Jane Russell, Sultry Star of 1940s and ’50s, Dies at 89
By ANITA GATES
Published: February 28, 2011
The cause was a respiratory-related illness, her daughter-in-law, Etta Waterfield, said.
Ms. Russell was 19 and working in a doctor’s office when Howard Hughes, returning to movie production after his aviation successes, cast her as the tempestuous Rio McDonald, Sheriff Pat Garrett’s girlfriend, in “The Outlaw,” which he directed.
A movie poster — which showed a sultry Ms. Russell in a cleavage-revealing blouse falling off one shoulder as she reclined in a haystack and held a gun — quickly became notorious and seemed to fuel movie censors’ determination to prevent the film’s release because of scenes that, by 1940s standards, revealed too much of the star’s breasts. The Roman Catholic Church was one of the movie’s vocal opponents.
Although the film had its premiere and ran for nine weeks in San Francisco in 1943, it did not open in New York until 1947 and was not given a complete national release until 1950. Critics were generally unimpressed by its quality, but it made Ms. Russell a star. The specially engineered bra that Hughes was said to have designed for his 38D leading lady took its place in cinematic history, although Ms. Russell always contended that she never actually wore it.
She went on to make some two dozen feature films, all but a handful of them between 1948 and 1957 and many of them westerns.
In the western comedy “The Paleface” (1948), she played Calamity Jane opposite Bob Hope, with whom she also starred in “Son of Paleface,” the 1952 sequel. In the musical comedy that she called her favorite film, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953), she starred with Marilyn Monroe as one of two ambitious showgirls. Her numbers included “Two Little Girls From Little Rock,” one of several duets with Monroe, and the comic lament “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” Two years later she starred with Jeanne Crain in “Gentlemen Marry Brunettes,” a sequel of sorts, set in Paris.
A number of her movies were musicals, and singing became a large part of her career. She first appeared in Las Vegas in 1957 and was performing in musical shows at small venues as recently as 2008. Although she did considerable stage acting over the years, her sole Broadway appearance was in 1971 in the Stephen Sondheim musical “Company,” in which she replaced Elaine Stritch as the tough-talking character who sings “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
Ms. Russell was best known in the 1970s and ’80s as the television spokeswoman in commercials for Playtex bras, which she promoted as ideal for “full-figured gals” like her.
Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell was born on June 21, 1921, in Bemidji, Minn., the daughter of Roy and Geraldine Russell. Her mother had been an aspiring actress and a model. “The Girl in the Blue Hat,” a portrait of her by the watercolorist Mary B. Titcomb, once hung in the White House, bought by President Woodrow Wilson.
When Jane was 9 months old, before her four brothers were born, her father moved the family to Southern California to take a job as an office manager. He died when Jane was in her teens.
After high school, Jane took acting classes at Max Reinhardt’s theater workshop and with Maria Ouspenskaya. She did some modeling for a photographer friend but was working in a chiropodist’s office when a photo of her found its way to Hughes’s casting people.
In 1943 she married her high school sweetheart, Bob Waterfield, a U.C.L.A. football player who became the star quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams. They adopted a daughter, Tracy, and two sons, Thomas and Robert. (After a botched abortion before her marriage, Ms. Russell was unable to have children. She later became an outspoken opponent of abortion and an advocate of adoption, founding the World Adoption International Fund in the 1950s.)
She and Mr. Waterfield divorced in 1967 after 24 years of marriage. The following year she married Roger Barrett, an actor, who died of a heart attack three months after the wedding.
In 1974, John Calvin Peoples, a real estate broker and retired Air Force lieutenant, became her third husband, and they were together until his death, in 1999. Ms. Russell had had previous problems with alcohol, but they became worse after she was widowed again; her grown children insisted that she undergo rehabilitation at the age of 79.
She also turned to conservative politics in her later years.
“These days I’m a teetotal, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded, conservative Christian bigot, but not a racist,” she told an Australian newspaper, The Daily Mail, in 2003. Bigotry, she added, “just means you don’t have an open mind.”
By the time she married Mr. Peoples, her acting career was all but over. After appearing in three movies in the mid-1960s, she had a small role in her last film, “Darker Than Amber,” a 1970 action drama starring Rod Taylor. She did relatively little television, but her final screen role was in a 1986 episode of the NBC police drama “Hunter.”
Her children survive her, as do 8 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
Ms. Russell was very public about her religious convictions. She organized Bible study groups in Hollywood and wrote about having experienced speaking in tongues. In her memoir, “My Path and My Detours” (1985), she described the strength she drew from Christianity.
A higher power was always there, she wrote, “telling me that if I could just hold tough a little longer, I’d find myself around one more dark corner, see one more spot of light and have one more drop of pure joy in this journey called life.”