Rosalind Russell’s long career as a soignee actress with a flair for comedy almost came to an end in 1955, when she fled Waterbury, Conn., in the midst of Hurricane Diane.
She had paid a visit to her hometown for the premiere of her otherwise forgettable film, The Girl Rush. Her better films included The Women, His Girl Friday, My Sister Eileen, Gypsy and Auntie Mame. She also won a Tony award as Best Actress for Wonderful Town, a Broadway hit with music by Leonard Bernstein.
Unlike many actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the deeply religious Russell stayed married to one man her whole life. She took a long time to get around writing her autobiography, she explained, “because for thirty-five years I’d been married to one husband. (Thirty-five years? And she calls herself a movie star?)”
She titled her autobiography Life is a Banquet, after one of her most memorable lines as Auntie Mame: “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving.”
She was born Catherine Rosalind Russell on June 4, 1907, a middle child of seven in a prosperous Catholic family in Waterbury. Her father had a lucrative law practice, and her mother worked as a teacher. “My mother was Irish and she was superstitious, if you’ll forgive the tautology,” she wrote.
Young Roz had a Catholic school education, and remained a devout Catholic her whole life. “My family was very Irish in the middle of New England Congregationalists–there was a great distrust of Catholics; we couldn’t go into their churches, they weren’t supposed to come into ours,” she wrote.
When she reached her teens her family moved to a 13-room Victorian house on Cracker Hill, where they had two servants. She attended Waterbury Catholic High, and even as a Hollywood movie star kept in touch with her favorite teachers. She then went to Catholic college, Rosemont in Pennsylvania and Marymount in Tarrytown, N.Y.
Trouble with Angels
Later in her career, she played mother superior in The Trouble with Angels, released in 1966. Before shooting began, a friend–a real mother superior–asked her to come to St. Louis to raise money for a Catholic girls’ school she was trying to build. Russell convinced Columbia Pictures to open the film in St. Louis and donate ticket proceeds to the school.
She herself cut her high school classes to go to local theatrical performances, of which there were plenty in Waterbury back then.
Russell lied to her mother about leaving Marymount for acting school. She told her she wanted to teach voice. Then she enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City to study acting.
Rosalind Russell’s name then appeared on the playbill of several summer stock productions, in a Boston repertory theatre company and in a minor role on Broadway. In 1934, she signed a contract with MGM. Her breakthrough came five years later when she played the classy, glamorous and funny Sylvia Fowler in the film The Women.
Cary Grant, Matchmaker
The Women established her as a comedienne and brought her to the attention of Frederick Brisson, a Danish film producer and friend of Cary Grant. Brisson sailed to New York from Europe in an ocean liner that played The Women in a continuous loop, which he half-ignored. He finally sat down to watch it and fell in love with Russell. “I’m either gonna kill that girl, or I’m gonna marry her,” he told a friend.
Rosalind Russell worked on another film where she combined glamour and wit, His Girl Friday, with Grant. They played fast-talking journalists with lines like, “I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up.” Grant was single at the time, and he and Russell dated during filming.
She didn’t know Brisson stayed in Grant’s guest house while they made His Girl Friday. Every morning on the set, Cary Grant would greet Russell with the question, “Have you met Freddie Brisson yet?” Finally he showed up one night to take her to dinner and dancing, but he had a stranger at his side. Freddie Brisson, of course.
Cary Grant acted as best man at their wedding in 1941. Three years later they had one son, Carl Lance Brisson.
Rosalind Russell Returns to Waterbury
In 1955, Waterbury lured Rosalind Russell back by renaming the State Theatre the Rosalind Russell State Theatre. The ceremony would coincide with the premiere of her latest film. She agreed.
“I rode in a parade in a white satin dress that was all beaded, with a matching little thing that sat on my head, being Princess Grace all over the joint,” she wrote.
The theatre manager who greeted her was blind drunk, she had to attend a dinner at ‘the great snob Waterbury Club,’ her brother had to make a speech and a television crew had set up cameras on the Waterbury green.
“And then the storms washed everything away,” she wrote.
Hurricane Diane washed away the bridge and the railroad, and it killed 55 people in Waterbury. She left for New York City in a rented car with an assistant and a driver, who she directed to New Haven. The Naugatuck River had overflowed, so she had no hope of going through Bridgeport.
“It was a terrible night, and I’ve never been to Waterbury since,” she wrote.