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Remembering St. John's-born actress Ruby Holbrook

Ruby Holbrook circa 1960s or 1970s.
Ruby Holbrook circa 1960s or 1970s. - Submitted photo

Newfoundland actress who died at 95 last December 'seemed natural on the stage’

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

The St. John’s of her youth pretty well ended at Circular Road.

Ruby Holbrook in Newfoundland. Her son, David Holbrook, believes this photo was likely taken by Hal Holbrook when the couple were courting in 1945.
Ruby Holbrook in Newfoundland. Her son, David Holbrook, believes this photo was likely taken by Hal Holbrook when the couple were courting in 1945. -Submitted photo

In those days, Empire Avenue was still known as "the old track".

Ruby was raised on Fleming Street. Back then, she was called Ruby Johnston — that was before she was married. She was a middle child in a family of seven children – reared on codfish six nights a week, rabbit on Sundays.

In 1945, the foggy city’s roughly 45,000 people lived in wooden houses with weathered grey siding.

And Ruby — well, she was anything but grey.

“She was the only one in the family that talked properly,” recalls her younger brother, Clyde Johnston, who spoke with The Telegram from his home in St. John’s.

“All of us, you know, the ol’ accents we got. And she talked grand.”

On Sept. 14, 1945, Ruby left Newfoundland for New York City and barely looked back.

“I have taken my last look, darling,” she telegrammed her American fiance, Hal Holbrook. Today the world knows Hal as a five-time Emmy Award-winning actor noted for his portrayals of Mark Twain, but back then he was a soldier.

In New York City, Ruby became a stage actress and starred in countless Broadway and off-Broadway productions. She had television roles on “All My Children” and “Another World”. She appeared in some feature films, such as “The Goodbye Girl” with Richard Dreyfuss.

Yet she was practically forgotten in Newfoundland.

Ruby Holbrook died at age 95 in December 2018.

Her family mourned her death quietly.

There was no obituary. Immediate family and close friends held a memorial service at The Players Club for actors, of which Ruby was a member, in New York City on March 30.

Humble beginnings

Ruby was working as a secretary in St. John’s in 1945.

In the evenings, she rehearsed with the St. John’s Players for a Chinese play, “Lady Precious Stream”.

Playbill for the play which brought Ruby Johnston and Hal Holbrook together – the two met when they were cast in leading roles. It wasn’t long after that they moved to New York City and were married.
Playbill for the play which brought Ruby Johnston and Hal Holbrook together – the two met when they were cast in leading roles. It wasn’t long after that they moved to New York City and were married. -Submitted photo

Meanwhile, Hal Holbrook was stationed at Fort Pepperrell. He was a staff sergeant with the United States Army.

One evening, he was riding the bus back to the base, reading The Evening Telegram when he noticed a casting call for the very same play.

The bus went past the base and on to Memorial University, where he auditioned.

He got the part as a young prince, and his princess was Ruby.

Hal wrote about the moment he first met Ruby in his book, “Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain”.

“We shook hands briefly. She was nervous. I got the impression of a doe, poised and listening. We began to read. Her voice was low and a little husky, an actress’s voice. The lines seemed stilted coming out of my mouth, but on her they fit.”

He wrote that he was surprised to learn it was only Ruby’s second performance in a play.

“She seemed natural on the stage and gave off that hint of mystery within, which is the mark of an exceptional talent.”

Soon after getting the part, Hal learned that a good army friend was shot and killed in Germany.

In his book, he wrote that he remained largely silent for two months after the news — a silence that was broken only by rehearsals for “Lady Precious Stream”.

“I always looked forward to seeing Miss Johnston because there was a silence in her, too. Her eldest brother, Clifton, had been killed in the war.”

The pair soon began dating.

“Her silence attracted me, the mystery of it. She seemed wounded and I felt wounded, too. That drew me to her.”

After the bombing of Nagasaki in August 1945, Hal was told he would soon be shipped back to America. The couple decided to marry, but neither of their families were pleased.

Hal wrote his aunt and uncle in the United States to tell them of his plans.

He describes his uncle’s response in his book:

“She’s not going to fit in down here. They have different ways, you know, different habits and all that, and you must consider how you’ll feel when you get back home among your own people. I’m sure she’s a lovely person, but you’ve been up there in the snow for months and you’re lonely.”

Hal went to Fleming Street to ask Ruby’s father’s permission. He recalled the memory when he spoke at Ruby’s memorial service a few weeks ago.  

“Her father was a tough old bird from Newfoundland – a salesman – who said to me ... ‘If you take my daughter to America, and leave her there in Hollywood, I will come out there and kill you myself!’”

Despite her father’s stern warning, Ruby arrived at LaGuardia airfield late afternoon on Sept. 14, 1945. The couple was married at The Little Church Around the Corner in New York City.

They soon developed a two-person show in which they played famous people throughout history: Victoria and Albert, Rosalind and Orlando, the Brownings. They took their show thousands of miles, travelling across the United States performing in schools, theatres and churches, earning favourable reviews.

They even returned to Newfoundland and toured the show across the island, travelling by train. Ruby’s brother, Clyde, recalls going to see the show in St. John’s.

A family photo of the Holbrooks taken sometime in the late 1950s that included (from left) Hal, Victoria, David and Ruby Holbrook.
A family photo of the Holbrooks taken sometime in the late 1950s that included (from left) Hal, Victoria, David and Ruby Holbrook. -Submitted photo

“I thought it was marvelous,” the 89-year-old beamed with pride as if the play was yesterday.

It was in that show that Hal developed a knack for performing the role of Mark Twain — a role that would give the family its big break.

“Mark Twain Tonight” catapulted Hal to stardom in the mid-1950s.

It was during that time that the couple had their two children, David and Victoria.

Survived many struggles

“She wanted to get out of Newfoundland,” Ruby’s son, David Holbrook, told The Telegram.

“My father was like Aladdin’s magic carpet, a fairytale. Unfortunately, the carpet eventually came down to earth in a very painful and destructive way.”

Hal became increasingly busy with work, and Ruby was left to take care of the children. She became depressed.

“They divorced when I was eight years old, and my mother returned to acting after that,” said David.

Ruby never remarried.

David recalls going to see his mother in a play when he was about 13 years old.

“I didn’t even realize it was my mother until about 15 minutes after she was on stage.”

He said she was a “superb actress”.

In their early years, Hal and Ruby had gone to college together to study acting, and David said their colleagues all thought it was Ruby who would become the star — not Hal.

She developed breast cancer not long after the divorce. She survived that, and survived a recurrence of the cancer in later years.

“She was very tough — like a ‘steel magnolia’ that American Southerners speak of,” David said.

Clyde Johnston said his older sister, Ruby Holbrook, became who she always wanted to be when she left Newfoundland for New York City.
Clyde Johnston said his older sister, Ruby Holbrook, became who she always wanted to be when she left Newfoundland for New York City. -Juanita Mercer/The Telegram

She was “always a survivor,” he added.

Ruby’s daughter, Victoria Holbrook, told The Telegram her mother “had endless spunk.”

“She wore make-up until her dying day, even during the last four years when she was confined to bed. She was very intelligent and liked doing research into the historical roles she played.”

‘She became Ruby’

While Ruby Holbrook didn’t reach the same level of fame as her ex-husband, she was a seasoned actress and well-respected among her peers.

“There she is with Nathan Lane,” Clyde said, holding a 4x6 snapshot. Ruby appeared with Lane in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” in 2000. She would have been in her late 70s at that time.

Clyde recalls the 1940s when Ruby was still living at home in St. John’s.

“She was in a house that was a bunch of Newfoundlanders — and her,” he laughed.

Clyde believes his sister “became what she wanted to become” when she moved to New York.

“She became, um ...” he seemed to gaze off in the distance for some time, thinking, and then settled on three words: “She became Ruby.”

Twitter: @juanitamercer_

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