Jane Russell, one of Hollywood’s great sex symbols, was born Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell in Minnesota, on June 21, 1921, the eldest and only daughter, with four brothers. Her father was a former First Lieutenant in the US Army, while her mother once performed in a travelling revue.
By 1930, the family had moved to the San Fernando Valley, California, where Jane’s father worked as a manager at a soap manufacturing plant. Jane’s mother encouraged her to take piano lessons. She studied at Van Nuys High School, where she became interested in drama.
In one high school production, Shirtsleeves, Jane acted alongside Jim Dougherty. He would later marry the young Norma Jeane Mortensen, but she was five years their junior. Norma Jeane would also attend Van Nuys High, but didn’t take to the stage initially.
Though she had hoped to study design, Jane changed her plans after her father died suddenly at 46. After graduation, she became a receptionist. She also modelled, and at her mother’s suggestion, studied with Max Reinhardt’s Theatrical Workshop, and with the actress Marie Ouspenskaya. (In 1952, Marilyn Monroe acquired Reinhardt’s manuscripts as a gift for her own teacher, Natasha Lytess. She was lambasted by the press and eventually agreed to sell the archive at cost price to Reinhardt’s son. Much to her dismay, Reinhardt’s son then resold the collection to a university for considerable profit.)
In 1940, Jane was signed to a seven-year contract by Howard Hughes, the reclusive head of Trans-World Airlines, who had also produced several films, including ‘Hell’s Angels’, ‘The Front Page’ and ‘Scarface’. Hypnotised by the 19 year-old’s statuesque, voluptuous figure, Hughes cast Jane in ‘The Outlaw’, a bizarre, self-penned western.
Jane played ‘Rio’, a gorgeous young woman loved by both Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid. Hughes even designed a cantilevered brassiere to show off Jane’s breasts, and a promotional photo-shoot, featuring a scantily-clad Russell lying in a bale of hay, made her one of the most iconic pin-ups of World War II. It also outraged the censors, and the notoriously eccentric Hughes spent the next five years revising the film for general release.
Although Hughes was known for his many sexual conquests, Jane was not one of them. She married NFL footballer Bob Waterfield in 1943. In her foreword to the 1989 book, ‘Marilyn Monroe and the Camera’, Russell recalled meeting her past schoolmate, Jim Dougherty, at a dance. “He was in uniform and called out to me, ‘Hey, outlaw! I want you to meet my wife, Norma Jeane.’ I looked up from the table and saw a little thing with ash-brown hair and a very sweet smile. We waved hi. She was curled literally over his arm.”
While ‘The Outlaw’ made Jane a star, her lucrative contract with Hughes prevented her from making any more films until it was approved by the censors. He expected her to promote the film even before its release, and only allowed her to appear in one other film, ‘Young Widow’ (1946.)
Although Jane never shied away from flaunting her looks, Hughes’ obsession ultimately hindered her career. “Howard Hughes was a good and fair boss,” she acknowledged, “but he lacked the artistic taste to do the kind of films I really would have liked to be in, with parts I could get my teeth into. He wasn’t the man I needed if I was to have developed into a serious actress. So I really have no idea how far I could have gone in films….I was definitely a victim of Hollywood typecasting.”
Marilyn Monroe’s movie career began, albeit inauspiciously, in 1946, after her divorce from Dougherty. She would spend several years as a contract player, following a similar path of modelling for photographers and private studies as Jane had done before.
One of Monroe’s early managers concocted a story for the press, alleging that the unknown Norma Jeane had been ‘discovered’ by Hughes on a magazine cover, while he was recovering in hospital after crashing an aeroplane.
Marilyn was never entirely sure if the story was true, though according to Natasha Lytess, she would join Hughes on another flight years later. In his 1984 book, ‘Legend: The Life and Death of Marilyn Monroe’, Fred Lawrence Guiles opined, “She must have been reserved with him, because he never invited her out or ‘up’ again.”
Meanwhile, Jane branched out into music, recording two tracks, ‘As Long as I Live’ and ‘Boin-n-n-ng!’ with the Kay Kyser Band. Her first album, ‘Let’s Put Out the Lights’, was released in 1947. (One Gershwin track, ‘Do it Again’, was later covered by Marilyn Monroe.)
A year later, Jane starred with comedian Bob Hope in a hit western spoof, ‘The Paleface’. She would also star in the 1952 sequel, ‘Son of Paleface’, and had a cameo role in ‘The Road to Bali’, alongside Hope and Bing Crosby.
Meanwhile, back in 1948, Howard Hughes had acquired control of RKO, the same movie studio that Norma Jeane had overlooked during her stay at the Los Angeles Orphans’ Home as a child. In 1952, Marilyn won a key role in the RKO melodrama, ‘Clash By Night’.
“I was riding with the director Nick Ray on the RKO lot when we passed a girl wearing very ‘stressed’ blue jeans and a man’s shirt tied under her bosom and showing quite a lot of midriff,” Jane remembered. “Nick stopped the car and said, ‘I’d like you to meet this kid…She’s having a tough time on her picture with the lady star (Barbara Stanwyck), who is being very sarcastic to her.’ As she walked alongside, he called, ‘Marilyn, I want you two to meet. Jane, this is Marilyn Monroe.’ Her hair was blonder now – tousled, but definitely blonder. Nick was very concerned, caring, protective.”
Although Jane came from a large, loving family and was happily married, she had her own bad experiences. As a teenager she was assaulted twice. At the age of 18, shortly after she began dating Waterfield, Jane fell pregnant. She had a backstreet termination and nearly died. Russell was left infertile, and became an outspoken critic of abortion, regardless of the circumstances.
In February 1952, Jane adopted a daughter, Tracy. Later that year, she travelled to London to adopt a 15 month-old Irish boy, Thomas, whose birth mother, Florrie Kavanagh, was too poor to provide for him. This led to controversy, especially in Ireland, where Russell was perceived as having used her wealth and status to secure the adoption. Jane adopted a third child, Robert, in 1956.
Jane made two films with Robert Mitchum: ‘His Kind of Woman’ (1951) and ‘Macao’ (1952.) They had great chemistry, and became firm friends. Mitchum also hailed from Van Nuys, and had worked with Jim Dougherty at the Lockheed Munitions Plant during the 1940s. He would later star with the former Mrs Dougherty in 1954’s ‘River of No Return’. In 1991, Russell was reunited with both Mitchum and Dougherty for a TV documentary, ‘The Discovery of Marilyn Monroe.’
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
In the same year, Jane was cast as Dorothy Shaw in the Twentieth Century-Fox musical, ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’. Monroe, now a star in her own right, won the part of Lorelei Lee. “She was in her very first ‘star’ dressing room,” Jane reflected, “even though she had already starred in a picture (‘Niagara’). She was determined that her bosses at Fox were going to take her seriously. She worked night and day rehearsing the dance numbers, or she’d shoot the film all day and then go over the script with her coach at night.”
Russell soon became aware of her co-star’s chronic insecurity. “(MM) was always ready but could not make herself get out on the set,’ she continued. “She puttered, seemingly frozen there. It got a little tense on the set for a couple of days – you just didn’t keep Howard Hawks waiting without getting the steely blue eye!”
Jane learned from Marilyn’s make-up artist, Allan ‘Whitey’ Snyder, that she suffered from extreme stage fright. From then on, Jane called for Marilyn each morning on her way to the set. “I know the friendship and support of Jane Russell was special to (Marilyn),” Snyder said, as quoted in Michelle Morgan’s ‘Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed’ (2007.) “She often commented on what fun it was being with Jane. Jane seemed to understand her.”
Marilyn’s difficulties were compounded, Jane thought, by her increasing dependence on Natasha Lytess. “Then, of course, she had the acting teacher on the set every moment, a woman who was such an annoyance, running Marilyn’s life the way she did,” Russell told J. Randy Taraborrelli, author of ‘The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe’ (2009.) “I’m sure Marilyn did not need her on this movie…she would have been fine without her, if only she had more confidence in herself.”
After a stage kiss with co-star Tommy Noonan, Marilyn heard his wisecrack, “It was like being sucked into a vacuum.” Marilyn, understandably, was deeply hurt. “She was really distraught,” Jane told Anthony Summers, author of ‘Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe’ (1986.) “She said, ‘How can people be so cruel? Nobody can be so cruel and not pay for it one day.’”
Russell defended Monroe’s sensitivity, and her talent. “Marilyn was sensational, and frankly, I was more than happy to let her take the bows,” she told John Gilmore, actor and author of ‘Inside Marilyn Monroe’ (2007.) “She was so radiant and good she stunned you.”
Before long, Jane had won Marilyn’s trust. In one courtroom scene, Russell dons a blonde wig and impersonates Monroe, whipping off her fur coat and singing a chorus of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’. Though the skit is close to burlesque, Marilyn was not offended in the least. “Why should this bother me?” she said, according to biographer Michelle Morgan. “I know Jane wouldn’t do anything that would hurt me.”
Russell had her own problems while filming a solo number, ‘Anyone Here for Love?’ She recounted the story to Richard Buskin, author of ‘Blonde Heat: The Sizzling Screen Career of Marilyn Monroe’ (2001.) During the carefully rehearsed routine, Jane bent down at the edge of the swimming pool. One of the dancers clipped Jane on the head and she rolled into the pool.
“It was an accident, and we had to go back and re-shoot the whole number,” Russell confirmed. “I wasn’t supposed to end up in the pool at all, but it turned out better the way it happened, although the poor dancer got fired. I mean, it didn’t hurt.” Howard Hawks decided to keep the shot, and showed Jane emerging from the water at the end of the song.‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ remains one of both Russell and Monroe’s most popular films, and a digitally restored print was released in 2010. “Never has there been such friendly, funny camaraderie between two women onscreen,” columnist Liz Smith wrote in 2011. “Monroe herself would not find such a perfect co-star again, which is why ‘Blondes’ was her greatest film. Jane Russell helped make it so.”
Jane encouraged Marilyn to move out of her hotel suite and rent an apartment at North Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. “Every woman should have her own home. Hotel life is no kind of life for a woman,” she told Monroe, as related in Maurice Zolotow’s ‘Marilyn Monroe: An Uncensored Biography’ (1960). Russell recommended her own designer, Thomas Lane, and even helped to decorate. Marilyn stayed there until her marriage to Joe DiMaggio. She would return there in 1961.
Monroe sought her friend’s advice over her relationship with DiMaggio. Russell had been married to another sportsman, Bob Waterfield, for ten years. “I told her she must find time to go off and find her own friends to talk about books and poetry and the arts,” Jane told Anthony Summers. “But apparently she wasn’t able to go off and do that. Marilyn felt part of her was dying because she wasn’t getting it expressed.”
Though Marilyn received equal billing with Jane, she was paid much less – whereas Russell was on loan-out to Fox for $150,000, Marilyn received $500 a week under her studio contract. ‘I really got to this kind of level and I said, “Look, after all, I am the blonde, and it is ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’!” Monroe told journalist Richard Meryman in her last interview, for Life magazine in July 1962. “Because still they always kept saying, ‘Remember, you’re not a star.’ I said, ‘Well, whatever I am, I am the blonde!’”
“Money and power were not to be gained by coercion,” Jane wrote of Marilyn. “She would flit off like a butterfly. I remember her saying, ‘If they aren’t going to be fair and nice, I can always leave. I can get by on very little. After all, I’ve done it before.’” In December 1954, Marilyn left Hollywood and set up her own production company, returning nearly two years later on improved terms. Jane established a similar company with her husband in 1955.
In June 1953, not long after ‘Blondes’ opened, Jane and Marilyn were invited to dip their hand and footprints in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Monroe suggested that she should sit in the cement instead and Russell should bend over into it. Both actresses were thrilled by the honour.
In her autobiography, Jane recalls that as a girl, she would try to fit her hands and feet in the prints of other stars, just as the young Norma Jeane did. In 2007, Russell told John Gilmore, “I’ll never forget (MM) saying to me, ‘It’s for all time, isn’t it?’ Yes, I told her, it’s for all time or as long as the cement lasts…She made me cry, she was so sweet,” Jane admitted. “I believed in her. We made a hell of a team and I wish we had done another picture together.”
The women dined together that evening, with DiMaggio and Waterfield, at Chasen’s restaurant. “Even the normally blasé kitchen staff slipped into the dining-room to watch Monroe and Russell tuck into their steaks and fried potatoes,” Donald Spoto reported in ‘Marilyn Monroe: The Biography’ (1992.) “For an entire week, the day’s events were detailed in words and pictures on the pages of every major American newspaper and magazine…”
Though Monroe and Russell became close, their attitudes were quite different. “Jane, who is deeply religious, tried to convert me to her religion and I tried to introduce her to Freud,” Marilyn recalled wryly. “Neither of us won.” As early as 1951, Jane had formed the Hollywood Christian Group, a gospel quartet and weekly bible study group based in her home. Among her fellow members were June Allyson, Dick Powell, and Louella Parsons. Russell was also a staunch Republican, while Monroe’s sympathies were more left-wing – she would later join the Democratic Party.
Russell starred in two more Hughes projects, ‘The French Line’ (1954), and the 3-D epic, ‘Underwater!’ (1955.) She produced four films, including ‘Gentlemen Marry Brunettes’ (1955) and ‘The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown’ (1957), and starred with Clark Gable in ‘The Tall Men’ (1956.)
Monroe declined to appear in ‘Gentlemen Marry Brunettes’. Russell took another role rejected by Marilyn, ‘The Revolt of Mamie Stover’ (1956.) She would not make another film for eight years. In 1954, she recorded a gospel album, ‘The Magic of Believing’, with the Hollywood Christian Group. Three years later, Jane opened at the Sands Hotel, Las Vegas, in a solo nightclub act. She went on to tour the world and released an eponymous album in 1959 (reissued by Sepia Records in 2009 as ‘Fine and Dandy’.)
In 1953, Russell successfully campaigned for an amendment to the Federal Orphan Adoption Act, paving the way for children of US servicemen born overseas to be placed for adoption in the US. In 1955, she founded the World Adoption International Fund (WAIF), an organization that has helped find homes for more than 51,000 babies.
In the same year, Marilyn had moved to New York. Anthony Summers wrote that MM was approached by Jane, “asking her to help WAIF…This marked the beginning of Marilyn’s active interest in children’s causes, one she would maintain until she died. Soon the world’s press would be chronicling her own frantic efforts to have children.”
Monroe promoted such charities as the March of Dimes and the Milk Fund, and a few months before she died, made a large donation to an orphanage in Mexico. She suffered from endometriosis since adolescence, and had at least two miscarriages in the final years of her life. Some biographers have suggested that during her visit to Mexico, Marilyn considered adopting a baby. Having spent most of her childhood in foster homes or in the care of friends and family, Monroe understood the plight of disadvantaged children more than most.
After moving to New York, MM took a group of teenage fans, known as ‘the Monroe Six’, under her wing. In his 1991 book, ‘Marilyn: the Ultimate Look at the Legend’, James Haspiel recalled, “While Marilyn was still living at the Waldorf, her former co-star Jane Russell was staying at a hotel located a couple of blocks away. I remember that we – the Six and I – had to deliver a note from Monroe to Russell. I don’t recall anything else about that moment, other than that we did so as requested by our ‘Mazzie’.”
In 1956, Marilyn married Arthur Miller and spent much of the next five years in New York. Her contact with Jane probably diminished at this point, though Russell’s details were included in Monroe’s last address book.
In her autobiography, Jane remembered the summer of 1962, when Marilyn died, aged 36.
“It was beach time again, and the days were long and wonderful…At night we showered, put on caftans, had wine, music, and more talk by the fire. I often stared at the water ‘night dreaming’…On one such night I thought of Marilyn Monroe. I wish I had her phone number, because I knew she belonged there, where we were all laughing about our problems. The next day Robert (Waterfield) arrived from a hunting trip and said, ‘Marilyn Monroe’s dead. I heard it on the radio.’ We were stunned. If only, if only.”
Paths and Detours
Russell continued to act, occasionally, in films and on television. Her last film was ‘Darker Than Amber’ (1970) and she appeared in three episodes of a night-time soap opera, ‘The Yellow Rose’. Her last screen performance was in a 1986 episode of the police drama, ‘Hunter’.
“I was getting old,” Jane said in 1999, explaining why she stopped making films. “You couldn’t go on acting in those years if you were an actress over 30.”
Russell made her Broadway debut in 1971, playing Joanne in the Stephen Sondheim musical, ‘Company.’ Later that decade, she appeared in TV commercials as a spokeswoman for the Playtex ‘Cross Your Heart’ bra, “for us fuller-figure gals.” It remains, to this day, Playtex’s most popular design.
In 1968, Jane divorced Bob Waterfield, and married actor Roger Barrett, who tragically died of a heart attack just three months later. Russell has spoken frankly of her subsequent battles with depression and alcoholism. In 1974 she was married again, to real-estate broker, John Calvin Peoples. He died in 1999.
A bestselling autobiography, ‘Jane Russell: My Paths and My Detours’, was published in 1985. In 1989, Jane received the Women’s International Centre Lifetime Legacy Award, for her work in adoption advocacy groups. She continued to give interviews and appear on television, and always spoke of Marilyn Monroe with genuine fondness and respect.
In 1982, John Gilmore had hoped to star alongside Jane in ‘Indiana Twilight’, based on a novel acquired by legendary agent Charles Feldman (who represented Marilyn for several years), and to be produced by his former wife, photographer Jean Howard. Like so many projects, it never came to pass.
“Jane wasn’t surprised at all when the picture-in-development fell out the window,” Gilmore wrote in response to an earlier version of this article, posted on my own website shortly after her death. “I remember our conversation (I was living temporarily at the Hollywood’s Villa Carlotta in Louella Parson’s old apartment); it was rainy and the wind was beating palm leaves against the tall, second story windows of the apartment. I told Jane I was sorry about the movie because I knew Jane’s hopes had been in bloom, but more because I knew she would have delivered a brilliant performance and made the picture a success. Jane said, ‘It isn’t your fault. We both live our lives under the roof of an old, mean, wicked step-mother witch who has odd priorities we’ll never really get a grip on…’”
In later life, Jane explored her artistic side, decorating her Santa Barbara home in vibrant colours. A pencil drawing of Marilyn as Lorelei shows Russell’s captures her old friend’s delicate grace with considerable flair.
By 2006, Jane’s sight and hearing were poor, but her energy was undiminished. She formed a band, ‘The Swinging Forties’, and performed twice-monthly at the Hotel Radisson bar in Santa Maria. “I miss performing,” she told Peter Sheridan of the UK’s Daily Express. “I always loved singing and for me this is fun. There isn’t much for older people to do here in Santa Maria, where I live, so some friends and I decided it would be fun to have some of our kind of music and we sing songs from the swinging Forties.”
In 2009, Jane was voted one of the 40 Most Iconic Movie Goddesses of All Time by Glamour magazine. But the film critic Mark Cousins, who met Russell in Scotland during the 1990s, remembered, “She did her make-up in five minutes, laughed a lot and was unforgettably generous with her time and stories. My first glimpse of her was in her hotel – no make-up, shower-cap over her head.”
Jane Russell died on February 28, 2011, aged 89, at her home in California’s Santa Maria Valley, of a respiratory illness. She is survived by her three children, six grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren.
“On the morning of February 28th, I was in a breakfast meeting with my publisher and associate, going over notes for the ebook release of ‘Inside Marilyn Monroe’,” John Gilmore commented on my website. “They discussed the possibility of a blurb – wondering who was left that I knew, and I said, ‘Of course, Jane Russell…’ I said I’d call her that day… Soon as I got back from my meeting, intending to contact Jane after a long spell, I instantly discovered she had died earlier that same day, and the moment I heard the news was like that sound years before of the wind and rain brushing the palm leaves against the window.”
By Tara Hanks