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Jane Russell, film siren who sizzled on-screen in 'The Outlaw,' dies at 89

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; 11:49 PM

Jane Russell, who became one of Hollywood's most celebrated sex symbols through a blend of her own physical endowments and the reported struggles with censorship of her skillfully promoted first movie, died Feb. 28 at her home in Santa Maria, Calif. She was 89.

Her son, Buck Waterfield, said she died of respiratory failure. Her family watched the Academy Award ceremonies on television with her the night before, Waterfield said.

A legend for voluptuousness almost from the time filming began on "The Outlaw," the Howard Hughes production that marked her movie debut, Ms. Russell made many other well-remembered movies, had a productive singing career and remained active in the entertainment world to the end of her life.

In the 1940s, at a time when Hollywood operated under a strict production code, Hughes was credited with sparing nothing to a make a sensation of his movie and Ms. Russell's role in it. "The Outlaw" took its title from its subject, the notorious Western gunman Billy the Kid.

But the name seemed also to suggest forbidden sexuality, and in particular, to refer to Hughes himself. He became known for his defiant efforts to break the restraints of the motion picture production code in his display of Ms. Russell's dimensions, reportedly 38D-24-36.

A master of promotion and publicity, he saw to it that posters portrayed her lying provocatively in a haystack, wielding a revolver while revealing more cleavage than most film audiences had ever expected to see on screen.

Production of "The Outlaw" was finished in 1941, but amid reports of clashes with the censors, two years passed before it was released for even restricted screenings. A wider release did not come until a few years later. But in the meantime, little effort was spared to call attention to Ms. Russell and all of her attributes.

In addition to being known as a connoisseur of pulchritude, Hughes had a reputation as an inventor, and was said to have designed a special bra to make even more of Ms. Russell's appearance. Although the story of that cantilevered undergarment gained wide currency, she said she discarded the device and relied on nature alone.

Wits and wags strove to outdo one another in their descriptions of Ms. Russell, and Bob Hope, with whom she appeared in films, introduced her once on radio as "the two and only Jane Russell."

Whatever fantasies may have been aroused by the film and by the memorable efforts to promote it, Ms. Russell apparently never confused her real-life self with her on-screen roles.

"The look thing was Hughes's," her son said Monday. "Mom just blew it off. She never played that role when she was out." In fact, he said, she was a woman of dry wit and strong spiritual inclinations who cared strongly about Christianity and "helping people."

Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell was born June 21, 1921, in Bemidji, Minn. The family later moved to California and lived in Burbank; her father worked as an office manager. Her mother, a former actress, arranged for Ms. Russell to take piano lessons.

At Van Nuys High School, she took part in stage productions.

At school, she was walking down a hallway, her son said, and school football star Bob Waterfield stuck out a leg, tripped her and caught her before she fell. They became sweethearts, the son said, and later married.

Outside school, Ms. Russell took acting classes and was signed in 1940 by Hughes. After "The Outlaw," she began appearing more regularly in movies. She played Calamity Jane opposite Hope in "The Paleface" in 1948. She demonstrated a flair for comedy in two other Hope pictures, "Road to Bali" and "Son of Paleface."

In 1953, she co-starred with Marilyn Monroe in "Gentleman Prefer Blondes," and in the words of film reviewer Leonard Maltin gave a "sly, knowing, comic performance."

In all, she made at least two dozen movies as well as demonstrating her dry humor, and song and dance skills on stage and in other live appearances. She appeared on Broadway in the early 1970s in "Company" and also served as a spokeswoman in television commercial for bras for "us full-figured gals."

Known also for her gospel singing, she and three other women recorded "Do Lord," which reached the top 30 on the singles chart in 1954. Other recordings, both spiritual and secular, scored successes, including a Capitol Records release "The Magic of Believing."

She and Waterfield were married in 1943 and divorced in 1967 . Her second husband, Roger Barrett, died in 1968, the year they married. She married John Calvin Peoples in 1974; he died in 1999, her son said.

In addition to her son Buck, survivors include a son, Thomas, and daughter, Tracy, the son said.

As recently as this year she made appearances, singing and telling stories, in an act she had developed, her son said.

"She was a strong, giving Christian woman, a patriot, who loved this country," he said.

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