When Rosalind Russell received the unpublished manuscript of Auntie Mame from author Patrick Dennis, she instantly became absorbed and sat up late reading it.
“(S)ince I was due on a movie set the next morning, Freddie fumed, ‘Put your light out, you’ll have such dark circles the cameraman will kill you,’” Russell recalled in her autobiography, Life Is a Banquet. “But I was bemused. ‘Somebody has written my sister,’ I said. ‘Somebody has written the Duchess.’ I could have played Mame with one hand tied behind me: I’d been living with her all my life.”
Russell was the middle daughter in a large Catholic family seemed to regard her older, beautiful, vivacious sister Clara, whom she always called “the Duchess,” with a mixture of awe, envy and devotion.
The Duchess attracted lots of boys, all of whom she called “Darling” while she “…like an accomplished juggler tossing plates, kept them passing one another in midair and gravitating back toward her fingertips.”
“Even after we were grown and she had become a fashion editor on Town & Country magazine, we’d have idiotic arguments about The Way It Had Been. ‘Dad was always saying, ‘Oh, I envy the man who’s taking you out tonight,’ the Duchess would start, and I would scoff: ‘Dad didn’t talk like that, you imagined it.’”
Russell recalled walking with her sister down Madison Avenue during the 1940s and observing, as people waved at the Duchess, that she owned it.
|Clara Russell, a/k/a the Duchess|
“The Duchess was going on about my Hollywood hat and my shabby handbag — ‘Is that an old one of mine?’ — when a man came by. She hailed him with great glee. ‘How have you been?’ demanded the Duchess. ‘You don’t need to tell me. I can see just by looking at you, you’re in the best condition of your life. And how’s your mother? Give her my love, she’s one of my favorite people, always has been, always will be. Still going away weekends to the countryside? Well, it’s been wonderful to see you. Goodbye, dear.’
“The man had nodded to me, asked, ‘How are you, Roz?’ We’d shaken hands, and now Clara and I were walking on down the street. ‘Darling,’ she said. ‘I know just as well as I know I’m walking here who that man is, but I can’t think. Who is he?’
“I stopped dead and looked her right in the face. She’s not gonna pull both legs, I thought; one at a time is enough. Then I realized she was in earnest.
“’Now, Duchess,” I began, but she was nattering on again: “I know him, I know I do — can’t you give me a clue?’
“ ‘That was your first husband,’ I said.
“ ‘Oh my God,’ she said. ‘Don’t tell anybody. I’m going to stand right here until you promise. Raise your right hand and say, ‘I will not tell anybody this story.’
“ ‘I’m gonna tell everybody this story,’ I said.
“ ‘Now that’s mean,’ she said. ‘They’ll think I’m senile or something.’
“ ‘You’re something,’ I said. “I can tell you that.’
“I’ve heard this same tale with other casts of characters — Truman Capote wrote about Gloria Vanderbilt not recognizing her first husband — but I know it happened to the Duchess. I was there.”
A difficult story to believe, perhaps, but one terrific anecdote.