Culture, Bob Hope once said, is "the ability to describe Jane Russell without using your hands." The statuesque brunette for whom Howard Hughes engineered a cantilevered brassiere and who enjoyed a 10-year movie career as a good-natured mantrap, died today at her home in Santa Maria, California. The sleepy-eyed lady hugely proficient at playing wisecracking dames was 89.
Easygoing and amusing on screen -- her signature role was as Dorothy Shaw, the raven-haired friend of Marilyn Monroe in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953) – Russell was discovered by industrialist/producer Hughes when she was working as a chiropodist’s assistant. The engineer liked her measurements, 38-25-36, and promptly cast her as the sexpot in "The Outlaw" (1943). Hughes promoted the movie with a picture of his discovery (literally) rolling in the hay, with the caption, "How would you like to tussle with Russell?"
She seemed amused by the attention. though her debut was ludicrous, she quickly developed into a gifted comedienne. She charmed as the tough-talking Calamity Jane opposite Bob Hope in "Paleface" (1948) and “Son of Paleface" (1952). She was ideally matched with Robert Mitchum, whose broad shoulders, sleepy eyes and lazy gait made him resemble her twin, in "His Kind of Woman" (1951) and "Macao" (1952). Her career peak was in the early '50s in "Blondes" and "The French Line" (1954), a 3-D movie advertised as "JR in 3-D!"
Her specialty was the pragmatic dame surprised to have romantic feelings. She delivered the immortal curtain line to Monroe in "Blondes": As both walk down the aisle at their double wedding, Russell whispers to Monroe, "Remember honey, on your wedding day it's OK to say yes."
Like Mae West, Russell had a way of making sex seem like healthy fun. "I like a man who can run faster than I can," she says in "Blondes."
Besides her obvious talents, she also sang. She had a singular voice, both playful and world-weary. I am immoderately fond of her warbling "Ain't there Anyone Here for Love?" to the men's Olympics gymnastic team in "Blondes" and "25 Miles from San Berdoo" in "His Kind of Woman." Her most famous number was "Buttons and Bows" with Roy Rogers in "The Paleface." On the stage in 1970, she replaced Elaine Stritch in the Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's "Company."
Those under 50 remember her as "the full-figured gal" pitching Playtex's 18-hour bra. She was also a devout Christian, a recovered alcoholic, rock-ribbed Republican and adoptive mother who founded the World Adoption International Agency to help facilitate adoptions for others.
I received a lovely e-mail this morning from a reader who said, "An ounce of Jane Russell is worth 10 pounds of Kim Kardashian." Amen to that, brother!
Your favorite Russell moment?