Mamie & Mame, The Rosalind Russell – Mamie Eisenhower Friendship

Mamie Eisenhower lines up a shot in Gypsy with Rosalind Russell Harry Strandling Sr and Mervyn LeRoy

One was First Lady of the Fifties known for her pink carnations and sassy asides named Mamie, the other a compassionate, wisecracking actress whose most famous role was named Mame. It’s hardly a wonder that Mamie Eisenhower and Rosalind Russell were friends. They first met when Russell and her husband Freddie Brisson, a World War II Navy lieutenant, came out as early supporters for General Dwight Eisenhower as the Republican presidential candidate in 1952.

 

Actress Rosalind Russell and her husband Freddie Brisson during World War II at the USO unit she created.

Actress Rosalind Russell and her husband Freddie Brisson during World War II at the USO unit she created.

Known as “Roz” to her friends, the Irish Catholic actress suffered some serious physical and emotional setbacks, though always returning to health. It compelled her to work on behalf of any group of people she observed as being marginalized  such as those in the care of the Jewish Home for the Aged in Boyle Heights (Los Angeles), League for Crippled Children in Los Angeles, Lighthouse for the Blind, the National Arthritis Foundation, Catholic Charities, Children Services of Connecticut, and the  Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund (as detailed below in this clip of Russell receiving a special humanitarian Oscar from Frank Sinatra):

More alike than dissimilar.

More alike than dissimilar.

Perhaps Russell’s vivacity despite her health setbacks is what struck  a chord with Mamie Eisenhower, who faced similar challenges. Despite the inaccurate depiction of her as an inactive First Lady, Mamie took stands on a number of contentious public issues in subtle ways. Her moral conviction on civil rights, for example, derived less from a political agenda and more from the humanitarian context she saw it in.

General Omar Bradley with Rosalind Russell, attending the White House's world premier of Never Wave at a Wac. January 28, 1953.

General Omar Bradley with Rosalind Russell, attending the White House’s world premier of Never Wave at a Wac. January 28, 1953.

As the last semi-official event of Dwight Eisenhower’s January 1953 Inauguration, Freddie Brisson had managed to arrange the world premier of his wife’s latest film Never Wave at a WAC (1953). The new First Lady had agreed to headline the event but the day before she discovered it was to be screened at the RKO Keith Theater in Washington which still enforced racial segregation. A consistent supporter of racial integration with President Eisenhower, she cancelled her appearance there. The symbolic act made headlines both in the political media of Washington and the entertainment industry trade publications of Hollywood, a lead item for famous gossip columnist Louella Parsons. It was all part of a larger Eisenhower strategy to shame District of Columbia schools, theaters and restaurants into relinquishing racial segregation, rather then call on Congress to legislate it.

Mamie didn’t let her old pal Roz down, however. In fact, she went one better than just appear at a movie premier – she hosted one in the White House, the first film shown in the new Administration and apparently the first Hollywood film premier hosted at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The 1956 Republican Convention which renominated Eisenhower; Rosalind Russell was allegedly in attendance.

The 1956 Republican Convention which renominated Eisenhower; Rosalind Russell was allegedly in attendance.

Despite their both maintaining full public lives, the two women made an effort to keep their bond strong.   Although Russell had been a supporter of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt (and was also close to LBJ) she stayed loyal to Ike during his 1957 re-election campaign, some sources claiming she even came for a day of his renomination convention doings.  Ike and Mamie also invited Roz and Freddie to join their private family Thanksgiving dinner in 1959.  As the granddaughter of Swedish immigrants, Mamie  held a strong personal ethnic identity as Scandinavian, a further link with Roz and her husband since “Freddie” was a native of Denmark and maintained his nationality’s customs.

Russell and Eisenhower training it.

Russell and Eisenhower training it.

Both women also dreaded flying, especially coast-to-coast. Instead, they luxuriated in riding the railroad across the country in a luxury Pullman car, where the two could blissfully puff away, both being heavy cigarette smokers.

Eisenhowers exit Broadway theater after seeing My Fair Lady (1957).

Eisenhowers exit Broadway theater after seeing My Fair Lady (1957).

Mrs. Eisenhower did her pal good another time, hosting a celebratory White House dinner on October 23, 1956 for Rosalind Russell at the completion of her pre-Broadway run of 15 performances at the National Theater in the comedy Auntie Mamie by Patrick Dennis, in which she starred.

A week later, the day after she joined the President in seeing My Fair Lady on Broadway, Mamie sat guffawing and applauding in the audience watching madcap Roz in Auntie Mame. So enthused she couldn’t wait until the show was over, the First Lady dashed backstage at intermission to see her pal, as Time reported, “for tea, cookies and “girl talk.”

Mamie  in her Mamie Pink dress (left) and Mame doppelganger in her Mamie Pink dress.

Mamie in her Mamie Pink dress (left) and Mame doppelganger in her Mamie Pink dress.

The next year, Rosalind Russell starred in the film version of Auntie Mame (1958). One minor touch in the movie seems too coincidental not to have been an inside homage to her friend in the White House. When “Mame” is invited to the Connecticut home of character “Doris Upson” (played by Lee Patrick), the fluttery Fifties housewife, notable in her Mamie Pink dress insists on calling her “Mamie” instead.

a Ike on the cover of February 1964 issue of Palm Springs Life

a Ike on the cover of February 1964 issue of Palm Springs Life

Mamie’s bedroom at her Palm Desert home. (Palm Springs Life)

If Roz had enjoyed access to the White House because of Mamie, Mamie got the royal treatment in Hollywood from Roz.  While the Eisenhowers spent winter during their retirement years in Palm Desert, California, Ike stuck to his desert life, playing golf and working from his office in their Mid-Century Modern home there. Mamie often got antsy. Soon enough Roz lured her out to Hollywood. On February 26. 1962 the former First Lady drove into Los Angeles for a full day at Warner Brothers Studios, toured about and touted by Rosalind Russell.

"Mame" and Mamie on the Warner Brothers lot, 1962

“Mame” and Mamie on the Warner Brothers lot, 1962

Mrs. Eisenhower was not only given her own personalized director’s chair, but a chance to try her hand at cinematography. Mamie actually lined up a shot on a Technirama camera for a scene in the film Gypsy (1962) , in which Roz was starring. Mamie was a pro within minutes, guided by camera operator Harry Stradling Jr. and his father, the cinematographer. No word whether she got union pay.

Mrs. Eisenhower's free-franked envelope to the Brissons, (Houle Autographs)

Mrs. Eisenhower’s free-franked envelope to the Brissons, (Houle Autographs)

After the death of former President Eisenhower in 1969, Mamie still came out to the desert in winter where she got a chance to catch up with Roz and Freddie. After a severe flu and case of shingles left her hospitalized in 1971, Russell and Brisson kept her spirits up with funny letters and chocolate chip cookies imported from Denmark. Mamie reported she was, “gaining back the pounds I have lost with these around.”

Eisenhower Medical Center lobby.

Eisenhower Medical Center lobby.

Rosalind Russell was also a generous contributor to the desert community’s Eisenhower Medical Center, Mamie leading the fundraising for the hospital named in her husband’s memory. Designed by Edward Durrell Stone, who also did the JFK Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., the medical center still retains its 70s vibe.

As Mamie was increasingly beset by other health problems, she stopped going to California and withdrew into semi-isolation at her Gettysburg, Pennsylvania home.  Roz  had experienced depression and recognized it in Mamie. She hatched a scheme. Asked to host the 1975 “Woman of the Year Award,” a live awards show televised on NBC, the actress coaxed the former First Lady to New York to not only attend the event, but participate as an award presenter. When she appeared on stage with Russell, Mamie received a standing ovation.

A year later, Rosalind Russell died suddenly of breast cancer. Mamie Eisenhower survived her by three years, dying in 1979.

The nearly-30 year association of a Hollywood legend and an historical figure of Washington was simply a genuine friendship between two warm people, with no compelling agenda other than providing support to one another when each needed it, a rarity in any industry or era.

Good Friends: Mamie & Mame.

Good Friends: Mamie & Mame.


Categories: Dwight D. Eisenhower, First Ladies, Hollywood & The White House, The Eisenhowers

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23 replies »

  1. I really enjoyed this!

  2. One of the most inspiring and emotional posts you ever written!

    Frame to frame, we are able to see it all. Very colourful, yet controlled in its structure and words.

    And what a beautiful story. I feel people have forgotten what real friendships are about.

  3. Dear Mr. Anthony,
    Another great blog full of interesting & educational information on Mrs. Eisenhower. Although she appeared to be everyone’s middle class neighbor, she was anything but that. These blogs continue to help me understand that all these women are multifaceted.

    Along with Mrs. Taft, Harding, & Nixon, I would have throughly enjoyed sitting down with Mrs. Eisenhower and listening to her politcial and social views.

    Again, many thanks for all your effort and hard work.

    Best wishes –

    David

    • Thank you David. Actually I believe Mamie Eisenhower was, in fact, authentically a “middle class neighbor” and also a person whose views on what was “sensible” were not perceived by her to be “political” opinions, but rather humanitarian contentions. During an interview I did with Milton Eisenhower he recalled talking offhandedly to her about the decision of his brother the President to send federal troops to ensure that African-American students could be protected in their attending Little Rock Arkansas High School. Mamie was baffled by all the anger it provoked in the South, saying, “Those children are supposed to be able to go to school where they want and it’s the law too. It doesn’t make any sense that people would try to stop them.”

      • Dear Mr. Anthony,
        Thank you so much for your kindness in responding to my comments and questions. I appreciate your time and effort in doing so.

        I remember reading about Mrs. Eisenhower and her reaching out to the African-American population – including one of house staff in Denver – this was in one of your earlier books – it appears that most of our First Ladies seem to be ahead of the curve when it comes to reaching out to the minority population – whether it be Jews (Mrs. Taft), African-Americans (E. Roosevelt), Gays (Mrs. Taft and Archie Butt), women (Mrs. Harding), etc.

        I can’t wait to read your book on Mrs. McKinely – do you know when it will be published?

        Again, many thanks!

        Best wishes –

        David

        • I think a good reason for this is that as women, many of these individuals had to defy conventional limitations placed on them and were sympathetic with the potential of the individual without regard to labels like race, faith, sexual orientation, gender, disability, etc. Also, they are always far more exposed to a wider cross-section of the public than security permits the President to be. Once a pub date is set on the McKinley book, will announce it here.

  4. What an absolutely wonderful article Carl. In a more civilized time, before such horrid polarizations, it seems that lines could blur enough for these two to find common personal ground. How refreshing to hear that Dwight and Mamie had such progressive views on segregation. It was also such an eye opener to see the list of organizations that Roz lent help to. I read her auto biography in which her husband said that she never mentioned the charitable work she did. She just did it.

    In this piece you brought my two homes (the two cities I love so much) together beautifully.

    • Phillip – Really well-thought and articulated perspective I appreciate, thank you. Labels have definitely become more valued than content, style now passes for substance and in the process any type of subtlety or context is dropped, truncated – just gone. There’s an entire book which came out a few years ago about the Eisenhower agenda on civil rights but at the time it was employed, there was little in the way of spinning it and then, it further paled in terms of public perception when followed with the more dramatic JFK and LBJ Civil Rights legislation and Justice Department prosecutions of state educational system segregation. It was also easier for the media – even in the 60s – to set the narrative by casting Ike and Mamie as “old” and then apply the common ageist presumption that they couldn’t possibly have cared about the issue. In fact, as David Eisenhower and Julie Nixon’s book Going Home to Glory revealed, even as a former President and a Republican, Eisenhower worked to publicly support the JFK-LBJ civil rights agenda.

      You really have to ponder, is it really possible that this sort of rising above the perpetual fight for selfish partisan supremacy is no longer at work, somewhere, even subversively at the national level? I try to keep my political feelings – as an Independent – toned down here, but the hyper-partisanship of current national politics is nothing short of obscene to me and frankly more “anti-American” than any other systematic breakdown of civic values. It’s kinda odd to me how so many loudmouths and blowhards in the media carry on about “the Greatest Generation,” the young people and teenagers of the World War II era without ever seeing the bigger picture there of sacrifices being made on behalf of people regardless of political identity, age, race, etc. I could go on….obviously….I won’t. But I especially appreciate your remark for seeing what isn’t stated. And…I want to take your Hollywood History tour very shortly – sounds really fascinating.

  5. Firstly Carl, I’d like to thank you for rx’d David Eisenhower’s bk “Coming Home To Glory”. I’ve only read 20 pages, but it appears to be a wonderful bk that will give the reader a gratifying look at the Eisenhower family. Both the Pres. & 1st Lady Eisenhower seem to be forgotten residents of 1600 and that is a loss to young people first being introduced to American History. I know I related to you, one arrogant writer, who had put together an anthology of 1st Ladies but omitted Mamie, because the writer felt basically, that Mamie just did not contribute much to the role; too laisez-faire

    This writer challenged me to recall that “Ike”, was one of the most heroic figures of WWII. Mamie, as a military wife, being married to this great general, must have been exposed to all sorts of situations. We know her life was not without profound adversity; the Eisenhower’s lost their little boy at a precious age of 2 or 3 (3)? Mrs. Bush the 1st, also lost a 5 yr old daughter. (both these women, fortunately rebounded into leading robust lives). At age 6, I recall the images on TV news of Eisenhower’s attempt to de-segragate the southern schools. They were not pretty. It’s great to know Mamie stood by her husband on this. Once again, the Bush family enters into Eisenhower history, as I read about George H.W’s father, Sen. Bush, being one of the most supportive backers of integration in the Senate of his time. That was when the GOP was still the party of Lincoln.

    As a footnote, I also purchased the new Jackie Kennedy bk/CD pkg that Caroline just put out. One of the more interesting annecdotes that preceeded the “secrets revealed” in Jackie’s oral history; is the story of her WH visit with Mamie; how Mamie failed to provide a wheel-chair for her, and all the flaws Jackie found in the residence, and throughout the entire WH. In many books, the term “Hilton Hotel” decor is used to describe Mamie’s bad taste. Yet, back in the 1950’s, the Hilton Hotels, to many people, were very luxerious places to stay:). With all the moving around and transient llifestyle of a military wife, I can’t blame Mamie for not going full blast into redecorating. Just last week, I saw an old film of Eisenhower, lightly making fun of the feud he saw developing between Mamie & Jackie. . .he seemed to be giggling as he described his wife’s catty comments!
    I do associate Ike with a beautiful smile, but not a giddy sense of humour:). There is so much more
    to these 1st families than the wooden stereotypes we are given.

  6. This was a really wonderful post. Mrs. Eisenhower seems to have been a very friendly person with appropriate boundaries.

    Elsewhere, you mentioned your admiration for Eisenhower as president which I share. In the parlor game of ranking presidents, I would rank him third, tying with Truman, and after FDR and TR.

    My only cavils would that he did not give a comprehensive, straight-forward address on civil rights. He relied too much on the hidden-hand approach to this issue. In the context of the Cold War, there was a powerful argument that we could not attack the USSR’s human rights atrocities with clean hands while Jim Crow persisted here.

    Also, he signed Executive Order 10450 barring gay men and lesbians from federal employment. This was the worst executive action taken by a president since Wilson re-segregated the federal work place. Perhaps, it would have been too much to ask otherwise from a 1950’s president, but the matter still stinks to heaven.

    He was a man for his time who did not transcend his time. Still, a very good president.

    • Sorry for delay in responding – I was looking for a book I have, came out a few years ago about Eisenhower and civil rights – and it really shows that while his Administration made zero attempt to publicize the fact – and I think this was a political decision in that he thought the less attention they drew, the less potential for conflict – that the Eisenhower Administration did an enormous amount of legislation and legal groundlaying without which the Kennedy and LBJ Justice Departments would never have been able to get the civil rights decisions it did. Believe it or not (and this is the topic of a future article, so I can’t give a lot away….) it was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who pointed this out, quite intensely – that they worked in unison, in the big picture of progress on civil rights, and never in conflict with each other. You get a sense of Ike’s real feelings when you see how he went to bat for JFK on civil rights with Republicans as a former President, long after it served any purpose for him other than doing what he felt was right. On a personal note, you might also look into his private, lifetime friendship with John Moaney and his wife Delores, who both worked as aides to Ike and Mamie until they died. When Ike and Mamie went anywhere, including the deep South, the President got on the phone and said flatly, “We stay together or we don’t come at all” (paraphrase). Also, he made it his specific intention to destroy segregation in Washington the day right after the Inaugural when he was outraged to discover hotel policy. And then he learned about theaters, schools, etc. and was embarrassed this went on in the nation’s capital. I did not know about executive order 10450 banning gay federal employees – though I suspect it was a result of McCarthyism. But I think, generally, he did transcend his times – highway systems, military-industrial complex, never giving consideration to using the bomb anywhere, though clearly 10450 makes it certain he was no where near a perfect President. Thanks again for writing with such thought and also for opening my eyes to an aspect I will look into and didn’t know about.

      • I agree with you. He and AG Brownell and Richard Nixon, for that matter, do not get the credit they deserve in this area. I understand Eisenhower’s conservative approach to the issue–preferable to lead the country quietly and gradually and not risk turmoil during the Cold War. Yet, a speech with the punch of his Farewell Address on the issue of civil rights might have been seminal and sealed his reputation as one of the top two presidents of the 20th century.

        Very interesting that Mrs.Kennedy thought highly of Ike in this context. Based on the recent tapes, one senses that she and her husband didn’t think much of his presidency otherwise–“worst president since Buchanan”. Also, I wonder if Truman also weighed in behind the scenes.

        I spent last week in LA and once again came to understand why so many want to live in California. Almost heaven.

        • Now that would have been legendary – fantastic, had Ike determined to make a civil rights speech as he left office on the lines of his Military-Industrial Complex speech. I also found that her remarks on Eisenhower in the tapes was telling. And what she said was shocking. That said, the remark she made about Ike and his circuit court judge appointments was a reflection on those events some thirty years after the fact, when she told President Clinton about it. At the time of the tapes, she may not have even known or realized that. In an interview I had with Senator Edward Kennedy he made similar remarks about the Eisenhower Administration having foresight and yet be uncredited for it. I think once the acrimony of political rivalry fades that intelligent people once in power usually have the ability to recognize their own shortcomings as well as the achievements of their opponents. Also, I have found there is almost always resentment between incoming and outgoing Administrations – even those of the same political party. It is just human, perhaps.

        • Oh, and thank you for making the effort to write. I appreciate it.

  7. Since I’ve just discovered your website, I only now came across this great post. Thanks for all the fantastic pictures! I can’t decide which I like best–perhaps the one showing Mamie and Rosalind outside the train. You’ve given me this hilarious image that I’m sure I’ll retain for a long time to come: the two of them crossing the country in a luxurious train car, puffing cigarettes and chatting about I can only imagine what. More importantly, this post also takes a nice step forward in humanizing Mamie and Rosalind, both of whom have, and very sadly, become caricatures of themselves for many today, Mamie a sort of wooden Stepford presidential wife, Rosalind a ridiculous song-belting comedienne. Thanks for doing this.

    • Oh you are so welcome and I seriously appreciate your comment. It has always fascinated how wide the gap can often be between a famous person and their persona. I don’t know much at all about Russell, but Eisenhower was so much more of a serious person with socially-conscious integrity than anyone knew. Perhaps it is her fault people didn’t know this but she didn’t perceive her personal values as public property but gave them what she thought they wanted – the hostess, housewife. There is a slowly mounting body of evidence to prove her strength of character and disciplined mind.

      • The Trumans and the Eisenhowers today are often thought of as just boring people, wax-like effigies escaped from Madame Tussaud’s gallery. One of the great things about the work you are doing is to rectify this sort of misconception. I’ve often thought someone should write something contrasting the Eisenhower and Truman funerals, which I remember watching and being impressed with the sincerity and local flavor of, and the much more opulent recent ones. The Trumans and Eisenhowers really did represent a very different era, perhaps almost impossible to get an accurate feel for today.

        • Well – that’s what I call a genuine coincidence. Perhaps just as you were writing that comment, I was completing the photo essay which I just posted.

          • Great photo essay. The birthday cake picture is hilarious. The one with Ike eating his rations in uniform is very odd: he looks like a bronze park statue engaged in the most informal of activities. You’re really on to something here. There’s a very amusing and probably characteristic photo of Jackie eating a spoonful of mango ice cream in the book her cook Marta Sgubin published some years ago.

          • Thanks for that. I do think that Ike was generally so unselfish-conscious that the C-Ration picture almost absolutely had to be a US Army press office picture to show that the General eats what the enlisted men do – and why he’s so stiff there. Yes! I have seen that picture of her in later years. Both she and JFK were made for ice cream. I think you’ve a famous Hyannis ice cream shop where the President often went which is still busy as ever, half a century later. I have a picture of him eating an ice cream cone as he crosses the street with his daughter and several nieces and nephews in my book, The Kennedy White House: Family Stories and Pictures 1961-1963.

          • Jackie and JFK were made for ice cream! I’ll be carrying this idea around with me for some time to come, I’m sure.

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