Jeanne Muller Ryan, 71

By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / December 14, 2008
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In a life of triumphs and great tragedy, Jeanne Muller Ryan could have been the heroine of a play she helped cast as associate producer at the Charles Playhouse in downtown Boston.

"Jeanne had a passion for the theater and a big impact on what we did," said Frank Sugrue of Boston, who founded the playhouse in 1957. During her years there in the 1970s and '80s, she was, he said, "a major contributor to the success of the theater."

"Jeanne brought an enthusiasm and energy to our many projects at the Charles Playhouse," said Nance Movsesian, a Boston theater publicist who once worked at the Charles.

Mrs. Ryan, who ultimately left Charles Playhouse but remained active in the city's theatrical life as a member of the board of the Huntington Theatre Company for the past 15 years, died at home in Boston Nov. 28 of lung cancer. She was 71.

Mrs. Ryan opened her Beacon Hill home for fund-raising tours and gatherings to support charities, which made her a well-known socialite. Tours of her brick, Federal-style townhouse benefited neighborhood causes and brought together theatrical people and their potential backers.

"Jeanne had the aura of glamour," said Smoki Bacon of Boston, a longtime Beacon Hill friend. "She lived life to the fullest with a great deal of style."

Her home also was a haven for out-of-town actors playing here. Angela Lansbury stayed there during her performance in Boston in "Sweeney Todd," the Globe reported in 1981. And, when the actor Richard Chamberlain was directing a play at the Charles, Mrs. Ryan had a minigym installed in her library for him.

The home also has sad memories. There, in 1992, Mrs. Ryan's only child, Charles Muller DeFerrier, 28, died from a gunshot wound to the head in the company of friends.

"The circumstances of his death were never determined with certainty," said Victoria Stover Mordecai of San Marino, Calif., who was dating DeFerrier at the time and remained close to Mrs. Ryan.

A 1992 Globe report on the death quoted Mrs. Ryan as saying her son and two friends "were passing the gun back and forth and it went off accidentally." The story quoted a spokeswoman for the Suffolk district attorney's office as saying, "It does not look as if it was suicide."

Mrs. Ryan carried on after her son's death, her connection with the theatrical world and her friends an antidote to her grief.

"Jeanne was a great supporter of the artists," said Michael Maso, the Huntington Theatre's managing director, "and a big part of the theatre for a very long time."

After Mrs. Ryan was diagnosed with cancer five years ago, Mordecai said, she carried on her life with zest, still entertaining and playing tennis after surgery. Mrs. Ryan had a second home in Newport, R.I., where she summered and played in matches at the Newport Hall of Fame Tennis Club.

However, it was Mrs. Ryan's lifelong commitment to the theater and her Beacon Hill activities - among them the Beacon Hill Garden Club and the Beacon Hill Circle For Charity - that are most remembered. The latter raises funds for needy women and children by conducting tours of Beacon Hill homes such as hers.

Mrs. Ryan had the temperament to deal with theatrical life, said Charles J. Cohen, a Boston public relations man who was press agent with the Charles for 15 years and had attended some of Mrs. Ryan's parties for actors and staff.

At the playhouse, she was always on the decision-making end, helping to create policy, Cohen said. "She was very clever and bright but not pushy, in a way a little vulnerable. I never heard her raise her voice or have a temper. She was a slight blonde who looked a little bit like Grace Kelly, Tippie Hendren, or Eva Marie-Saint."

He recalled that Mrs. Ryan's home had "a gigantic library where the actor Carroll O'Connor spent an hour-and-a-half going through her books."

In spite of all her public endeavors and her "dramatic presence," Mrs. Ryan was still "a very private person," Mordecai said.

She was born and raised in West Orange, N.J. Her father was an insurance company executive who retired to Cape Cod. She was an only child, Mordecai said, "not from wealth, but a bootstrap girl."

She graduated in 1963 from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. and attended McGill University in Montreal and the Sorbonne in France. Before coming to Boston in 1969 and settling in Beacon Hill, she worked with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York City.

She was young and recently divorced, Mordecai said, when her mother bought her the house on Beacon Hill. It was in dire need of repairs, "a dump" in Mordecai's words, and Mrs. Ryan undertook a major renovation that made it handsome.

"It was a beautiful home," said longtime friend Jonnet Holladay of Boston. "There was always music at Jeanne's parties and elegant food. People arrived dressed to the nines, because she was always dressed to the nines. When she entered the room, it would light up. Jeanne could charm the king of Siam and, in the next five minutes, the plumber."

Her charm worked well at the Charles Playhouse. Among the productions she was involved with as coproducer, the Globe said, were "Vanities," "The Duck Variations," and "Give 'em Hell, Harry." She was "mesmerized by the intimacy of the Charles Playhouse," she told the Globe. "Actors love it and say they can see every seat in the house."

Paula Murphy of Quincy, who worked at the Charles as a teenager and is now its general manager, recalled how "hard-working and cultured" Mrs. Ryan was.

In 1987, Jeanne Muller married John Ryan, a Boston realtor. Joanna Fairchild of Oak Bluffs was in their wedding party. She recalled Mrs. Ryan as a "loyal friend" who had served on many theatrical and community organizations in Boston and Newport.

Her marriage to Mr. Ryan, since deceased, ended in divorce.

The loss of her son was a blow Mrs. Ryan "never recovered from," Mordecai said. "He was the center of her whole world. I think she put on a strong face."

Even in death, Mordecai said, Mrs. Ryan has remembered in trusts the many charities she supported.

She abided by her favorite saying, Mordecai noted: "Take all you can from life and give back twice as much."

In the obituary she prepared with Mordecai and Fairchild, Mrs. Ryan listed her survivors as her godson, her friend Victoria's son, Alfred Winborne Mordecai Jr. of San Marino, Calif., and his family; "the Jeanne Team" of women friends; and her ragdoll breed cat, Her Royal Highness Gigi.

Services will be held at the Church of the Advent in Boston at 3 p.m. Friday. . Burial will be private.

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