Actress Jane Russell dies at age of 89
Chicago Sun-Times/AP
Mar 1, 2011 06:58 AM

LOS ANGELES — Jane Russell, the busty brunette who shot to fame as the sexy star of Howard Hughes’ 1941 Western “The Outlaw,” died Monday of respiratory failure, her family said. She was 89.

Although Ms. Russell made only a handful of films after the 1960s, she had remained active in her church, with charitable organizations and with a local singing group until her health began to decline just a couple of weeks ago, said her daughter-in-law Etta Waterfield. She died at her home in Santa Maria.

“She always said I’m going to die in the saddle, I’m not going to sit at home and become an old woman,” Waterfield said. “And that’s exactly what she did, she died in the saddle.”

Hughes, the eccentric billionaire, put her onto the path to stardom when he cast her in “The Outlaw,” a film he fought with censors for nearly a decade to get into wide release.

With her sultry look and glowing sexuality, Ms. Russell became a star before she was ever seen by a wide movie audience. The Hughes publicity mill ground out photos of the beauty in low-cut costumes and swimsuits, and she became famous, especially as a pinup for World War II GIs.

For many years she served as TV spokeswoman for Playtex bras.

During the postwar years she became a box-office star by starring with Bob Hope in the 1948 hit comedy-Western “The Paleface.”

Although her look and her hourglass figure made her the subject of nightclub jokes, unlike Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and other pinup queens, Ms. Russell was untouched by scandal in her personal life. During her Hollywood career she was married to star UCLA and pro football quarterback Bob Waterfield.

“The Outlaw,” although it established her reputation, was beset with trouble. Director Howard Hawks rankled under producer Hughes’ suggestions and finally walked out.

Hughes bought the ailing RKO studio in 1948, and he devoted special care to his No. 1 star, using his engineering skills to design Ms. Russell a special brassiere (she said she never wore it.) That year she made her most successful film, a loanout to Paramount for “The Paleface.”

But at RKO she was cast in a series of potboilers such as “His Kind of Woman,” “Double Dynamite,” “The Las Vegas Story” and “Macao.”

Hughes had rewarded her with a 20-year contract paying $1,000 a week, then sold RKO and quit making movies. Ms. Russell never made another film for Hughes.

Her only other notable film was “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” a 1953 musical. She and Monroe teamed up to sing “Two Little Girls From Little Rock” and seek romance in Paris.

She followed that up with the 1954 musical “The French Line,” which was shot in 3-D, and the promotional campaign for it proclaimed “J.R. in 3D. Need we say more?”

In 1955, she made the sequel “Gentlemen Marry Brunettes” and starred in the Westerns “The Tall Men” and “Foxfire.” But by the 1960s, her film career had faded.

She continued to appear in nightclubs, television and musical theater, including a stint on Broadway in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” She formed a singing group with Connie Haines and Beryl Davis, and they made records of gospel songs.

She was born Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell on June 21, 1921, in Bemidji, Minn., and the family moved to the Los Angeles area.

Despite her mother’s Christian preachings, young Jane had a wild side. She wrote in her 1985 autobiography, My Paths and Detours, that during high school she had a back-alley abortion, which may have rendered her unable to bear children.

While working as a receptionist, she was spotted by a movie agent who submitted her photos to Hughes, and she was summoned for a test with Hawks, who was to direct “The Outlaw.”

Hughes was famous for dating his discoveries and Hollywood actresses, but his contract with Russell remained strictly business. Her engagement and 1943 marriage to Waterfield assured that.

After experiencing problems in adopting her three children, she founded World Adoption International Agency, which has helped facilitate adoptions of more than 50,000 children from overseas.

Russell’s life was marked by heartache. Her 24-year marriage to Waterfield ended in bitter divorce in 1968. That year she married actor Roger Barrett; three months later he died of a heart attack. In 1978 she married developer John Peoples, and they lived in Sedona, Ariz., and later, Santa Barbara. He died in 1999 of heart failure.

Over the years Russell was also beset by alcoholism.

“Without faith, I never would have made it,” she commented a few months after her third husband’s death.