She was 88, the obituaries claim, but that's a pointless statistic. Ruth Gordon defied constraints of age with a magical vengeance. Talk about reveling in life: so much of Miss Gordon's enduring charm was her astounding and endearing spirit of adventure. "Cult personality," the reports called her -- not unfairly, but not sufficiently either. Ruth Gordon -- leading lady, writer, wit and exceptional achiever in whatever she chose to take on -- managed to be a member in good standing of every generation. And right there in those warm and wacky award-winning roles everybody could find some of the real Ruth Gordon: youthful yet mature, eccentric but on the mark.

Defiant, too. "I never face the facts," she said at a "Ruth Gordon Day" ceremony last November in her hometown of Quincy, Mass. "I never listen to good advice. I'm a slow starter but I get there." Helen Hayes, one of Miss Gordon's closest friends, would term her "a total original. There was no one like her, and no one had the courage to try to imitate her."

Who else could carry off so flawlessly the comic/poignant role of an 80-year-old woman who has an affair with a suicidal 19-year-old in "Harold and Maude" -- a film that bombed in 1971 and then exploded into a popular favorite 12 years later? Who else could be at once elegant, hip, cool, impulsive, sophisticated, earthy, batty, classy, groovy, brilliant, tastefully naughty, outrageously funny and universally lovable?

"I don't want to boast," she said, "but I walk through New York and policemen stop and yell, 'We love you, Ruthie, we just love you.' I don't care who remembers me, or for what. I love it. I never get over it. I never get used to it." And thanks to the lasting qualities of the arts through which she won all this affection, that love will rage on through still more generations.