Ruth Hussey

Sophisticated Forties supporting actress

Ruth Carol Hussey, actress: born Providence, Rhode Island 30 October 1911; married 1942 Bob Longenecker (died 2002; two sons, one daughter); died Thousand Oaks, California 19 April 2005.

An elegant, sophisticated brunette actress at her best playing composed ladies with a cool wit, Ruth Hussey is best remembered for two screen roles - as the wise-cracking photographer covering a society wedding in The Philadelphia Story (1940, for which she received an Oscar nomination) and the down-to-earth sister of a composer in the classic tale of the supernatural The Uninvited (1944). She also had a great personal success on the Broadway stage in the political comedy State of the Union (1945).

She was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1911, the daughter of George Hussey, president of the Baird-North Company, the firm of gold and silversmiths founded by his father - a descendant of Christopher Hussey, one of the first settlers in Hampton, New Hampshire, in 1632 and co-proprietor of Nantucket Island. George Hussey died in the flu epidemic of 1918, when he was only 34 and Ruth was seven. She attended Pembroke Women's College at Brown University, graduating with a degree in philosophy, before training for the stage at the Michigan School of Drama. She worked first as a fashion commentator on local radio, then became one of the famous Power models in New York.

Stage appearances in touring shows including The Old Maid and Dead End led to a film contract with MGM in 1937, and she made her screen début in The Big City (1937). After nearly 20 minor parts in such films as Judge Hardy's Children (1938), Marie Antoinette (1938), Another Thin Man (1939) and The Women (1939), she was awarded more prominent roles in 1940:

I got the decade off to an auspicious start appearing as a Long Island socialite with Joan Crawford, Fredric March and Rita Hayworth in Susan and God, under George Cukor's direction. It was pure joy - Joan was very nice, a hard worker and so dedicated. Rita Hayworth was sweet, too, so quiet and shy then. George Cukor also directed my next film, The Philadelphia Story, which happens to be my favourite.

Hussey and James Stewart played the blasé reporters for Spy magazine, assigned to cover the society wedding of Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn), an affair disrupted by the arrival of Lord's ex-husband (Cary Grant). (Shirley Booth had originated Hussey's role on stage, and Celeste Holm played the part in the later musical version, High Society.) Hussey's engaging display of wry sarcasm (wandering through Hepburn's cavernous mansion, she asks, "What is this room? I've forgotten my compass") was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but lost to Jane Darwell's Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Many years later Hussey commented on the classic status of The Philadelphia Story:

The cast and director, of course, have something to do with its durability, but I think everything starts with the writing. Philip Barry wrote the play and Donald Ogden Stewart the screenplay; they knew what they were doing.

MGM next cast her as Robert Taylor's leading lady in Flight Command (1940), and as the aloof society wife of Robert Young in H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), but a freequently noted superficial resemblance to Myrna Loy precluded her being offered prime roles. (It was often maintained that MGM signed her as a threat to keep their top stars, Loy and Norma Shearer, in line.) "I'll probably never be a star," she knowingly stated in 1941, "but it's an interesting way to earn a living and I like it."

After playing the wife of Andrew Johnson, the 17th President of the United States (played by Van Heflin) in Tennessee Johnson (1942), she left MGM to freelance. Later in 1942 she married radio producer and talent agent C. Robert Longenecker. They were to have three children and the marriage endured until Longenecker's death in 2002.

In Tender Comrade (1943), with Ginger Rogers and Kim Hunter, Hussey played a wartime wife who is briefly unfaithful. Hunter said,

Ginger was a joy to work with, but no one was ever unaware that she was the star. For her close-ups, they had pink gel put on all the lights. One day, Ruth Hussey came in with a flashlight that had a pink gel on it. "Not to be outdone," she said. Everybody roared.

In 1944 Hussey starred with Ray Milland and Gail Russell in Lewis Allen's The Uninvited for Paramount. Based on Dorothy Macardle's 1941 novel Uneasy Freehold, it is one of Hollywood's most eerily effective tales of the supernatural, featuring Hussey and Ray Milland as siblings who buy a remote house on the Cornish coast which turns out to be haunted by two ghosts. Hussey followed this with the female lead in the war film Marine Raiders (1944), then accepted an offer to make her Broadway début opposite Ralph Bellamy in Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse's satire State of the Union. It had been inspired by the actress Helen Hayes's asking Lindsay and Crouse to write a play based on the career of Wendell Wilkie, but she turned down the final piece as "too political".

Critics lauded Hussey's warm and witty portrayal of the cynical, forthright wife of an aeroplane manufacturer and presidential candidate. With her husband's integrity withering, she breaks her vow to be discreet at a political party when she has too much to drink and says, "Personally, I'd rather be tight than President", prompting her husband to forfeit his nomination and fight for his ideals outside office. Lines in the play were changed regularly to keep it up to date, and a new newspaper headline was read each night to reflect an actual incident from the day. State of the Union ran for two years and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Ironically, when filmed by MGM, Katharine Hepburn played the Hussey role, while Hussey toured in The Philadelphia Story, playing Tracy Lord.

On screen she played the athlete Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby (1949), a creditable attempt to film F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel starring Alan Ladd ("a very serious, quiet young man"), then returned to Broadway to take over from Madeleine Carroll as a congresswoman who rekindles an old affair in the comedy Goodbye My Fancy.

An actress who looked most comfortable in sharply tailored clothes or fur coats, she had her last major screen role, aptly, in the comedy The Lady Wants Mink (1953). In 1955 she won an Emmy nomination for the title role in Craig's Wife, and she was Bob Hope's wife in the beguiling screen comedy about middle-aged adultery The Facts of Life (1960). Television was to reunite her with two of her former MGM co-stars - James Stewart on The Jimmy Stewart Show, and Robert Young in Marcus Welby, M.D. - but she devoted most of her time to her family. "I just faded out of sight, I guess," she said. "I probably didn't seek work, but producers didn't seek me."

She painted watercolours, and designed a round, three-storey house as the family's weekend retreat at Lake Arrowhead. Her son John described it as

a unique design based on clock-face mathematics. My mom enjoyed sketching floor plans for years, and we were all thrilled when she was able to make her architectural talent a reality.

Tom Vallance