Garson Kanin married Ruth Gordon in 1943 when he was a young filmmaker who’d been drafted into the army after a string of hit films, and she was a Broadway star, then appearing in the Three Sisters with Katharine Cornell. Ruth was forty-six and Garson was twenty-nine. She was having a hard time finding a follow-up project to the Chekov. Garson was confident enough and sure enough of his sight to offer her a bit of advice.
“Why don’t you write something? A good part for yourself even.”
“I don’t know how to. How do I even start?”
“Don’t worry about where it fits,” said Garson. “Just write. You can arrange things later.”
Ruth took his advice. The result was Over Twenty-One, a fast-paced comedy in which Max, a 39-year-old newspaper editor, is sweating out United States Army Air Corps training in competition with much younger recruits. Against his wishes, his novelist wife, Paula (played by Gordon in the original run), has joined him in Florida to encourage him and cheer him on. Big hit for actress and playwright.
Two years later Kanin changed “write” to “read”, and had journalist and-would-be-tutor Paul Verrall offer similar advice to prospective pupil showgirl Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday.
Paul: Tell you what you do you. Look through these. (He gives her newspapers) Anything you don’t understand, make a mark. Then, tomorrow, I’ll explain whatever I can. All right? And I thought you might like these. (he hands her several books)
Billie: I’ll try. (She put books and newspapers on top of a bookcase.)
Paul: No, don’t do that. Just start reading. if you don’t like it, stop. Start something else.
Sometimes you just need a good old-fashioned bromide or aphorism to get you started. Especially in times like today, when the whole world feels like it’s going crazy and it’s another week before we will either be feeling a bit more optimistic or will be thinking about emigrating to New Zealand. Ruth and Garson had a lot of these bromides and aphorisms.
I met Ruth in a drugstore… In Houghton Lake, Michigan… In those days, even small drugstores in small towns like Houghton Lake had a stand in the corner filled with paperback books. And that’s where I met Ruth. She introduced herself to me through the pages of her memoir Myself Among Others. The next year I came to New York, a young actor with no connections, no money – well, actually with three hundred fifty-three dollars that I made in the summer of 1974 selling discount dinette sets. For the next three years, Ruth was my constant companion. She guided me around the streets of Manhattan introducing me to friends of hers who once lived there, and showing me sights that had long disappeared from the landscape but were living and throbbing with excitement in her vivid recollections. “See over there. That’s where the Hippodrome was. They used to exercise the elephants right there between shows on matinee days.”
Her book was also full of advice and offered up the perfect aphorism for every challenge facing a young man from the prairies. “Never face the facts” became my mantra and it got me through more than one trying day, living by myself in a fifth-floor walkup with the bathtub in the kitchen. As I sit here writing this letter today, I have the book sitting next to me on the lamp table. It’s not my original copy which I read until it fell apart and still have somewhere. It’s not my second copy which I gave away in a fit of generosity in 1980. And there probably were several others scattered here and there. This one I picked up in Mexico in a secondhand bookshop the year Barbara, Mac, and I spent Christmas on Isla Mujeres.
I also have a signed photo of Ruth on the living room wall in Brooklyn. “To Jim, who likes my books and Harold and Maude.” My friend Susan Oakey had written Ruth asking if she could send me a signed photo because good old Susan knew how much the book and Ruth meant to me. And that when I went to Ruth’s book signing for her second book which was at the old Brentano’s on Fifth Ave, the line was so long I couldn’t get in. She also enclosed stamps and some money for the cost of the envelope. A few days later the picture appeared in my mailbox along with the stamps, the envelope money (did I ever return it to Susan?), and an invitation to come by her apartment on 59th St, I think, so she could sign my book for me. Which I did.
I have other friends in print that I find myself turning to at different times, perhaps you do too. But Ruth remains the best for those times when it feels that gigantic new problems are jumping out of the bushes by the hour, when yesterday’s moment of urgency is shoved aside by today’s crisis, except by the people who keep insisting that yesterday’s is still the most urgent. And the weight of these competing crises sits precariously on your chest as one of Merle Travis’s sixteen tons. You get up early and go to bed late, but it seems the work keeps piling up. You know intellectually that your life compared to so many people ranges from good to amazing. But it feels like the other shoe is always about to drop, that things aren‘t getting resolved.
So, let me take you back to Ruth one last time.
“When you’re having a really bad day, think of five days you’ve lived through before that were worse.” See, you’ve been in worse places and you made it through those. Now if, after reflection, today is still the worst. Remember this. You made it through those five other really bad ones. They gave you a lot of experiences to deal with today. A day when Amy Comey Barrett just got sworn in and the whole world seems like it’s going crazy.