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.
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):
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
- Rules of Civility (nochargebookbunch.com)
- Book Review/Read the Movie – Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis: “Hotcha!” (swampofboredom.com)
- Eisenhower and Justin Bieber (burger2go.wordpress.com)