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Screen legend Jane Russell dead at 89

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Russell was discovered by Howard Hughes
  • "The Outlaw," her first film, ran afoul of censors
  • She starred with Marilyn Monroe in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"
  • Russell was a Republican and supported conservative causes her entire life

(CNN) -- The 1940s and '50s movie bombshell, whose name was synonymous with voluptuousness, died Monday morning at her home in Santa Maria, California, her family said. Jane Russell was 89.

Daughter-in-law Etta Waterfield said that Russell was a "pillar of health" but caught a bad cold and died of respiratory difficulties.

Russell's children, Thomas K. Waterfield, Tracy Foundas and Robert "Buck" Waterfield," were at her side, Etta Waterfield said.

Eccentric philanthropist and movie producer Howard Hughes was the first to put Jane Russell on the silver screen, signing her to a seven-year contract in 1940 and promptly putting her in his production of "The Outlaw," a film about a torrid romance between Billy the Kid and woman named Rio (Russell).

The film got only limited release -- in 1943 -- because censors at the time were skittish about the attention given Russell's figure. Hughes wasn't satisfied. He pulled the film from release and kept it out of circulation for six more years while he did more reshoots and re-editing.

And, Hughes kept Russell off the screen -- her only other appearance during those seven years was in "The Young Widow" (1946), shot while she was on loan to United Artists.

Jane Russell dies at 89
1999: Jane Russell looks back

Hughes' extensive publicity campaign for "The Outlaw," however -- she has said that he had her making appearances five days a week for five years -- made Russell popular during World War II as a pin-up, and when the movie was finally released in 1946, she was a star.

While Hughes fetishized Russell's body in other films after her initial contract ended and the two negotiated another, the actress quietly made a name for herself as a talented actress capable of high drama or light comedy. She appeared as Calamity Jane with Bob Hope in "The Paleface" (1948) -- another loan-out -- and a sequel, "Son of Paleface," in 1952 -- earning an Oscar nomination for the song "Am I in Love?"

Robert Mitchum was her co-star twice -- in 1951's "His Kind of Woman" and 1952's "Macao." She shared the screen with Frank Sinatra and Groucho Marx in 1951's "Double Dynamite," and with Victor Mature, Vincent Price and Hoagy Carmichael in "The Las Vegas Story" (1952).

But it was 1953's "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" with Marilyn Monroe that shot Russell into the stratosphere. She was hailed for her singing and comedic acting, and just two years later made her last film for Hughes.

Russell had some success as a singer in the 1940s, appearing with the Kay Kayser Orchestra, and in 1954 she and Beryl Davis, Connie Haines and Della Russell (later replaced by Rhonda Fleming) began recording religious-themed music and touring as The Four Girls.

Russell and her first husband, high school sweetheart Bob Waterfield -- an All-American quarterback for UCLA and a Pro Football Hall of Famer who played for the Cleveland Rams and the Los Angeles Rams -- formed a production company in 1955, producing three films starring Russell. But after "The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown" flopped in 1957, Russell took a break from film and concentrated on her music career.

When she returned to movies, however, she could not regain her prominence, ending her screen career with a series of Westerns in the 1960s and the 1970 detective film "Darker than Amber."

While it may have been the attention to Russell's figure that kept her away from superstardom, that figure brought her Madison Avenue stardom in the 1970s when she was featured in television commercials for the Playtex Cross Your Heart Bra "for us full-figured gals."

Russell had a few stage appearances in the 1970s and wrote an autobiography, "Jane Russell: My Path and My Detours," in 1985, revealing that her marriage to Waterfield ended in 1968 because of bouts with infidelity and alcohol.

Born in Minnesota to an Army lieutenant and a former actress, Jane Russell was drawn to drama but initially planned to become a designer. She took music lessons and acted in high school stage productions, but when her father died early, Russell went to work as a doctor's receptionist -- and did some modeling on the side -- to help support the family.

At 19, Russell had a botched, back-alley abortion that resulted in her inability to conceive children. She and Waterfield, whom she married in 1943, adopted three, and she devoted much of the rest of her life campaigning for adoption and adopted children.

Russell was married twice more, to actor Roger Barrett in 1968 and to businessman John Calvin Peoples in 1974. Her marriage to Barrett lasted but three months before he died of a heart attack. She and Peoples were together until his death in 1999.

Throughout her career, Russell was a staunch conservative who considered Democrats in Hollywood "crazy."

"In my day Hollywood was Republican," she once said. "All the heads of the studios were Republicans, and we were fighting Communism. You had John Wayne and Charlton Heston and myself and Bob Mitchum, and President Ronald Reagan came right out of that same group."

She was a vocal supporter of the Iraq war from its start in 2003, a vocal opponent of abortion, even in cases of rape or incest, a tireless fighter to "get the Bible back in schools." She despised the Clinton administration and was a fan of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and conservative commentator Ann Coulter.

And in 2003, she described herself as "a teetotal, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded, conservative Christian bigot," variations of which she frequently used.