Ruth Elizabeth Ford, stage, film, and television actress, was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, the second child of Charles Lloyd Ford and Minnie Gertrude Cato Ford, who owned a hotel there. Ruth attended Mississippi State College for Women in Columbus during the 1920s before transferring to the University of Mississippi, where she received a bachelor’s degree in French in 1932 and a master’s degree in philosophy the following year. Ford subsequently worked as a fashion model in New York, Paris, and London, posing for well-known photographers Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, and Carl Van Vechten and appearing on the covers of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Mademoiselle.
In 1938 Ford joined Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater and made her Broadway debut in the Welles-directed revival of The Shoemaker’s Holiday. She appeared in two other Broadway productions before moving to Hollywood in 1941 and acting in Truck Buster, The Gorilla Man, Lady Gangster, and other films that led Tennessee Williams to describe her as the “Bernhardt of Grade B pictures.” After returning to New York in 1946 Ford appeared in thirteen Broadway plays, including Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, Tennessee Williams’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, and fellow Mississippian Mart Crowley’s A Breeze from the Gulf. Ford appeared in fifty films and television productions between 1941 and 1985, among them Moss Hart’s autobiographical Act One; Frederick King Keller’s homage to Ingmar Bergman, The Eyes of the Amaryllis; and the live television series Armstrong Circle Theater and Studio One.
Ford is best known for her role as Temple Drake (Mrs. Gavin Stevens) in William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, a stage adaptation of his 1931 novel, Sanctuary. Ford first met Faulkner when she was a student at the University of Mississippi in the 1930s. During a dinner at Oxford’s Tea Hound restaurant, Faulkner approached Ford and remarked that she had a “very fine face.” In the 1940s Faulkner and Ford renewed their acquaintance in Hollywood, where he was a screenwriter and she an actress at Warner Brothers. Ford allegedly requested that Faulkner write a screenplay for her, and he obliged with Requiem. Ford assisted with the adaptation and starred in the play with her husband, Zachary Scott, at the Royal Court in London in 1957 and later in New York. Although Faulkner presented Ford with the English rights to the stage version of Requiem in 1950, the production did not open in the United States until January 1959. Touted as the first play ever written for an American actress by a Nobel Prize winner, Requiem opened on Broadway at the John Golden Theater and ran for forty-three performances. In 1987 Ford revived Requiem at the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at the University of Mississippi, starring in and directing the play.
Ford married German American actor Peter van Eyck in 1940 and divorced him after the birth of their daughter, Shelley, the next year. In 1952 Ford married actor Zachary Scott, who adopted her daughter. After Scott died of a brain tumor in 1965, Ford bought an apartment in Manhattan’s historic Dakota apartment building, where her brother, poet and artist Charles Henri Ford, also lived. Ruth Ford’s art-filled apartment became a salon, and for the next forty years she was a muse to writers, artists, and musicians and hosted parties for Faulkner, Williams, Edward Albee, Truman Capote, George Balanchine, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), and other visitors from abroad, including those Charles Henri Ford knew when he was part of Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon during his youth. “If Ruth Ford had lived in another century,” lyricist-composer Stephen Sondheim said, “she would have been one of the great solonnières of all time.”
Following her brother’s death in 2002, Ruth Ford became reclusive, spending her last years in her apartment. She died in 2009.
- Joseph Leo Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography (2005)
- Dennis Hevesi, New York Times (14 August 2009)
- Internet Broadway Database website, www.ibdb.com
- Barbara Izard and Clara Hieronymus, “Requiem for a Nun”: On Stage and Off (1970)
- Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times (16 August 2009)
- Robert Simonton, Playbill (17 August 2009)
- Marion Nancy Dew Taylor, Mississippi Quarterly (Summer 1967)