Rosalind Russell: Rheumatoid Arthritis’ Most Glamorous Celebrity

Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford 1939

Rosalind Russell (Roz) may have been the most glamorous and famous woman to have Rheumatoid Arthritis. However, she shared three qualities with many others living with RA: She was determined, hopeful, and private.

Rosalind Russell in His Girl FridayOne of the most illustrious celebrities to live with Rheumatoid Arthritis was Rosalind Russell.

Rosalind Russell (1907-1976) had an exceptional life, performing on Broadway and in Hollywood with stars like Cary Grant and Robert Montgomery. The star of His Girl Friday, Auntie Mame, Gypsy, and dozens of other productions won 5 Golden Globes, a record finally broken by Meryl Streep in 2007. Rosalind won numerous other awards for both her acting and humanitarian efforts.

Rosalind shared our privacy about RA pain

Helen Reddy quote about Rosalind RussellDuring the years when Roz could still work, she did not make any fuss about her RA. Once, when it interfered with her abilities, she let others think there was a technical problem. Her husband Frederick wrote that she was extremely private about her Rheumatoid Arthritis, even to him:

“During the 16 years of secret anguish and pain, which began in 1959 and included two mastectomies that were never made public and the terrible onslaught of the worst kind of rheumatoid arthritis in 1969 that culminated in her last two years of total, private agony, she lived by this poem-prayer that she wrote: Trust Him, when darkest thoughts assail thee, Trust Him when thy faith is small. Trust Him, when to simply trust Him is the hardest thing of all. Roz gave the greatest performance of her dazzling 40-year career during those fast agonizing years. Although she was wracked with pain, she never gave up, never let on. She refused to lean on sedatives or psychiatry or the physical props of crutches or a wheelchair.  And she refused to talk about her illness, even to me. She continued her unrelenting charitable and humanitarian endeavors.”

Roz refused to acknowledge publicly how bad the RA pain was. Most people I’ve met with RA are the same way, insisting that we make others comfortable with our awkwardly agonizing situation. Roz would say, “I’m fine.” And when the RA prevented her from acting any longer, she battled pain and disability to remain a public figure. In the quote from Helen Reddy’s book (see image), note the way that Rosalind arose when it was time to stand on the stage.

Roz shared our positive approach to battling the cruelty of RA

Rosalind was such an optimist that friends say she hoped for a miracle with her RA almost to the end of her battle.

I read several accounts of a public appearance in 1974 where Rosalind was photographed with Joan Crawford (see below). The newspaper photographs of that night were not flattering and Joan refused to appear publicly again. But Roz would not be deterred. She would not hide what she called her “chipmunk cheeks” (induced by steroids) or her disfigured hands. She was quoted as saying that “Taking joy in life is a woman’s best cosmetic.”

Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford 1974

Then, Rosalind became a determined advocate for RA awareness

Rosalind used her celebrity to advocate for awareness & research.  “Frustrated that doctors knew very little about arthritis, she successfully lobbied Congress to pass the National Arthritis Act,” cipdusa.org.

During the 1970’s Rosalind served on the National Commission on Arthritis and Related Musculoskeletal Diseases. In 1978, two years after her death, Congress awarded the Rosalind Russell Medical Research Center for Arthritis to the University of California San Francisco. Today, “The Rosalind Russell Medical Research Center for Arthritis at UCSF is a strong international force improving the quality of life for people with the world’s number one crippling disease.”

One biographer wrote: “There may not have been any more movie roles, but there was one in real life that was perfect casting: arthritis activist. Since no one would be writing parts for an arthritic actress on cortisone, Rosalind decided to create her own starring vehicle that she could adapt to whatever group she was addressing. When she was not being hospitalized for stomach blockages (caused by cortisone), she was out campaigning for arthritis research. It was her final role, but it was in her own script” (page 251, Forever Mame by Bernard Dick).

Rosalind Russell is special to me as a woman fighting RA

 Rosalind Russell excelled at humor on the screen and in her life. Her Catholic faith was also very important to her, writing poems and prayers of bravery and determination. She often referred to life as a rope with knots for her to climb as she came closer to Heaven. Rosalind was extremely modest about her both her achievements and her suffering.

You can hear all of that in her short acceptance speech at the Oscars in March 1973, only two and a half years before her death. Her lifelong friend Frank Sinatra presents Rosalind with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscars. In her last sentence, you can hear her refer to her severe Rheumatoid Arthritis with pneumonia and complications from treatment, and breast cancer with two mastectomies merely as “while I was not quite well.”

In the summer of 1976, Rosalind finally had hip replacement surgery and never recovered fully. She died in November at age 69. Sinatra said at her funeral service: “God got up Sunday morning and said, ‘Better send for Roz. She’s suffered enough.’”

NOTE: Don’t miss the follow up to this article. More on Rosalind Russell and fighting RD.

More on Rosalind Russell

There’s a DVD narrated by Kathleen Turner based upon Rosalind Russell’s autobiography Life is a Banquet. “Long an advocate for those with disabilities, late in life this unique and pioneering talent was struck with severe rheumatoid arthritis, which derailed her career. Thereafter, Russell championed the needs of millions also suffering from the disease… Whether considered for her sophisticated comedy roles or dignity under duress, her humanity shines through.”

Recommended reading

Kelly Young

Kelly Young is an advocate providing ways for patients to be better informed and have a greater voice in their healthcare. She is the president of the Rheumatoid Patient Foundation. Kelly received national acknowledgement with the 2011 WebMD Health Hero award. Through her writing, speaking, and use of social media, she is building a more accurate awareness of Rheumatoid disease aka Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) geared toward the public and medical community; creating ways to empower patients to advocate for improved diagnosis and treatment; and bringing recognition and visibility to the Rheumatoid patient journey. In 2009, Kelly created Rheumatoid Arthritis Warrior, a comprehensive website about RA of about 950 pages and writes periodically for other newsletters and websites. Kelly served on the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media Advisory Board. There are over 42,000 connections of her highly interactive Facebook Fan page. She created the hashtag: #rheum. Kelly is the mother of five, a home-schooler, Bible teacher, NASA enthusiast, and NFL fan. You can also connect with Kelly by on Twitter or YouTube, or LinkedIn. She has lived over nine years with unrelenting Rheumatoid disease. See also http://www.rawarrior.com/kelly-young-press/

22 thoughts on “Rosalind Russell: Rheumatoid Arthritis’ Most Glamorous Celebrity

  • March 21, 2011 at 8:42 am
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    Wow! This is a very encouraging read, Kelly. She’s an example we, RAer’s, can follow.

    Thanks for this and may God bless you always!

    Reply
  • March 21, 2011 at 8:52 am
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    Thank you for sharing the story of Ruz. It’s uplifting!

    Reply
  • March 21, 2011 at 10:16 am
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    Thanks so much for this information on a great actress. It does give me hope and as always you and the other warriors do too. I am sitting here right now with quite a bit pain in my hands and shoulders and yet I know I am not in as bad of a shape as others (nor myself a year ago for that matter.) Just living with it while I live my life.

    Reply
  • March 21, 2011 at 11:32 am
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    Thank you for your research kelly. I have spent many years in and around the music business. My father was a jazz drummer. I watched his fingers mangle slowly and his joy fade due to what I now know as RA. My vocal chords are affected by RA. Rosalind was a class act and like kathleen turner proved that RA can’t break the spirit without God’s active force.

    Reply
  • March 21, 2011 at 12:11 pm
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    I’ve always admired her, in fact I had a cat named Roz! and the other Lucy. Strange it was when I discovered they BOTH lived with RA.
    Thanks again for another great post.

    Reply
  • March 21, 2011 at 12:24 pm
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    Auntie Mame has always been my favorite movie. I wanted to grow up and BE just like Auntie Mame the character. I never knew that Rosalind Russell had RA. Now I just wish I had her determination and outlook. No matter how much information I have, this disease just seems to confound and confuse me. It’s not even predictable from one day to the next, even with the wonder drugs we have today. My heart goes out to those that have had to endure from the past, and my hope goes out to those of the future.

    Reply
  • March 21, 2011 at 2:21 pm
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    Candles for Camp
    Candles for Camp
    I will be selling candles and accessories for the 2011 season of “Camp JRA”.Camp JRA (Juveniles Reaching Achievement) is a special place where children with arthritis and other rheumatic diseases can have fun, learn about their disease, and form social bonds with others who share their challenges. Camp JRA is a six-day residential camping experience for children ages 8 to 18. Campers participate in a variety of activities designed to provide opportunities for personal growth, improved self-reliance, independent functioning, and development of leadership skills.

    Please join me in supporting The Arthritis Foundations, Candles for Camp JRA by calling me @ 570-903-7319 or going to the link and typing in Arthritis Foundation at check out. They even have a hand-poured candle especially made in honor of the Arthritis Foundation. This is my brother Jon-Jon Johnson’s Camp JRA project this year. He is 17 and suffers from Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. Thank You Very Much
    Sincerely,
    Jessamyn Reinhard
    Order from anywhere in the world at:
    http://www.lolcandles.com

    Reply
  • March 21, 2011 at 5:54 pm
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    Thank you Kelly for buoying us all up with this great tribute to a RA Warrior we can all admire! I have never seen Auntie Mame; it’s on my to-do list now.

    What does her arthritis center at UCSF offer?

    Reply
      • March 21, 2011 at 9:49 pm
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        Thanks. That link is in the post. Did it not work? I’ll go check it.

        Reply
        • March 21, 2011 at 10:27 pm
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          Thanks Kelly for the link. Great info.! Interesting article on the left column about Gender Differences. It quotes, “The investigators also found that women who are afflicted with severe RA are more likely than other female patients to come from families in which males also have been affected by the disease.”

          RA has been in my family for at least the last four generations, including me, and including my Great Uncle. All from the same family line. This is interesting information about the role of genetics and RA, in particular, Severe RA.

          Reply
          • March 21, 2011 at 11:14 pm
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            I couldn’t fit any more in the post – it’s longer than I usually post already – but they do a lot of research apparently. It seems like a good place to explore. That one you found is fascinating. I absolutely believe that genetics will be a key to figuring out how to stop RA.

  • March 22, 2011 at 2:19 am
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    Thanks for telling us about Rosalind, but I don’t consider her a hero. I consider you to be one, for spreading awareness of the real RA and not making it a lie.

    Reply
  • March 22, 2011 at 11:03 am
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    This site helps my wife Jan more than anything else she does. Education is key to getting a grip on RA. This site educates RA patients!! Thanks!

    Reply
  • March 22, 2011 at 4:33 pm
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    It just so happens that Dr. Ephraim Engleman who was Rosalind Russell’s Rheumatologist is celebrating his 100th birthday. You can see a story about him on the CBS affiliate in San Francisco (http://bit.ly/eTkIVg).

    He was the founding Director of the Rosalind Russell Medical Research Center for Arthritis at UCSF in 1979. According to the CBS story, “The Center was established by the U.S. Congress in posthumous recognition of the actress who suffered from the condition and who became America’s foremost spokesperson for arthritis.”

    Dr. Engleman was also integral in the establishment of the National Institute of Arthritis Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), which is one of the main institutes at NIH that funds arthritis research.

    In 2009, Dr. Englman established the Engleman Endowment to fund the ACR Research and Education Foundation Resident Research Preceptorship, which invites the best and brightest in Internal Medicine to consider a career in rheumatology – http://bit.ly/dRSP6B

    Reply
  • March 25, 2011 at 5:24 pm
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    I don’t know whether to cry, smile, or be proud of “Roz”. Certainly she should be recognized by all of us as a great humanitarian. However, sometimes I think we all of us do a disservice by hiding our pain behind our smiles. I do it myself…often. I’ve come to the realization that most people think R.A. is a little arthritis and they have it “too”! I am not sure that I’ve told more than one person about my disease and gotten a response that held any empathy. (including my own daughter who said, well your not going to die are you)? Once I told a fellow teacher…she said, “I am so sorry my mom has it. She suffers so terribly”. That’s it, everyone else looks at me with this, oh that’s um a shame! We need commercials that don’t portray these miserable drugs like a miracle. Lets all get together and dance in a meadow together right? :-0″

    Reply
  • Pingback: Inspiraven Babble Box » Famous folks with RA

  • October 24, 2011 at 5:34 pm
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    It occurs to me that show business relys on it’s people being young and pretty and active. If there is any thought someone might have a chronic disease, then that person probably won’t be considered, much less hired, for a part in a picture or legitimate theater. I wonder if that is the reason Roz Russell, Kathleen Turner, James Coburn and some others don’t tell about their RA until their joints, especially their hands, are so gnarled they can’t be hidden? They need to work, so they hide their disability. On a smaller scale, how many of us hide our illnesses from people in order to get or keep employment? It happens to us, too – just on a different level.
    I’m blessed to work from home, so I don’t have to really worry about it much – just have to juggle things so that I will have work done by deadline no matter how badly I’m affected.
    Some of us are old enough to remember Spencer Tracy in his old age having a role in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” He couldn’t get that part unless he did it without insurance because he was very ill at the time (and died very soon after the film was finished). When the film wrapped, he grabbed the director by the shoulders and shouted that he had done it. Remember, even a small delay for health reasons can lead to huge delays because of the tight filming schedule of most pictures.

    Reply
  • Pingback: Rosalind Russell, une grande dame du cinéma américain : Polyarthrite-rhumatoide.fr, un autre regard sur la maladie

  • August 6, 2016 at 7:39 am
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    amazing woman. i understand her need to keep things private. On another note, I thing another famous lady suffered also, Lucille Ball

    Reply

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