Their home is quiet, the garden outside lush with fruit. But even as Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee enjoy the easy tranquillity of their patio in New Rochelle, N.Y., they have no illusions about what has kept their marriage so vigorous for so long. “The struggle,” Davis says with authority, and Dee nods.
It’s not that Davis and Dee, who will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in December, normally fight between themselves. “They absolutely adore each other,” says friend Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise magazine. Nor do they need to struggle these days to sustain the distinguished careers that have taken them, separately and in tandem, from the award-winning 1959 Broadway drama A Raisin in the Sun to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) to last summer’s Dr. Dolittle, with Eddie Murphy.
But as their new dual autobiography, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, makes clear, Davis and Dee have devoted much of their lives to political activism, particularly the fight for civil rights. “We were not only trying to perfect our gift,” says old friend and fellow activist Harry Belafonte, “but we also understood the social mission to break down racial barriers.” Davis and Dee emceed the 1963 March on Washington, and two years later, Davis eulogized Malcolm X after the black leader’s assassination. “It strengthens the character,” Davis says of his moral and political commitment. “It’s the grist out of which you make a life.”
Though their lives have brushed against some of the century’s epic moments, Davis, 80, wasn’t eager at first to put his memories between hard covers. “I didn’t want to go through all that detail stuff,” he says. Now he’s glad he reconsidered. “I know you infinitely better,” Davis says to Dee. “And I appreciate you even more.”
The radiant Dee, 74, is easy to admire. The third of four children born to Gladys Hightower, who later left her family to follow a preacher, and Edward Nathaniel Wallace, a Pennsylvania Railroad waiter, Dee grew up in Harlem in New York City. Raised by her father and stepmother, Emma Benson, a former teacher and sometime activist, she was soon picketing neighborhood shops that didn’t hire blacks. Drawn to theater in high school, Dee won a role in the American Negro Theater’s production of On Strivers’ Row during her freshman year at Hunter College. Around that time she joined the teenage Belafonte, among other talents, in Harlem’s thriving arts community. “Harry would get up and sing along with the music playing on the radio,” she writes, “and some of us would tease him, ‘Harry, puhleeze! Do you have to?’ ” Dee’s short-lived first marriage to Frankie Dee, who worked in promotions for a distillery, fell apart in 1945; that same year she was cast in Jeb, a Broadway show starring newcomer Ossie Davis (“He seemed so shy and skinny,” she says) in a role she had hoped would go to a friend.
But Davis already had outsize ambition. Born in 1917 in Cogdell, Ga., the first of five children of a railway construction-engineer and his wife, Davis learned quickly how to stay alive in an area where racism was rampant. “The only way to avoid danger was to disavow action,” he writes. Davis lost that habit when he moved north, first to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., then to become a playwright and actor in New York City. After a three-year tour of duty as a medical technician during World War II, Davis got home in time to win the lead in Jeb, and then the heart of his costar. “I don’t remember a campaign to secure your hand,” he says to Dee. “And I don’t recall you organizing an attack on my bachelorhood. We were head over heels.”
Married in 1948, Davis and Dee both worked steadily onstage, in films and on television, and raised their three kids (Nora, 48, an educator; Guy, 46, a blues musician; and Hasna, 41, a middle-school assistant principal) in leafy Westchester County. But their personal success made them more determined than ever to support the causes they believe in. “The struggle for freedom in this country is over and done,” Davis says. “But the struggle for equality has hardly begun.” Working in recent years with director Spike Lee has allowed them to combine their art with keen social awareness. “He’s a good boss,” Dee says, approvingly. “And I think Spike is maturing, philosophically. He’s growing up out loud, and I like that.” Davis nods. “Like Malcolm,” he says.
To no one’s surprise, the couple’s golden-anniversary party in Manhattan will serve as a benefit for 12 community theaters, with Bill Cosby as master of ceremonies and guests including Alan Alda, Colin Powell and Sidney Poitier. As for the family’s plans to celebrate, “We’re at the mercy of our children and our seven grandchildren,” grumps Davis. “But I’ll grin and be sociable about the whole thing.” Just another struggle to relish.
Peter Ames Carlin
Sue Miller in New Rochelle