Ruth McKenney (November 18, 1911 – July 25, 1972) was an American author and journalist, best remembered for My Sister Eileen, a memoir of her experiences growing up in Ohio and moving to Greenwich Village with her sister Eileen McKenney. This was later adapted as the musical Wonderful Town by Leonard Bernstein.
McKenney was born in Mishawaka, Indiana. In 1919 her family moved to East Cleveland, Ohio, where she lived until adulthood. She attended East Cleveland Evangelical Church, though she was a young skeptic about such matters.
She attended East Cleveland and then Shaw High School, where she was two grades beyond her age. Among other subjects, she studied French. She was known as something of a tomboy and was the only girl to play on the East Cleveland boys baseball team (she played first base). She also joined the Northern Ohio Debating League. She described herself as "homely as a mud fence", especially compared to her sister Eileen, though she likely exaggerated for comic effect. She also stuttered. She attempted to commit suicide once during high school by hanging herself but was rescued by Eileen.
At the age of 14, she ran away from home, worked as a printer's devil, and joined the International Typographical Union. At 16, she got a job as a waitress (along with Eileen) in the Harvey Tea Room at the Cleveland Union Station.
She attended Ohio State University (1928–31), majoring in journalism, but did not graduate. Early in her college career, she and her grandmother ran a small business writing homework papers for football players, wrestlers, and other students. She also wrote for the student newspaper, the Ohio State Lantern; and was the campus correspondent for the Columbus Dispatch.
While in college, McKenney worked part-time for the Columbus Citizen. She also contributed to the International News Service. Following this, she became a full-time reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal.
In 1934, McKenney moved to New Jersey, where she joined the staff of the Newark Ledger. From there, she and Eileen moved to New York City, specifically a moldy, one-room basement apartment above the Christopher Street subway station at 14 Gay Street in Greenwich Village for which she paid $45 a month. The apartment was burgled within the first week they lived there. They lived there for six months. This place would become the inspiration for a series of stories in The New Yorker, later republished in the book My Sister Eileen.
In 1939 McKenney published Industrial Valley, a then-controversial book about the Akron rubber strike (1932–36). She considered it her best work. Her best-selling novel, Jake Home (1943), chronicled the struggles of some common Americans between 1900 and 1930.
In 1940, Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov adapted My Sister Eileen for Broadway, focusing mostly on the last two chapters of the book detailing Ruth and Eileen's experiences in New York City. (The book mostly concerns their childhood in East Cleveland.) Four days after the death of the Eileen of the title, it opened on December 26, 1940, and ran until January 16, 1943. In 1942, Alexander Hall directed a movie adaptation starring Rosalind Russell as Ruth.
In the early 1950s, Fields and Chodorov adapted their play into the musical Wonderful Town, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Leonard Bernstein, and starring Rosalind Russell and Edie Adams. It opened on Broadway on February 25, 1953, and ran for 559 performances until July 3, 1954. It has been periodically revived, both on Broadway and off. In 1955, Richard Quine directed a musical adaptation of the 1942 movie, again under the title My Sister Eileen starring Betty Garrett, Janet Leigh, and Jack Lemmon. This musical had original song material; none of the Wonderful Town music was incorporated in this movie version.
In 1956, John Boruff adapted her novel The Loud Red Patrick for Broadway. It ran for 93 performances from October 3 to December 22 and soon became a favorite of regional theaters. In 1960-61, My Sister Eileen was adapted as a television series that ran for 26 episodes.
In 1937, Ruth McKenney married fellow writer Richard Bransten (pen name Bruce Minton). McKenney and Bransten were both one-time Communists, although they were purged from the Party in 1946. They had a son, Paul, and a daughter, Eileen, named in memory of Ruth's sister.
In 1939, Ruth's sister Eileen married novelist Nathanael West. Eileen was just 26 when she died in a California automobile accident on December 22, 1940, two years after My Sister Eileen was published and four days before its first stage version opened on Broadway. West, who had run a stop sign, died in the same accident.
On November 18, 1955, McKenney's 44th birthday, her husband committed suicide in London. After this, Ruth McKenney returned to New York City, but she stopped writing. She died in New York City on July 25, 1972, aged 60.
Books and other works
- My Sister Eileen (1938) about her experiences growing up in Ohio and then moving to New York City
- Industrial Valley (1939) a novel about the Akron rubber strike from 1932–1936
- The McKenneys Carry On (1940) the sequel to My Sister Eileen
- Jake Home (1943)
- The Loud Red Patrick (1947) a collection of stories about an Irish widower raising four daughters in Cleveland; based on her grandfather
- Love Story (1950) the story of her marriage to Richard Bransten
- Here's England, a Highly Informal Guide (1951) with husband Richard Bransten
- All About Eileen (1952) the second sequel to My Sister Eileen; a collection of previously published and new stories about her sister and herself
- Far, Far From Home (1954) a humorous account of her family's visit to France
- Mirage (1956) a historical novel set in Napoleonic France and Egypt
She wrote numerous short pieces for a variety of publications, including Harper's, The New Yorker, the New York Post, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Collier's, Argosy, Woman's Journal, Encore, The Saturday Evening Post, Holiday and New Masses. She also wrote screenplays, including Margie with her husband and F. Hugh Herbert.
- Ruth McKenney, 1938, My Sister Eileen, pg. 9
- Ruth McKenney, 1938, My Sister Eileen, pg. 82
- Ruth McKenney and Richard Bransten, 1950, Here's England, p. 58
- Ruth McKenney, 1938, My Sister Eileen, pg. 95-97
- Ruth McKenney, 1952, All About Eileen, pg. 95-97
- Ruth McKenney, 1952, All About Eileen, pg. 92
- Ruth McKenney, 1938, My Sister Eileen, pg. 114
- Ruth McKenney, 1938, My Sister Eileen, pg. 88-91
- Ruth McKenney, 1952, All About Eileen, pg. 134-143
- Ruth McKenney, 1938, My Sister Eileen, pg. 167
- Ruth McKenney, 1938, My Sister Eileen, pg. 174
- My Sister Eileen, pg. 197
- Here's England, p. 107
- Mervyn Rothstein, "Ruth's daughter Eileen remembers her aunt", New York Times, December 21, 2003
- Darnton, John (27 Jul 1972). "Ruth McKenney Is Dead at 60; Author of 'My Sister Eileen'; Won Fame With Stories That Became a Best Seller, Film". The New York Times. p. 34.
- Akron Women's History
- Time magazine discusses her expulsion from the U. S. Communist Party
- Ruth's daughter Eileen remembers her aunt
- Time magazine's review of Mirage