Skip to main content

Ruth McCrea, 94, Writer and Illustrator

May 28, 1921 - Feb. 27, 2016
Carissa Katz

Ruth D. McCrea, a writer and illustrator who had worked for all the major New York publishing houses, died at home in East Hampton on Feb. 27, surrounded by her family. She was 94.

She and her husband of 70 years, the late James McCrea, a designer and typographer, wrote and illustrated four children’s books published by Atheneum Books in the 1960s, “The Story of Olaf,” “The Birds,” “The Magic Tree,” and “The King’s Procession,” which was named one of the 50 best books of 1963 by the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

The McCreas also collaborated on dozens of book jackets, designs, and illustrations including covers for novels by such writers as Graham Greene and Iris Murdoch. They worked together on the original oil paintings used for the cover design of the full set of Ernest Hemingway titles in the Scribner Classic series.

Among Mrs. McCrea’s independent work were the covers and illustrations for dozens of cookbooks published by Peter Pauper Press, with titles ranging from “The ABC of Canapes” and “The ABC of Cheese Cookery” to “Simple Continental Cookery,” “Simple Hawaiian Cookery,” “Aquavit to Zombie: Basic and Exotic Drinks,” and “Abalone to Zabaglione: Unusual and Exotic Recipes.”

In East Hampton, where she was a longtime member of the Ladies Village Improvement Society, she was known as the “dollhouse lady,” her family wrote. She built and lovingly maintained a collection of elaborate dollhouses, all impeccably furnished and decorated. In years past, she often opened her historic Main Street house to visitors interested in her creations. The largest of them was called Hazard Hall, because, according to a 2011 article in The Star, “it was too hazardous to get anywhere near it because things, like the children’s chess pieces and their father’s handkerchiefs, disappeared into it.” 

“Every time life was too much for me, I would start another room on the house,” she told The Southampton Press in 1998. “It’s a form of escapism.”

She was born in Jersey City on May 28, 1921, to Ernest James Pirman and the former Ruth Waterman Dickinson. She attended schools in Brooklyn Heights, in Brightwaters, and in Florida, and earned her bachelor of fine arts degree from the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Fla., where she met her future husband.

For several seasons she led the Ringling Brothers circus parade on its return to winter quarters in Sarasota, seated on the head of an elephant, dressed as a harem girl, her family wrote. It was a high point in her life, they said.

The McCreas were married on July 4, 1943.

During World War II, while her husband served in the merchant marine and she lived in Miami with her in-laws, Mrs. McCrea supported herself painting watercolors of the Bahamas, producing more than 500 of them. The couple moved to New York City after the war and lived in Bayport from 1956 until 1980, when they bought a house in East Hampton and retired there. The house, built in 1750, was the site of frequent Christmas and summer garden parties and was often featured on house tours for the East Hampton Historical Society and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

Mrs. McCrea is survived by a son, James C. McCrea III of Wilton, Conn., and two daughters, Ruth D. McCrea Jr. of East Hampton and Claire D. McCrea of Southampton. She also leaves three granddaughters.

Services and burial were private. Memorial donations have been suggested to the L.V.I.S., 95 Main Street, East Hampton 11937, or to Planned Parenthood Hudson-Peconic, 4 Skyline Drive, Suite 7, Hawthorne, N.Y. 10532, an organization Mrs. McCrea had long supported.   

Your support for The East Hampton Star helps us deliver the news, arts, and community information you need. Whether you are an online subscriber, get the paper in the mail, delivered to your door in Manhattan, or are just passing through, every reader counts. We value you for being part of The Star family.

Your subscription to The Star does more than get you great arts, news, sports, and outdoors stories. It makes everything we do possible.