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The American actress Jane Russell died on Monday, February 28, 2010.
My parents and their friends were born around the same time as Miss Russell. No one, even my mother’s friends who were avid fans of film gossip, ever had a bad thing to say about her.
Some of her obituaries were better than others. A few mentioned her Christianity and conservative politics in passing whilst others explored these points in more depth. These things I didn’t know. They make interesting reading. Emphases mine throughout.
Born Ernastine Geraldine Russell on June 21 1921 at Bemidji, Minnesota, she grew up in California, graduating from Van Nuys School. Though her mother had been an actress, the young Jane did not initially entertain thoughts of a career in showbusiness, opting instead for employment as a chiropodist’s assistant. But showbiz was in the blood and in 1940, she enrolled in Max Reinhardt’s Theatrical Workshop. Later, she studied with Maria Ouspenskaya, with a little modelling on the side.
That was how Howard Hughes discovered her, earmarking her immediately for the Western he planned to make with brand new stars. Russell and Jack Buetel were cast in the leading roles. Though The Outlaw was not released for many years, Hughes’s publicity machine kept the stories churning about this actress with the phenomenal embonpoint.
[She] was … the daughter of a U.S. Army lieutenant and his wife, a small-part touring actress …
At the start of her career, she found herself pregnant at 18 by her high school sweetheart, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Bob Waterfield, who later became her first husband in 1943.
As she was not married, Russell went to a back-street quack. ‘I had a botched abortion and it was terrible. Afterwards my own doctor said: “What butcher did this to you?” I had to be taken to hospital. I was so ill I nearly died.’
The abortion left her unable to bear children. During her 25-year marriage to Waterfield, which she described as ‘tempestuous’, the couple adopted a baby girl, Tracy, and a British boy and then another boy.
In 1955, Russell helped to found the World Adoption International Fund, an organisation to place children with adoptive families and which pioneered adoptions from foreign countries by Americans.
For the rest of her life, she held to the belief that abortion was wrong in any circumstances — including even rape or incest.
A born-again Christian, long before that term was in general use, she formed the Hollywood Christian Group for weekly Bible study at her home, attended by many of the leading names in the film industry.
She also joined a singing group to record gospel songs, one of which made it into the charts.
Her marriage to Waterfield ended in divorce in 1968, and in that same year she married the minor stage actor Roger Barrett, but he died three months after the wedding.
Her third husband, to whom she was married for 25 years, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, died in 1999.
Back to the Telegraph for more about the adoption of her English son after the Second World War:
“I’m the mothering type,” she admitted, when visiting England in the early Fifties to attend the Royal Command Film Performance. High on her agenda was “to adopt a really cute little English baby boy”, as she was unable to have children … Her mother, who was accompanying her, faced an even more challenging task. “I’ve come over”, she said, “to see if I can get hold of a rare German edition of the Bible”. “That”, added her daughter, “is the secret of our family’s success – religion. Mom always was devout.”
The quest for that “cute” little boy opened up a long and bitter battle, involving questions in the House and impassioned pleas by Lt-Col Marcus Lipton, Labour MP for Brixton, for the actress to return the 15-month-old boy, Thomas Kavanagh of South Lambeth, to his rightful mother. An agreement had been reached with the boy’s parents for him to spend three months with the actress in her Hollywood home, but legislation of 1950 expressly forbade parents to allow their children to be adopted by non-British subjects. In the end, after an 11-month struggle, Miss Russell did adopt Thomas Kavanagh in America, while the parents were discharged conditionally in London “for unlawfully permitting the care and possession of the child to be transferred”.
As far as politics went, the Mail relates:
In 1971, she made her Broadway stage debut in the Stephen Sondheim musical Company, and later in the decade appeared in TV commercials for Playtex Cross-Your-Heart Bras, with the catchphrase, ‘For us full-figured gals’.
Behind the scenes, however, she had been battling alcoholism for a number of years, and in 1978, there were worldwide headlines when she was arrested for drink-driving and jailed for 96 hours.
After that, she swore off alcohol, describing herself as ‘a teetotal mean-spirited Right-wing conservative Christian bigot’.
Asked what she thought of Hollywood liberals such as George Clooney, Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, she replied: ‘I think they’re not well.’
In later life:
she moved to Santa Maria, California, to be close to her younger son.
She was visited there in 2004 by Leonardo DiCaprio, who was filming The Aviator and wanted her to tell him what his character, Howard Hughes, was really like.
In 2006, at the age of 84, though suffering from macular degeneration of the eyes and with hearing aids in both ears, Russell put together a musical show, The Swinging Forties, which played twice a month at the Radisson Hotel in Santa Maria.
It featured herself and about a dozen of the town’s residents, including a choir director and a retired police officer.
Asked why she did it, Russell said: ‘Out of boredom, and because there was nothing much going on in town for the older folks to do.’
Another ‘old school’ star passes. It won’t be long before I stop reading film stars’ obits. The new ones just aren’t worth the time.
Jane Russell recognised her sins and duly repented. May she rest in peace and may her family walk in the comfort of almighty God.