A brilliant, charismatic and charming actress, Rosalind Russell spent her more than four-decades long career reflecting her own life experiences and observations on the world in the characters she brought to life on stage and screen. She was the winner of five Golden Globe awards and a Tony Award as well as the Jean Herscholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1973.
Rosalind Russell was born in 1907 in Waterbury, Conn., to an educated and affluent family. Her father was a prominent trial lawyer and her mother a fashion editor for Vogue. One of seven siblings, she was named after the Steamship S.S. Rosalind on which her parents had once traveled. Russell attended the Notre Dame Academy in Waterbury and then Marymount College in Tarrytown, N.Y. After two years there, she convinced her mother that she intended to teach theater and was allowed to enroll in the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts in New York City. The plan, however, was always to become an actress.
In 1934, after a brief stint on Broadway, Russell moved to Hollywood and began screen testing. She first signed with Universal Studios, but immediately after she entered into her contract, received a better offer from MGM. Russell approached Universal, lamenting her naiveté and her lack of knowledge of the studio system, and convinced Universal to release her from her contract. She then signed with MGM. Her film debut, in 1934’s Evelyn Prentice, was well-received and, though she played a minor role, her talent was noticed. She went on to star in a series of comedies, often being typecast in roles where she played a wealthy, extremely ladylike character—an image Russell earnestly sought to change.
Her first major critical acclaim came in 1935 when she played opposite Robert Young in West Point of the Air. Her career received a huge boost in 1939 when she starred in The Women, based on Clare Boothe Luce’s play of the same name. Russell’s biggest break came in 1940 when she starred as ace reporter Hildy Johnson opposite Cary Grant in the screwball comedy classic His Girl Friday, creating one of film history’s most enduring feminist icons. Two years later, Russell would earn an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Ruth Sherwood in My Sister Eileen and a Tony Award for her performance in Wonderful Town, the theatrical adaptation of the film. She would go on to earn three more Oscar nominations and five Golden Globe Awards. Other highlights of Russell’s career include Craig’s Wife (1936), Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), Auntie Mame (1958), Gypsy (1962), and Mrs. Pollifax (1971). In 1966, she starred in The Trouble with Angels, which also featured Susan Saint James in one of her first film roles.
Russell was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. In 1973, she received the Jean Herscholt Humanitarian Award for her extensive charity work in the Los Angeles area and beyond, including Children’s Services in Connecticut. The American National Theater and Academy presented her with the National Artists Award in 1974. In 2009, Life is a Banquet: The Rosalind Russell Story premiered with Kathleen Turner narrating Russell’s life and career.
Rosalind Russell died in Los Angeles on November 28, 1976.
During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times
The Cold War in the 1950s between the Soviet Union and the United States produced fear of domestic subversion. The McCarthy Era purged suspected Communists from government, the entertainment industry, and universities, and labeled gays and lesbians as un-American security risks. General anxiety contributed to a popular conception of the family as a source of social stability, and reinforced traditional notions of women’s place at home. In 1963, Betty Friedan called this promise of fulfillment through the domestic arts the “feminine mystique,” and advocated instead that women seek personal careers.
For two decades, a burgeoning economy and a growing consumer culture had expanded the availability of jobs for women. Notable was the increase in the workforce of married women, especially middle-class white women and educated women, though they were viewed in the media as working less for a career than to assist their families with needed income or desirable amenities for the home.
Some working-class women in labor unions challenged traditional cultural norms, such as the United Electric, Radio and Machine Workers who achieved non-discrimination clauses in local contracts. Middle-class women moderated their interest in women’s issues, promoting instead advancement through the League of Women Voters, YWCA, and the American Association of University Women. More radical women in Women Strike for Peace demonstrated against the nuclear arms race and were summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1962. Many activists would join the Civil Rights Movement.
The movement against segregation following World War II dates from the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal and thus a violation of the 14th amendment. African-Americans were given new hope, and in 1955 Rosa Parks, a black seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered a bus boycott of critical importance. Black women and white women took part in boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, and marches. A culminating achievement in 1965 was the Voting Rights Act pushed through by President Johnson.
Mexican-Americans in the southwest also fought to improve their life and work conditions. In 1962, Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, played a leading role in organizing a national boycott of grapes that forced growers to sign a contract with the union.
Other ethnic groups were soon to come to America, enriching its diversity. The Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965 established an immigration system based on family preference. Half of the new immigrants came from Mexico and Central and South America, while a quarter were from Asia. Two-thirds of the immigrants were women and children. While poverty and acculturation were issues, for many the time-honored American process of upward social mobility had begun.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.