Jane Russell was in many ways a contradiction. A life long conservative Republican and born again Christian, she was a moral, principled woman working in an industry that was often anything but moral or principled. Yet despite her political and religious affiliations, she was no saint. She divorced from her first husband, with whom she got pregnant and had abortion before she turned 19. She had affairs with her leading men and just happened to be one of the most controversial sex symbols of the 1940s. So many of Jane's puzzle pieces don't quite match up, much like her intentions as an actress and performer didn't quite match with the intentions of those who controlled her fate. Despite her best efforts, much of Jane's career saw her portrayed as little more than eye candy who could carry a tune.
Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell was born June 21st, 1921 in Bemidji, Minnesota. The eldest child of Roy William Russell and his wife Geraldine Jacobi, she had 4 younger brothers, who steered her toward a tomboy lifestyle for much of her childhood years. Her father was a First Lieutenant in the Army and his wife a former actress in a road troupe. After he was mustered out of the military, Jane's father moved the family around looking for work. They eventually settled in California where Roy found employment as an office manager. Doing fairly well, the family could afford to give Jane piano lessons and by the time she reached high school, she was already beginning to dabble with acting in high school stage productions.
Unfortunately for Jane, the death of her father in 1937 put an end to their relatively cushy life and Jane was forced to work to help support her family. She didn't stop dreaming of a better life though and when not working as a receptionist, she sidelined as a photographer's model and studied acting at prestigious theatrical workshops. Like so many budding actresses before and after her, it was Jane's work as a model that got her noticed and ultimately wound up setting the stage for much of her future career. For it was Jane's hourglass figure that drew the attention of perhaps the biggest, most recognizable name in the world, inspiring him to make her the cornerstone of his movie empire.
In 1940, 19-year-old Jane was signed to a 7-year contract with movie and aviation mogul Howard Hughes. Her first film was the notorious western THE OUTLAW. Seeing dollar signs in Jane's rather impressive bust line, Hughes decided to make Jane the centerpiece of this film, going so far as to take time away from building planes for the war effort and channeling his impressive engineering skills into the construction of a special brassiere designed specifically for his new starlet, fitted with a cantilevered underwire designed to help boost her bust line and achieve maximum cleavage. Unfortunately for Hughes, Jane never wore his contraption, even though she told Hughes she did. This didn't matter in the end, for Jane was fully capable of doing naturally what Hughes' invention would have done mechanically. The result was that Hughes' intention to make Jane's double barrels the real star of this western epic became easily realized. And he was well on his way to presenting her to the public as such, until the powers that were in Hollywood interfered.
Facing the harsh review of the Hollywood Production Code Administration, which at the time served as the puritanical overlords of Hollywood, Hughes was denied the HPCA's necessary seal of approval, citing the obvious sexual intent with which Hughes presented his young star. With his impatient and unconventional ways of doing business, Hughes had already burned his bridges with the HPCA several times before, not to mention most of the established studio system of the day, which had always seen him as more of a maverick than a legitimate filmmaker. As a result of all this, Hughes remained deadlocked with the HPCA and the studio system for 2 years.
Unwilling to bother with any further delays, Paramount Pictures, who had initially agreed to release THE OUTLAW, backed out of the deal. Hughes stood to lose millions, but thankfully his savvy business skills kicked in and gave him a brilliant idea. He began to reach out in secret to various religious organizations, seeking to start a public campaign against THE OUTLAW. He did this by surreptitiously bringing ministers and other religious leaders together with the purpose of drumming up public outcry to have the film banned. This gave Hughes exactly what he wanted - huge publicity. This in turn helped grease the wheels in Hollywood, giving Hughes enough demonstrable interest from eager moviegoers to get the movie released for one week in 1943, before being boxed up again due to its violations of the Production code. The film did not see a wide release until 3 years later in 1946, at which point it became a huge hit, thanks mostly to a mixture of controversy and the obvious visual delights Jane brought to the big screen. Just as Hughes had predicted, it was Jane and her sex appeal that stole the show.
Unfortunately for Jane, spending 6 years of her 7-year contract doing little more than publicity for her one and only movie had squandered away much of her precious youth during a time when actresses had an extremely limited shelf life. Jane spent the next few years doing everything she could to make up for lost time. Unfortunately not every movie she made going into the 1950s was of the highest quality. However, she did get to work alongside leading men like Robert Mitchum in HIS KIND OF WOMAN and MACAO and Bob Hope in THE PALEFACE. Many of her leading men found themselves just as enthusiastic about their leading lady's bountiful assets as the public who flocked to her movies. Hope was fond of introducing her as "the two and only Jane Russell." And her discoverer, Howard Hughes once said of her "There are two good reasons why men go to see her. Those are enough."
Alongside her movie career, Jane also branched out into music, doing various gigs with Frank Sinatra and the Kay Kryser Radio Orchestra, singing high brow songs with titles like "Boin-n-n-ng!" She made the albums Let's Put Out The Lights and Fine and Dandy for Columbia Records and formed a gospel quartet called the Hollywood Christian Group, which managed a modest climb on the Billboard singles charts. Her music career proved to be the one medium where she was able to get people to look past her physical attributes and show off her real talent as a performer. Later on she combined her sex appeal and singing talents with the debut of a successful night club act starting in Las Vegas, which eventually toured the globe.
Sideline gigs aside, it was her movie career that stood as her real claim to fame as she moved into the middle 1950s. Unfortunately, her biggest movie remained her first one, at least until 1953, when she hit pay dirt again alongside fellow buxom beauty Marilyn Monroe in the musical hit, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. Playing best friend chorus girls on the hunt for husbands, they proved to have a good chemistry together which helped make the film one of the highest grossing, well received films of 1953.
While filming BLONDES, Jane introduced co-star Monroe into the other part of her life by attempting to convert her to the Christian faith. Being an evangelical in Hollywood was quite a strange way to live, even back in those earlier days. Thus Jane's approach to faith produced understandable resistance from those she attempted to convert. Marilyn later remarked about Jane's conversion attempt "Jane tried to convert me (to religion) and I tried to introduce her to Freud." While many among her fellow actors proved less than receptive to conversion, Jane stood her ground as a conservative and a Christian, being a regular fixture at Republican inaugurals and leading her own Hollywood bible study group, which despite the pervasive libertine attitude in Hollywood, proved to be quite popular among many of Tinseltown's high profile faithful.
However devoted she many have been to her politics and religion, events in her life often contradicted these beliefs. At 18, just before her career as an actress began, Jane became pregnant by her high school sweetheart, Bob Waterfield. In desperation, she turned to a back street abortionist to terminate the pregnancy. Unfortunately, the procedure was botched and the resulting infections she received nearly killed her and almost certainly caused her infertility. These experiences made Jane an outspoken pro-life advocate for the rest of her life.
Shortly after signing with Hughes, Jane had a brief affair with actor John Payne. However, she was unable to forget about her high school love, Bob Waterfield, with whom she had her aborted child. She later married Waterfield and together they started their own production company, Russ-Field Productions. They made several movies under this production company, among them a spiritual sequel to BLONDES called GENTLEMEN MARRY BRUNETTES in 1956. They also adopted 3 children together and founded The World Adoption International Fund, a pioneering organization that was among the first to give Americans the ability to adopt children from foreign countries. Despite their many achievements and struggles together, Jane's relationship with Bob came to a sour end in 1968. Two more husbands followed, though she outlived them both.
By the end of the 1950s, box office flops like THE FUZZY PINK NIGHTGOWN inspired Jane to take the path less traveled into TV, doing weekly live drama ensemble shows like the Colgate Theatre and The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, popular shows during TV's golden age in the mid to late 1950s. Her time in TV lasted into the mid 1960s, when she decided to return to movies. Unfortunately, being in her 40s meant that roles were few and far between and she only managed to get roles in a handful of movies. Her last feature film was 1970s DARKER THAN AMBER. Her last major role was as a spokesperson for Playtex's line of "Cross-Your-Heart" bras for full-figured ladies in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Though mostly retired by the 1980s, Jane remained an entertainer and an outspoken advocate for conservative values for years after. In 2006, she started a nightclub act in her hometown of Santa Maria California. Called "The Singing Forties," it was her attempt to make something enjoyable for people her age. At the ripe old age of 75, Jane received high praise for her enduring singing and performing skills. It was one of the few times in her life when her skills as a performer weren't overshadowed by her sex symbol status.
Jane Russell passed away in February of 2011 at the age of 81. Though she never received the recognition as an actress and performer she so craved, her legacy as a beloved sex symbol and a great screen siren is secure. And she will always have the distinction of being one of the last of Hollywood's great golden age beauties.