With the passing of Ruby Dee, the American theatre has lost one of its most gifted and talented actors. And WVOX has lost a neighbor. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee – you have to take them together – were a beloved presence in our home heath.
When people think of New Rochelle … they think of Dick Van Dyke. But that was make believe. Ossie and Ruby were for real. They were very real.
Over the years she would walk Pinebrook Boulevard, taking her daily constitutional in every season and she would cause ‘whiplash’ for many a passing motorist: “Isn’t that Ruby Dee!” And for many of her 91 years, it was.
Ossie and Ruby. As the African-American Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne of the modern American theatre, they were royalty in that profession. But to all of us privileged to know and love them … they were “of the hood.” Neighbors.
They performed in theatres, television and radio studios and on movie lots. But they did some of their best work out on the streets as citizen-activists.
A young Malcolm X used to sit in the living room of their big, sprawling house on Cortland Avenue and rage into the night about injustice and inequality. And a former police commissioner of this very city actually kept quite an active “Subversive” file dedicated entirely to the most suspicious left-leaving “activist exploits” of the former Ruby Wallace and her equally dangerous husband.
They could have lived in any upscale, tony venue: Greenwich, Waccabuc, Manhasset, Bronxville, Scarsdale, Bedford or Rye. But they lived all their days in New Rochelle, just a few blocks from our local community broadcasting station which they supported all their days in every season.
When once I thanked Ossie for being so nice and so supportive of our local station, he said: “Ruby and I travel all over the world making movies and we go where there is an audience. When we’re on the road, you watch our home. We have to be nice to you.”
My mind drifts back many years to a political fundraiser we had at Le Cirque for Governor Mario Cuomo. A thousand dollars a ticket. When it was winding down and almost over … a car pulled up and delivered an exhausted looking Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. They had just come from Kennedy airport after a long, bumpy transcontinental flight from Europe.
Ruby reached in her pocketbook and presented two checks for the Cuomo campaign. When I suggested they could just as easily have mailed them in, she said: “Not for him. Not for you. We wanted to deliver them in person.”
There was another night at Le Cirque for dinner. When the main course arrived, I had my fork poised in hand and ready to dig in. Ruby said: “Not yet … a prayer first,” and she had us clasp hands all round while she whispered a prayer for world peace. You do that at home, one would imagine. But she did it anywhere she damn well pleased.
Mario Cuomo used to say he prays for ‘sureness.’ I’m not sure about a lot of things. But of this I’m sure: Ossie Davis was a saint.
And now she’s gone to meet him.
You have to give them equal billing.
–William O’Shaughnessy, President, Whitney Media WVOX and WVIP