The world is richer for having had iconic actress Ruby Dee in it. As the world mourns her death, we remember her versatile career and multilayered life.
“The kind of beauty I want most is the hard-to-get kind that comes from within: strength, courage, dignity,” she is known for saying. She had that kind of beauty and more.
The actress, playwright, screenwriter, activist, poet and journalist is perhaps best known for starring in the 1961 film A Raisin in the Sun. She’s also known for her civic work with husband Ossie Davis, who preceded her in death in 2005.
Born Ruby Ann Wallace on October 27, 1922, in Cleveland, Ohio to Marshall and Emma Wallace, the family moved to Harlem in New York City when Dee was just a baby. Her love of English and poetry motivated her to study the arts and pursue acting while a student at Hunter High School. After graduation, Dee entered Hunter College.
She joined the American Negro Theatre, a company that also educated talents like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, in 1941 and adopted the stage name Ruby Dee. In 1946 Dee got her first Broadway role in Jeb, a drama about a returning African American war hero, where she met Ossie Davis, the actor in the title role. They became close friends, married on December 9, 1948, and had three children together. Dee soon landed film roles, including playing the wife to the baseball great in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950).
Dee’s starring role on Broadway in Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun in 1959 earned great acclaim for her portrayal of Ruth Younger in this drama about a struggling African American family. Sidney Poitier played her husband, and two years later, Dee reprised her role in the film version of the play.
Over the years, Dee and Davis worked on many projects together, and were very active in the Civil Rights Movement, participating in marches and speaking out for racial equality. Both were friends of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I believe that human beings are like members of a cosmic orchestra,” she once said. “Each of us has a vibration and a sound. Each of us is a different instrument and as an actor, what I’m supposed to do is to hear the sounds and the silences and find the rhythms of the people.”
In 1991 Dee won an Emmy for Decoration Day. Dee and Davis won the 2006 Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. She received an Academy Award nomination and won a Screen Actors Guild Award for her great performance in 2007’s American Gangster.
A member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Dee was a breast-cancer survivor after being diagnosed nearly 40 years ago. On Wednesday, June 11, 2014, Ruby Dee died of natural causes at her home in New Rochelle, New York, at the age of 91.