I met Jane Russell once.
It was in my hometown, Pine Bluff, Ark., a faded Southern place that hosted a film festival in hopes of raising enough money to restore the Saenger Theater
, a once palatial movie house. Each year, the festival invited former famous starlets – Tippi Hedren, Carol Channing, Shirley Jones, Celeste Holm – to talk about Hollywood's Golden Age. In 2002
, Russell came to town.
Statuesque, with silver hair and a still-to-be-envied figure, Russell possessed no celebrity air about her. She talked like a good old Western gal who had seen a lot, and done a lot, but no longer was wowed by sweet-talking fans or bright lights. Dr. Foster Hirsch, host of the American Film institute's "Tributes," interviewed her and afterward, she met fans. Russell shook my hand and was unfailingly polite. She even gave my mom a hug.
Russell, 89, died Monday in Santa Maria, Calif., from respiratory failure.
The vampy sex symbol was born in Minnesota, but her family moved to California when she was 11. She blasted onto to the Hollywood scene in the 1943 Howard Hughes film, "The Outlaw,
" wearing a low-cut blouse and reclining against a stack of hay bales. Hughes used sexist language and pure exploitation to promote the film – and Russell's breasts – with posters that said, "How Would You Like to Tussle With Russell?"
Overnight, the busty brunette became a GI fantasy as the country reeled from war. During the Korean War, troops named two embattled hills in her honor.
As one commenter said on the Los Angeles Times website, "My dad was in the army during WWII and had lunch with Jane during a tour she made. He commented that she was a very nice girl. He felt she was just a normal, down to earth girl that just happened to be a movie star. That was a great compliment to her character coming from him."
Never considered a fantastic actress, or one who accumulated awards, Russell played Calamity Jane in "The Paleface
" with Bob Hope and starred with another sex goddess, Marilyn Monroe, in the musical, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
." As she aged, she faded out of films and found new fans in nightclubs, on stage and in live appearances.
For many who grew up in the 1970s watching daytime television, Russell is known as the "bra lady." Playtex hired Russell to be its spokeswoman for bras for "full-figured women."
But for all her sexiness, Russell's personal life didn't necessarily reflect the glamorous one she played onscreen. She was conservative when conservative wasn't cool.
In the 1950s, Russell, who considered herself evangelical or Pentecostal without belonging to a specific denomination, formed a female gospel quartet called the "Hollywood Christian Group" that came together after they met at a church social. Even as her star was rising, Russell held fast to her Christian faith, creating a weekly Bible study at her home for Christians in the film industry.
Russell was also blunt. She told the Associated Press in 1960: "I've no trouble getting in to see senators and congressmen."
She was married three times, and admitted to having an abortion when she was young. Because of the botched procedure, she opted to adopt, became a mother to three children and was a strong pro-life advocate. (She asked that donations in her memory be given to Net Pregnancy & Resource Center
in Santa Maria, Calif., where she lived.)
Russell founded World Adoption International Fund (WAIF), which placed children with adoptive families and pioneered adoptions from foreign countries
"Jane Russell founded the very first international adoption organization, and because of her, our immigration laws were changed so that children from overseas, mostly with American fathers, were allowed to come here," Gerald H. Cornez, executive director of WAIF, said in a 1999 Los Angeles profile of Russell.
The organization has since closed.
Russell, a lifelong Republican, attended Dwight D. Eisenhower's inauguration. She once said: "I have always been a Republican, and when I was in Hollywood long ago, most of the people there were Republican. The studio heads were all Republican, my boss Howard Hughes was a raving Republican, and we had a motion picture code in those days so they couldn't do all this naughty stuff. We had John Wayne, we had Charlton Heston, we had man named Ronald Reagan, we had Robert Mitchum, James Stewart, Clark Gable."
As she got older, Russell also got more outspoken. She said, "These days I am a tee-total, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded, conservative Christian bigot, but not a racist."
Of liberal actors like George Clooney and Susan Sarandon, she said, "I think they're not well."
Today's liberal Hollywood may not have offered Russell a welcoming role, but here's a toast (a virgin cocktail, of course) to this uppity woman who never ceased calling it like she saw it.