Editor’s Note: This adventure originally ran on Sept. 15, 2004.
She stands alone, bathed in a brilliant glow, her eyes aerial heavenward, her easily acclaim bound in advanced of her blush glassy dress. Her beard is cut like a flapper’s, abbreviate and pert, and her face has the angled chastity of a cherub.
Her name is Ruby, and she is singing a song to God.
For dozens of years, visitors accept trooped through the Norton Building of Art, on their way to bore at the acclaimed Gauguin or Picassos or O’Keeffes, aback they stop abbreviate at a simple oil account by James Chapin alleged Ruby Green Singing.
And aloof like that, they abatement in love.
Ruby may be the best accepted account in the West Palm Beach museum. She’s a absolute crowd-pleaser. Adults adulation her. Accouchement adulation her. Recently, a aggregation came all the way from New York because her mother and ancestor had met in advanced of the painting 40 years ago.
Norton babysitter Jonathan Stuhlman still remembers the affable admonition of his predecessor: Whatever you do, don’t anytime booty Ruby’s account down.
“It’s a actual beautiful, actual soulful painting,” says Stuhlman, who curates the American art collection. “It touches people’s hearts.”
And not aloof assemblage of the Norton. Blazon in “Ruby Green Singing” on the Internet, and you’ll acquisition prints of her angel for auction at added than 20 sites. Her acclaimed admirers accept ranged from poets Robert Frost and Maya Angelou to accompanist Rickie Lee Jones.
Ruby’s account graces academy textbooks. She’s illustrated the capacity of a medical journal. Two years ago, in Berkeley, Calif., acceptance dressed up as “living masterpieces” for an arts festival. There was Goya, Degas, Renoir, Monet – and Ruby.
Horace Boyer, a retired assistant of African-American music at the University of Massachusetts, remembers prints of Ruby on the walls of atramentous colleagues’ homes in the ’70s. She was added than aloof a picture; she was a attribute of pride and spirituality.
“There was article that accomplished out to me the minute I saw her,” Boyer says. “This woman was in accord with God. There is such peace, there is such security, there is such achievement in her face. I’ve apparent (gospel great) Mahalia Jackson accept that aforementioned affectionate of abutting something.”
But who was Ruby Green? What was she singing that gave her such a feeling?
And, added important, what happened to her?
The adventure of Ruby begins with a correction.
Her aftermost name is Greene. Throughout her life, it was misspelled in books, newspapers, alike on her account at the Norton.
Ruby Greene’s career, which spanned six decades, offers a rich, alluring glimpse into art, music and African-American history in the 20th century.
While she was far from a above star, she intersected with some of the century’s best important cultural eras and personalities: the Harlem Renaissance and abundant atramentous choirs of the 1920s, the American classical artisan Virgil Thomson and the British wit Noel Coward.
She formed alongside African-American music antecedents Hall Johnson, Eva Jessye and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. She aggregate a date with Leontyne Price, James Earl Jones, William Warfield, Lena Horne and Broadway legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. She recorded for RCA, appeared in concerts, sang on radio, acted on a soap opera, alike fabricated a toothpaste commercial.
And, of course, airish for one beauteous painting.
“She is absolutely one of the abounding who accept been bare from histories,” addendum James V. Hatch, an drillmaster and columnist on atramentous culture.
Some of her accomplishments charcoal bleared to this day, alike to ancestors members. But her adventure shouldn’t be forgotten.
Ruby Mae Greene was built-in on July 28, 1909, in Savannah, Ga., the beforehand adolescent of Edward and Amanda Greene. She had six siblings, including one brother who died young. Her aboriginal ancestors activity wasn’t easy, according to her nephew Harry M. Gould Jr., a above anchorman who listened anxiously to her belief and admired Aunt Ruby like “a additional mother.”
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Ruby’s parents afar aback she was young, and her mother confused the accouchement briefly to Charleston, S.C. In 1916, they headed to Harlem, apparently allotment of the celebrated arctic clearing by African-Americans attractive for bigger jobs and opportunity.
Amanda Greene was a calm who bankrupt and maintained houses. Times were tough. “She was disturbing to accomplish ends meet,” says Gould.
Poverty affected her to accomplish a heart-wrenching decision: For bristles years, she put Ruby and her sisters Julia and Edrena in the Acceptable Samaritan Orphan Home in adjacent Newark, N.J.
But it was there, afar from bisected of her family, that Ruby begin her future.
Gould says she met a music abecedary in the orphanage, and abstruse to advance her articulation and ball piano. Aback she larboard the home about age 14, her characteristic singing anon became noticed in the tightknit amphitheater of atramentous churches in Harlem. She was a contralto, the everyman annals of changeable voices, a blazon of articulate appearance affected by the acclaimed Marian Anderson.
Ruby became the youngest contralto accompanist at St. Mark’s Abbey in Harlem and was anon in appeal at added churches. Instructed by her mother, Ruby was acutely religious from an aboriginal age.
“She had a actual audible moral outlook,” says Gould. “She was a beeline and attenuated girl. She was not a activity girl. She was aloft in a strict, acceptable atramentous abbey by the Scriptures.”
In 1928, the year her activity afflicted forever, Ruby was 19. The banal bazaar was a year abroad from crashing. The cultural activity accepted as the Harlem Renaissance was still in swing. Ruby was a affiliate of the Hall Johnson Choir, a spirituals accumulation led by a beat atramentous violinist and Broadway artisan who had migrated arctic from Georgia like the Greenes.
One day, an advancing New Jersey painter saw Johnson and his choir performing. He was impressed, calling them “perhaps the finest accumulation of Airy singers we have.”
He was the man who would accomplish Ruby famous.
James Ormsbee Chapin aboriginal acquired bulge for illustrating a balladry book by his acquaintance Robert Frost. As his career progressed, he became accepted for alleged Regionalist scenes of landscapes and rural life. Grant Wood (of American Gothic fame) accepted Chapin’s assignment as “among the best things in American art, able and solid as boulders.”
Over the years, Chapin corrective Frost and Katharine Hepburn. In the ’50s, for the awning of Time, he corrective artisan Edward Hopper and the presidential admission of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.
But Chapin additionally admired to acrylic atramentous Americans – afterwards capacity included extra Ethel Waters – and he was quoted as adage Ruby’s account was meant to characterize “the adorableness of Negro music and the Negro people.”
Gould thinks that Chapin, afresh in his aboriginal 40s, met Ruby in a church. “He inquired who she was and asked Ruby if she would apperception accepting her account done,” he says.
Ruby talked little about the conception of the painting. (Chapin’s ancestors and assembly additionally accept no information.) So abounding aperitive questions charge go unanswered: Area was it painted? How continued did it take? How did Chapin abduction that airy pose? What was she singing?
It’s not alike accepted if she saw the accomplished artefact in person.
In afterwards years, she never fabricated a fuss about it. “She’d say, ‘This account was done of me aback I was 19 years old,’ ” recalls Gould. “I was impressed. But she wasn’t the affectionate of woman who acclimated to blow on herself.”
By October 1930, at age 21, Ruby had confused on, enrolling in the Institute of Agreeable Art, afterwards accepted as the acclaimed Juilliard Academy of Music, in New York City. Records appearance that she had a aerial academy amount aloft entering and that she accustomed a authority in singing on June 2, 1933.
While Ruby was advancing for Juilliard, her account was authoritative after-effects on the New York art scene. In 1928, the painting went to Chapin’s New York banker Frank Rehn, who bound awash it to Paul Sachs, the ambassador of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, for his claimed collection.
Sachs accustomed it to be displayed in some shows, area New York Times art analyzer Edward Alden Jewell admired it, adage it was “poignantly simple.” In Chicago, a animate controlling and beginning art beneficiary alleged Ralph Norton additionally admired Ruby, but the account was off the market.
Luckily for Norton, one actuality didn’t like Ruby: Sachs’ wife.
As Chapin explained to Norton later, “Mrs. Sachs conceived a agitated abhorrence to Ruby and wouldn’t acquiesce her in the house.” Rehn “gladly” bought the account aback from Sachs, and awash it to Norton in 1930.
And from 1930 to 1953, aback Norton donated it to the West Palm Beach building he opened in 1941, Ruby’s account was out of circulation. But not unappreciated. Norton “obviously admired it because some of his paintings had appear to the building abundant earlier,” says babysitter Stuhlman.
After Juilliard, Ruby formed with addition groundbreaker. Eva Jessye came out of Kansas, toppling barriers of actuality both atramentous and changeable to anatomy the internationally admired Eva Jessye Choir. Like Hall Johnson, she eventually broadcast into radio, date and movies, from King Vidor’s archetypal blur Hallelujah to the aboriginal Broadway assembly of Porgy and Bess.
Pittsburg State University in Kansas, which has some of Jessye’s papers, holds an arresting account about 1938. It shows Ruby, articular as a Jessye Choir member, and Lenore Gershwin, the wife of Porgy artist Ira Gershwin, sitting on a backyard in abounding dresses and chatting.
But there is some altercation whether Jessye brought Ruby into the casting of what columnist Eileen Southern calls, forth with Porgy, one of the “milestones in the history of atramentous music” – the 1934 Broadway opera Four Saints in Three Acts.
With ablaze American melodies by Virgil Thomson and a libretto by departer columnist Gertrude Stein, Four Saints bankrupt all the operatic rules. Today, it’s advised a classic. Typical for Stein, there wasn’t abundant of a artifice – it’s about the accustomed lives of two 16th-century saints from Spain. It’s so beat that alike the date admonition are sung. Southern, in her book The History of Atramentous Musicians, quotes an able as adage it’s “an unlogical mural of words and music.”
“But the better shock of all,” adds Southern, “was the abstraction that an all-black casting should accomplish an opera about European saints.”
Ruby is listed by Southern as in the show’s cast, although Anthony Tommasini, columnist of a absolute adventures of Thomson, says she was not. Betty Allen, the acclaimed mezzo-soprano and Thomson colleague, said in an account from New York that she believes Greene was allotment of the 1934 ensemble, but not the capital cast.
(In 1947, Ruby absolutely sang one of the arch roles – St. Teresa II – on a recording of Four Saints beneath Thomson’s administration on RCA. Aback it was reissued on CD in 1996, an Amazon.com analyst noted: “The all-black casting is excellent, decidedly a contralto alleged Ruby Greene.”)
Gould never heard of his aunt’s affiliation to Four Saints, and it’s not on a afterwards resume of hers.
In fact, she told Gould that her “big break” in the 1930s came from the British writer-performer Noel Coward.
Ruby’s baby allotment in Coward’s 1939 caricature Set To Music would be advised awful atrocious today. The skit-and-music appearance starred Beatrice Lillie and was notable for introducing Coward’s acclaimed song, I’ve Been To A Marvelous Party.
Ruby was casting for banana relief: one of three atramentous women who ankle onstage dressed in the “dainty” clothes of white debutantes.
“What Noel Coward was accomplishing was accepting a beam out of white audiences,” says Gould. But Ruby didn’t care, alike later, about the ancestral backroom of the role, says her nephew. “To her aftermost day, she batten affectionately of it. She was consistently grateful.”
The 1940s. That was the decade Ruby did not allege affectionately of. There were highs personally, lows professionally.
The acceptable news: She got married.
Ruby Greene met Stephen “Dutch” Aspinall in 1929, aback they were both attorneys at a New York camp. Ruby was elegant, Dutch was rumpled. Ruby was actual religious, Dutch not so much. But they were both sticklers for accomplishing things the appropriate way, actuality prompt, actuality proper.
Aspinall charge accept absolutely admired Ruby, because it wasn’t until 1942 that they wed.
“Nobody could ambit Ruby off her feet,” Gould recalls. “She banned him for 13 years.”
One acumen for Ruby’s heel-dragging was her career. “She was additionally apprehensive of men and their motives,” Gould explains.
Aspinall somehow prevailed, and maybe it didn’t aching that it was anon afterwards Pearl Harbor, and he was aircraft out for the Pacific. Gould speculates that Ruby was one of abounding wartime brides.
Nevertheless, it was a adulation activity that lasted added than 30 years. Ruby and Dutch active the additional attic of a row abode in a banal area of the Bronx, he became an ambassador at a adolescent apprehension facility, and they lived calm happily, with no children, although they were abutting to Gould and his sister, Beverly.
When Ruby wasn’t working, she’d break home, ball the piano and sing her admired hymns. And Dutch seems almighty enlightened. In that era, it wasn’t every bedmate who let his wife crawl off with a agglomeration of show-business gypsies.
“What she consistently said she admired about her bedmate is that he would acquiesce her to do annihilation she capital to,” says Gould.
But she acquainted balked professionally in the ’40s.
Gould says she mostly performed with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the world-renowned atramentous choral accumulation founded at Tennessee’s Fisk University in the backward 1800s. The Fisk Singers were the aboriginal to accompany spirituals and bondservant songs to American and European audiences afterwards a adumbration of the accompanist act. A 1945 affairs with the Singers shows Ruby assuming aggregate from Strauss to the old airy Nobody Knows De Trouble I See.
She additionally fabricated the Four Saints recording and had a six-month assignment as Lynn Fontanne’s maid in the Broadway ball The Pirate. But she was balked by a abridgement of abiding employment. And efforts to strengthen her articulation faltered.
“She was disturbing to acquisition work,” Gould says. “She complained that she was victimized by a alternation of bad articulation teachers. She acquainted her abeyant was cut short.”
Did chase authority her back? “I anticipate she was acquainted as an African-American woman that she didn’t accept the opportunities that white actresses did,” says Gould. But absorption in old age, “she banned to accuse or be absinthian about it. Who knows what she absolutely anticipation aback she was home with Uncle Dutch. We consistently wondered about that.”
In the ’50s, Ruby rebounded. From 1951 to ’55, she accomplished what Gould calls her “professional pinnacle” in Porgy and Bess, the acclaimed George Gershwin-DuBose Heyward-Ira Gershwin folk opera about the citizenry of Catfish Row in Charleston, the boondocks she lived in briefly as a child.
Ruby appeared as an ensemble amateur in the musical’s about yearlong run on Broadway in 1953. Cab Calloway played Sportin’ Life, and a adolescent Leontyne Price was Bess. Eva Jessye was the choral director.
More significantly, Ruby catholic with the appearance throughout Africa, Europe and South America, including its admission as the aboriginal American opera at Italy’s acclaimed La Scala. The appearance was a smash. It got 21 blind calls in Vienna. In Berlin, the acclaim lasted a half-hour.
Among the casting was a adolescent singer-dancer alleged Maya Angelou, not yet the acclaimed artist and columnist of I Apperceive Why The Caged Bird Sings.
In an account aftermost anniversary from New York, Angelou recalled Ruby’s able religious behavior and “beautiful” articulation fondly. “She had a admirable faculty of humor,” Angelou says. But “she didn’t acknowledge people’s causticity and wouldn’t angle for boorishness of any sort. Her face would appearance you that in a second.”
In her memoir, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, Angelou declared Ruby as one of those “quiet, atoning women who looked and acted added like pillars of a religious adjustment than singing associates of a baroque opera company.”
Ruby ability accept been appreciative of that description. While she admired her artistry, she didn’t affliction too abundant for some of her adolescent artists.
“Without allotment any names, she had a accepted low attention for the moral (fiber) of association in appearance business,” says Gould. “She saw appearance business as a breastwork of partiers and carousers.”
But she admired to accomplish and travel, and Porgy was her admission to the world. Aloof one problem: She didn’t affliction to fly. In her memoir, Angelou describes sitting abutting to Ruby on a flight. “When the even took off, she affective the bench arms, tensed her anatomy and, by will alone, aerial the carrier cautiously into the air.”
In 1955, aback Angelou was singing at the absolute Mars Club in Paris, Ruby, who didn’t usually common nightspots, came to abutment her. “Which told me she cared. Imagine my surprise, alive all she was activity to adjustment was a Coca-Cola,” says Angelou with a baby laugh.
A decade later, Angelou saw Ruby again. She happened to acquirement a arresting book of a adolescent babe singing. “I admired it afterwards alive who it was. Aback I apprehend it was Ruby Green Singing, that aloof afflicted me to no end. That was her. Spiritually gorgeous.”
On the day of the interview, her archetype of Ruby’s account had aloof accustomed at Angelou’s new brownstone in Harlem. It is allotment of her “serious accumulating of art,” she says, which includes the aboriginal works of Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.
Another artist was appropriately afflicted by Ruby.
In October 1958, Robert Frost was the country’s adviser in balladry (the forerunner to Artist Laureate). He needed, as The New York Times put it, to actualize “a acute atmosphere in his Federal office.” To do so, Frost capital four paintings – by Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakin, Andrew Wyeth and James Chapin.
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He didn’t apperceive the appellation of Chapin’s work; he declared it as “that Negress of his, that babe singing.”
Unfortunately for him, Ruby was active blind in West Palm Beach.
In the 1960s, Ruby kept active with Porgy in America and Israel. She appeared in tours of Kiss Me, Kate and Showboat.
Between 1968 and 1970, she had a baby role in the Broadway ball The Abundant White Hope, starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander.
Gould remembers that role as the sole time he saw her on stage, amid a accumulation of women accusation Jones’ boxer character.
She had abbreviate runs in the aboriginal 1970s in a agreeable and operetta. At some point in the ’70s, or conceivably earlier, she additionally guested on the TV soap As The Apple Turns, and did a Gleem toothpaste commercial. But Ruby’s career was ambagious down.
She retired for acceptable in 1974, one year afterwards her admired husband, the man she alleged “my Steve,” died. She confused to a 14th-floor accommodation in the Bronx’s sprawling Co-Op City, with angle of Continued Island Sound. Her walls were covered with mementos of her show-biz years.
One year later, the man who corrective her portrait, James Chapin, died in Toronto at age 88. Opposed to the war in Vietnam, he had confused to Canada in 1968. While Ruby’s account is apparent as iconic, Chapin’s added assignment seems unjustly overlooked.
“That is the adventure of hundreds and hundreds of cautiously accomplished artists who formed in a astute style,” explains Woodstock, N.Y., art banker James Cox, who represents Chapin’s estate. “After Apple War II, the art apple alone them. If you weren’t one of the ‘isms’ – abstruse expressionism, etc. – balloon it. You were out.” Today, Chapin may be best-known to Boomer ancestors as the grandfathering of the backward pop-folk accompanist Harry Chapin (Cat’s In The Cradle).
In her retirement years, Ruby became a adherent Jehovah’s Witness. She met her “constant companion” Mary J. Johnson, a acquaintance in Co-Op City, at a Kingdom Hall added than 20 years ago. They would appear abbey two canicule a week, and Mary would drive her to big Jehovah’s contest at Yankee Stadium, area they would sit in the stands and sing hymns afore the capital casework began.
Ruby would bethink about the stars she knew, but it was never boastful, never egotistical.
“She consistently maintained her faculty of dignity,” says Johnson. “She was gracious. I admired her angle on life. I anticipate about her all the time.”
About the aforementioned time Ruby met Johnson, Gould wandered into a Philadelphia anatomy boutique and begin a reproduction of Ruby’s account on the wall. “My jaw dropped,” he says.
In all those years, Ruby never had a archetype of it, aloof a frayed account from a bi-weekly clipping. So her nephew and niece bought it on the spot, and affected it for her altogether present. Ruby proudly afraid it in her accommodation beneath a light.
Three years ago, Ruby was in Einstein Hospital in the Bronx, convalescent from breast blight surgery. Gould wandered into a account arcade on the attic area her aunt was staying, and there was addition archetype of Ruby singing.
“I said to one of the nurses, ‘I bet you won’t accept the woman in that account is the aforementioned woman sitting in this wheelchair.’ They were all flabbergasted. She (Ruby) said, ‘Yep, that’s me.’ “
On Sept.10, 2001, one day afore the planes hit New York, Gould confused his added breakable aunt to a retirement home in Philadelphia, area he works as a systems analyst for Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Mary Johnson visited her a few months later, aloof afore Christmas. Ruby couldn’t sing anymore, so Mary sang to her.
Nine canicule later, on Dec. 31, Ruby Mae Greene Aspinall died in her bed at age 92 of cancer. Afterwards a burial account in the Bronx, abounding by abounding of her adolescent Jehovah’s Witnesses, she was active beside her bedmate at the Continued Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, N.Y.
And in death, as in life, her name somehow got misspelled on her tombstone. But Gould says she consistently had her eye on added important things.
“She admired her life, she admired her family, she was awfully appreciative of it. She said she had a admirable activity and wouldn’t accept traded it for anything. That was a mantra for her,” says Gould, who still misses his Aunt Ruby, aloof like her acquaintance Mary does.
Gould’s wife, Sandra, remembers how basic Ruby was in her final years. “Even at 90, 91, she would sit at the piano and absorb us. She would consistently say, ‘Ah, life, it’s veeeery interesting.’ “
Ruby never got to see Ruby Green Singing at the Norton. But she ability like what happens there about every day.
School accouchement and grown-ups army about her account or sit in circles at her feet. At the advancement of bout guides, they bandy out words like religious and admirable and adorning to call the aftereffect of Chapin’s affective creation.
What song was Ruby singing aback in 1928? We’ll never know. But she had a admired hymn, one that her accompany and ancestors generally heard.
It was articulate at her funeral. It’s Aria No. 15 in Mary Johnson’s Jehovah’s songbook, and seems altogether scripted for a woman who dwelled in both the houses of appearance business and the Lord:
Sorrow has passed. Accord at last! Activity afterwards tears and pain.
Sing out with joy of heart. You, too, can accept a part.
Live for the day aback you’ll say: ‘Life afterwards end, at last!’
Palm Beach Post Researcher Melanie Mena, above agents researcher Krista Pegnetter and above agents writers Sharon McDaniel and Charles Passy contributed to this story.
This adventure originally appear to palmbeachpost.com, and was aggregate to added Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.
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