Sexy Film Icon Jane Russell Dies at 89

| by Phyllis M Daugherty

Jane Russell, the sultry brunette sex symbol whose movie career included co-starring with Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” (1953) and films with Bob Hope, Clark Gable, Jeff Chandler and Frank Sinatra, died of respiratory failure at her home in Santa Maria.

The voluptuous actress whose curvaceous 38D-24-36 figure caused Bob Hope to quip that, “Culture is the ability to describe Jane Russell without moving your hands,” was working as a receptionist when she was discovered by Howard Hughes and signed to a seven-year contract with RKO in 1940. 

She debuted in “The Outlaw,” an awkward Western directed by Hughes and completed in 1943, but censored because of the revealing shots of her ample cleavage. The movie was finally cleared for general release in 1946.

Her most successful film was a loan-out from RKO to Paramount in 1948, co-starring with Bob Hope in "The Paleface.” Subsequent films were  "His Kind of Woman" (1951) and “Macao” (1952), both opposite Robert Mitchum;’ "Double Dynamite" with Frank Sinatra and Groucho Marx (1951); "The Las Vegas Story" with Victor Mature, Vincent Price and Hoagy Carmichael (1952); “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” with Marilyn Monroe (1953); “Foxfire” with Jeff Chandler (1955); and that same year, “The Tall Men” with Robert Ryan and Clark Gable. Russell’s seductive pin-up posters were a favorite with GI’s during World War II.  

Born Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell on June 21, 1921, in Bemidji, Minnesota, Jane was the eldest of five children.  She was married three times, first in 1943 to her high-school sweetheart, UCLA All-American Bob Waterfield, who later played for the Cleveland Rams and then became head coach for the Los Angeles Rams. They adopted three children. Later she founded the World Adoption International Fund (WAIF) to help Americans adopt children from foreign countries

After a tumultuous marriage, she and Waterfield divorced in 1968. She married Roger Barrett later in 1968, but he died of a heart attack three months later. She was married to real-estate broker John Calvin Peoples from 1974 until his death in 1999. 

A botched back-alley abortion when she was a teenager may have been the cause of Jane’s inability to have children. In her 1985 autobiography, My Paths and Detours, she talks about the conflict between her religious faith and her image, and expressed regret over her divorce and bouts with alcoholism. But publicly her life was not clouded by the usual Hollywood scandals.

Jane Russell also was the founder and leader of the Hollywood Christian Group, a weekly Bible study at her home for Christians in the film industry. She is survived by her daughter and two sons, six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.