 2, 1931
Draper heeded de Bosis’ final wish, and her work continued until the night she died. But she wrote few new pieces after the torrent of production in the 1920s. The loss of de Bosis may have impacted her creative flow, or it is just as likely that as she grew more famous, traveled more widely, and encountered more and numerous new friends, her conscientiousness as a correspondent prevented any but epistolary writing. The notion of celebrity stalkers would have stunned Draper. She religiously responded to fan mail, and in several instances, maintained decades-long correspondence with friends who started out as fawning admirers. Letters from fans often mention some small kindness shown by Draper, such as giving theatergoers a ride in her car in inclement weather. Ted Dalbotten, a longtime Draper admirer and a former instructor at the Martha Graham dance company, tells of two friends sharing a cab with Draper in Chicago: “They told her how much they loved her,” says Dalbotten, “But were so disappointed that they’d never caught 'The Italian Lesson.' So she did it in the cab for them.”
Draper’s major international tours took place in the 1930s, with South Africa, India, Australia, and South America among her exotic destinations. In Africa, she flew several times by plane, her fears abated by thoughts of Lauro de Bosis and the pleasure he took in flying. And, she commented, were she to die in a crash, “I firmly believe it was meant.”
Draper was in England in 1939 as war broke out there. After relinquishing her rented house to its owner, one General Herbert, who needed to settle his affairs before going off to war, she decided to return home. She spent the war years in the United States and Canada, mostly on cross-country tours for the benefit of a variety of war-relief organizations.
In 1946, Draper eagerly sailed back to England, but with some trepidation; she had been gone so long, she wasn’t certain she would be remembered. Her fears were unfounded, and she began playing to sold-out houses. The late Clive Barnes, once theater critic for The New York Times and then the New York Post, recalled seeing her as a student in London after the war. “It was the return of a legend,” he said.
Despite her continued popularity in certain locations, England in particular, Draper was aware in the postwar years that new performers, and new forms of entertainment, were crowding a field in which she’d once felt confident about her place. It had also been years since she had written any new pieces of substance, though she did update “Vive la France--1916,” one of her popular World War I-era monologues, to reflect the more recent conflict, entitling it “Vive la France--1940.”
And indeed in the United States in the late 1940s, when Charles Bowden and his partner Richard Barr first produced Draper, her star had begun to fade, in part because of her refusal to promote herself. But rather than run the risk of being drowned out by all the new competition, she agreed to the kind of publicity she heretofore had avoided.
As the 1950s progressed, Draper found herself the recipient of numerous honors, including degrees from the University of Edinburgh, Cambridge University, and Smith College. She was also named a Commander of the British Empire by King George VI. In 1954, Robert Sherwood and Thornton Wilder nominated her for membership in the American Institute of Arts and Letters, but that organization’s strict definition of a playwright precluded her election.
When in 1954, with her 70th birthday approaching, she announced her intention to retire at the end of her Broadway season, a stream of accolades followed, including an appreciation from Wolcott Gibbs in The New Yorker, who described Draper as “a writer for the theatre whom most dramatists would do well to regard with wonder, envy and despair.” But she changed her mind about giving up her work, and returned to Broadway in 1955 with her nephew Paul Draper, the tap dancer, with whom she periodically shared a bill after he became a victim of McCarthy-era blacklisting and had trouble finding work.
Financially, Draper could easily have stepped away from her career, and in fact, she originally planned to do so when she reached the age of 50. But performing was a huge part of her life, and as long as she was physically able, she continued. Though Draper had been a sickly child, her strength as a performer was impressive throughout her career. An evening with Ruth Draper would have exhausted a less vigorous actress, consisting as it did of five or six unique sketches, many running a half-hour long, chosen from her professional repertoire of nearly forty monologues. She had in her head at all times the equivalent of about four full-length plays.
Though Draper always retained her youthfulness onstage, as she aged, she became deaf and suffered from a heart problem. In letters written during her final years, she makes regular reference to the passing of time, as well as her eagerness to absorb and experience as much of life as possible for as long as she had left. This had been her credo from the start.
Draper existed in two worlds: the theater, and her elite social stratum. It should have been a difficult balancing act, but she was of her social world only in a manner that cleverly skirted its more stifling features. How could society’s inhabitants shun an actress when it was in their parlors that she had polished her art? Never abandoning the world in which she’d been raised, at the same time Draper never let its restrictions dictate the course of her life.
On December 29, 1956, after Draper had finished a Saturday evening performance at the Playhouse Theatre, she asked her driver to take her up and down Broadway, then a two-way street, to look at the lights. Upon arriving home, she ate a late supper and went to bed. The next morning her housekeeper discovered that she had died in her sleep. At the funeral at Grace Church in lower Manhattan, Draper’s coffin was draped with the shawls she had used to help conjure up her “company of characters.”
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