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'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' Star Jane Russell Dies

Jane Russell
Keystone Features/Getty Images
Jane Russell

The actress, whose career was launched by Howard Hughes and his film "The Outlaw," was 89.

Jane Russell, whose voluptuous good looks won the attention of millionaire Howard Hughes and launched her on a movie career, died Monday of respiratory failure at her home in Santa Maria, Calif. She was 89.

Generally cast in fluff films like 1943’s The Outlaw that showed off her well-endowed beauty, Russell reached the pinnacle of her career with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), starring in the comedy with Marilyn Monroe.

During the 1970s, Russell was widely recognized as the spokesperson for Playtex bras, appearing in national TV commercials for the “Cross Your Heart” bra campaign.

Although best known for her figure, Russell showed a comic sensibility in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and again with Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955) and The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956). Nevertheless, most of her movie roles were designed around her towering physicality and frontal amplitude. 

Although 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 weeks ago, said her daughter-in-law, Etta Waterfield.

“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 told The Associated Press. “And that’s exactly what she did, she died in the saddle.”

Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell was born on June 21, 1921, in Bemidji, Minn. Her father was a U.S. army lieutenant and her mother was an actress who performed with a traveling troupe. When she was a child, the family moved to California, where she studied piano and acting. After high school, Russell worked as a chiropodist’s receptionist and modeled and studied acting at Reinhardt’s Theatrical Workshop.

Rather than her thespic talents, it was her 38-inch bust line that came to the attention of Hughes, who was a major stockholder in RKO and was conducting a nationwide hunt for the leading-lady role in his film The Outlaw. On a visit to the doctor’s office where she held down her day job, Hughes noticed her figure and insisted that she enter his contest. Russell won the contest and the starring role in the film.

As part of the “opportunity,” she was subjected to what many regarded as vulgar publicity. Nevertheless, she handled it with aplomb, proving there was more to her than met the eye. The movie itself was a bizarre twist on the saga of Billy the Kid, where Russell played a Latin charmer who entices Billy.

Hughes and his publicity team spared no expense in her buildup, and she was featured as a cheesecake pinup that was distributed to G.I.’s. Her figure also made it to other fronts, to the cover of numerous fan and movie magazines. The whole promotional enterprise, highlighting her bust size, was notorious for the day and decidedly risqué. In fact, upon its completion, the movie itself was considered too “hot” and controversial. Further, it did not meet the censorial standards of the Production Code. Such censure, of course, only increased public awareness and whetted the public’s appetite for the film.

Although shot in 1941, The Outlaw was not released until two years later, and then only in a few theaters. Finally, in 1946, it was released nationally and was a box-office smash, with many viewers flocking to see Russell’s “performances.” Airplane designer Hughes even designed a special “cantilever bra” for Russell to ensure proper handling of her “assets” during the filming, but she claimed not to have worn it for the movie.

In the wake of the widespread clamor and success of The Outlaw, Russell’s next film, a soap-opera type entertainment titled Young Widow, was released soon on the heels of The Outlaw. It piggybacked on her hot reputation and was also a financial success for Hughes.

Since Russell had signed a seven-year contract with Hughes, she was at his mercy as far as casting, and he only placed her in RKO pictures that capitalized on her looks. Usually, she played the role of a worldly “dame,” playing in cheesecake-type films and musicals like His Kind of Woman (1951) and The Las Vegas Story (1952). Most sensational perhaps among these was her performance in The French Line (1954), where she performed a sexy dance number in a tiny costume. The film also was in 3D.

Fortunately, she was eventually loaned out from RKO to Paramount, which allowed her to display more of her talents. She won respect for her performance opposite Bob Hope in The Paleface. After appearing in The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown (1957), which tanked at the box office, Russell took a hiatus from films and did not act again until 1964, when she performed in Fate Is the Hunter. She only acted in three more films during the ’60s: Her final film of the decade was Born Losers (1967), a biker movie starring Tom Laughlin. Her last film appearance was Darker Than Amber (1970).

Moving away from the shackles of the kind of movie role that was offered her, Russell widened her repertoire. In 1971, she replaced Elaine Stritch on Broadway in the musical Company.

She married Los Angeles Rams football star Bob Waterfield in 1943, a union that lasted until 1968. Her second husband, Roger Barrett, died less than three months after their marriage. In recent years, Russell lived in the Santa Barbara area, where she was active in numerous charities. She received the Women’s International Center Living Legacy Award in 1989.