, the voluptuous actress known for her roles in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
and The Outlaw
along with her lifelong work as an advocate for adoption, passed away today in Santa Maria, CA. She was 89.
She was born Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell
on June 21, 1921 in Bemidji, Minnesota, the eldest of five children and the only daughter of Roy, an Army lieutenant and Geraldine, an actress. After her father's retirement from the Army and acceptance of a job in California, the family relocated to California's San Fernando Valley and eventually Burbank. She spent her teen years taking piano lessons (at her mother's insistence) and grew interested in theater, joining the drama club at Van Nuys High School and taking part in productions there. Her plan to become a designer after graduation was dashed after the death of her father, when she instead found a job as a secretary and receptionist in order to help support her family. At her mother's urging, she continued to hone her skills with training at stage director Max Reinhart's School of the Theatre, and made additional money working as model.
Her dramatic studies, combined with good fortune -- she was reportedly discovered while working at her receptionist job -- brought Jane to the attention of Howard Hughes
, who signed her to a seven-year contract in 1940 after a protracted search for a woman to star in his next project, The Outlaw
. The movie, which completed filming in February of 1941, was denied release because it violated the Hayes Office production codes for decency (they were unhappy with the display of Russell's cleavage). While Hughes and the Hayes Office negotiated cuts to the film, Russell was sent on an extensive tour to promote the unreleased picture; her tour, combined with provocative ads and photos promoting the film, put her on the national radar, and a limited release of the trimmed down film in 1943 (along with a wider release in 1946) made her a star. Also in 1943, Jane married Bob Waterfield
, her high school sweetheart, who was the UCLA quarterback at the time and who would go on to become a Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback for the Cleveland Rams/Los Angeles Rams.
Jane's next film appearance was five years later, in 1946 with RKO's The Young Widow
, which was the first time that she would be seen by most filmgoers, since The Outlaw
was still tied up in Hayes Code violations. Her following films found her cast with some of the most popular leading men of the time -- Bob Hope
in 1948's The Paleface
; two incendiary pairings with Robert Mitchum
(His Kind of Woman
); co-starring with Victor Mature
and Vincent Price
in The Las Vegas Story
, with Frank Sinatra
and Groucho Marx
in 1951's Double Dynamite
, and with Clark Gable
and Robert Ryan
in The Tall Men
However, it would be her co-starring role with another popular leading lady of time for which she would be most commonly remembered: as Dorothy Shaw in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
, with rising star Marilyn Monroe
. The pair, cast as two showgirl best friends sailing to Paris to find husbands, redefined the musical with their comedic, overtly sensual stylings and became real-life friends in the process.
As Jane continued to expand her film resume through the mid 1950s, she and her husband Bob continued to build their life together. Unable to have children of their own, they chose to adopt, bringing Tracy and Thomas in 1952, and Robert in 1956, into their family. The adoption struggles the couple faced inspired Jane to found the World Adoption International Fund, which assisted in simplifying the adoption process for over 50,000 families as well as lobbying for the passage of 1953's Federal Orphan Adoption Bill and 1980's Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act.
Jane's already-busy offscreen life included time spent building her musical career; beside her albums 'Let's Put Out the Lights' and 'Jane Russell' and singles recorded with the likes of Frank Sinatra
, she would also appear in her own solo nightclub act that toured around the world, and later formed a gospel group with Connie Haines
and Beryl Davis
that released a single that reached number 27 on the Billboard chart.
As her film roles became less notable - her last being in 1970's Darker Than Amber
- Jane returned to the stage, where she appeared in both Broadway and regional productions, and also appeared in TV series The Yellow Rose
. Her marriage to Bob Waterfield
ended in divorce in 1968; she was married twice more, to Roger Barrett
(August-November 1968) and to John Calvin Peoples (from 1974 until his death in 1999).
She is survived by her children Tracy, Thomas and Robert.