Opinion: Once Upon A Time In Coral Gables There Lived A Significant Figure In Women’s History

By Karelia Martinez Carbonell, President of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables   

In honor of International Women’s History Month, Ruth Bryan Owen’s time has come for an appropriate recognition. 

Ruth Bryan Owen, daughter of William Jennings Bryan, the three-time presidential candidate and great orator, lived at 644 Altara Avenue, a special property in Coral Gables historic Italian Village. The local landmark, built in 1925 by influential architect Robert Law Weed, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  

In the heyday of creating his new city, George Merrick hired Ruth’s father to promote tourism and the development of Coral Gables.  Jennings Bryan also contributed to the founding of the University of Miami, where Ruth served as Vice President of the first Board of Regents at the school.  One of Ruth’s favorite events was hosting teas at her Altara residence for the University of Miami sororities.

A woman of many firsts

Following in her politician father’s footsteps, in 1929 she was elected as Florida’s (and the South’s) first female US Representative and also the first woman to earn a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She named her campaign car “The Spirit of Florida.” In 1933, she became the first woman to be appointed as a U.S. ambassador, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt selected her as Ambassador to Denmark and Iceland.

Coral Gables named a park after Ruth and erected a plaque to commemorate her accomplishments

Her political career allowed her to take on important issues of the day including championing the preservation of Florida’s natural environment. Ruth worked with environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas to help create Everglades National Park.  A Danish newspaper described her actions at a protest by landowners opposing the idea of a park as follows: “And she thought that the Everglades swamps should be a national park.  At a meeting of the Congress was a group of landowners…they stated it was pointless to classify their lands as a national park because Everglades was mud-filled with snakes and mosquitoes. The landowners had brought a live snake, so everyone could see how disgusting and dangerous a place [it was]. But Ruth grabbed the snake and placed it around her neck and said, ‘Exactly so scared we are of snakes in the Everglades.’ And yes, the national park was created.”

Ruth Bryan Owen Waterway Park is on the corner of Granada and Bird Road. One can launch a kayak or canoe from the park. It is a serene place to plan a picnic, relax and even bird watch. And yes, maybe encounter one of those snakes?

Ruth Bryan Owen loved the cinema and clearly saw herself as a film pioneer

Before being elected to Congress, she devoted almost all of her energies to filmmaking in Miami, declaring in a 1921 letter to a friend that she loved nothing as she loved the cinema. She independently financed, produced, wrote, and directed the feature film Once Upon a Time (1922) [sadly it is believed to be lost.]  The film was shot at two South Florida estates, the James Deering Estate in Coconut Grove and William J. Matheson’s Mashta House in Key Biscayne [the house was destroyed in the 1940s.]

Married three times, Owen financed her film solely through the income she earned on the grueling public lecture circuit, a situation she found herself in because her family had disinherited her for marrying her first husband, the Chicago artist William Homer Leavitt.

In addition to those of wife, mother, and friend, Ruth served as a voluntary nurse in the Egypt-Palestine conflict during World War I, she was a university professor, congresswoman, ambassador, world traveler, environmentalist, women’s advocate, published author, and, independent filmmaker, making her a very significant figure in women’s history.

For a deeper look into the life of Ruth Bryan Owen, please consider the book by her youngest daughter titled “An intimate Portrait” published in 2014.


5 thoughts on “Opinion: Once Upon A Time In Coral Gables There Lived A Significant Figure In Women’s History

  1. Born in 1953 I grew up on Altara a block from her house which we knew as “William Jennings Bryan’s daughter’s house.” Just as my Coral Gables schools never taught us about the role of Bahamians in founding the Grove, not a word was taught about this pioneering woman. What a travesty! Thank you for this excellent article.

  2. Thank you fir this article on Ruth Bryan Owen. Such an active political and productive life!
    I am a Gables newcomer and love to learn of its history. I can now visit the Altara area and know it is called the Italian Village. Is there a class/group in the Gables that does classes or historic tours?

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