The Working Waterfront
Posted: December 1st, 2003 | COMMUNITY, ARTS
Article

"How Brilliant She Was!" Islesboro's Ruth Draper had an Uncanny Ability to Impersonate People

by Bonnie L. Mowery Oldham

Jamie MacMillan, caretaker of Islesboro's Free Will Baptist Church, was putting the church to bed for the winter when he came across a forgotten box sitting on top of a high bookcase. There wasn't much in it, but four dusty, 3" x 4" glass slides caught his attention. The slides, somewhat crudely hand-lettered with a grease pencil, announced a benefit concert by Ruth Draper, held long ago at the island's community hall. One slide advertised that "any person can afford a dollar for his church when Ruth Draper's recital is your free gift." The name sounded familiar to MacMillan, who asked around and found that Draper, though currently little known, was in her time a world-famous monologist, and had a strong connection to Islesboro.

In 1897, a well-known New York physician named William Henry Draper had a summer house built for his family at Dark Harbor on Islesboro. Named for her mother, Ruth Dana, Ruth was the fifth of six children, and was 13 years old when the house was built. She grew deeply attached to the island and, throughout her life, referred to it as her refuge and retreat. When Ruth's mother died in 1914, the house was left jointly to her children, but eventually Ruth bought out her siblings and made it her permanent summer home.

Although a quiet, delicate child, Ruth was extremely observant, with an uncanny ability to impersonate people. She first performed her self-created monologues at family gatherings, private parties and charity benefits. Her official acting debut at the Aeolian Hall in London in 1920 garnered rave reviews, as she did throughout her career.

Although something less than a household name today, Ruth Draper was known throughout the world for her brilliant performances as a monologist. Her repertoire included 36 sketches, in which she created 52 distinct women, ranging in type from society women to immigrants, and evoked over 300 other characters. Katherine Hepburn once enthused, "My God, how brilliant she was! What fascinated me was to see this enormously distinguished creature turn into a peasant - instantly!"

One of her monologues, titled "On a Porch in a Maine Coast Village," involves an elderly Maine woman regaling her visitors on such topics as summer people loving the "rejuvenating smell of salt air," which locals call "the stench of rotten seaweed and dead fish." Audience members swear she sat in a rocking chair, but her only prop was a straight-backed wooden kitchen chair and a black shawl.

Many consider Draper to have originated the one-person show. Fans included European royalty, U.S. presidents, actress Sarah Bernhardt and playwright George Bernard Shaw. British actor John Gielgud said that "Ruth Draper was (with Martha Graham) the greatest individual performer that America has ever given us." Her relatively limited current renown is largely attributable to her monologues being so closely associated with her that no actors perform them. However, from 1954 to 1956 she made a series of recordings for RCA that have influenced such contemporary artists as Tom Waits, who said she "makes music for the ears," and Lily Tomlin, who recalled that "when I first discovered Ruth Draper's recordings, suddenly I had a standard ... I was thrilled at the perfection of these monologues, and the richness and the humanity of them."

Ruth's home on Islesboro provided a refuge from her extensive touring schedule. She loved sailing, swimming and indulging in thick fresh cream on her morning porridge at her Dark Harbor cottage. She would often row out in the bay, talking and singing to herself. Writing to a friend (she reputedly wrote over 10,000 letters in her lifetime), she remarked that she "took a long walk through the woods and along the shore and thought how impossible it was that I should be leaving. What a blessing that Dark Harbor is always there to go back to."

Ruth filled her Dark Harbor home with friends, family - even travelers from other countries, such as seven English children and their three nannies who'd been sent to America for safety during World War II. Ruth kept them busy with board games, clay, crayons and a large trunk in the attic filled with clothes for playing dress-up. She often gathered the children around her, reading classics to them and reciting poetry (she gave a penny for each line of poetry they memorized and two cents for each line of Shakespeare). They walked in the woods and made miniature villages and every night Ruth tucked them into bed with a special story or poem. One season she made up a list of all the things there are to do during the summer on Islesboro, including "reading, writing letters, scrabble, picking balsam for pillows, rowing, swinging in the hammock, walking to the village for mail, and picking raspberries and blackberries."

Biographer Dorothy Warren, author of The World of Ruth Draper, noted that Ruth took little part in Dark Harbor's summer society. She had friends among this group, but played neither golf nor bridge and didn't "dine" back and forth. She was, however, a regular churchgoer, and each summer gave a concert to benefit the church. Islesboro's Christ Church has a plaque commemorating Ruth Draper: "Her genius illuminated the theater of the world. She gave of her art and of herself with boundless generosity." Ruth died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 72 on December 29, 1956, following a New York performance. The following June, family members rowed out into Gilkey's Harbor, and, at Ruth's request, scattered her ashes, mixed with flowers, over the waters surrounding her beloved Islesboro.

FreeWill Baptist Church caretaker Jamie MacMillan, whose discovery of slides advertising Draper's benefit concert prompted this story, is working with another Islesboro resident, Melissa Olson (who holds a master's degree in museum studies from Cooperstown) to archive the church's treasures before any more are discarded. MacMillan and Olson welcome additional funding and assistance in this endeavor.