LIFE IS A BANQUET, written by Rosalind Russell and Chris Chase, is a clarion call to survival.
If you never knew Roz Russell, you missed a great treat but you can catch up with those of us who did know her by reading Life Is a Banquet. She speaks through the pages of this book with her own voice, in her own idiom. She sweeps you along with her zest and her enthusiasm and, at times, the flatfooted common sense which she brought to all aspects of her life, her work and her relationships.
The beginnings of any autobiography are always the most interesting, and Rosalind Russell's is no exception. An audience always wants to know about the family - what did Papa do and what did Mamma really look like, and what were the circumstances and the family idiosyncracies that made up the whole person. Well, Rosalind tells you in detail and with wonderful touches of memory.
Papa was a lawyer, who wore a Prince Albert coat to church and tails at Easter and Christmas; Mamma was a beauty "full of gaiety" and good humor, and her brothers and sisters were energetic (none quite so much as Rosalind). It seemed like an ideal American household, full of guests (they slept six on a sleeping porch) birthday parties, noisy crap games in the library, horseback riding - a secure and comfortable place in the community. It was a lovely childhood, with none of the handicaps one associates with stardom in the theatre and Hollywood. She was born on the right side of the railroad tracks, and she had good health, good looks and good common sense, and no scarring childhool experiences. Perhaps that's why Rosalind Russell had such a basically conventional life, and also why she had such self-confidence and at the same time was disarmingly modest about her successes. However, it was the gift of imagination and laughter which gave her a sense of theatricality and set her apart. When she was four years old she ran away from home or, as she says, "walked away." A neighbor who saw her swinging on a hitching post quite a way from her house stopped and said, "Rosalind, what are you doing here?" "My name's not Rosalind" she said, "I'm from out of town." For a four-year-old to say "I'm from out of town" shows a degree of sophistication that would carry her smack into such a role as "Auntie Mame."
Although she tells you a great deal about herself, there is nevertheless a good deal of reticence, predicated, I'm sure, on what she considered good taste. She was not very introspective about herself and not very analytical about those closest to her. But she was a shrewd judge of human nature.
When Roz wanted to get out of her contract at Universal for a better deal at Metro, she went to Junior Laemmle, the head of Universal, dressed in a rumpled, cast-off dress of her sister, greasy hair, messy lip-stick and "a tight bra that flattened down what little shape I had." Now it was well-known in Hollywood that Junior Laemmle had a lecherous eye for a pretty girl, and Junior couldn't believe the New York office had signed this draggle-tailed creature. So when she allowed as how she was very unhappy in Hollywood and wanted to go home to Mamma, he breathed a sigh of relief and gave her back her contract.
Women can be divided into two categories - victims and survivors. Rosalind Russell was a survivor and she knew it. In her book Life Is a Banquet, written with Chris Chase, she says, "If you survive in this business at all - and I don't care if you're a superstar, a second-ecehlon star, a supporting player, that doesn't matter - it's a miracle of its own quality and size."
She survived success with a cheerful self-deprecating air, she survived a crippling illness with courage and gallantry. her book is rally a paean of praise to life. In summing up she says, "Mine has been a life with a lot of luck in it. I've had a good ride."
I was so happy to read that last line in her book because Rosalind Russell gave a lot of pleasure to a lot of people - professionally to her fans and privately to her family and friends, and if she could say in the end, after all the pain and the terrible knowledge that she would die, far too young, that she'd had a good ride, I was comforted, for like all her friends I miss her, her wild sense of the ridiculous, her infinite good humor and her rectitute. We'll not see her like soon again.