A bona fide movie icon, Rosalind Russell sparkled as the sharp-witted ex-wife of a newspaper editor (Cary Grant) in the comedy classic His Girl Friday and played to perfection the hedonistic, free-spirited title character in Auntie Mame. She also had leading parts in high drama, including O’Neill’s tragedy Mourning Becomes Electra, and earned a Tony® for her performance in Leonard Bernstein’s musical Wonderful Town.
Born in Waterbury, Connecticut, in 1907, Russell studied at Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. By 1930 she was on Broadway in the short-lived musical revue Garrick Gaieties, which also featured comedienne Imogene Coca, and the following year she played Miss Mallory in the Broadway farce Company’s Coming.
Her filled-to-the-brim filmography began in 1934 with Evelyn Prentice, a story of extramarital dalliance and blackmail that starred the team of William Powell and Myrna Loy, who made the first of their Thin Man movies that year. Also in 1934 Russell appeared in the suspense film The President Vanishes and romantic comedy Forsaking All Others, featuring Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, and Joan Crawford. Of some twenty-five films that Russell made in the 1930s alone, two in which she played the leading lady stand out: Night Must Fall (1937), named Best Picture of the Year by the National Board of Review, and the classic film version of Cronin’s The Citadel (1938), featuring Robert Donat, Rex Harrison, and Ralph Richardson; nominated for four Oscars®, it won the New York Film Critics Circle Award and was named Best Picture of the Year by the National Board of Review. In 1939 she co-starred in the comedy The Women with Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford.
One of Russell’s best-loved roles was that of the quick-tongued reporter Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday (1940), an adaptation of The Front Page, in which Russell played opposite Cary Grant; the dialogue dizzies with airy repartee. Russell, as a business executive, starred opposite Fred McMurray in the office comedy Take a Letter, Darling (1942), but she also appeared in lofty tragedy, starring as Lavinia Mannon in the film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), a modernization of the Oresteia by the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus. She was nominated for an Oscar® and won a Golden Globe for her performance.
In her return to Broadway in 1953, she had the leading role of Ruth Sherwood in Leonard Bernstein’s musical Wonderful Town, a tale about two sisters – transplanted from Ohio to New York City – who try to make it in the Big Apple. Though singing was not Russell’s strong suit, her performance was magnetic enough to win her a Tony® for Best Actress in a Musical, and the show won four other Tonys®, including Best Musical. Columbia issued an original cast recording.
After her victory in Wonderful Town, Russell returned to the boards in what became her signature role, the title character of Auntie Mame (1956), a comedy that played for 639 performances. She reprised the role of the quirky aunt addicted to cocktail parties and a lavish lifestyle in the film version (1958), which was nominated for six Oscars®. Russell won another Golden Globe for her performance.
Russell’s later film credits include Five Finger Exercise, Gypsy, The Trouble with Angels, and Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad.
She died of breast cancer in 1976 and left an autobiography, Life Is a Banquet, which was published posthumously. A biopic based on the autobiography and narrated by Kathleen Turner was made in 2009.