Ruth Draper Monologues Ruth Draper Monologues Ruth Draper Monologues
Ruth Draper Monologues

The Amateur Years
Draper's Roaring Twenties
The Actress and the Poet
Twilight of a "Miraculous" Life
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 to Draper's biographer Dorothy Warren. "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 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 of The New York Sun. He also served as an assistant secretary of war to Abraham Lincoln.

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, and 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.

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. She was never paid for such appearances, says her biographer Dorothy Warren. Instead, she would receive "a nice piece of jewelry." 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 young friend you have woven yourself a magic 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 numerous hours with him in painter John Singer Sargent's Chelsea studio, amusing James with her chatter as he posed for a portrait. Later, Sargent sketched Draper as well, twice in character, and refused to accept payment for his efforts. 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 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 young man and longing for a permanent attachment, while at the same time reporting interference from her mother, a controlling woman 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 "without agent, or manager or prior bookings," writes Dorothy Warren in The World of Ruth Draper. 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. She returned to London, and booked Aeolian Hall for a matinee on January 29, 1920. The reviews were enthusiastic, 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, 84, 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 says, "if you succeed."

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"I must work, for I see it as the only way to make me realize that I have something worth living for."
Ruth Draper in a letter to Harriet Marple, July 1920

Draper's success continued unabated throughout the 1920s. It was her most productive period, during which she wrote her best-known pieces, including "The Italian Lesson," "Three Woman and Mrs. Clifford" and "A Church in Italy." She gradually dropped many of her earlier, more one-dimensional monologues, though several of the early pieces remained a permanent part of her repertoire, including "A Class in Greek Poise" and "A German Governess with a Class of Children."

It was also during this period that Draper established what became her working pattern: a season in London, a season in New York, a trip to, and often a working tour of, some other location (Italy, Germany, the American Midwest, South Africa, India and the Far East), and part of each summer with family and friends on an island off the coast of Maine in a house built by her parents, which she bought after her fortunes began to soar. She journeyed mostly by train or ocean liner, using the time to rest, to work on her monologues, and to maintain a voluminous correspondence with family, friend and fans. Her letters are further proof of her talent for setting a scene: "You would laugh to see me," she wrote to her sister Dorothea from Burma on a tour of the Far East, "in pale blue flowered pajamas, on the shady deck of a river steamer, moving peacefully down the Irrawaddy from Mandalay to Rangoon. I've just had a bath after a nap, and am imbibing a lime squash." In her letters, as on the stage, she was able to conjure up with just a few strokes a clear picture of a character or characters. A group of British tourists she once encountered were described as "English middle-class and professorial types—all Aquascutums and projecting teeth."

As Draper's reputation grew, so did her contact with the elite of every realm she breezed through. Some, such as the musicians she knew from the Edith Grove days, and family connections like the Roosevelts or the great jurist Learned Hand, were of many years standing. But as she became an international stage star, her circle of friends and acquaintances expanded to include such legends of the theater as Sarah Bernhardt, Eleanora Duse and Ellen Terry. After one Draper performance, Mrs. Patrick Campbell—the original Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion—demanded of George Bernard Shaw, "Have you ever seen such acting?" to which Shaw responded, "That's not acting. That's life."

In Draper's papers, now part of the New-York Historical Society's collection, the appearance of figures of great cultural and historical significance becomes routine. John Maynard Keynes, Clement Atlee, Eddie Cantor, James Barrie, Noel Coward, A.A. Milne—even Helen Keller adored Ruth Draper. According to Dorothy Warren, Keller sometimes attended performances with her companion Anne Sullivan, who would tap out the text on Keller's wrist. Draper lunched with Lawrence of Arabia, and had "tea with the Tolstois." True, the world was smaller then, as was that microcosm inhabited by creatures of great achievement, yet Draper's stature, and the reverence she was accorded by those of similar standing in their own fields, is conspicuous.

With her minimal stage and staff requirements, and consistently full houses, Draper became a wealthy woman. In 1938, her take from a four-month tour of Australia was $50,000—an extraordinary sum for the Great Depression. She gave large amounts away to friends, family—"the less successful earners"—and the anonymous needy as well. Much of her largesse came in the form of charity performances; her schedules over the years show as many, if not more, benefits as for-profit engagements. During World War II, she dispatched both money and packages of food and other essentials to friends in England.

She would spend when she felt it was necessary, as on her wardrobe, much of which was purchased from the finest Paris couturiers. But at her core, Draper was a thrifty WASP. She preferred to stay with friends or in simple hotels while touring, and often gave good clothing a second life by having it remade: "Worth has made me the most beautiful 'robe Velasquez' out of an old brown velvet of Mother's," she wrote to a friend in 1921. Years later, in a note to her English secretary, she discussed in great detail the remaking of a favorite briefcase: "I don't think I'll have the bag repaired at Asprey's. It's far too costly. In the first place I don't want it relined. I thought I mentioned that I didn't mind about the stains. It's always full of papers anyway and ink is an honorable stain. I would mind more if it were, say, tomato soup!"

Draper frequently said she felt guilty about the ease with which she achieved her success, though it is obvious from the way she describes the creation of certain monologues in her letters that she labored long and hard over them, and not all succeeded. A modest person, she often marveled at her own existence. "My wonderful life goes miraculously on," she exclaimed in a letter the year before she died.

Draper's rectitude was impressive. Though she longed to beg off a lengthy tour of Australia and parts of Asia, she could not after her manager cabled that he considered her "morally bound." She sighed to a friend: "Cruel words for a Puritan, for I could not then change my mind." When she first met Charles Bowden, who would produce on Broadway at the end of her career, she informed him that she wanted no one risking money on her success, then described the method in which her show would be financed. "You tell me how much it's going to cost," she told Bowden. "I'll give you that money, then you give some back each week, and after a while you've given it all back to me, and we divide the profits, half to you, half to me." Bowden told her it wasn't fair because she was the star. She would brook no discussion: "This is how I like to do it," she said. One friend described her simply as "a solid citizen."

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 illustrious men, despite the fact that both were dead and she had never met either one. This gave her sister Ruth much to lampoon.

Auchincloss does not feel that Draper would have reacted well to being parodied herself, however. Marc Connolly, 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,'" recalls Auchincloss, "It was absolutely hysterical." Particularly because Connolly was "overweight and bald, and he did the gestures so well." Says 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," recalls 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 says, 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," explains 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 such friends of long standing 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 met a bizarre end, dropping dead in the middle of a party in New York.

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."

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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 important 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.

The Italy-America Society was not a political organization, and de Bosis was intent that his role there 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 the Italy-America Society. On a trip outside Italy in December of that year, he learned that his two chief collaborators had been arrested and later 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.

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