June 21 1921 – February 28 2011
Born in Bemidji, Minnesota in 1921, Russell was the eldest child and only daughter of the five children of Roy William Russell (January 5, 1890 – July 18, 1937) and Geraldine Jacobi (January 2, 1891 – December 26, 1986).
Her parents were both born in North Dakota. Three of her grandparents were born in Canada, while her paternal grandmother was born in Germany. Her parents married in 1917. Her father was a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and her mother was a former actress with a road troupe. Her parents spent the early years of their marriage in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. For her birth her mother temporarily moved back to the U.S. to ensure she was born a U.S. citizen.[original research?] Later the family moved to the San Fernando Valley of Southern California. They lived in Burbank in 1930 and her father worked as an office manager at a soap manufacturing plant.
Russell’s mother arranged for her to take piano lessons. In addition to music, she was interested in drama and participated in stage productions at Van Nuys High School. Her early ambition was to be a designer of some kind, until the death of her father at forty-six, when she decided to work as a receptionist after graduation. She also modeled for photographers and, at the urging of her mother, studied drama and acting with Max Reinhardt’s Theatrical Workshop and with famed Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya.
In 1940, Russell was signed to a seven-year contract by film mogul Howard Hughes and made her motion picture debut in The Outlaw (1943), a story about Billy the Kid that went to great lengths to showcase her voluptuous figure. Although the movie was completed in 1941, it was released for a limited showing two years later. There were problems with the censorship of the production code over the way her ample cleavage was displayed. When the movie was finally passed, it had a general release in 1946. During that time, she was kept busy doing publicity and became known nationally. Contrary to countless incorrect reports in the media since the release of The Outlaw, Russell did not wear the specially designed underwire bra (the first of its kind) that Howard Hughes constructed for the film. According to Jane’s 1988 autobiography, she was given the bra, decided it had a mediocre fit, and wore her own bra on the film set with the straps pulled down.
With measurements of 38D-24-36 and standing 5’7″ she was more statuesque than most of her contemporaries. Aside from thousands of quips from radio comedians, including Bob Hope, who once introduced her as “the two and only Jane Russell” and “Culture is the ability to describe Jane Russell without moving your hands”, the photo of her on a haystack was a popular pin-up with servicemen during World War II. She was not in another movie until 1946, when she played Joan Kenwood in Young Widow for RKO.
In 1947, Russell attempted to launch a musical career. She sang with the Kay Kyser Orchestra on radio and recorded two singles with his band, “As Long As I Live” and “Boin-n-n-ng!” She also cut a 78 rpm album that year for Columbia Records, Let’s Put Out the Lights, which included eight torch ballads and cover art that included a diaphanous gown that for once put the focus more on her legs than on her breasts. In a 2009 interview for the liner notes to another CD, Fine and Dandy, Russell denounced the Columbia album as “horrible and boring to listen to”. It was reissued on CD in 2002, in a package that also included the Kyser singles and two songs she recorded for Columbia in 1949 that went unreleased at the time. In 1950, she recorded a single, “Kisses and Tears,” with Frank Sinatra and The Modernaires for Columbia.
She performed in an assortment of movie roles, which included Calamity Jane, opposite Bob Hope in The Paleface (1948) on loan out to Paramount, and Mike “the Torch” Delroy opposite Hope in another western comedy, Son of Paleface (1952), again at Paramount. Russell was Dorothy Shaw in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) opposite Marilyn Monroe for 20th Century Fox, which was well-received.
She appeared in two movies opposite Robert Mitchum, His Kind of Woman (1951) and Macao (1952). Other co-stars include Frank Sinatra and Groucho Marx in the comedy Double Dynamite (1951); Victor Mature, Vincent Price and Hoagy Carmichael in The Las Vegas Story (1952); Jeff Chandler in Foxfire (1955); and Clark Gable and Robert Ryan in The Tall Men (1955).
In Howard Hughes’ RKO production The French Line (1954), the movie’s penultimate moment showed Russell in a form-fitting one-piece bathing suit with strategic cut outs, performing a then-provocative musical number titled “Lookin’ for Trouble”. In her autobiography, Russell said that the revealing outfit was an alternative to Hughes’ original suggestion of a bikini, a very racy choice for a movie costume in 1954. Russell said that she initially wore the bikini in front of her “horrified” movie crew while “feeling very naked”. She and her first husband, former Los Angeles Rams quarterback Bob Waterfield, formed Russ-Field Productions in 1955. They produced Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955), The King and Four Queens (1956) starring Clark Gable and Eleanor Parker, Run for the Sun (1956) and The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown (1957).
She starred in Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, opposite Jeanne Crain, and in The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956). After making The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown (1957), which failed at the box-office, she did not appear on the silver screen again for seven years.
On the musical front, Russell formed a gospel group with Connie Haines, former vocalist in the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey orchestras, and Beryl Davis, a British emigrant who had moved to the U.S. after success entertaining American troops stationed in England during World War II. With Della Russell as a fourth voice and backed by an orchestra conducted by Lyn Murray, their Coral single “Do Lord” reached number 27 on the Billboard singles chart in May 1954. Russell, Haines and Davis followed up with an LP for Capitol Records, The Magic of Believing. According to the liner notes on this album, the group started when the women met at a church social. Later, another Hollywood bombshell, Rhonda Fleming, joined them for more gospel recordings. A collection of some of Russell’s gospel and secular recordings was issued on CD in England in 2005, and the Capitol LP was issued on CD in 2008, in a package that also included more secular recordings, including Russell’s spoken word performances of Hollywood Riding Hood and Hollywood Cinderella backed by a jazz group that featured Terry Gibbs and Tony Scott.
In October 1957, she debuted in a successful solo nightclub act at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. She also fulfilled later engagements in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, South America and Europe. A self-titled solo LP was issued on MGM Records in 1959. It was reissued on CD in 2009 under the title Fine and Dandy, and the CD included some demo and soundtrack recordings as well. “I finally got to make a record the way I wanted to make it”, she said of the MGM album in the liner notes to the CD reissue. In 1961, she debuted with a tour of Janus in New England. In the fall of 1961, she performed in Skylark at the Drury Lane Theatre, Chicago. In November 1962, she performed in Bells Are Ringing at the Westchester Town House in Yonkers, New York.
Her next movie appearance came in Fate Is the Hunter (1964), in which she was seen as herself performing for the USO in a flashback sequence. She made only four more movies after that, playing character parts in the final two.
In 1971, she starred in the musical drama Company, making her debut on Broadway in the role of Joanne, succeeding Elaine Stritch. Russell performed the role of Joanne for almost six months. Also in the 1970s, she started appearing in television commercials as a spokeswoman for Playtex “cross your heart bras for us full-figured gals”, featuring the “18-hour bra”. She wrote an autobiography in 1985, Jane Russell: My Path and My Detours. In 1989, she received the Women’s International Center (WIC) Living Legacy Award.
At the height of her career, Russell started the “Hollywood Christian Group”, a weekly Bible study at her home which was arranged for Christians in the film industry. Russell appeared occasionally on the Praise The Lord program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, a Christian television channel based in Costa Mesa, California. Russell was at times a prominent Republican Party member who attended Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration along with other notables from Hollywood such as Lou Costello, Dick Powell, June Allyson, Anita Louise and Louella Parsons.