The poster for The Outlaw, Jane Russell’s first movie, made her famous before anyone knew if she could act. Its photo, which emphasized the actress’ 34D bosom, drew such vehement condemnation from the Catholic church that The Outlaw did not receive a national release until 1950 — seven years after its San Francisco premiere.
Despite her undeniable sex appeal, Jane proved to be much more than the sum of her voluptuous parts. Unable to bear children, she turned to her faith and founded an organization that helped place more than 50,000 kids with new families over 40 years.
“She genuinely devoted a big part of her life to this cause and later on supported the foster care system in this country,” Christina Rice, author of Mean … Moody … Magnificent! Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend, exclusively tells Closer Weekly, on newsstands now.
Film mogul Howard Hughes plucked the Minnesota-born beauty out of obscurity at age 19. “Their relationship was strictly platonic,” Rice says of the actress who grew up a tomboy. “Jane wasn’t going to be taken advantage of and she never really was.”
Her self-confidence also allowed Jane to see rising star Marilyn Monroe, her foil in 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as a friend not a rival. “Jane assumed the role of older sister,” says Rice, who explains that Jane used to fetch Marilyn from her dressing room each morning so she would be on time. “It wasn’t a close friendship that lasted years, but they always spoke very highly of each other. They had a tremendous amount of respect for each other.”
Hidden underneath the gloss of Jane’s Hollywood success lay real trials and hurts. She had married her high school boyfriend, Bob Waterfield, in 1943, but when they tried to start a family, Jane learned that an illegal abortion she’d had at age 18 had left her sterile. “From that point forward, her faith played a big, big role in her life,” explains Rice. “She always felt the Lord had a plan for her, so maybe that was the plan.”
Jane and Bob would adopt three children. After the British courts challenged their rights to son Tommy, who was born in the U.K., Jane founded the World Adoption International Fund, the first organization to help would-be parents navigate the difficulties of foreign adoptions.
“WAIF wasn’t just something she was putting her name on,” says Rice. “She was very active and involved in the organization for over 40 years.”
Sadly, Jane knew other troubles too. Her first marriage ended in divorce after 25 years and then she lost her second husband, actor Roger Barrett, to a heart attack two months after their wedding. Her final marriage to Col. John Peoples lasted 25 years before he too died of a heart attack. “I just went home and started drinking so that I didn’t have to think,” Jane confessed.
At the urging of her family, Jane entered rehab at age 79 and achieved sobriety. When she passed away in 2011, Jane left behind three children, eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. “They’re my kids,” she said. “And they’re all terrific.”
– Reporting by Katie Bruno
For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.