Stephen Sondheim, the lyricist-composer, once said that if actress Ruth Ford had only lived in another century, she would have been one of the great courtesans, salonnières at least, in all history. Actually, in her own lifetime—the last 59 years—Ruth has not done so badly.

It was a chance encounter between Sondheim and librettist Arthur Laurents in her Manhattan living room that led to their collaboration, with Leonard Bernstein, on West Side Story. Ruth's two late husbands were actors Peter (The Moon is Down) Van Eyck and Zachary (Mildred Pierce) Scott. Among the others in her life was Nobel laureate William Faulkner, whose novel, Requiem for a Nun, she adapted and starred in on stage. For all their long friendship, Ruth was never "his mistress," she says, adding, "but I now wish I had given him that pleasure." Of course, she notes, "I'm never going to tell who my lovers have been, but I will say I've always been a one-man woman—I stick." Her man the past four years has been Dotson Rader, 32, a leading writer (I Ain't Marchin' Anymore) of the campus revolution of the 1960s—and by most accepted accounts, a former male hustler.

Their age difference is not a difficulty. "One's chronological age has nothing to do with anything," says Ruth. And Dotson is convinced that "women between 18 and 40 have a kind of grimness, and 99 percent are only interested in marriage. Any woman of childbearing age is dependent on the male—it's a trap." Ford is no such threat. After her own two experiences (five years with Van Eyck, 13 years with Scott until his death in 1965), she now believes "marriage is a lost word. It has absolutely no meaning today."

Their own relationship is not, Rader and Ford insist, just an ultramodern coupling of convenience. Ruth loves Dotson with "all my heart, all my being." Then, too, she has always been drawn to artists ("because I know how difficult it is"), and she regards Rader, simply, as "the most important young writer in America today." That is love, and gallantly, Dotson responds, "Ruth is the best actress alive in this country—stage actress, that is—and it angers me she does not get more work."

She first arrived in New York from the University of Mississippi mid-Depression, needing work. Her parents were poor but well-born and artistic. Fortunately, her brother, Charles Henri Ford, a poet, painter and longtime lover of painter Pavel Tchelitchew, was well-connected. (It was Charles, in fact, who introduced her to Dotson.) Her beguiling Southern quality didn't hurt, either, and by 1937 she was modeling for photographers Carl Van Vechten, Man Ray and Cecil Beaton and acting in Orsen Welles's Shoemaker's Holiday. Her subsequent Hollywood apprenticeship was less stylish, including "B" flicks like Truck Busters and Gorilla Man. There she was reacquainted with Faulkner, whom she had met at college and who was then a screenwriter. "He came to the train station when I was leaving Hollywood," she remembers, "and gave me a rose. He said, 'I've been your gentleman friend so long, don't you think I should be promoted?' " It never happened.

Rader, barely born (in Evanston, Ill.) at the time, grew up on the road, for his father was an evangelist preacher. When he reached Columbia University, the Vietnam protest was peaking, and Dotson joined the SDS and declared "civil war" on behalf of "the young and black and radical and disaffected and the homosexual and the head." He now sees himself as a survivor of a "generation of highly troubled youths. Everyone is surprised by the number of people who are dead, gone crazy on drugs or committed suicide." Rader himself once slashed his wrists—unsuccessfully—and pulled through, "probably by my sense of humor." He is not amused, though, by people who make cracks about his first crude pornographic novel about a homosexual hustler, Gov't Inspected Meat and Other Fun Summer Things. "I wrote it in the first person," he says, "and it was deeply felt. I've never said in print I was a hustler, but of course all books are somewhat autobiographical," he concedes, which is not to say he takes kindly to "people who come up to me at parties and say they bought me for a night 15 years ago."

Dotson does not oppose the traffic per se. "Walt Whitman once said," he reminds, "that all boys should spend a year or two hustling. I think prostitution by all young people is probably healthy. It teaches you so much, brings you into the world and even gives you pocket money. Let's face it," he sums up, "most husbands can buy better sex than their wives can ever give them. Sex is such a cheap commodity."

Ruth and Dotson personally swirl with a crowd that includes many homosexuals. Rader believes that "the majority of significant artists, writers, actors, filmmakers are homosexual or Jewish or both. American high culture is a product of the imagination of the outsider, and most of the people who produce that culture are out of it. Art is positive," he theorizes, "but is based on profound alienation." As for sexual preferences, he remarks, "Frankly, I don't think anybody can say to you, 'I am totally straight or totally homosexual.' People pass through phases."

Ford and Rader live in the Dakota, the fashionable, fortress-like co-op on Manhattan's Central Park West, but both maintain separate apartments. "I have to have time to get myself together," she says, "and a free but close life is best." They do have differences of taste. She prefers soignée suppers. He is still into Big Macs, with extra catsup, and nights at sleazy Times Square movies. When Ruth is unavailable, he keeps company with aspiring journalist Richard Zoerink.

Ruth never sees her only daughter, Shelley, 34, by Van Eyck, who, she says, "greedily did me in" divvying up the Zachary Scott estate. Professionally and monetarily, the cooling of America has left Rader between causes. Though he considers himself "among the ten most important writers of my generation," he has been reduced of late to modest scribblings in Esquire and Playgirl. As for Ruth, she lately has gotten better notices than money or properties (her last stage triumph was off-Broadway in fall 1973). Then she has always cast herself more as a muse than a star. Even if that role is sometimes self-demeaning, or if her latest love has not quite delivered artistically, Ruth Ford is not dissatisfied. "My life has been too exciting, too wonderful," she says, "to let anything else, and that includes acting, come first."