Nobody who ever saw a Rosalind Russell movie ever doubted that the lady could take care of herself.
But just how well she did, only those closest to her knew. For instance, in 1943, when Russell suffered what was later described as a nervous breakdown, her answer was to keep on working - making eight movies in a row until she felt cured.
And in 1960 and 1965 when she underwent first and second mastectomies, the Russell solution was to swear her husband, her doctor and her dress designer (Jimmy Galanos) to utter secrecy because, according to husband Freddie Brisson, "she didn't want people looking at her in public or on the screen wondering what had happened to her sex life."
However, by 1969, when she was hit with severe rheumatoid arthritis (which, coupled with a recurrence of cancer, caused her death last March), not even Russell could hide her suffering Cortisone treatments caused bloating, walking was often difficult, and she spent most of her last seven years in pain. Nonetheless, she refused hospitalization and spent her remission periods working, as someone once put it, "to bring arthritis out of the closet."
It is not surprising, however, that Russell's autobiography - "Life is a Banquet" - does not dwell on these maladies. Vulnerability and sympathy-courting just weren't Russell's style - on screen or off. Russell, instead, was one tough, funny, Roman Catholic, Yankee - determined to live up to the line from "Auntie Mame," in whose title role she admonished thousands of theatregoers: "Live, live, live. Life is a banquet, and most of you poor suckers are starving to death.
"Rosalind," said husband Brisson, a theatrical producer, "simply never complained about anything. Even when the cortisone made her fat, when the pain was unbearable, she'd still fly across country to a benefit on behalf of arthritis. And she thought the world was quite mad - she loved to laugh and she loved to wisecrack. Roz was a great talker."
A trait sh obviously shared with her husband of 35 years. Sitting at Sans Souci, surrounded by a sheaf of papers documenting his wife's life, Brisson does not merely talk; he machine-guns his words, lacing his delivery with whispered asides while the bushy eyebrows on his ruddy Danish face pirouette to keep time with his mouth.
When Brisson talks about the book, it is almost as if he wrote it. When he talks about their life together, it is almost as if he is talking about a Rosalind Russell movie. The Courtship
There was, for instance, their meeting and courtship. It was 1939, and Brisson was crossing the Atlantic by boat from England, where he ran an Anglo-American theatrical agency. The only movie on board was "The Women," which Brisson assiduously avoided because of all the "screaming women" he heard coming from the screen every time he passed the theater. Finally, when boredom won out, he went and "fell madly in love with that woman I saw there on the screen. I was staying with Gary Grant in California, and when I got there, I asked Gary if he knew Ros. 'Know her' Gary said, "I'm making a movie with her right now, and she's stealing every scene."
Determined to play matchmaker, Grant invited Russell to a Christmas party, a New Year's Eve party and a dinner party in order to meet Brisson. But she never would show.
Finally, Grant asked both Brisson and Russell to dinner with him alone, telling neither that the other would be there. Brisson arrived to find Roz with Gary, who introduced his friend as "the man I've been telling you about. He's mad for you." "Roz," remembers Brisson, "she said 'charmed to meet you' and just went right on talking to Cary. Later she told me she thought, 'Who needs to meet this bum, when I've got a date with Cary Grant.'"
Undaunted, Brisson chased RUssell until she asked him out! Their date was for the races, but "all I had at the time was a little Jaq; and when I arrived, Roz just looked at the car and said, 'Can you drive?' She got in and, after we had gone two blocks, she asked me to pull over to the curb. 'Now,' she said, 'you move over. I'm going to drive. You're the worst driver I've ever seen.' And that," said Brisson emphatically, "was the last time I ever drove Rosalind Russell anywhere."
Two years and one new apartment later - "Rosalind refused to come to the bachelor pad where I had entertained other women, so I actually went out and got a (virginal apartment) to please her" - ter live together? Yes, the day we got married we lived together." Into the Closet
And the morning after the day they got married Rosalind Russell spent in a clothes closet. "When the waiter knocked on our hotel door and said, 'Room Service'," chuckles Brisson at the memory, "Roz jumped straight out of bed and into the clothes closet. She said, 'I can't sit in bed with you here. What will they think about me having a man in my room?'"
Now, about that "little bit of a nervous breakdown," as Brisson refers to it. The reasons for that, he says, were a combination of overwork and - overpatriotism. "Roz, you know, was a very patriotic woman," goes his story. "She was the first to organize the Hollywood Victory Brigade as well as the first to go on camp tours in 1942. Why, I can remember her telling me, 'I've got to go even though I don't know what in the hell I can do. I can't sing or dance and I don't have tits like Jane RUssell, so I guess I'll just have to take it.'
"Well, anyway, all that war work, plus making movies, plus worrying about me in the Air Force and her three brothers in the Army - well, it was all just too much."
The Brissons, says Freddie, were great party givers and goers whose close friends read like a Who's Who of Hollywood - Gregory Peck, Gloria and Jimmy Stewart (whom Russell dated seriously before Brisson), Josh and Nedda Logan, and Frank Sinatra - a very close friend - whose relationship with Russell many found bizarre, given Sinatra's freewheeling ways and Russell's staunch morality. Sinatra Meeting
Nevertheless the two adored each other, claims Brisson, who was with Russell the first time the three met. It was 1940 and following a day's yacht outing. Brisson took Russell to a Catalina casino to catch "the new singer with the Tommy Dorsey band. His name was Frank Sinatra, of course. Roz was such a big then, that the manager put us in the balcony to avoid the fans; and when Sinatra came onstage, he looked right up at Roz and sang 'I'll Never Smile Again.' That's our song, you know. And after the set he came right up to Roz and said, 'I just adore you.' And just yesterday on the telephone he told me the same thing, 'I just adored her.'"
Asked what Russell thought about Sinatra, Brisson scrambles through, his papers to produce a description of the singer, scribbled by Russell on a notepad shortly before her death.
"Actually," it read, "Frank is very private, a loner, a quick observer, and a quietly sensitive man who loves to tease his pals. He doesn't care much for roast lamb. Nor does he like women who smoke or drink too much or wear too heavy a perfume. He moves away from confused females."
"He dismisses fairweather friends, phonies, complainers and poorsports." Hard Adjustment
Brisson says that since his wife's death "which came like a bolt out the blue" - the adjustment has been hard. There is, of course, his own work (Brisson has produced 10 movies and 21 plays, among them "Damn Yankees" and "The Pajama Game"); but most of his time these days, he says, is spent working with the Rosalind Russell Medical Fund, which, as a result of a congressional recommendation honoring her work, will go into building the Rosalind Russell Medical Center for Research in Arthritis.
And, of course, there is the book - typing it and all that - even though Brisson bristles at the suggestion that he might be capitalizing on his wife's fame. The mere suggestion, in fact, that Brisson could be playing off his wife's memory brings on a faster-than-you-can-believe retort.
"That is absolutely untrue. I want people to read this book because of Roz and to know about the Roz Rusell Medical Fund, but that is in. I am still very much in the theatrical production business and intend to stay there. As soon as I get all this launched, I'll be back at that full time."
Meanwhile, says Brisson, he may in fact marry again - just as Roz would have wanted him to.
"Just before she died," he said, calmer now, "Roz told her sister that if anything happened to her, her sister should see to it that I got married again. Roz said I didn't know how to handle myself alone and I needed a woman around. And as usual, I'm afraid she was right.
"But it's going to be very difficult for another woman to want to come into my life - my situation, you understand. Even though I would never be looking for anyone to replace Roz or anything like that, the fact of the matter is that for a long time to come, arounded every corner there's going to be something about Rosalind Russell."