“It’s fine to have talent, but talent is the last of it. In an acting career, as in an acting performance, you’ve got to have vitality. The secret of successful acting is identical with a woman’s beauty secret: joy in living.” –Rosalind Russell
Throughout her career, Rosalind Russell portrayed a wide range of strong female characters. From her witty performance as Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday (1940) to Mame Dennis in Auntie Mame (1958) and so many more, Russell enjoyed much success as a comedic and dramatic lead and tended to regularly play professional women.
Catherine Rosalind Russell was born in Waterbury, Connecticut. Her father was a lawyer, while her mother was a teacher. Russell was one of seven children and the family also employed two servants to help manage the household. Russell was actually named after the ship on which her parents once traveled.
Being part of an Irish-American Catholic family, Russell attended Catholic schools such as Rosemont College in Pennsylvanian and Marymount College in New York. She remained a devout Catholic all her life. After graduating, she attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Though her parents thought that she was studying to become a teacher, she actually intended to become a comedic actress. As a result, when she finished her schooling in New York City, she acted in summer stock productions in Connecticut against her parents’ wishes.
Soon after, Russell moved to Boston ad worked at a theater repertory, where she also took voice lessons. Though she began to build an operatic career, she had difficulty singing higher notes and did not pursue the career further. Instead, she moved to Los Angeles, where she was hired as a contract player for Universal Studios. Ultimately unhappy with Universal, she aimed to work for MGM. Unfortunately, she was not able to break her Universal contract. As time went on and MGM approached her for a screen test, she found MGM to be a far more positive experience and signed a contract with them instead.
Newly under contract with MGM, she made her film debut in Evelyn Prentice (1934) in a small role. However, Russell received positive reviews and progressed to appearing in many comedies, such as Forsaking All Others (1934) and Four’s a Crowd (1938). She was also cast in dramatic roles, such as Craig’s Wife (1936) and The Citadel (1938). By 1935, she was essentially seen as a replacement for Myrna Loy and took on several roles initially envisioned for Loy.
Over time, Russell found herself carrying an image of sophistication but establishing a reputation as a comedienne. After a successful performance in the all-female comedy, The Women (1939), Russell continued to explore her knack for comedy with the hit film, His Girl Friday (1940). Her performance as a quick-witted reporter in His Girl Friday became one of her most iconic performances, despite the role being turned down by the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, and more. She followed this film with other comedies, including The Feminine Touch (1941), Take a Letter, Darling (1942), and My Sister Eileen (1942), in addition to other dramatic films.
During this time, Russell’s co-star in His Girl Friday, Cary Grant, introduced her to Danish-American producer Frederick Brisson. Brisson fell in love with Russell upon watching The Women while he was traveling. The two eventually met when Brisson was staying at Grant’s guest house during the filming of His Girl Friday and married in 1941, with Grant acting as best man at their wedding. They would remain married for 35 years until Russell’s passing. The couple had one son named Carl Lance Brisson.
In 1944, Russell made no films due to health problems and major losses in her family. Two of her siblings passed away at that point, contributing to her ill health.
Russell also spent her time on stage, offering a Tony Award-winning performance in Wonderful Town (1953), which was a musical version of My Sister Eileen. However, her most memorable role would be as an eccentric aunt in Auntie Mame—a role which she carried out on stage and in the 1958 film.
In the 1960s, Russell continued to appear in films, including Gypsy (1962) and The Trouble with Angels (1966), among others. In fact, before shooting began on The Trouble with Angels, Russel was contacted by a former school friend and mother superior in St. Louis to attend a fundraiser for a Catholic girl’s school she was grounding. Russell felt that the film itself would be an excellent fundraiser and convinced Columbia Pictures to hold the premier in St. Louis, where ticket proceeds went to the school’s building fund. In addition to her work as an actress, she also wrote the story for the film The Unguarded Moment (1956) under the pen name C.A. McKnight.
At this point in her life, Russell was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Shocked by how little treatment options were available, Russell advocated for more research and education relating to the illness.
Russell passed away on November 28, 1976, from breast cancer. She was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.
Today, Russell’s legacy is celebrated in a number of ways. In 1910, she was listed as living at 34 Chestnut Ave. in Waterbury, Connecticut. Here is a shot of the property today:
In 1920, she lived at 114 Willow St. in Waterbury, Connecticut. This is what the property looks like now:
On one of Russell’s return trips to her hometown, Russell was present at a plaque dedication ceremony outside of the State Theater at 137 E. Main St. in Waterbury. Neither the theater nor plaque remain today.
Russell is also honored at the Rosalind Russell Medical Research Center for Arthritis. Her portrait and a description of her work hangs in the lobby, as Congress made a grant in 1979 to establish the research center, in honor of her Congressional appointment to the National Commission on Arthritis. The building is located at 350 Parnassus Ave, #600, San Francisco, California.
Russell was an admirable woman who devoted herself to her career and causes about which she was passionate. She is well remembered for these contributions and for her filmography.