Turn left here, at the American flag,” I directed the Uber driver, as he apprehensively climbed up the winding canyon roads in the Hollywood Hills to drop me off for my 10:30am visit with one of show business’s timeless and larger-than-life darlings, Ruta Lee.
We pulled up to her crisply white, 1920s Spanish-style fortress built into a steep hillside, and my eyes were wide open just imagining what was on the other side of the entry gate. I thanked the driver, he wished me luck and I waved him goodbye, and I slowly approached the gate singing, “I have confidence” from the Sound of Music. Channeling Julie Andrews, I took a deep breath and pressed the buzzer on the gate.
Only a few empty seconds passed before a voice echoed eccentrically from inside of the property, “It’s open honey, just pull the gate hard and come on up!” With a firm yank on the iron gate’s curved handle, I was in. Up I went to find the iconic Ruta Lee standing there with her arms outstretched and waving.
Ruta Lee and Robert Fuller (L), and Ruta Lee and Clint Eastwood (R)
“Good Morning and welcome, my Texas girl!” After a huge hug and an exchange of cheek kisses, she asked without skipping a beat,” What can I make you? A Bloody Mary?” With this hospitable of a greeting that felt just like how people do things back home, I knew immediately that Ruta and I were going to have a great time together, and that we were going to be fast friends.
Ruta walked me through a whimsical outdoor courtyard and into her “hangout room,” where she urged me to make myself comfortable. She energetically bounced behind the bar to make our Bloody Marys (which she served with special Lithuanian Vodka, out of pride for her heritage) and we toasted to new friendships, to Texas ties, and to the fact that our souls immediately connected despite the decades of age between us.
We jumped right in and began to talk about Ruta’s life, her opinions on certain hot news topics, and what it was like to be in Hollywood in the heyday of America’s sweetheart movie stars and elegant glamour.
EM: What are some of your treasured memories of your life in Hollywood?
RL: For years, I was either the President or the Chairman [of The Thalians] along with my sister in charity, Debbie Reynolds. I love her so. We were the head mothers of The Thalians; it was Hollywood for mental health. We used to do a huge Hollywood extravaganza event every year, where we honored a person of note that dazzled us not only on the screen or stage, but who also dazzled us with their philanthropic performances. We honored everyone from Frank Sinatra, to Lucille Ball, to Carol Burnett to Liza Minnelli to Whoopi Goldberg and more. I miss doing those events. It was a big, big effort and Debbie and I did it for a lot of years.
EM: I heard a rumor that you were friends with Lucille Ball. Is that true?
RL: Yes, we were very close. She was such an interesting person. On the set, there was no foolishness. She wanted to get things done quickly and efficiently, which was funny for a comedienne…she had very little humor in her daily life. I did five or six different shows and specials with her, and I think we became very good friends because I was the same way at work. Lucy was just the best. A lot of us showbiz and television people would go over to her house to play charades: Carol [Burnett], myself, etc. Lucy was wonderful. She provided everything to make you comfortable, but she never had any food in the refrigerator. Gosh she was great and I just loved her.
Audrey Hepburn and Ruta Lee in Funny Face (L) and Lucille Ball and Ruta Lee in Lucy Moves To NBC, 1980 (R)
EM: Who else were you friends with that we might know of?
RL: I used to see Frank Sinatra in the desert a lot. We had houses near each other, and he would invite me over for dinner. We were very good friends. We all used to go out together – Lucy and Gary too.
EM: How did you end up with a house in Palm Springs?
RL: Darren McGavin (an actor who became very famous in the 1950s) bought me a house in Palm Springs. He and his wife were my very good friends. He called me one day and said, “Hey Ruts! We bought a house in Palm Springs, an itty-bitty little house across the street from the Racquet Club. They’re such a nice buy: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths and a garage – I made a down payment on one for you.” I couldn’t believe it. I was so nervous about being able to make the payments, but my mother encouraged me to keep the house anyway, so I did.
EM: How did you end up winning some of your career-defining roles?
RL: I was invited by a friend to go see Frank Sinatra at the Mocambo, one of the three great nightspots on the Sunset strip in Hollywood in the 1950s. The club was having trouble with business because television was becoming very popular and people weren’t going out to nightclubs for evening entertainment anymore.
Frank Sinatra was playing opening night. I had never seen him perform before because I was too young for the heyday in New York, but I had heard all of his recordings. We were sitting at a table for maybe ten or twelve people. I’m watching him, and of course—you have to know that there will never be anybody as mesmerizing as Frank Sinatra…I think my mouth was hanging open the entire time.
When the performance was over, a waiter brought a note to my table, and it said, “please bring Miss Lee over to my table, I’d like to meet her.” I went over, and a gentleman by the name of Arthur Hornblow, Jr. introduced himself to me and told me he was producing a film called Witness for the Prosecution, and that he had just given me a very unique screen test. He was watching me watch Frank Sinatra, and thought I would make a good love interest for Tyrone Power in his film. He said, “Would you come and meet Billy Wilder, who is directing the film?” And I said, “Is tomorrow too soon?” So I went in, they put me on film for my screen test, and I found out that Marlene Dietrich didn’t like me because I was a blonde. Overnight I became a brunette, and that’s how I got the role.
Fade in, fade out to the next casting story. Frank Sinatra, being Italian, loved nothing more than having people over to his house for a big pasta dinner and movie night. What do they screen one night? Witness for the Prosecution. Frank ended up deciding that he wanted to ask me to be in his upcoming movie with the Rat Pack, Sergeants 3, because of that night’s get together. That’s how I got that role.
Ruta Lee with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack in Sergeants 3 (L) and Peter Lawford and Ruta Lee in Sergeants 3 (R)
EM: You have been the recipient of some great energy from the Universe throughout your life and career. What is your personal philosophy on why that might be, and why have you continued to pass along that good energy and perform good deeds for others?
RL: My belief is that you have to fill the space in the world that you take…put something good back into the world for something good that came your way. Whether that is through good deeds, or through good thoughts that translate into good work somewhere, you must put something back to fill those grains of sand that came into your life to help you. I think that is very important.
Eleanora Morrison and Ruta Lee, at her home in Hollywood, CA
And just like that, with imparting words of wisdom, Ruta Lee whirred out of the room we were sitting in and into the main part of her home to gather her things and drive off to Palm Springs for appointments, and to attend her late friend (the legendary Broadway actress most known for her origination of the role Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly) Carol Channing’s memorial celebration. Spoken like a true friend, Ruta left me with, “you have my number honey, call me if you ever need a place to stay in Hollywood. I have a feeling you’ll be back here very soon.” Maybe…just maybe, with my own stroke of luck, I will be.
Edited from an interview by Eleanora Morrison.