Though Ruth Draper was the granddaughter of a famous newspaperman—her mother's father was Charles Dana, who for thirty years was the editor of The New York Sun—she was wary of journalists and, until very late in her career, rarely granted interviews. In the 1920s, when Draper was touring in England, a reporter from the Manchester Evening News made this attempt to reach her, in a story headlined "NO INTERVIEWS."
Miss Ruth Draper has never been interviewed for newspaper purposes in any part of the world, but to-day I very nearly did it.
This woman Proteus—who is appearing at the Prince's Theatre, Manchester this week in her one-star, all-star act—is staying at the Midland Hotel, and I went there to-day determined to achieve the impossible.
They received me kindly at the inquiry counter and immediately telephoned through to Miss Draper's room.
"There's a Mr. So-and-So to see you, Miss Draper," they said.
What Miss Draper replied, I shall never know, but I was told to go into telephone box #5.
I lifted the receiver and the following conversation ensued.
Well, what was the use? So our conversation ended—and I only wanted to ask her if she would like to do Hamlet and play every part herself.
Me: Miss Ruth Draper?
Me: I'm from the Manchester Evening News. May I see you for a few moments?
R.D.: I'm sorry, but I never give interviews.
Me: Why not?
R.D.: Because I don't want them and I don't need them. In all my career I have never given a reporter an interview.
Me (plaintively): But aren't you going to break that rule?
R.D. (firmly): No.
Me (desperately): Miss Draper, do you like ____?
R.D.: I'm sorry, but I never give interviews,
Me (frantically): But, Miss Draper, don't you like ___?
R.D.: I'm very sorry, but I never give interviews.
Me (desperately): Yes, Miss Draper, but ___
R.D.: Thank you very much. I'm very sorry, but ____
The assistance of professional publicists did nothing to convince Draper of the merits of promotion. At one point, Russel Crouse, later a successful producer and playwright (he and partner Howard Lindsay shared a Pulitzer in 1945 for their play State of the Union), was hired as her New York press agent. After her death, he commented, "She did not want any publicity, refused to see me half the time, and everything I did to help her sell out, which she did, I did in spite of her." She didn't require what is now thought of as conventional promotion. A small notice in a London paper announcing the start of one of her regular runs there would lead to the almost immediate appearance of a "Sold Out" sign at the theater's box office. She saw no reason to discuss her personal life, and in refusing to allow the publicity machine to kick in on her behalf—unusual for an artist in her time, unthinkable in today's publicity-obsessed media world—she contained her celebrity. It was exactly as large as she wanted it to be. Whatever buzz existed on Draper was generated by reviews of her performances, and through audience word of mouth. Draper felt that her work spoke for itself, and nothing more needed to be said.
Dorothy Warren, Draper's biographer, attributes the actress's avoidance of the press to good breeding. "In Ruth Draper's world," said Warren, "and in mine as a descendant of it, we couldn't participate in this Oprah Winfrey kind of thing." Warren, who died in 2008 at the age of 103, notes that in her own youth, and in Draper's time, a woman's name was in the newspaper twice: when she was married, and at the time of her death. According to Warren, Draper knew that a certain amount of attention accompanied a career in the theater, but she sought nothing beyond what was absolutely essential, and had no interest whatsoever in discussing her life outside her work. Simon Callow, the British actor, writer and director—and a longtime admirer of Draper's art—speculates that in refusing to speak about her personal life, Draper was protecting her work as well; if audiences had been familiar with the details of Draper's life, it might have impacted their appreciation of her monodramas.
Draper's chary attitude about the press can also be linked to her high standards for language, both written and spoken. To read an article in which she was quoted as using ungrammatical language or expressions that were not a part of her personal lexicon disgusted her. For someone as meticulous as she was in capturing the nuances and cadences of a character's spoken expressions, her reaction is not surprising. She once clipped out and sent to one of her sisters a newspaper article about an event honoring her, at which she was quoted as saying, "My family get so mad at me because I never get around to getting anything new." She drew an arrow from the quote and commented in the paper's margin: "It is so amazing to be misquoted in the writer's language! Never would I say 'mad at me' or 'getting around.'" Of the reporter, she added, "pretty but silly young woman. Bryn Mawr. Ought to know better!"
Despite Draper's disregard for a certain type of journalist, the press throughout her career was in her thrall as intensely as was her audience, and it is difficult to find a negative review of a Draper performance.
From the beginning—her professional debut on January 29, 1920, at London's Aeolian Hall—Draper received almost universally rave notices, and continued to do so until the end. After her first official theatrical performance, The Observer noted, "Miss Draper sees intensely, understands piercingly, and can express cleanly ... At the bottom of it all lies sympathy. She can jest because she understands." About the same performance, The Times of London wrote that Draper's "observation is almost wickedly keen, her expression of it as pointed and polished till it is as clear and bright as it is a diamond."
During the years that followed, typical headlines included:
Dublin: RUTH DRAPER'S TRIUMPH--HUNDREDS UNABLE TO GET INTO THE ABBEY
Liverpool: A BRILLIANT WOMAN OF MANY PARTS
Cape Town: NO SUPERLATIVES LEFT TO DESCRIBE RUTH DRAPER
Montreal: RUTH DRAPER PORTRAYALS VERGE ON MIRACULOUS
One early review in London declared that Draper was not an actress. "For the art of the actress is interpretation," explained W.A. Darlington in The Daily Telegraph, "Miss Draper's is creative....She is a short-story writer who by the grace of God is able to employ herself as a medium of expression instead of a pen."
Draper also received warm notices from such American critics as Alexander Woollcott, who wrote for The New York Times and The New Yorker and who lunched and quipped at the Algonquin's Round Table, and Brooks Atkinson, also of The New York Times, who in 1929 wrote of Draper's gifts: "It is an inscrutable art. For all art that travels the full range of emotions from comedy to tragedy, carrying truth on its back, is not to be presumptuously explained."
As late as 1988, Draper was still being lauded by critics. In The Times of London, Bernard Levin, his memory jogged by an "On This Day in History" notice in which Draper was mentioned, declared that "the magic of [Draper's] genius can never be reconstructed for those who did not see her, and will never be forgotten, until they die, by those who did."
The most effusive praise for Draper came from her fans, many of whom wrote to her after seeing her perform. Some of Draper's correspondents were famous—her scrapbooks contain complimentary mail from A.A. Milne, Noel Coward, England's Queen Mary, Helen Keller, Laurence Olivier, Eddie Cantor and David O. Selznick, among many others. Some of the letters contain poems as well, as though mere prose was not sufficient to express an appreciation of Draper's "inscrutable art."
One such poem, from a writer who was also a fan, appeared in Punch in 1927:
"Babe Ruth" the pitcher leaves me cold,
Though featured in my picture paper,
Another Ruth takes stronger hold,
Most entertainers who unbend
Distress or make me hot all over;
But you can keep me hours on end
Mistress of many tongues, you shine
In satire, pathos, wit and bonhomie,
Yet practise in your own "words" a fine
Your going casts us into gloom
And yet we feel less sad and sober
Since you were able to illume
So Punch, though loathe from you to part,
Cuts this admiring doggerel caper
In homage to your perfect art,
---- Susan Mulcahy