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People Top 5
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- October 28, 1985
- Vol. 23
- No. 18
A Pouting Venus Risen from Howard Hughes' Haystack, She Could Never Be More Than the Sum of Her Cleavage
"Oh, don't worry about it," says her third husband, John Peoples, 62. "You know what people want."
Another book sits prominently in the living room. It's the family Bible she got when she graduated from Van Nuys High. "To Jane From Mother June 18, 1939," the inscription reads. The full-figured woman puts out her cigarette, puts on her glasses and reads from Proverbs, chapter 31. It is all about wives. Jane Russell always wanted to be one. "I was born to be married," she says. And she reads:
"Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.... She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.... She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household.... Her candle goeth not out by night. She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands...."
Jane Russell pauses, peering over her glasses. "You see, she's a very busy lady. She's doing lots of stuff." The full-figured woman always thought of herself more in terms of the lady in Proverbs than the one on the book cover. It's been a struggle, though.
Jane Russell has been divorced and widowed; she had a devastating premarital abortion that probably cost her any further pregnancies; she developed drinking problems that led her briefly into an institution; her three adopted children have not always been easy. But her faith runs deep. Nothing that the Lord has done to her or she has done to herself dismays Jane Russell. Her only regret is Hollywood. She was never really treated there as anything but a pair of boobs, and if occasionally she was given a more rewarding comedy role—as in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn Monroe—she was again quickly relegated to more forgettable parts.
Looking back, what was your favorite role, Jane?
"Actually, I rather enjoyed...[long pause, almost as if embarrassed to say this] The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown."
Of course part of the problem was that she spent the heart of her career with RKO, a studio that rarely had any but the flimsiest of scripts to offer its minions. "Yes, that's about the only thing I feel disappointed about in my life," Russell says. "I think all the rest of it went about the way it was supposed to go."
And, too, part of the problem is that while Jane Russell has been an enduring sex symbol, with brassiere commercials in her seventh decade, she might rise above her roles but never above her figure. To the end, people cared only about peeking into her cleavage, not into her soul.
Maybe it's simple. Whoever heard of anyone playing a dumb brunette? Certainly she lacked the fey, vulnerable qualities of a Monroe. (Marilyn once said: "Jane tried to convert me, and I tried to introduce her to Freud." Neither, it seems, had much success.) Her appearance notwithstanding, Russell was not adroit as a femme fatale or in parodying the sex she exuded. It wasn't simply a lack of ability. Though she once was labeled, fairly, "the queen of motionless pictures," she later became proficient enough as a musical comedy actress to rate good reviews on Broadway.
Probably it was just that Jane Russell never cared enough about Hollywood—or at least about the desultory parts Hollywood kept doling out to her. In any event, throughout her film career, which petered out a quarter century ago, Russell remained hostage to her bizarre beginning. The girl on the book jacket, the one that Howard Hughes had plunked down in the hay, always seemed a more appealing personality than the woman in The French Line of Underwater! or in Playtex.
How she got into the hay involves a series of flukes piled upon coincidences. While Russell is undeniably pretty, and while her mother (who is still alive at 94) was a show girl who visualized the name JANE RUSSELL up there in lights, young Jane had no great yearning to be an actress. But she grew up near Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley. At that time the area was not the suburban repository for dim-witted Valley Girls but was genuine rural turf. The Russells raised farm animals on their small ranch, and when Gene Autry rode through, warbling about making the San Fernando Valley his home, most of his Saturday morning movie-serial audiences assumed the place must be another sagebrush sector of Wyoming, not just a hill and dale away from Tinseltown.
The teenage Russell, an indifferent student, did idly venture to Hollywood, usually in the tow of more starry-eyed pals. She was rejected once by Twentieth Century Fox for being "unphotogenic," and once by Paramount for being "too tall"—though at 5'7" she is hardly an Amazon. Mostly, though, she just drifted along, being recognized primarily as the high school sweetheart of Bob Waterfield—Jane always called him Robert—the all-American quarterback at UCLA who went on to star with the Los Angeles Rams.
And then, out of the blue, Jane Russell was discovered.
The role, in the vernacular of the time, was as the "half-breed" girlfriend of Billy the Kid, the title character in The Outlaw. The movie was being produced by Howard Hughes, and he had decreed that Billy and the half-breed must be played by unknowns. Thousands of candidates were unearthed and examined, and on the appointed day the finalists, six boys and six girls, were brought in and paired off for screen tests. Russell and somebody named Jack Beutel won the parts.
Still, if this extraordinary whimsy of fate changed her life forever, Russell remains relatively unmoved by it. Does she ever think about what would have happened to Jane Russell if she'd finished second out of six instead of first?
"No, not really."
Well, what does she think would have happened to her if she hadn't won the part?
"I'd be in designing or something."
Does she think she would have had a happier life?
"Well, I wouldn't have had to get dressed up all the time."
That Russell outlasted The Outlaw—something the eminently handsome Jack Beutel couldn't do—is of course achievement enough. Hughes' cinematic masterpiece—which he, the perfectionist, directed himself—was a disaster. He shot 450,000 feet of film, of which he used 10,700, demanding as many as 103 takes per scene. Three years after The Outlaw was filmed in 1940 it was finally released at a theater in San Francisco. Critics, according to the testimony of one stunned eyewitness, were seen "exchanging incredulous stares." All that saved the picture at the box office were Miss Russell's breasts and a single gesture she made—putting her hand to her belt, suggesting she was going to disrobe and climb into bed with the Kid.
Even though the half-breed's intentions were not carnal, even though she was merely going to bunk down in order to warm up the poor wounded lad, would-be censors were apoplectic, and the brouhaha only made the curious want to see it—them—more. A Baltimore judge wrote the kind of advertising copy in his decision that Hughes had paid Hollywood shills tens of thousands of dollars to concoct. Russell's breasts, declared His Honor, "hung over the picture like a summer thunderstorm spread out over a landscape. They were everywhere."
The drumroll of publicity for "her mezzanine majesty" was such—an estimated 60 magazine articles before the film was ever trotted out—that in one poll Russell was voted "Favorite Actress" before any in the electorate had ever seen her act. In another poll, the whole damn U.S. Navy chose her "the girl we'd like to have waiting for us in every port."
Hughes eventually got his money back, gratefully signed Russell to an unprecedented long-term million-dollar contract and went to his grave thinking that he had designed the revolutionary bra—one that was seamless and cantilevered—that had made Jane's jugs so special.
Yes, but see Eccles. 12:8, "Vanity of vanities...." Russell says she couldn't abide Hughes' contraption, flung it away, made her own bra "seamless" with Kleenex and made it cantilevered with her own natural engineering.
Thus ended, 45 years ago, the interesting part of Jane Russell's Hollywood career. Her life with Waterfield was altogether more demanding. It was a moth-and-flame relationship, although it is never quite clear who was which. They fell in love at Van Nuys High—his first kiss, she writes, "stayed with me for 20 years." They were married when Jane was 21; by that time she had had a serious affair with the actor John Payne, a temporary falling-out with Jesus and a back-alley abortion. While Russell doubts it, Waterfield assumed the baby was his, which makes it all the more unforgivable that she caught him catting around while she was recuperating and all the more mystifying that she soon threw over the gentle Payne for Waterfield, who comes across in the book as a perennial juvenile, boorish, intractable, insecure and deceitful. (The marriage broke up 25 years later because he couldn't bear to stop shooting pool with the boys.)
"Yes," says Russell, "but while I loved John Payne, I was in love with Robert Waterfield." And she acknowledges that she is not skilled enough as a writer to portray Waterfield's more appealing everyday qualities. Among other things, they had a wonderful relationship in bed—not surprising for a fellow with a 20-year kiss—and a shared humor. "We laughed ourselves silly sometimes," she says. "It was a black humor, like my father's."
Also like Waterfield, Roy Russell, who died at 47 while his only daughter was still in high school, was a man nearly incapable of expressing affection. Jane anticipates the question. "Of course," she says. "I married my father the first time."
That sort of offhand admission marks the woman—in her book, in her conversation. The Pharisees have, through the years, railed at her that she would presume to be a Christian, that she would sing gospel and quote Scripture, even as she titillated and tantalized with those big bazooms. But, then, in many respects Jane Russell is the typical Christian of the sort her Savior regularly trucked with—abundant in flaws and contradictions and occasionally even manifold sins, all the while seeking forgiveness and keeping the faith. She is no stylish showbiz convert; she grew up speaking in tongues, and as early as 1950 the phrase "born again" was being applied to her in print. She also never forgets that the one time in her life when she turned her back on God was, coincidentally or not, the time she had her only pregnancy and her only abortion.
"During that time I was going to do it my way," she says, "and He jerked me up in a hurry when I let Him down. I learned that without faith I'd do anything that came into my head. And a lot can come into my head." She smiles at herself, at her imperfections.
When she and Waterfield, as man and wife, realized they couldn't have children, Russell persuaded him to adopt. The couple gained three children that way, and in 1955 she started an agency known as WAIF—originally set up to bring foreign children to the U.S., now specializing in finding parents for hard-to-place American orphans. "You see," she says, "if I had my own children I never would have done anything about WAIF. God took a mistake of mine and turned it into something wonderful."
There were more mistakes, though, and more painful times. She finally had to give up drinking—"Me, the one who used to drive everybody home, put all the drunks to bed and then let the cat out." And after she divorced Waterfield, who died in 1983, her marriage to actor Roger Barrett ended after barely three months when, at 47 (just like her father), he had a heart attack one morning and sprawled dead across their bed. "That was the lowest point of my existence," she says, "but it didn't test my faith. Someday I'll understand the reason for Roger's dying. I didn't know then, and I don't know now."
For the past 11 years she's been married to John Peoples, a retired Air Force colonel, a shambling, bearded man, who, Russell says, possesses not only Waterfield's cynical humor, but a spontaneity and inventiveness of his own. Right now, as she stands in the living room of their house tucked away in the lush backcountry of Santa Barbara, about two miles from the Pacific and maybe 20 from the President's ranch, Peoples is working on another part of the property. He's building a new house for himself and his lady. Hammers bang. Saws sing.
The afternoon sun filters into the room where the full-figured woman is still standing and reading. "Her children arise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her," she says. "Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that fear-eth the Lord, she shall be praised."
She smiles again over her glasses. That's the kind of stuff they never gave Jane Russell to do on the screen.
April 18, 2015
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