Thursday, June 12, 2014

In Memoriam: Ruby Dee, 1922-2014

She signed on even though she would not have the ingenue role of Walter Lee's sister that she desired; Diana Sands got the part, while Claudia McNeil portrayed his mother. Instead, Ms. Dee would play his wife, Ruth: "Another one of those put-upon wives. And they always seemed to be named Ruth!'' But, she added: ''I dusted off my disappointment. This was very important. It was going to be a Broadway show.''
— Michael Anderson talks to Ruby Dee about the original 1959 Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, New York Times, March 7, 1999

Dee made her film debut with [Ossie] Davis in No Way Out in 1950 and the same year played baseball player Jackie Robinson’s wife in The Jackie Robinson Story. She was the good, uncomplaining wife to Sidney Poitier again in Edge of the City and to Nat King Cole as W.C. Handy in St. Louis Blues (1958). She was cast in this kind of role so often that she was dubbed the “Negro June Allyson,” after a contemporary white film star who played similar “good girl” parts.
African Americans in the Performing Arts, by Steve Otfinoski. Above, Dee with Nat King Cole.

"Freedom isn't a thing you should be able to give me, Miss Ginny. Freedom is something I should have been born with."
— Ruby Dee in The Tall Target (1951)

"I usually played good-girl wives and mothers. And truthfully those good-girl roles were stretches."
— Ruby Dee in Backstage, March 9, 2001, explaining why she liked her roles in The Balcony and as Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night

"The thing that fascinated me about her and her work was that in the really dramatic moments, it was as if her body had difficulty containing the emotions. That's the best compliment I could pay anybody who worked at this craft. We all hit a point in life at which we are unable to hide what we feel: Those emotions have either gotten away or are about to get away. Well, with her, she had control, but it was as if the control existed at the very edge of chaos. That's Ruby Dee."
— Sidney Poitier, who directed Dee in Buck and the Preacher; quoted in the Hollywood Reporter in 2001. Above, Dee with John Cassavetes and Kathleen Maguire in Edge of the City (1957), in which she played opposite Poitier.

"Dear Ossie, When I think of you, let there be silence and no writing at all. Ruby."
— Inscription on a photo she gave him during their courtship; they married in 1948

“In doing it our way, we didn’t have to sell more of ourselves than we could get back before the sun went down.”
— Ossie Davis on a lifetime’s shared career with Ruby Dee. Above, Martin Luther King Jr. visits the set of the stage production of Purlie Victorious, 1961.

“We've got to trust it and go wherever it takes us. Especially women. We women have a great function to perform. The world needs us. Feminine sensibilities are not being acknowledged, and we've allowed the anti-people to steal the children and are tolerating far too much: the assault on ourselves, the families of the world, permitting war and rape. More women are becoming enraged about these things and I think we're on the verge of doing something about them... We have to bring forward the graces in life and make them real. We have to institute democracy, which is still mostly an aspiration, and universal love, which is still unrealized. I dream of getting prisons off the stock exchange. It is a dastardly crime and an insult to the word democracy to make a commodity of jailing people.”
— Interview with Essence magazine in 2005, shortly after Davis’ death. Above, a protest over the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, 1999; Dee is in the lower right-hand corner. She and Davis were arrested that day.

"Cremation after a public ceremony, and then into an urn. A special urn, large enough and comfortable enough to hold both our ashes. Whoever goes first will wait for the other. When we are united at last, we want the family to say goodbye and seal the urn forever. Then on the side, in letters not too bold — but not too modest either — we want the following inscription: 'Ruby and Ossie — In This Thing Together.'"
— from In This Life Together, by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee

“We keep going upward. But the ascent is jagged. Up a little, then back, then up some more. But, all in all, upward. We're going to come into our glory as a species. When someone challenges my optimism, I remember a line from Lorraine Hansberry, I think it's from her play The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. It goes, 'Why do you despairing ones think that only you know the truth?' ”
— from a 1996 interview with Joe Adcock in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Some Memories of Maurice Sendak

(When Maurice Sendak died, I wrote this small essay, and then I held it back. It's been two years now, and today would have been his 86th birthday. Somehow, it felt like it's time now. Happy birthday, Mr. Sendak.)

Maurice Sendak, the great illustrator and author, was represented by a literary agent I worked for years ago. The agency placed a large value on politeness in dealing with publishers and authors, and its top client's influence had something to do with that. Sendak had a tart wit and a low tolerance for foolishness, but when it came to the people who were working for him, he never had a diva-ish moment. He was, to use a sarcastic phrase in a sincere way, good to the little people. And people just don't come much littler than a young woman calling you to ask if a school may do a staged reading of Where the Wild Things Are.

That, of course, was me. I was not used to substantive conversations with legends. The first time I called him, I was so intimidated that not only did my voice shake, but my hand holding the phone shook too, and when I cradled the receiver to my ear I discovered my chin had a slight tremor as well. I introduced myself and rattled off whatever the permission request was — I do believe it actually was a staged reading, come to think of it — and he sighed and said something like "Oh, all right. It's a school."

That was it. I put down the phone and reflected that the mighty Maurice Sendak was, in fact, one of the least scary people I had ever dealt with in publishing.

Over time I came to enjoy my calls to him. Schools, libraries and the like seldom got a bad reaction from Sendak, although he did have an intense and understandable dislike of people re-drawing his illustrations. People wanting to use his books free of charge for a profit-based motive usually got a different reaction. This was, in a phrase I adopted and use constantly: "Tell them to fuck off. [pause] But — say it nicely."

I do remember that one time when I called and read him a letter from a school or library that described the Wild Things as "horrifying," he sounded a bit indignant, almost hurt. When I got off the phone, a coworker laughed and said, "No wonder. They're based on his relatives."

The one in our office who came to have a real friendship with Sendak was Beth, now better known as the author Elizabeth Cody Kimmel. She would call and her laughter would vibrate all over the office, and then she'd recap the conversation for the rest of us. The topics could range from Schubert and Keats, for whom they both had a deep love, to politics, to showbiz gossip. She went to Europe and brought back a death mask of Keats as a gift for him; she told me that later Sendak amused himself by hiding it under the bedcovers of a startled houseguest.

One day Beth called to tell Maurice that a symphony orchestra wanted to do a children's program that set Wild Things to classical music, an idea that would ordinarily appeal enormously to him. My desk was behind Beth's, and I listened in as she read off the pieces to be used. I don't remember the first two, but when she got to the arrival on the island, she said, "Thus Spake Zarathustra, Richard Strauss" — and I noticed that she had pulled the phone back slightly from her ear, as she listened to Sendak's opinion of Richard Strauss. I believe she said he began with "That NAZI!! You tell them..." and from there the phrasing became, shall we say, quite hostile. The symphony did stage the reading in the end, as I recall, but most emphatically not with Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Another time, a Certain Newspaper had decided to do a Style Piece focused on Mornings With Famous People, and Beth had to call and ask what Maurice woke up to in the morning. "A bursting bladder," he replied, thought for a moment, and added, "And a drooling dog. I don't think I want either of those things publicized. Tell them..." And she did, and she said it nicely.

He treasured his status as a curmudgeon, that's for sure. Beth one time was burbling to him about how much she loved Christmas, and his response was, "Of course you do. It's you Gentiles who make it such a chore for the rest of us." But his tone was always funny, never cruel or snappish. When Beth published her first book, he sent her a drawing of a pig in a tutu, with the inscription, "Mazel tov!"

One of Sendak's best friends was James Marshall, the gifted creator of the immortal George and Martha, who entertain my own children to this day. Marshall was also represented by the agency, and when he died, we went to the memorial service. Sendak got up to speak, and began to tell an anecdote about a friend he and Marshall both knew. He reached a part saying, " we are comforted," and stopped. Overcome with grief, he left the podium.

I will always treasure my glimpses of Maurice Sendak, a genius, a curmudgeon, and a deeply kind man.