Jane Russell was born on June 21, 1921 in Bemidji, Minnesota to Geraldine Jacobi and Roy Russell, but would come to call Los Angeles home before her first birthday. The eldest of five children, Jane was also the only girl, so the family would always refer to her as “Daughter.” Growing up with four brothers on the family compound in Van Nuys gave Jane a strong sense of self, though she never took herself too seriously.
Jane toyed with acting as a teenager, and even briefly studied under the actress Maria Ouspenskaya at a Los Angeles acting school. She also tried her hand at modeling, primarily posing for photographer Tom Kelly who is now best known for his nude photos of Marilyn Monroe. Jane’s images with Kelly were fairly demure in comparison, but it was one of his portraits that caught the eye of an associate of Howard Hughes. The millionaire producer was interested in producing a film about the life of Billy the Kid, and wanted to cast two young unknowns for the lead roles. Jane got the part of Rio in what was to become The Outlaw.
Set to be directed by Howard Hawks and costarring veteran actors Walter Huston and Thomas Mitchell, the film should have been a dream debut for both Jane and Jack Beutal, who was playing Billy the Kid. However, the two Howards immediately clashed over creative differences and Hawks walked off the picture, dealing a devastating blow to the two aspiring actors who Hawks had taken under his wing. Hughes took over the directing reigns which caused the production to drag. Censorship issues and wartime distractions would cause Hughes to delay wide release of The Outlaw until 1946.
Production woes did not deter Hughes from launching a full blown Outlaw advertising campaign starting in 1941, focusing on Jane’s “assets.” This responsibility was assigned to PR guru Russell Birdwell (the mind behind Gone with the Wind’s “Search for Scarlett” campaign), who scheduled Jane for countless photo shoots. For one such session, famed glamour photographer George Hurrell posed a smoldering Jane on bales of hay in form-fitting clothes and holding a gun. This image came to be one of the most well-known in Hollywood history. Even though Jane would only have three films released over the course of the decade, these early images kept her on the cover of magazines for years and made her a favorite pin-up with servicemen overseas.
While waiting for The Outlaw to be released, Jane wed her high school sweetheart, Robert Waterfield, who would make a name for himself as a professional football player with the Los Angeles Rams. The couple built a stunningly modern home in the hills above Sherman Oaks and later adopted three children. On the surface, Russell and Waterfield seemed to be the perfect All-American couple, but the relationship was a contentious one and they would divorce after 25 years of marriage.
After co-starring with Bob Hope in The Paleface (Paramount Pictures, 1948), Jane’s film career finally took off in the 1950s. Jane always appeared at ease on screen and had no issues starring opposite the likes of Clark Gable, Robert Mitchum, Cornell Wilde, Jeff Chandler, Victor Mature, Jeanne Crain, and Vincent Price, among others. She also had the opportunity to work with notable directors of the era such as Raoul Walsh and Nicholas Ray. Arguably, the crowning achievement of her film career came in 1953 when she finally got to work with Howard Hawks on the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes opposite Marilyn Monroe.
Jane’s film career wound down in the 1960s, but she kept busy with television and radio appearances, as well as live performances. Together with Connie Haines and Beryl Davis (and occasionally Rhonda Fleming and Della Russell), Jane recorded records and they toured as a singing trio around the world. In the 1970s and 80s, she became the spokesperson for Playtex bras, a tongue-in-cheek nod to the Outlaw and the alleged bra Howard Hughes has designed for her to wear for the film. Jane would also marry two more times. Her second union, to Roger Barrett, was cut tragically short when he passed away from a heart attack two months after the wedding, a blow Jane never fully recovered from. Her third marriage to real estate broker John Peoples would last until his death in 1999.
Unlike her onscreen siren image, Jane Russell was extremely faith-based, something she was always very vocal about. She was an avid student of the Bible and for years would hold chapel sessions at the Russell family compound where she grew up (even once convincing Marilyn Monroe to attend). As busy as she was with her entertainment career, Jane’s true lifework was WAIF, an organization she started in the 1950s which became the fundraising arm for International Social Services (ISS) and also sought to ease restrictions on international adoption (read more about WAIF here).
Jane’s later years were spent in Sedona, Arizona, Santa Barbara, California and later in Santa Maria, California where her youngest son lived. Her position as a living Hollywood legend found her frequently in demand for interviews about her career, and Jane was always generous with memories. She passed away on February 11, 2011, a true Hollywood icon.