Jane Russell may be best known for being the brunette in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Even against those “odds,” she became one of the most desirable women in Hollywood, known for her sultry appeal and curvaceous figure—but behind the scenes, Russell knew tragedy and heartbreak far too well. Here are 50 scandalous facts about the brunette bombshell.
Jane Russell Facts
1. She Was a Paradox
Jane Russell was known for playing sultry femme fatale types onscreen, but behind the scenes, she could be a goody-two shoes. She was a staunch Republican and devout Christian—that’s not an exaggeration. Russell actually organized a weekly Bible study at her home which she named the “Hollywood Christian group.”
2. She Tried to Save Marilyn
In fact, while making her most famous film, the classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Jane Russell actually tried to convert her co-star, Marilyn Monroe, to Christianity. As Monroe put it, “Jane tried to convert me (to religion), and I tried to introduce her to Freud.” Obviously, neither woman budged in her beliefs.
3. She Was Discovered by Howard Hughes
Russell’s career began in a way that seems like a classic old Hollywood cliché. She was a buxom 19 year old working in a humdrum job at a doctor’s office when infamous Hollywood director Howard Hughes walked through the door. Hughes was well-known for his love of beautiful young women, so it’s no surprise that he immediately focused on Jane Russell.
4. …And Used by Him
Hughes insisted that he could make Russell a star, and before long, she had signed a seven-year contract with him. First up was The Outlaw, a Western about infamous outlaw Billy the Kid, where she played his love interest. For her debut, she was paid the princely sum of $50 per week. It would be the movie that would put her on the map—but for all the wrong reasons.
5. Her First Film Was Banned
The sultry role of Rio in The Outlaw made a breakout star out of Jane Russell—even though it was barely seen for nearly five years after its initial release. The film was supposed to come out in 1941, but the Hollywood Production Code Administration objected to the amount of skin that was shown, particularly by Russell. Hughes, who had directed the film, had to think fast—so he came up with a devious plan.
6. Hughes Tried to Ban His Own Film
Hughes had cut some more salacious footage from the film, but the whole ordeal had scared off the film’s distributor—and if it didn’t get released, he’d lose millions. In order to draw attention to the film and create a demand for it, he actually called for it to be banned. He manufactured public outcry, secretly calling concerned citizens to tip them off about the “vulgar” film.
7. She Got Stuck in Film Purgatory
Somehow, this ploy worked. The attention that it drew to the film created a demand—but the story didn’t end there. Upon its release, the Production Code once again pulled it. It was such a grueling process, Russell later said that she felt as it she spent the first half of the 1940s doing nothing but promoting her debut film.
8. The Controversy Put Her Career on Hold
The film was finally fully released in 1946, and it was a hit. The controversy over The Outlaw had made a star of Russell, and its success just cemented her place in Hollywood. That didn’t mean Russell had it made, though. Her next movie, the 1946 drama Young Widow, was a failure—but it would take more than that to keep Jane Russell down.
9. She “Boosted Morale”
Of course, Russell wasn’t exactly sitting on her hands while she waited for the release of The Outlaw. She posted for photos and became a popular pin-up girl during that time—especially with WWII servicemen.
10. She’s From the First City on the Mississippi
That wasn’t Russell’s only connection to the armed forces—her father, Roy William Russell, had been a first lieutenant in the US Army. However, it was her mother’s footsteps that she followed in. Geraldine Russell had been an actress before starting their family in Bemidji, Minnesota. Jane ended up being the first of five children for the Russell family.
11. She Had a Momager
Russell’s mother was a stage mom if there ever was one. First, she urged her young daughter to take piano lessons. After that, Russell took drama classes and appeared in school plays in high school, before going on to take acting lessons from acclaimed coaches. It sounds like the perfect path to Hollywood stardom, but through it all, Russell’s heart was elsewhere.
12. She Stepped Up After Her Father’s Demise
Russell actually dreamed of becoming a fashion designer rather than an actress, but her mother had different ideas. She pushed her daughter toward the dramatic arts—and then, tragedy struck. Russell’s father perished, leaving behind a wife and five children. As the oldest, Jane decided that she’d get a job as a receptionist to support her family.
13. Men Loved Her Figure
Of course, that job ended up leading her back to the stage anyway, when Howard Hughes walked through the door of the doctor’s office where she worked and he “discovered” her. While Hughes didn’t get as creepy with her as he did other starlets, he was once quoted as saying: “There are two good reasons why men go to see [Russell], and those are enough.”
14. Hughes Invented a Bra Just for Her
When Hughes laid eyes upon Russell’s soon-to-be-infamous figure, he saw dollar signs—and he acted on it in a truly bizarre way. While making The Outlaw, Hughes designed a now-infamous underwire bra just for Russell to further propel her cleavage onwards and upwards for the movie. However, Russell later revealed the truth about the whole thing.
15. She Had a Mind of Her Own
In her autobiography, Russell said that she found Hughes’ baffling bra invention to be incredibly uncomfortable—so she devised a way to get around wearing it. Russell hid the invention and wore her own bra, adjusting the straps and padding it out with tissue to fool the notorious director. Hughes’ infamous invented bra now lives in a Hollywood museum.
16. She Knew Exactly What She Was Doing
Russell was no fool, and she knew that Hughes and the rest of Hollywood were trading in on her curvaceous figure. But she also had her limits and wasn’t shy about speaking up when things went too far. She said, “Sex appeal is good—but not in bad taste. Then it’s ugly. I don’t think a star has any business posing in a vulgar way.”
17. She Wasn’t a Mean Girl
That’s not to say that Russell was judgmental of her co-stars and peers. She had worked with Marilyn Monroe on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and defended the star, saying that Monroe’s pin-up calendar had been “artistic,” which kept it from being vulgar.
18. She Tried Something New
Following the success of The Outlaw, Russell tried her hand at a musical career—but it didn’t exactly go as she planned. Columbia Records released her innuendo-laden album Let’s Put Out the Lights in 1947, but Russell later revealed that she hated the album, saying it was “horrible.” One song in the album’s reissue? The subtly-named “Boin-n-n-ng!”
19. She Made a Comeback
Russell had spent years in Hollywood purgatory waiting for The Outlaw to be released, and over time, the endless delays took a major toll on her career. Finally, in 1948, Russell began to make something of a “comeback” when she was cast as Calamity Jane in The Paleface. Thankfully, the flick was a massive hit for Paramount that year—but for Russell, the best was yet to come.
20. Russell and Hughes, Together Again
Hughes hadn’t just forgotten about Russell after all the trouble he’d gone through with The Outlaw, and when he gained control over RKO Pictures in 1948, he immediately signed her to a long-term contract. They had a very fruitful working relationship, and she starred in a number of RKO films over the next few years of her career—however, there was a dark side to it all.
21. Her Talents Were Wasted
The type of films that Hughes cast Russell in focused only on her body, and she never really got a chance to show off her acting chops in those years. While many of the films were financial successes, they’re not exactly the type of stuff that critics still talk about today. As a result, many critics and fans have said that her talent was wasted during those years.
22. She Married Young
Eventually, Russell’s good looks were bound to land her a romance, and in 1943 she got one. That year, she got married to her high school sweetheart, Bob Waterfield, who was a quarterback for the UCLA Bruins at the time. Many expected the young couple to start a family, but sadly, Russell was hiding a dark secret.
23. She Got In Trouble at 18
When Russell was just 18 years old, she became pregnant with Waterfield’s child. Faced with a difficult choice at a young age, she ultimately chose to terminate the pregnancy. The procedure was difficult, and after experiencing severe complications, Russell went to see her family doctor for a check-up. His reaction was devastating.
24. It Changed Her Life Forever
According to Russell, when the doctor took a look at her that day, he asked her a terrifying question:“What butcher did this to you?” As it turned out, the botched procedure had left the young girl infertile. The aftermath of all this stayed with Russell for the rest of her life, and she became a vehement anti-choice activist.
25. Her Curves Were Known the World Over
The voluptuous Russell was a popular pin-up during the Korean War as well—so popular, that the forces there named a pair of embattled hills in her honor. On top of that, she is the namesake for the “Jane Russell Peaks” in Alaska.
26. Her Next Film Was a Guaranteed Hit—Until…
During her contract with RKO Pictures, Russell was cast opposite Robert Mitchum and Vincent Price in His Kind of Woman. The looks, star power, and chemistry of the leads made it seem like the film would be a guaranteed blockbuster. At first, filming went off without a hitch—that is, until Howard Hughes stepped in…
27. She Had a Sense of Humor
While making His Kind of Woman, Mitchum came up with a cheeky nickname for Russell, calling her “Hard John” for her rigid Christian beliefs. Any other star might’ve taken offense, but Russell had a great sense of humor. When a reporter asked her about her reputation for being hard-nosed about her faith, she had a sassy retort: “Christians can have big breasts too.”
28. She Got Stuck in Film Purgatory…Again
With filming on His Kind of Woman completed, the cast looked forward to moving on to the next film project, but there was a dark twist around the corner. The persnickety Hughes demanded an entire year’s worth of reshoots for the film, with the cast—now annoyed and fighting each other—even throwing an “anniversary party” for the shoots.
29. Her Work Was Never Easy
If Russell thought her ordeal was over after finally wrapping His Kind of Woman, she was sorely mistaken. Her next project was the Hughes-produced Macao, and this time she had to deal with temperamental Austrian director Josef von Sternberg, who quickly made enemies of most of the cast—but who had a special dislike for Russell.
30. Her Director Hated Her
While working on the film, von Sternberg sniped that Russell was a “beautiful stupid girl.” There were fights on set, and the director constantly threatened to fire his actors—but in the end, it was von Sternberg who got fired himself. Then, after all that, the film ended up as a financial flop. It was yet another setback for Russell, but her patience would soon pay off.
31. Things Finally Turned Around
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was just around the corner, and cemented Russell’s status as Hollywood royalty—In fact, Russell even got paid more than her co-star Marilyn Monroe. But despite this competition, Monroe spoke fondly of Russell in the final interview she gave before her tragic passing, saying that Russell was “quite wonderful to me.”
32. She Took Control of Her Own Future
The success of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes wasn’t the only triumph for Russell that year. After her disastrous and lengthy contract with Howard Hughes through RKO Pictures, Russell was finally able to strike out on her own. Instead of signing with another studio, Russell and her husband Bob Waterfield began Russ-Field Productions.
33. They Built a Family…
Russell and Waterfield also had exciting success on the homefront. In the early 50s, the longtime couple adopted a baby girl. Soon after that, they added to their family by adopting a baby boy, and a few years later, another son. It should’ve been the happiest time of their lives, but instead, it stirred up a dark controversy that nearly ruined Russell’s life.
34. …But It Came at a Dark Cost
Russell was working on a play in London when, during an interview, she said that she wanted to adopt an Irish boy, due to her husband’s heritage. A young Irish mother named Hannah McDermott saw the interview. Reading it, she envisioned a better life for her infant son Thomas. She reached out to Russell and set the wheels in motion.
35. The Press Got a Hold of the Story
Russell and McDermott came to an agreement over little Thomas and soon after, Russell took him home and the Waterfields became a family of four. McDermott gave an interview to the Daily Mail about the adoption, which ran with the headline “My baby has gone to Fairyland.” When the paper came out, it caused an uproar.
36. She Had to Fight Back
One British politician was so outraged that he called for baby Thomas’s return to the UK. Hannah McDermott, meanwhile, was charged with breaking adoption laws, and people angrily protested outside Russell’s home. Although Russell hired a lawyer for McDermott and got her free and clear, the damage was already done.
37. She Was a Devoted Mother
Russell had immediately connected to the young boy for a heartbreaking reason—he reminded her of her younger brother Billie, who had passed away at just 16 months old.
38. The Woman She Advocated for Met a Dark Fate
While Tommy went on to live “happily ever after” in Hollywood with Russell, things weren’t so easy for his birth mother. She perished young, at just 53—and the circumstances are chilling. She left a pub with a man, and the next day her remains were found in her burned out home. It was likely that the fire was set to cover her homicide, which remains unsolved.
39. She Pioneered Foreign Adoption
Russell’s troubling experience with adoption turned her into an advocate, and in 1955 she founded an organization meant to facilitate foreign adoptions for US families, which at the time weren’t yet common. She called it the World Adopting International Fund—AKA “Waif.” Since its inception, the organization has helped over 50,000 children get adopted.
40. She Had Plenty of Ups and Downs
Despite the uproar in the UK, Russell’s career made a quick recovery stateside. She put in the work, and eventually, the critics came around to appreciating her not just for her body, but for her talent as well. However, disappointment was just around the corner. Russell counted the 1957 film The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown among her best work, but it was a flop.
41. She Aged Out of the Business
Sadly, the failure of The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown went far beyond disappointing ticket sales. It also spelled the end of the production company that Russell began with her husband Bob Waterfield. For most of the next decade, she only occasionally appeared in films and mostly stuck to television and music, chalking it up to her “advanced” age—she was in her mid-30s.
42. Her Marriage Came to a Crushing End
After spending a quarter of a century together and adopting three kids, high school sweethearts Russell and Bob Waterfield seemed solid as a rock—but heartbreak was lurking in the shadows. In 1967, Russell filed for divorce—only for Waterfield to file a counter-suit, saying that his soon-to-be ex drank too much and was prone to “habitual intemperance.”
43. They Had an Unusual Custody Arrangement
The terms of their custody agreement were far from conventional for that era—while the eldest two children, Tracy and Thomas, went to live with Russell, custody of the youngest of their adopted brood, Robert John, was given to Waterfield.
44. She Bounced Back Quickly
If the breakup of Russell’s 25-year marriage shocked her fans, they were in for even more surprise. Just two short months after her divorce, Russell hastily married actor Roger Barrett. The timing revealed the dark side of her previous marriage. It turns out that both spouses had cheated on the other. In the end, Waterfield’s affair with his secretary drove Russell to file for divorce.
Sadly, just three months after Russell’s wedding to her second husband, tragedy struck.
45. Her Next Marriage Was Short—for Heartbreaking Reasons
Russell and Barrett were only married for three months when Barrett suffered a sudden, fatal heart attack. After 25 years and three months of love and loss, Russell was unexpectedly alone for the first time since in high school.
46. She Had Another Quarter-Century Marriage
It took time, but eventually Russell found love again. Six years after the loss of her second husband, she fell for an estate agent named John Calvin Peoples. The couple wed in 1974, and unlike Russell’s other walks down the aisle, this one was built to last. Russell and Peoples remained together until his passing in 1999. Russell never remarried after him.
47. The Loss of Her Husband Left Her Reeling
Shortly after the passing of her third husband, Russell revealed a dark and surprising secret. She admitted that she had a drinking problem and entered rehab—all at the age of 79 years old. Russell confessed that she began to drink after the loss of her husband, and that her family had to confront her about her problem and urge her to seek treatment.
48. She Outlasted So Many of Her Contemporaries
While Russell’s youngest son didn’t come to live with her after the end of her first marriage, she moved close to him and his family in the final years of her life. In 2006, her eyesight began to deteriorate. Then, a few years later after suffering from a respiratory illness, tragedy struck. Russell’s sensational life ended in February 2011. The screen siren was 89 years old.
49. She Survived Hollywood (Mostly) Unscathed
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was one of Russell’s most well-known films, but the ultimate fates of her and her co-star Marilyn Monroe were starkly different. Russell credits her marriage and family for keeping her in line in Hollywood. However, she also revealed her own dark suspicions about Monroe’s infamously tragic end.
50. She Doesn’t Believe the Stories About Marilyn
In a 2007 interview, Russell said that she was suspicious of Monroe’s passing. She explained that the blonde bombshell had been preparing to remarry Joe DiMaggio, and had been excited about a new movie contract. As a result, Russell just didn’t think Monroe took her own life. Rather, she said, “Someone did it for her. There were dirty tricks.”
When the interviewer brought up Monroe’s connection to the Kennedys, Russell agreed that she believed they had a part in her friend’s untimely demise.
51. Her Reputation Preceded Her
In 1950s America, Jane Russell’s scandalous hour-glass figure caused an absolute frenzy. Her buxom chest was so popular, variety show host Bob Hope even once introduced her by saying “The two and only Jane Russell.”