Jane Russell, the voluptuous brunette bombshell who became one of the biggest sex symbols of the ‘40s and ’50s, has died of a respiratory-related illness. She was 89.
During his film mogul years, Howard Hughes discovered Russell and cast her in her film debut, 1941’s The Outlaw, playing a woman who comes between Billy The Kid and Doc Holliday. Russell’s ample cleavage figured prominently in both the film and the marketing—particularly posters that were little more than shots of Russell reclining in a haystack accompanied by the phrase “How Would You Like to Tussle With Russell?” (Reportedly, her assets became so intertwined with the film’s publicity campaign that Hughes hired a skywriter to inscribe “The Outlaw” in the air, followed by two large circles with a dot in the center of each.) Following its release, Russell became indelibly associated with the underwire bra—the first of its kind—that Hughes had designed for her to wear for the film, although Russell later admitted that she didn’t like the fit and wore her own bra instead. Russell’s chest even became immortalized in the Korean War, after the soldiers who carried her Outlaw promo photos around named two hills in the "Iron Triangle" after her.
With some detours into a brief but unremarkable singing career, Russell continued to perform in various films like The Paleface, in which she played opposite Bob Hope (who made Russell one of his longest-running punchlines), and its sequel, Son Of Paleface. She also appeared in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as the best (brunette) friend to Marilyn Monroe. Russell and Monroe later immortalized their hand and foot prints together outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
Russell’s other films included two with Robert Mitchum, His Kind Of Woman and Macao, and Double Dynamite with Frank Sinatra and Groucho Marx. In 1955, she formed her own production company with her then-husband, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Bob Waterfield, and with him produced films like Gentlemen Marry Brunettes and The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown. After these failed at the box office, Russell once again took up singing in earnest, forming a gospel group with Connie Haines and performing in a successful nightclub act at Las Vegas’ Sands Hotel. Her movie career slowed in the ’60s, though she became a familiar presence on 1970s television as the spokeswoman for Playtex’s “18-hour bra.” Her final on-screen appearance was on a 1986 episode of Hunter. Off-screen she was known for her work with the Republican Party, the founding of the Hollywood Christian Group, and the pioneering of the World Adoption International Fund, which helped Americans adopt children from foreign countries.