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.
Originally published as a series of short stories in The New Yorker, My Sister Eileen was published in book form in 1938, and later adapted under the same name into a play, a radio play (and unproduced radio series), two films, and a CBS television series. It was also the basis for the Leonard Bernstein musical Wonderful Town.
Ruth Marguerite McKenney was born in Mishawaka, Indiana on November 18, 1911 to John Sidney McKenney, a mechanical engineer and Marguerite Flynn, a grade school teacher. Her younger sister, Eileen (born April 3, 1913), later married author Nathanael West.
She graduated from Shaw High School, where she skipped two grades. 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 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[why?] during high school 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 and Eileen got jobs as waitresses at 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.
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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 near Sheridan Square at 14 Gay Street in Greenwich Village, for which she paid $45 a month (equivalent to $820 in 2019) The apartment was burgled within the first week of the six months they lived there. The apartment would become the setting of a series of stories in The New Yorker, later republished in book form as My Sister Eileen (1938)..
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.
Adaptations of McKenney's works
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McKenney's book My Sister Eileen has been adapted a number of times for stage, film and television. In 1940, Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov first 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.) It opened on December 26, 1940 (four days after the death of the Eileen of the title), and ran until January 16, 1943. A film adaptation was made in 1942, directed by Alexander Hall and starring Rosalind Russell as Ruth.
Fields and Chodorov later 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. Since then it has been periodically revived both on and off Broadway.
In 1955 a second musical film was written and directed by Richard Quine and starred Betty Garrett, Janet Leigh, and Jack Lemmon, featuring all original songs (none of the Wonderful Town music was used). In 1960-61, My Sister Eileen was adapted as a television series that ran for 26 episodes.
In 1956, John Boruff adapted McKenney's 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 1937, 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. Eileen Bransten was a New York State Supreme Court justice in Manhattan.
In 1939, Ruth's sister Eileen married novelist Nathanael West. Eileen was just 27 when she died in a road 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, also died in the same accident. On November 18, 1955, Ruth McKenney's 44th birthday, her husband Richard Bransten committed suicide in London.
After this, Ruth McKenney returned to New York City, but stopped writing. "My mother never quite recovered from her sister's death", Eileen Bransten noted. Ruth McKenney Bransten died in New York on July 25, 1972, aged 60. She had suffered from heart disease and diabetes.
Books and other works
- My Sister Eileen (1938), a memoir 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 to 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 two-year residence in Brussels
- 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.
- Indiana, Birth Certificates, 1907-1940
- 1920 United States Federal Census
- Meade, Marion. Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
- 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. 92-97
- Ruth McKenney, 1938, My Sister Eileen, pg. 114
- Ruth McKenney, 1938, My Sister Eileen, pg. 88-91
- Ruth McKenney, 1952, All About Eileen, pg. 134-43
- Ruth McKenney, 1938, My Sister Eileen, pp, 167, 174
- Meade, pp. 171-186
- 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 (July 27, 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.
- Ruth McKenney profile, Akron Women's History (uakron.edu)
- Time magazine discusses the expulsions of McKenney and her husband from the U.S. Communist Party
- Ruth McKenney's daughter Eileen Bransten remembers her aunt, Eileen, for whom she was named
- Time magazine's review of Mirage
- The Ruth McKenny-Bruce Minton Report, marxists.org