Obituary: Ruth Terry - one of the last of the Hollywood 'screen cowgirls'
The daughter of an Irish couple went on to appear as a 'cowgirl' alongside Hollywood stars
Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30
Ruth Terry, who has died aged 95, was one of the last of the 1940s 'screen cowgirls' who acted alongside such Hollywood stars as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.
Described by the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham as having a "sparkling personality inside a bubbly package", the blonde, blue-eyed Miss Terry also attracted attention for her close friendship with the billionaire Howard Hughes just before his affair with Jane Russell. During the war she appeared in a series of morale-boosting films, mostly showy musicals, and became a pin-up of GIs.
She was born Ruth Mae McMahon to Irish parents on October 21, 1920, in Benton Harbour, Michigan. Her father worked in property before his daughter entered show business and he acted as her agent thereafter.
Aged 10, Ruth began competing as a singer in a local amateur talent show and won so many times that she was eventually banned from the competition. "It was during the Depression and the only way I could get 10 cents to go to the movies was to earn it," she recalled.
After leaving school, she joined the vaudeville circuit, performing as a dancer with a group of acrobats styling themselves 'The Capps Family and Little Ruthie Mae'. By 1933, she had a show on an Indiana radio station.
Soon she won a short-term contract with the Paul Ash Chicago Theatre Orchestra, which performed in "movie palaces" in New York and Chicago. She was billed as the "Youngest Blues Singer in America".
It was the columnist Walter Winchell, an admirer, who suggested the name Ruth Terry, an amalgam of the names of the New York Yankees baseball players Babe Ruth and Bill Terry. She went on to perform as a singer with other bands, winning the admiration of Irving Berlin and Al Jolson.
In the late 1930s, she was spotted in Jack Dempsey's in Miami and signed to 20th Century Fox, making her debut in International Settlement (1938), with George Sanders and Dolores del Rio, followed by Love and Hisses (1938), featuring Winchell.
In her two years with Fox, she made five more films including Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), with Tyrone Power and Alice Faye, and Hotel for Women (1939), with Ann Sothern and Linda Darnell.
Ruth Terry then moved to Warner Bros to make An Angel From Texas (1940) with Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan. From 1940 to 1941, she was under personal contract to Howard Hughes, who, she recalled, took her to his factory to watch him "tinker with his planes". Hughes lent her to the studios. At Universal she made Appointment for Love with Charles Boyer and at Columbia played Lovey Nelson in Blondie Goes Latin.
Republic Pictures wanted to put Terry on contract without having to pay Hughes for the privilege and once again she became a salaried actor. Her first Western, Call of the Canyon, for Republic, starred Gene Autry, who did not say a word to her. In the same year, 1942, she was Roy Rogers's leading lady in Heart of the Golden West. He, in contrast to Autry, was "a lot of fun", she remembered.
After her marriage in 1942 to John Martin, a test pilot, she continued to work and was soon ranked as Republic's most popular leading lady. She played the lead and sang the title song in Pistol Packin' Mama (1943, with Robert Livingston), scored a success in the screwball comedy The Cheaters (1944) and was cast again opposite Livingston in Goodnight, Sweetheart (1944) and Tell It To A Star (1945).
By 1947, however, her career was all but over.
"I had been working since the age of 10 and was tired of the whole business," she said.
Ruth's first two marriages ended in divorce and in 1966 she married John Ledbetter, vice-president of Household Finance. He survives her with a child by her first marriage and two children by her second. She died on March 11.