Ruth Owen – The first U.S. female ambassador and a pioneer in filmmaking

Tijana Radeska
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Ruth Owen

Ruth Baird Bryan Leavitt Owen Rohde was the first woman elected to Congress from a Southern state as a U.S. representative from Florida. She was also the first woman who earned a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Owen as ambassador to Denmark and Iceland, making her the first female ambassador.

Congresswoman Ruth Bryan Owen of Florida.

Born in Jacksonville, Illinois, in 1885, she was the daughter of the attorney William Jennings Bryan, who ran three times for president of the United States, and his wife, Mary E. Baird. She attended public schools while in Washington, D.C., and then went on to the Monticello Female Academy in Gofrey, Illinois. In 1901, at the age of 16, Ruth started taking classes at the University of Nebraska. However, she dropped out after two years to marry the famous portrait painter from Rhode Island, William H. Leavitt. The pair met while Leavitt was visiting Ruth’s home to paint her father’s portrait. The marriage lasted six years, and the couple had two children before their divorce in 1909.

Artist William Homer Leavitt

In the following year, Ruth married a British Army officer, Reginald Owen, with whom she had two more children. Sadly,  Owen died in 1928, and Ruth went to Oracabessa in Jamaica, and there she stayed, for three years, while overseeing the construction and design of her new home, which she named Golden Clouds. She purchased the property from the mother of the English businessman and founder of Island Records, Chris Blackwell. Ruth bought only part of the Blackwell property, and the rest was purchased by Sir Noël Peirce Coward and Ian Fleming.  Ruth’s Golden Clouds became a place for parties and gatherings, with guests such as Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, and Charlie Chaplin. The house is now run as a luxury villa.

The future ambassador had many interests before getting involved in politics; during World War I, for instance, she served as a war nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment in the Egypt–Palestine campaign, 1915–1918. Ruth also happened to be one of the female pioneers in the movie industry, when, in 1922, she was the screenwriter, director, and producer for the feature film Once Upon a Time/Scheherazade. The production, now considered lost, featured the Community Players of Coconut Grove, Florida.

Golden Clouds, Jamaica

The movie, which was said to evoke an “atmosphere of experience in the Far East” for its complicated staging and ornate costumes, is about a Shah who is dethroned by a jealous subordinate. This malicious ruler abuses his new power to humiliate and torture young women, and after targeting the most beautiful, is reconfronted by the Shah, who returns just in time to save the woman. According to the industry, Owen was inspired by her extensive travels around India, Sri Lanka, Burma, China, and Japan.

What is known about the movie is mostly from Ruth’s correspondence with her friend Carrie Dunlap. In her letters to Dunlap, she expressed her desire to become one of the female pioneers of the movie industry. Owen funded her movie from her own earnings on the public speaker circuit but was also assisted by the General Federation of Women’s clubs, which helped her secure a distribution deal with the Society for Visual Education.

Politician William Jennings Bryan and daughter Ruth Bryan Leavitt

A year after the death of her father in 1926, Ruth ran for the Democratic nomination for Florida’s 4th congressional district, which, at the time, included almost the whole east coast of the state, from Jacksonville to Miami. She lost by barely 800 votes. She was the administrator at the University of Miami between 1925 and 1928. In 1927, when a hurricane hit Miami, Ruth played a significant role by putting effort into promotions in newspapers. In 1928, she ran again for office and won by more than 14,000 votes.

She was elected to Congress in 1928. However, her election was opposed with claims that by marrying a non-American, she had lost her citizenship. According to the Cable Act in 1922, she could petition for her U.S. citizenship, and did so in 1925, which was less than the seven years required by the Constitution. While arguing her case before the House Committee on Elections, Ruth said that there was no American man who had ever lost his citizenship by marriage and that she did not believe that her marital status was the reason she had lost her citizenship, but rather, due to the fact that she was a woman. The U.S. House of Representatives voted in her favor.

Ruth ran for re-election in 1930, which was to be her last term, as in 1932, she was defeated by another Democratic candidate, J. Mark Wilcox, who advocated the repeal of Prohibition. When her Congressional career ended, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her as the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark. She filled the post from 1933 until 1936, when she resigned to marry Borge Rohde. Rohde was a Danish Captain of the King’s Guard, and Ruth acquired the Danish citizenship by marriage in addition to her American citizenship.

Ruth Bryan Owen (1929).

The wedding of Captain Rohde and the first U.S. female ambassador took place at the estate belonging to President Franklin and his wife, Eleanor, in Hyde Park, New York. Ruth announced that she would retain her own name in her literary and diplomacy careers. At the San Francisco Conference, when the United Nations was established after the end of World War II, Ruth served as a delegate, and again in 1948, when she was named as an alternate delegate to the U.N. General Assembly by President Truman.

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Owen spent many winters in Jamaica at her Golden Clouds residence. Ruth even wrote a book about her experiences in Jamaica called Caribbean Caravel. She died in Copenhagen in 1954, at the age of 68. In 1992, she was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame.