Magazine article The New Yorker

What She Said

Magazine article The New Yorker

What She Said

Article excerpt

What She Said

Ruth Draper was born in New York in 1884. When she was very young, she entertained her siblings by sitting on a window seat in the nursery of her family's brownstone, on East Forty-seventh Street, and imitating grownups they knew, among them the tailor who made their clothes. By the time she was in her mid-thirties, she was performing, alone, on stages all over the world. She wrote all her own material. She abhorred publicity and gave virtually no interviews until the end of her life, when a new manager insisted, yet she filled theatres, often for long runs, on Broadway, in the West End, and elsewhere. Uta Hagen went to see her sixty times. The English critic Bernard Levin wrote that she induced "real hallucination" in her audiences, making them see characters who weren't there. Alexander Fleming was so taken with one of her performances, in London in 1946, that he gave her a specimen of his original penicillin culture.

Draper died in 1956. During recording sessions a couple of years before, she made audiotapes of a number of her monologues for RCA--the principal surviving samples of her art. That the recordings are available today is owing largely to the determination of Susan Mulcahy, a writer and editor (and a former editor of the Post's Page Six), who came across them in the late eighties, and released two compilations on CD. She is now working on a biography of Draper. "Even young people know who Sarah Bernhardt was, or, at least, they associate her name with high drama," Mulcahy said recently. "But if you've ever seen Bernhardt's old film clips or heard her audio recordings--they're all laughable." Most of Draper's performances, in contrast, are difficult to place in time, even though much of the material is a century old. Some of her characters are clearly of their era, including the wealthy Manhattan matron in her piece "The Italian Lesson," but the writing, the acting, and especially the sense of humor are remarkably timeless. Mike Nichols used to tell the actors he directed to study everything about her.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Mulcahy visited the New-York Historical Society, where many of Draper's papers are stored. She opened a box containing a dozen or so small appointment books, from the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties, and found a copy of an 1880 Baedeker guide to Italy, bound in soft red leather--one of the few props that Draper used. …

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