Rosalind Russell

Fast-Talking Professional Woman of Old Hollywood

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What I am most passionate about is to inspire you to see that your life is your own and biggest masterpiece.

Rosalind Russell has captured the audiences’ hearts with her rememberable roles of courageous women, her quick-witted fast-talking performances and her quirky on-screen persona.  

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Beginnings

Rosalind Russell was born Catherine Rosalind Russell on June 4, 1907 in Waterbury, Connecticut. Her father, director of a bank and practicing lawyer and her mother, a teacher, were of Irish-American descent and had seven children in total, with Rosalind placed smack in the middle. The family was wealthy and Russell’s childhood a happy one – the parents would take their children on adventures and excursions such as horseback rides, country fairs and skating trips. In this very setting, Rosalind developed the habit and the skill to make her siblings laugh. As her family was devout Catholic and thus Russell was primarily educated in Catholic schools. Her parents assumed she would train to become a teacher, but Russell attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City to pursue her dream of becoming an actress.

After graduation. Russell began her professional career as a fashion model and acted in several Broadway shows, she acted in summer stock companies and joined Edward E. Clive’s theater group in Boston for a year before returning to New York to perform in The Garrick Gaieties. 

She even trained to become an opera singer and took voice lessons, but her career in opera was cut short because of her difficulty to reach high notes. 

Start in Hollywood

In her early twenties, Rosalind Russell went to Los Angeles and got signed as a contract player by Universal Studios. Her experience at the studio was far from great. She was largely ignored by the crew and felt humiliated on a grand scale – it had a detrimental affect on her self-confidence. Most of her time at the studio was spent reading roles as a stand-in with actors auditioning for roles. All in all, she was quite unhappy with the leadership at Universal.

At that time, MGM approached Russell, but with her experience at Universal, she was quite reluctant to do another screen test – especially, as MGM was known for its roster of beautiful out-of-this-world stars. But, Russell was brought at ease by Benny Thau, vice-president of MGM and Ben Piazza, casting director of the studio. She agreed to a screen-test, which was done by Harold S. Bucquet. It was done so beautifully that she was – of course – offered a contract.

In order to get our of her Universal contract, Roz would get herself an ugly make-over and headed into a meeting with the studio heads. When she explained her unhappiness with Universal, the leadership and her roles in this distinctly unattractive get-up, the studio let her go without penalty. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

The first movie Rosalind Russell filmed for MGM was Evelyn Prentice in 1934 at age 27. Although small, the role got the critics’ attention and she was well-received. Her main genre was comedies and she would shine in the likes of Forsaking All Others and Four’s a Crowd and within a year she had become the obvious choice for roles that Myrna Loy had to turn down. 

Lady and Comedienne

In her first few years in Hollywood, Russell was almost always cast as a „lady“, well-dressed and well-mannered. In a 1936 interview, Russell complained about the typecasting: „Being typed as a lady is the greatest misfortune possible to a motion picture actress. It limits your characterizations, confines you to play feminine sops and menaces and the public never highly approves of either. An impeccably dressed lady is always viewed with suspicion in real life and when you strut onto the screen with beautiful clothes and charming manners, the most naive of theatergoers senses immediately that you are in a position to do the hero no good. I earnestly want to get away from this. First, because I want to improve my career and professional life and, secondly because I am tired of being a clothes horse – a sort of hothouse orchid in a stand of wild flowers.“ 

It was only three years later, in 1936, that she got the opportunity to show her comedic quick-witted talent when being cast for George Cukor’s The Women. The film was a hit and Russell’s role as gossip girl Sylvia Fowler was a roaring success. Her next movie His Girl Friday opposite Cary Grant cemented her image as a talented actress and comedienne. Although, apparently, Russell had not been Howard Hawks’ first choice for this movie. Before turning to Rusell, Hawks had asked Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Margaret Sullavan and Ginger Rogers whether they wanted to play the role. And all of them turned him down. And that is very fortunate as Russell really owned the role and made Hollywood history as the movie’s quick-witted Hildy Johnson, a character based on real life journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns. 

Later Career and Broadway

Throughout the 1940s, Russell starred in comedies like the Feminine Touch, Take a Letter, Darlin and My Sister Eileen, dramas such as Sister Kenny and Mourning Becomes Electra and the murder mystery The Velvet Touch. 

In 1953, she returned to Broadway with her Tony Award winning performance in Wonderful Town, which as a musical version of 1942’s My Sister Eileen. 

But her most memorable performance though was that of Auntie Name in the original 1957 Broadway production as well as the 1958 movie based on Patrick Dennis best-selling novel. She even received a Tony Award nomination for her performance in 1957, but unfortunately did not win. This would become the role she would become identified with the most. People apparently approached her in the streets even years after calling „Hey, Auntie Mame!“ When the musical version of the play was set up for production on Broadway in 1968, Rosalind Russell was asked to star in the lead role once again, but she had to decline due to health reasons. 

Before, throughout the 1960s Russell starred in a wide variety of movies like Picnic, A Majority of One, Five Finger Exercise, Gypsy opposite Natalie Wood, The Trouble with Angels and its sequel Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows. 

But most people don’t know that Rosalind Russell was also an author and screenwriter. Using the pen name C.A. McKnight, Russel wrote the screenplay for The Unguarded Moment starring Esther Williams as well as for 1971s Mrs. Pollifax-Spy. Russell also starred in Mrs. Pollifax-Spy, which was her last big role on screen at age 64. 

Russell received many awards, honors and nominations throughout her long career: Apart from four Academy Award nominations for Best Actress for the movies My Sister Eileen, Sister Kenny, Mourning Becomes Electra and Auntie Mame Russell received a Special Academy Award, the Jean Hershel Humanitarian Award in 1972, the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement, five Golden Globe Awards and a Tony Award. 

Rosalind Russell had all the makings for a star – the talent, the looks and the grit. But she never made it to the very top because she was unwilling to play studio politics, never buddied up to the heads of the studio and rather enjoyed her time playing cards with other crew members and definitely wanted to keep her private life private. She was never one to play the media or the publicity machine. She was successful and not many things are known about her most private life.

Health and Death

In 1943, 36 year-old Rosalind Russell suffered a mental breakdown and would not appear in movies throughout 1944. Contributing factors apparently were postpartum depression from the birth of her son Lance in 1943 as well as husband Brisson leaving to serve in World War II. 

In the 1960’s Russell was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo two mastectomies – one in 1965 and one in 1969. 

Also, in 1969, Russell was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and became a tireless advocate for research to improve the lives of people suffering from thematic diseases. In,1979 in honor of her tireless advocacy, Congress made a grant to establish the Rosalind Russell Medical Research Center for Arthritis at the University of California, San Francisco. Today, the center is titled The Russell/Engleman Rheumatology Research Center. Dr. Engleman served as Director of the Center from its launch until his death. A plaque with Russell’s name and story hang in the research center’s lobby. 

Rosalind Russell died of breast cancer on November 28, 1976 at age 69. 

Friendships

Irene Dunne and Loretta Young – Rosalind Russell was close friends with Irene Dunne and Loretta Young, also being a registered Republican and a devout Catholic frequenting the same church in Los Angeles. 

Jean Harlow – Roz was a close friend of Jean Harlow during the last years of the platinum blonde star’s life. 

Frank Sinatra – Rosalind and her husband were friends with Frank Sinatra and they would vacation at Frank Sinatra’s guest house often. Frank Sinatra would present Roz with her Jean Hershel Humanitarian Award in 1972.

Cary Grant – Rosalind Russel and Cary Grant filmed 1940’s My Girl Friday and became instant friends. 

Romance

There was only one man in Rosalind Russell’s life – Danish-American producer Frederick Brisson. Brisson travelled from England to the US by ship in 1939 to visit his friend Cary Grant in Los Angeles. He stayed at Grant’s guest house during the filming of His Girl Friday. 

During his voyage to the US, Brisson had been exposed to The Women constantly as the hit movie had been shown on an endless loop on the ship. He got especially charmed by Sylvia Fowler aka Rosalind Russell. Apparently, he said to a fellow companion on board: “I’m either gonna kill that girl, or I’m gonna marry her“. 

Well, when he learned that his friend Cary Grant was filming a movie with exactly that woman, he begged Grant for an introduction. And Grant did as he was ordered. He would subsequently greet Rosalind Russell each morning on set with the question “Have you met Freddie Brisson?“ without explaining anymore about his friend. One night, when Grant went to pick up Russell to go dancing, as they often did, Grant had Brisson tag along. They all went for dinner – and the plan paid off. Rosalind Russell and Frederick Brisson married on October 25, 1941 with Cary Grant as best man. They were married for 35 years until Rosalind Russel’s death in 1976. They had one son, Carl Lance Brisson, who was born in 1943. 

Style

Rosalind Russell startet appearing on „best dressed“ lists when she still was in high school – and that continued when she took over Broadway and Hollywood. 

Her fashion advice is absolute gold. In a 1955 interview, Rosalind Russell shared her view and expertise

  1. „It takes observation, analysis, and experience,” she said. “When you see a woman whose appearance you admire, study her and try to find out how she has achieved this effect. “Read the fashion magazines for an overall fashion picture but beware of those dedicated to high styling. These magazines are designed to train the eye to what is new rather than being an indication of what is right for the average girl.
  2. Don’t allow shyness or pride to keep you from seeking professional advice and ask a professional saleswoman or stylist
  3. “One of the great pitfalls to avoid is over-dressing. Every woman should own a full-length mirror and use it for a final inspection before she leaves the house. She should ask herself. ‘Is anything superfluous? The earrings, perhaps? The flowers at my waist?’ “Your dress should never be more striking than your personality. People should be aware of you before they notice what you’re wearing. “The right clothes can be a big help in disguising your figure faults, too. For example, a soft scarf tied at the throat will break the line of a long neck. There are dozens of tricks like this if you will only take the trouble to learn them. “Two very important rules of fashion are these: dress for the occasion and dress your age.
  4. If you don’t carry yourself well. Your posture is worth as much of your time and attention as your wardrobe. Here’s where that full length mirror comes in handy, again. Practice walking in front of it, examining yourself from every angle. Check whether or not you are walking from the hip and transferring your weight from one foot to the other in a fluid movement. “Try walking on an un-carpeted floor and the sound you hear will tell you whether you are dragging your feet or clumping your heels down first. “Just wearing comfortable shoes will solve many cases of poor posture. It’s only logical that you can’t walk gracefully when your feet hurt,
  5. She was – in her own words – anti-diet. “I enjoy good food. I have a healthy appetite and I’m grateful for it. Occasionally when I do overindulge, I try to make up for it the next day. I guess that’s as close as I come to dieting a kind of feast and famine routine. This way I never have the feeling that I’m denying myself anything. Since I like all foods I can usually find enough low-calorie food that I like to satisfy me on the days when I’m cutting down and I’m just as happy having fruit for dessert. “One thing I won’t skimp on is breakfast. There was a time when I used to race to the studio in the morning on nothing but a cup of coffee. I had little energy and found it difficult to get through the morning. Now I eat a good breakfast of grapefruit juice, two boiled eggs, crisp bacon, whole grain toast, coffee, and vitamins. I feel better and look better for it. I’m convinced that good food is important to beauty and health.

But, Rosalind Russell was equally stylish on the screen as she was off the screen. Especially , her wardrobe for both The Women and His Girl Friday are extraordinary and show the power of costume and style. In The Women, Sylvia Fowler stands out in Adrian designed gowns that are as lively and eccentric as the character that Russell portrays. In His Girl Friday, Russell dons only two different outfits, both are striped suits – which is even more indication for the wide-held assumption that the character of Hildy is based on contemporary journalist and writer Adela Rogers St. Johns.

Russell has been a style icon of her time for good reason. 

With all my love!

xx

Kate

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