On the afternoon of January 29, 1920, a small dark haired woman stood in the wings of London’s Aeolian Hall. She wore a simple dress, her shoulders draped with a shawl. The stage before her was bare, without scenery or props. As the house lights faded to darkness, she took a breath and stepped purposefully into the light onstage. For the next two hours, she held her audience enthralled with a solo performance during which she portrayed half a dozen different characters and, to interact with them, evoked the presence of many more.
The following day, The Times of London wrote: “She kept the audience smiling and laughing, now and then feeling a little lump in the throat. Her observation is almost wickedly keen, her expression of it is pointed and polished until it is as clear and bright as a diamond.”
The actress was American, the daughter of a prominent New York family. At the midpoint of her life, she was taking an enormous risk by launching a professional career in the theatre. She was performing not the work of an established playwright, but dramatic monologues of her own devising. She had booked the theatre herself. Her name was Ruth Draper and the path upon which she embarked as she stepped onto its stage that afternoon was to lead her around the world and into the hearts of audiences everywhere.
Though Ruth Draper’s professional career began when she was in her mid-thirties, she began her work as an artist much earlier in life. Her parents, whose roots extended far back into New England’s puritan past, were William Henry Draper, an eminent physician, and Ruth Dana. Ruth, born in New York in 1884, was the fifth of their six children and received the sort of upbringing expected for a young lady of her social and economic class. It was a world in which men worked, and women performed good works; a world run with studied benevolence by the descendants of America’s earliest settlers who provided employment for the country’s more recent immigrants. It was a world in which art was appreciated and valued but rarely practiced professionally by members of the upper class.
The young Ruth Draper was comfortable in the milieu in which she was raised. But there was early evidence that she possessed an ability to detach herself from her immediate environment, to observe dispassionately, but with compassion, both the absurdity and pathos of the human condition. Her biographer, Dorothy Warren writes:
“As a child, Ruth’s individual qualities were early recognized even by her brothers and sisters. Delicate and forlorn looking with great brown eyes, she was somewhat apart from the four elder ones – observant, quiet, busy in her own mind. Before she was nine years of age she was ‘pretending': the little Jewish tailor who came to the house, the seamstress who also came several times a year. Both were the models for ‘another self’ in which she would spend a long afternoon, sewing, sniffling, talking to herself, complaining about the light; completely oblivious to the children’s games going on around her, she was self-sufficient in her imaginary world. In this way began the natural expression of her genius.”
Ruth Draper carried with her for the rest of her life that young child’s ability to pretend, to impersonate other people with amazing fidelity. As she matured, her ability to spin drama out of these impersonations grew as well. Soon, she was performing full monologues at family gatherings, later at private parties and charity benefits.
Word of this remarkable young woman began to spread. She was invited to perform at the White House, and in England first at various country homes and finally for royalty. Her circle of acquaintance widened to include the leading artists and intellectuals of her day. John Singer Sargent made several sketches of her. Henry James became a mentor and advisor.
When Draper booked the Aeolian Hall in 1920, she was making a commitment to earning a living through her art. It was a commitment that changed her life. Literally overnight, she went from gifted amateur to successful professional and for the next thirty-six years, she worked.
The work was the most demanding type of performance carried out under often demanding circumstances. Travel was much more difficult then than it is now but Draper played on every inhabited continent, and kept to a schedule that today’s theatrical unions would never permit. Here is her itinerary for the first eight months of 1938:
January 15-17, Colombo, Ceylon
January 26, Madras, India
January 31, Bombay
February 2, Bombay
February 10, New Delhi
February 12, New Delhi
February 21-24, Calcutta
March 2, Rangoon, Burma
March 5-6, Maymo, Burma
March 11, Bangkok, Thailand
March 17, Penang, Malaya
March 21-24, Singapore
March 29-31, Kunstring, Java
April 2, Kunstring, Java
April 21-27, Brisbane, Australia
April 30-May 13, Sydney
May 14, Newcastle
May 17-June 16, Melbourne
July 6, Adelaide
July 14-26, Sydney
August 5, Wellington, New Zealand
August 6-10, Christchurch
August 11, Duneden, Africa
August 15-20, Auckland
August 25, Suva, Fijii Islands
Draper returned home after this tour on September 8, arriving at Newark Airport via Pago-Pago, Honolulu, Los Angeles and Albuquerque.
Draper maintained this kind of schedule to the end of her life. During World War II she entertained troops and performed many benefits in support of the war effort.
As the decade of the 1940’s came to a close, profound changes occurred in the entertainment business within which Ruth Draper existed as a cottage industry. With the rise of television in America, fewer people attended the theatre, and Draper’s audiences began to dwindle. Her English fans, however, remained steadfast and through the promotional efforts of Charles Bowden and Richard Barr, who became her managers in 1948, she began to develop — to her surprise — a fascinated audience of younger people in America. She continued to play both in legitimate theatres (where union rules and high costs depressed her profits) and on the concert circuit.
In 1954, at age 70, she gave what was billed as her farewell performance at the Vanderbilt Theatre on Broadway but was soon persuaded by the response of the audience as well as the protests of admirers like Maurice Chevalier and Fred Keating to return to the stage.
In 1956, on Christmas night, Ruth Draper began a four week engagement at the Playhouse Theatre. Four days later, on Saturday, December 29, she did two shows, matinee and evening performances. She was tired and had, for some time been suffering from a heart condition which she had concealed from her friends and family. After the evening performance, she asked her driver to take her past the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza. She died peacefully in her sleep that night at the age of 72.