In May 1965, Hedda Hopper excitedly reported that “a red letter day” was at hand: Katharine Hepburn had expressed interest in working on the film of Ruth Gordon’s then soon-to-open play A Very Rich Woman, which Hepburn apparently found “delightful.” Though Katharine Hepburn is still a household name, there are few contexts in which Ruth Gordon’s name could be casually dropped and spark the recognition that Hedda Hopper clearly took for granted in her column. Ruth Gordon is inseparable from A Very Rich Woman, first as its writer and star; and second, because the reception of the original production cannot be separated from her reputation.
Born in 1896, Ruth Gordon made her stage debut in 1912 in a revival of Peter Pan. From there, she embarked on a career which bounced readily between Broadway and Hollywood. She was nominated for three screenwriting Oscars, including her work co-authoring the screenplay for Adam’s Rib. She also received a supporting actress nod for her role as neighbor Minnie Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby. Back on the East Coast, she was nominated for best actress for her performance as Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker. A Very Rich Woman was Gordon’s fourth and final play to be produced on Broadway.
The play itself is a translation and adaptation of Philippe Hériat’s French comedy Les Joies de la famille, or “the joys of family,” a title which hints at a sarcastic tone largely absent from Gordon’s version. Gordon sets the play in Boston, where the fabulously wealthy widow Mrs. Lord celebrates her riches with giant yachts, Boudin paintings, and Chanel suits. Mrs. Lord’s greedy daughters are growing concerned that their inheritance will be spent before they can receive it, and therefore launch a scheme to have their mother declared mentally incompetent so they and their husbands can take control of her financial affairs. As biological families splinter, old friendships and new partnerships propose a different kind of family—and a different kind of old age than that usually depicted onstage. Though contemporary critics all noted the similarities to a certain Shakespearean tragedy, and Mrs. Lord at one point refers to her daughters as “the Misses Lear,” A Very Rich Woman could hardly have less in common with King Lear’s vision of old age as a maelstrom of betrayal and isolation. Indeed, even in Mrs. Lord’s lowest moments, she manages to inspire loyalty and affection in others, and is never forced to go for long without shows of support and love from friends new and old.
The reunion of old friends and colleagues was a subject of fascination for the press when A Very Rich Woman opened: Gordon’s director was her husband of over twenty years, Garson Kanin. Her co-stars were fellow veterans of the comic stage Madge Kennedy, who was returning to Broadway after a thirty-three-year absence from the theater, and Ernest Truex, in what would turn out to be his final Broadway performance. Few critics could resist marveling at such a large and venerable group of senior actors appearing in one play, and the reviews were sure to nod respectfully to the skills of the players, even as they expressed disappointment with what most perceived as a thinly plotted and tonally confusing script. But, in lodging these complaints, it may be that the critics of the day were missing the point.
The 1965 Playbill cover for A Very Rich Woman is a photograph from the show, and it does not depict Mrs. Lord and her unctuous daughters, or the dashing young Alex, or anything else that hints at the plot or its darker edges. Instead, it is a thoroughly charming picture of Mrs. Lord and her two dearest friends, Mrs. Minot and Oliver Sears. Arms linked, legs lifted in mid-jig, all three beam delightedly at the camera. The joyful, carefree tone of the photograph perfectly mirrors that of some of the most delightful sections of the play, when Mrs. Lord, Mrs. Minot, and Oliver banter a style which would perhaps be more familiar in the mouths of younger comic heroes and heroines. The comic grandparent is a very recognizable comic figure— think Grandpa Vanderhof in Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You, or most roles in actress Betty White’s recent oeuvre— but one whose humor is derived in large part from their uniqueness within their particular dramatic context: a single elderly voice among a chorus of their children and grandchildren. Gordon takes what is traditionally a solo act and turns it into a duet, a trio, and even a quartet as Mrs. Lord is joined onstage by more of her friends and comical employees. Mrs. Minot gets to undergo a dramatic, glamorous make-over between act one and act three, and though there is a surprise romance, it is not giving away too much to say that Mrs. Lord’s sweet young granddaughter Daphne does not play the inamorata. As playwright and actress in A Very Rich Woman, Ruth Gordon engages in a quietly radical reclamation of the meatiest dramatic bits, those usually reserved for actresses below middle age. Through Mrs. Lord and her comrades, Gordon insists that being seventy-five does not mean that an actress must relinquish her right to play a character who is clever, and fragile, and charismatic, and perhaps most subversively, sexually attractive (though considering that one of Gordon’s most famous film roles is as the elderly lover of a twenty-year-old in Harold and Maude, this makes perfect sense).
In spite of the tepid reviews, A Very Rich Woman was adapted into a film, which is called Rosie! and stars Rosalind Russell and Sandra Dee. It was fairly well received by critics, but proved unpopular and has never been released to video or DVD. One cannot help but wonder what the fate of A Very Rich Woman would have been if, as Hedda Hopper delightedly predicted, Katharine Hepburn had produced the film after all. The play has faded almost entirely into obscurity, and few know that the writer of Adam’s Rib or the creepy neighbor in Rosemary’s Baby ever wrote for the stage at all. But A Very Rich Woman’s charming humor and perhaps uniquely warm and hopeful depiction of old age render it more than worthy of renewed attention. As male actors grow older, roles grow richer: for actresses, the pattern is more often, unfortunately, the opposite. Had Katharine Hepburn taken to the screen as Mrs. Lord (Rosie, not Tracy, this time), perhaps the role would be better known today as an unparalleled chance for an older actress to show off her comic, dramatic, and even romantic chops at the height of her experience and power.