Hollywood sex siren Jane Russell reveals why, bizarre as it may
seem, that at age 84 she has become a solo singer in cheap
restaurants and airport hotel bars
by Peter Sheridan
The Express (UK), March 30, 2006
"The silver-haired old lady sitting quietly in the corner of the bar
adjusts her lipstick and casts her watery eyes around the lounge
filling with senior citizens. Her vision is fading so she can't make
out all the faces and her hearing is going so she can't hear the
small band warming up as well as she might like.
It's 170 miles up the road from Hollywood to this small bar in a
dull airport hotel in Santa Maria, California, and it looks just
like thousands of others which cling to the fringes of airports
But when she rises from her table, straightens her turquoise gown,
weaves her way to the microphone and begins to sing, there is no
doubt that legendary screen goddess Jane Russell can still bring the
It has been more than half a century since Russell was Hollywood's
sexiest brunette, a voluptuous Second World War pin-up and Marilyn
Monroe's buxom co-star in the 1953 classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
She starred in 25 movies including The Outlaw, Paleface and
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, opposite leading men including Clark
Gable, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra. She had a one-woman revue
on the Las Vegas stage, recorded albums and remains one of the few
surviving superstars of Hollywood's golden age.
But why, at 84, would Russell choose to make a bizarre comeback
singing two nights a month at the airport Radisson Hotel bar in out-
of-the-way Santa Maria?
"I miss performing," she admits. "I always loved singing and for me
this is fun. There isn't much for older people to do here in Santa
Maria, where I live, so some friends and I decided it would be fun
to have some of our kind of music and we sing songs from the
It turns out that the airport bar is a step up from her last venue.
"We started out singing in a Mexican restaurant about 18 months
ago," Russell explains. "Then we graduated to the hotel." Russell
begins her set just after 6pm and is singing her closing number, Bye
Bye Birdie, by 9pm so that her elderly audience can be in bed before
"I love singing but I don't want to act," she says. "I don't want to
learn lines any more. I'm 84 for crying out loud. I don't miss
acting. I never liked doing plays because you repeat the same thing
night after night. At least in movies you're doing new scenes every
day. But nobody wants me to make movies at 84."
Even today, Russell still has the curves that made her famous.
Legend has it that aviation and movie mogul Howard Hughes discovered
Russell when he found her 38D-25-36 figure working as his dentist's
receptionist. He plucked her from obscurity and made her the
scantily clad star of daring Western adventure The Outlaw.
But Russell laughs: "That's all Hollywood hype. I never worked for a
dentist. After leaving school I worked for a chiropodist for about a
week, and quit -- I'd had enough of putting people's feet in warm
water. And Howard Hughes was never a client.
"In truth, a friend of mine had been asked to model by a
photographer but she was shy so she asked me to come along for
support. An agent visiting the photographer's studio saw my pictures
and showed them to director Howard Hawks, who was casting The
Outlaw. I met Hawks and got the part long before I met Howard
Russell is happy to deflate yet another oversized Hollywood legend:
that Hughes designed a revolutionary seamless bra for the actress,
which helped thrust her heaving cleavage against her tight peasant
blouse in the historic movie poster for The Outlaw, creating a
scandal in 1942.
The film was considered so sexually charged that Hughes fought with
the board of censors for more than three years before it was finally
It was Hughes who once said of Russell: "There are two good reasons
why men go to see her. Those are enough." But Russell reveals: "The
irony is, I never wore Hughes's bra. I threw it under the bed and
never saw it again.
Hughes was ahead of his time, designing a seamless bra that could
look great under a tight silk blouse. But it wasn't comfortable. So
I fooled him: I wore my usual bra and put Kleenex over the cups, so
that it left no lines under the blouse. Hughes never knew the
"A lot of the posters for The Outlaw bothered me because they sold
it as a 'wicked' movie, though today it would be considered suitable
But I was portrayed as a sex siren, and that changed my life for
ever." Yet it was a teenage sexual encounter when she was known as
Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell, from Van Nuys, California, that
was to change her life in a disastrous way.
"I was 19 and unmarried when I got pregnant and that would have
caused a scandal," she says. "Back then nobody had a child out of
wedlock. I had to go to school and find a friend who once had
something done, and I asked her what to do. It's awful when you're
in trouble and don't know where to turn.
"Abortion was illegal, so I had no choice but to go to an illegal
backstreet abortionist. But it was botched and I darn near died. I
was in bed for weeks and they had to take me to the hospital anyway.
It left me unable to have children of my own. It was devastating."
Yet from the ashes of her tragedy, Russell has brought hope and joy
to thousands of other childless couples.
"I was married to my first husband for 24 years," she says of former
American football star Bob Waterfield. "But I couldn't have children
because I'd had the abortion, so we tried to adopt. There were so
many children aged one or two whom we would have loved but the
authorities back then would only let us adopt newborns and there was
a two or three-year wait. It was ridiculous." Long before Angelina
Jolie began looking abroad for unwanted children, Russell was
pioneering the way.
"I started an organisation called WAIF -- the World Adoption
International Fund -- in 1952 to help people adopt unwanted children
from overseas," she recalls. "We've had more than 51,000 children
adopted thanks to WAIF and sometimes I think that if I hadn't gone
through my abortion, perhaps there wouldn't have been loving homes
for those children. It's great that stars like Angelina Jolie and
Tom Cruise are adopting. The kids need parents." With husband
Waterfield she adopted three children: Thomas, now 55; Tracy, aged
54; and Buck, 49. In her 80s, still full-figured and vital, Russell
admits she would like another man in her life.
"I was born married," she says. "It would be nice to have a man but
there's no one in my life right now. I've always felt complete with
a man. I remember as a child playing with my father on the lawn and
at night we'd lie down, stare up at the stars and make a wish on the
first star I'd see that night. I'd always wish for my very own
husband." After divorcing Waterfield in 1967, Russell married Roger
Barrett in 1968 just three months before he died, then in 1974 she
wed John Peoples, who died in 1999.
Losing two husbands has made her wary of tying the knot a fourth
time. "I have some friends my age who were just married and then one
had a stroke," Russell sighs. "When you get into your 80s you never
know what might happen. I don't know how much fun I'd be for a
husband when I can't see or hear well." It's a cruel irony for
Russell, the star of screen and song, that she is losing her vision
and her hearing.
"I have macular degeneration," she confesses. "It's tough, as it
puts a fuzzy ball in the centre of your vision and leaves you with
only peripheral sight. I can watch TV if it's right by my bed but if
I go to the movies it's a blur.
"But I'm not really happy with the movies these days, so that's no
big loss. The films don't make sense to me. Audiences aren't
involved with the characters in the way we used to be.
"I've also been losing my hearing for more than a decade and that's
frustrating. Sometimes I really feel my age. But I can still kick up
my heels, and sing and dance." At least briefly on stage Jane
Russell is young again, belting out numbers that strip back the
She refuses to let her ailments depress her, buoyed by a lifelong
faith. Russell became a born-again Christian long before it was
fashionable and in the Forties started a Hollywood Bible-reading
group that was attended by many of the biggest stars.
"I still hold Bible readings," she says. "My faith is a big part of
who I am. It has got me through some dark days."
it is hard to imagine her getting on well with rival sex bomb
Marilyn Monroe but on the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes the two
screen sirens became close friends.
"It was only her second starring movie and she hadn't even had a
dressing room of her own until then," says Russell. "She was nervous
and needed support. I was like a big sister to her. She had the
reputation of being a diva but she was so professional. Marilyn was
always ready for her scenes, came in before I did every day but was
nervous about going out on the set.
"The crew were intimidated by her and afraid of upsetting her, so
sometimes they would be reluctant to call her from her dressing room.
"So when it was time I'd go by her room and say: 'Come on baby, it's
time, let's have some fun,' and she'd come nice and sweetly. She was
a great girl."
Back on stage, completing her set to warm applause, Russell again
basks in the love of an audience and, from the smile on her face,
she could just as easily be standing on a vast proscenium stage in
Las Vegas, or accepting a lifetime achievement award at The Oscars
-- an honour which has thus far eluded her.
The smile lingers through a last curtain call, though the tireless
trouper is hoping that her final bow is many years away."