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Ruth Page No. 01 [March 18, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0543
Run Time
0h 19m 52s
Date Produced
March 18 1985
Q: Not that it's necessarily the place to begin, and it's sort of boring at the beginning, but just for this one interview, I thought we might start out today talking a little bit about your childhood and your family and Indianapolis, Indiana, and your mother and father, who seem to be fascinating and interesting people. Tell me a little bit about your father.
A: Well, I was never very, very close to my father. He was sort of, I don't know . . . . He was very handsome. We were with our mother all the time. My father didn't like to be bothered with children. And I remember he was always writing articles for the Gentlemen's Literary Club. I remember as a child always hearing, "Be quiet! Your father's writing a paper for the Gentlemen's Literary Club." I never saw any of those papers. But anyway, that's what he did. And he didn't like stupid conversation. He said if we wanted to say something in the morning, we could talk, but if we didn't say something interesting, don't talk at all. So we started learning poems and reciting poems for him every morning.
Q: At breakfast?
A: At breakfast. So, every morning we'd come down with a different poem to recite for father, and that pleased him very much. He liked that for breakfast. Poems for breakfast! So, to this day, I feel like reciting poems for breakfast. It's an odd idea, but that's what he did.
     And then we used to go down to Hyannisport in the summer. We had a cottage down there. And he never went to the beach with us. Mother always took us to the beach. And he was glad to get rid of us, I can imagine. He liked to stay at home and read. He was a very literary person.
Q: James Whitcomb Riley was a friend of yours or a friend of your father?
A: He was a friend of my father. Yes. And I remember he lived in Indianapolis, and I would go down with my father to see him. He lived on a place called Lockerbee Street. They didn't pave it. I don't think it's paved to this day. That's where James Whitcomb Riley lived. I don't remember very much about him, but he was a great, great friend of my father's. They met each other at the drug store, of all places. And my father would have a piece of pie every day and apparently James Whitcomb Riley would, too. Finally, James Whitcomb Riley said to him, "Well, I see my friend, you like pie!" And that was the beginning of their friendship. They were friends for a long, long time.
     Then I remember my father took me all over the state with him trying to raise money for the James Whitcomb Riley Children's Hospital. He started the first modern children's hospital in the United States, I think. And I remember his argument was, "Well, if you'll give me money for this children's hospital, then you won't have to spend money on the old people. If they're taken care of properly when they're children, then they won't have any problems with the old people." Which I think sounds very intelligent. So that's how he got the money for the James Whitcomb Riley Children's Hospital.
     What else do I remember about my father? Nothing special.
Q: He was the youngest of twelve children.
A: That's right. Imagine!
Q: Were you close to other children in your father's family? I mean, did you see very much of them?
A: No. We never saw any of them. I don't know where they are. But he was named Lafayette. And my brother was named Lafayette, [but he said,] "I won't be called Lafayette. It's too fancy a name. Boys will make fun of me at school." So that was the last of old Lafayette. They'd call him "Lafe" and he didn't like that. So that was the last of the Lafayettes [sic]. They called my father "Fayette," I remember -- Fayette. It was a strange name.
     And he was born in Virginia, but he moved up to Kentucky. And then from Kentucky, he moved up to Indianapolis. I don't know how he happened to come there, but we used to go down and visit in Kentucky where he used to go. That was kind of fun for us children because it was a farm. Sort of a farm. And we each had a pony to take care of. So, I remember going to Kentucky a lot to this farm where we had ponies. Mine was named Lee. And I had a lovely time with Lee. We used to have to clean them, and ride on them, and feed them and everything. It was sort of fun. I loved it.
Q: Now. You have two brothers. You're a middle child.
A: Yes.
Q: How much older than you is your brother Lafayette?
A: About two years older than I am.
Q: And Irvine is?
A: About two years younger. A year -- a little over a year younger than me.
Q: Did you play a lot together, the three of you?
A: Yes. I should say we did! We used to love to dance.
Q: The three of you used to dance?
A: Yes. No. Especially with Lafayette. Irvine didn't dance much. He was more serious. But Lafayette and I used to dance all the time. We did all the latest dances. We always knew, oh, whatever they were. We always learned all the latest dances, and we would tango and Charleston [sic]. We adored that.
     My younger brother was more serious. I remember one time when he was having his portrait painted. Mother and I thought we were trying to keep him amused, you know, so he'd sit still. And we kept talking and trying our best to entertain my little brother, and finally he said, "Oh, can't we just sit still and think!" I thought that was cute. He was a very original person from the beginning. We were always scared to death that his room would blow up, because he had microscopes in there with all kinds of strange specimens and stuff that he was always looking at. And we were not allowed to go into his room -- ever!
Q: So, now he's a doctor?
A: Yes. He's a very famous one. He's much more famous than I am. He's a heart specialist. He's had his picture on Time Magazine's cover, and he's written a lot of books, too. He's just finished one. I asked him if he'd send it to me, and he said, "No, I won't send it to you, because you wouldn't understand a word of it!" So, I said, "All right." There's one of them around here some place, one of his earlier ones. It's perfectly comprehensible. He writes a lot. He still lives down in Hyannisport. He started the Cleveland Clinic.
Q: Oh, the famous Cleveland Clinic.
A: Yes.
Q: I didn't realize that was started by your brother.
A: Yes, and apparently it's still a marvelous clinic. He says it's still marvelous.
Q: Oh, yes.
A: Have you ever been there?
Q: No, but I've certainly read about it.
A: Yes. It's supposed to be marvelous.
Q: And your father was a doctor.
A: Yes.
Q: Were his offices in your home?
A: No.
Q: No. He had separate offices?
A: He was a nose, throat and ear specialist. Yes. And he invented sort of a special cure for sinus.
Q: Oh.
A: Yes. And he went to the War, whatever war that was. I guess it was -- wasn't there a war in 1914, or something?
Q: Yes.
A: He went off to that war and they used his [invention]; it was some kind of trachlear. They put it in your throat to cure sinuses. I'm very vague about it, because I really didn't know much about it. I never had sinus trouble [sic].
Q: And then, about your mother. Your mother and father met in Germany. In Leipzig.
A: Yes. They met in Leipzig. Mother was studying music there. She came from a little town either in Indiana or Illinois. Terre Haute. Where is that, Indiana?
Q: Indiana.
A: She came from there. Her father was German, and her mother was French. Her mother died, and he married somebody else, and they didn't get along. So her father sent her to Germany to study music and so she was there for five years. Didn't come home at all. And that's where she met my father, and they got married in Switzerland.
Q: Yes. But she was very young when she left home.
A: I guess so.
Q: Perhaps something like 17, I think I read. Very young. Yes. And then she met your father, who was studying medicine there.
A: I don't know what he was doing. He was just wandering around Leipzig, I guess. I don't know what he was doing.
Q: One of the books I read said that he'd gone there to study medicine because he'd run out of good places to study medicine in the United States. Maybe he was just running around -- I mean, you might be right!
A: I don't know. I have no idea.
Q: But it's strange [for] two people from Indiana to meet each other in Leipzig.
A: Yes, it is. Yes, it is sort of strange, now that I think of it.
Q: And then they came back.
A: Well, he brought her back to Indianapolis, and she didn't want to come to Indianapolis at all. And so she started . . . she was the one who started the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra [sic] and the Indianapolis Matinee Musicale musical organizations, you see. So that gave her something to do there. She was always playing the piano.
Q: She started them about the time that you were born. I read somewhere that you were called the "Symphony Baby."
A: That's right [sic]. I was called the "Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Baby," because she had to stay home on account of she was pregnant with me, and I was always kicking around and making her life miserable.
Q: Now she used to play the piano all the time. Every day.
A: Yes.
Q: For long periods of time?
A: Yes.
Q: Now, did anybody in your family ever learn to play a musical instrument? Any of the children? You? Either of your brothers?
A: No. Irvine used to play the ukelele, I believe. I learned a little bit of piano, but didn't go very far because my mother said my hands were too small. I was interested in dancing, [so] she said I'd better just stick to my dancing.
Q: Now, tell us about the beginning of your dancing. Can you remember?
A: You know, I can't remember. I think I came out of my mother's womb dancing. I don't think I ever learned. I just started to dance. I always wanted to dance.
Q: There are some stories about your mother playing the piano for you, for guests and your liking to dance for guests. Do you remember that?
A: Yes. I always improvised when she played the piano. I think I must have been a horrible child, because I liked to dance for people. So, I'd say to mother, "Now who's coming to dinner tonight, and can I dance for them?" And so, after dinner I would always dance, and I never knew when to stop. I'm sure it must have been horrible.
Q: What kind of dances did you do? Did you get dressed up in costumes, or did you . . .?
A: No. I just danced. I don't remember what I wore. I don't remember what I danced. I just made them up as I went along.
Q: Can you remember the first time you ever saw a ballet performed, Ruth?
A: Yes! Oh, yes! Anna Pavlova was the first one I ever saw, and of course that changed my whole life -- changed everybody's life! Whoever saw her dance, like Freddie Ashton, Agnes de Mille -- all my generation -- we were inspired by Pavlova. She was so great and so really inspiring. I can remember even now. I can see her.
Q: Tell us what you see, remembering back, the very first time you saw her dance.
A: Well, when she did The Dying Swan, it was so poetic, you know. It made everybody cry! Oh, you'd sit there and just weep. Then she did a dance called The Dragonfly. I remember that. I can't show it to you very well with my teacup but it was, [sings] "Da da da da dum da da . . . ." They were simple dances, but they were lovely. And then she did one called The Pavlova Gavotte, where she seemed so elegant. She was all dressed in yellow, sort of a high Directoire costume with a train, and she did it with a partner, and she was just the last word in elegance, you know. And then she did a Bacchanale, which was very extraordinary. She came in with her partner. Mother saw her with Mordkin -- he was already gone by the time I got to see her -- and they came in holding a scarf [sings Glazounov] "Da dee da, da dee dada dee da. . . . " And she was very exciting. Everything she did was exciting, you know. There's never been a dancer like her, before or since. I don't think.
Q: And you were how old, the first time you saw her?
A: I think I was about 15.
Q: And you were by that time seriously considering dancing as a career for yourself?
A: Oh, I never considered anything; I just did whatever I did. I don't know when I started considering it as a career. I never thought of it as a career. I just did what I had to do.
Q: Okay. So, you're 15 years old . . .
A: I think so.
Q: . . . and you're going to high school in Indianapolis . . .
A: We went to Tudor Hall in Indianapolis.
Q: . . . which was an independent, private school. And you had a little friend named Eleanor Shaler, with whom you used to dance.
A: Yes.
Q: Right? Tell us about Eleanor.
A: Oh, she was just a little friend of mine. We used to like to dance and we made up all our dances. I remember we did a barefoot dance. There was Vice-President Fairbanks at that time, who lived in Indianapolis, and he gave a party. And she and I danced on the lawn in our bare feet, and our pictures were in the paper, and it was considered so shocking for these two little girls to be dancing barefoot! Wasn't that shocking! And, oh, our families were furious with us. You didn't like to have your picture in the paper in those days. It was considered, oh, very mauvais gout to have your picture in the paper. And so I remember that with Eleanor. And then she didn't dance much longer [sic]. I don't know what happened to Eleanor. I've no idea.
Q: Okay. Back again to the first time you saw Pavlova dance. Do you, as you remember it, really think that there was this sense of electricity that everyone in the audience sitting there felt?
A: Yes.
Q: Everyone?
A: Everyone.
Q: Not just you?
A: No, no, not just me, everybody. She was intoxicating. I remember, Mother saw her before I did and she said, oh, this was the most thrilling thing she'd ever seen in her life, and that if she came the next year, she'd take me to see her. So she did. But she wasn't with Mordkin anymore. I may have the years wrong. I always get dates wrong, but it was a long time ago.
Q: So, you went to see her. You're this little girl in the audience. Did you say to yourself, "I'm going to do that someday"? Did you . . . .
A: I don't know what I said to myself. I just decided I was going to dance.
Q: You just decided you were going to dance.
A: Yes, indeed. Mrs. Ona B. Talbot, who was her manager, took me backstage to meet her, and I was thrilled to death to meet her. But when she opened the door, there she was, stark naked picking her teeth. Which was a surprise for a little girl.
     But anyway, she asked me to come to Chicago and study with her that summer. So I did. I came up here, I think it was to a place called Midway Gardens -- I don't know what's happened to it -- but there was a place, I think, here called Midway Gardens, where she danced. Now I may be wrong . . . but I did come up that summer and took lessons in Chicago. Then she asked me to join the company, and so I did join the company [sic]. And Mother went with me. Then she [Mother] made me go back to school, after I'd finished that year with Pavlova.
Q: Now, wait a minute. Here you are, you're a fifteen-year-old girl from Indianapolis, Indiana, raised in a very fine conservative family, from what we would call a "privileged" background. The year is 1918 [sic: 1915] . . .
A: I think so.
Q: . . . okay, or thereabouts, and you meet Pavlova and she says, "Come to Chicago and dance with me!" And everybody in this conservative family of yours says, "Okay"?
A: Yes. I guess so. I went, at any rate.
Q: No problems?
A: I didn't dance with her. I just studied with her.
Q: Well, but to just . . . .
A: I studied with the company class.
Q: And your mother came up with you?
A: Yes.
Q: And lived here?
A: Yes. I stayed all summer, and Mother stayed with me.
Q: And your mother was glad to do this, didn't mind leaving her symphony activities and things in Indianapolis?
A: No. She seemed to be glad enough. Mother was crazy about her. Mother used to come see her dance every night. So . . . .
Q: Is it from your mother . . . . You know, most little girls who were growing up, your friend Eleanor Shaler included, their mothers were probably teaching them, you know, how to be good wives, mothers, housekeepers; sew and things . . . .
Related Place
Chicago (production location of)