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'Philadelphia Story' Screen Actress Ruth Hussey Dies

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page B06

Ruth Hussey, 93, the breathtaking brunette best known for her Academy Award-nominated performance as the sarcastic photographer in "The Philadelphia Story," died April 19 at a nursing home in Thousand Oaks, Calif. She had complications from a recent hospital stay for appendicitis.

Ms. Hussey, a former Powers model, appeared in more than 40 films and typically was cast as elegant, wise and slightly world-weary women.

Ruth Hussey, who acted in more than 40 films, usually portrayed elegant, wise and somewhat world-weary women. (Courtesy of John Longenecker)

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Director George Cukor, a friend who hired Ms. Hussey for "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), became a mentor. "He gave me one piece of advice that I always use," she once said. " 'Keep your emotions near the surface so that you can call on them when you need to.' "

In that film, she played Liz Imbrie, the scandal-magazine photographer who, with writing partner James Stewart, is sent to cover the Main Line wedding of haughty Katharine Hepburn.

Her character's acid view of the wealthy emerges as she strolls through Hepburn's mansion: "What's this room? I've forgotten my compass."

Her Oscar nomination as a supporting actress led to several leading roles, more often than not in routine fare. Among the exceptions were turns as the aloof wife of a Boston blue blood (Robert Young) in "H.M. Pulham, Esq." (1941), based on the masterful John P. Marquand novel; and the sister of Ray Milland in the superior ghost story "The Uninvited" (1944), about siblings who buy a haunted house on the Cornish coastline.

In one of her last great parts, she was athlete Jordan Baker in the second filmed version of "The Great Gatsby" (1949), starring Alan Ladd as F. Scott Fitzgerald's enigmatic self-made man.

Besides her film career, she made a notable Broadway debut as the wife of a presidential aspirant in Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse's Pulitzer Prize-winning political drama "State of the Union" (1945), which ran for two years. Her leading man was Ralph Bellamy.

Admittedly unambitious professionally, Ms. Hussey let her career fade by the early 1950s. She practiced watercoloring, and designed the family weekend house at Lake Arrowhead, Calif. The three-story house was a mere 28 feet in diameter, conforming to her husband's request for a round home.

"It was a unique design based on clock face mathematics," her son John told Michelle Vogel for her book "Children of Hollywood" (2005). "It was practical, yet different. It had a good sized deck and picture windows overlooking the lake in the distance through the pine trees. My mom enjoyed sketching floor plans for years and we were all thrilled when she was able to make her architectural talent a reality."

Ruth Carol Hussey was born Oct. 30, 1911, in Providence, R.I. Her ancestor Christopher Hussey was one of the original purchasers of Nantucket Island, Mass.

When she was a young woman, theater provided a refuge from athletic practice, and it became the focus of her life. She studied drama at Pembroke College, the women's college of Brown University, and the University of Michigan.

She found work on the radio as a fashion commentator in Providence. She then went to New York, where she modeled and was cast in the touring company of "Dead End," the Sidney Kingsley hit drama about slum life.

Noticed by a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer casting agent when "Dead End" came to Los Angeles, she was signed to a contract in 1937. Reportedly, she was hired as a threat to keep stars Myrna Loy and Norma Shearer from becoming too demanding.

Her ascent was swift. A bit player opposite Spencer Tracy in the drama "Big City" (1937), she became his co-star three years later in the frontier drama "Northwest Passage" (1940).

She had leading roles as the wife of future president Andrew Johnson in "Tennessee Johnson" (1942) with Van Heflin; one of the young women married to men in service in the wartime weeper "Tender Comrade" (1943); and the defense attorney for a woman accused of murder in "I, Jane Doe" (1948).

She also was Jerry Lewis's mother in "That's My Boy" (1951), which co-starred Dean Martin, and portrayed the wife of composer John Philip Sousa, played by Clifton Webb, in "Stars and Stripes Forever" (1952). She received third billing, after Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, in "The Facts of Life" (1960), a domestic comedy that was her last film role.

In "Flight Command" (1940), opposite Robert Taylor, she managed to impress one ticket-buyer, the talent scout C. Robert Longenecker, who told friends he would marry the leading lady. They met through mutual friends at Hollywood's Brown Derby restaurant two years later and were married after a seven-week courtship. He died in 2002.

Survivors include their three children, John Longenecker of Beverly Hills, Calif., Robert Longenecker of Houston and Liz Hendrix of Oak Park, Calif.; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

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