- Associated Press - Monday, February 28, 2011

LOS ANGELES (AP) - She was the voluptuous pin-up girl who set a million male hearts to pounding during World War II, the favorite movie star of a generation of young men long before she’d made a movie more than a handful of them had ever seen.

Such was the stunning beauty of Jane Russell, and the marketing skills of the man who discovered her, the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.

Russell, surrounded by family members, died Monday at her home in the central coast city of Santa Maria. Her death from respiratory failure came 70 years after Hughes had put her on the path to stardom with his controversial Western “The Outlaw.” She was 89.

Although she had all but abandoned Hollywood after the 1960s for a quieter life, her daughter-in-law Etta Waterfield said Russell remained active until just a few weeks ago when her health began to fail. Until then she was active with her church, charities that were close to her heart and as a member of a singing group that made occasional appearances around Santa Maria.

“She always said I’m going to die in the saddle, I’m not going to sit at home and become an old woman,” Waterfield told The Associated Press on Monday. “And that’s exactly what she did, she died in the saddle.”

It was an apt metaphor for a stunningly beautiful woman who first made her mark as the scandalously sexy and provocatively dressed (for the time) pal of Billy the Kid, in a Western that Hughes fought for years with censors to get into wide release.

As the billionaire battled to bring the picture to audiences, his publicity mill promoted Russell relentlessly, grinding out photos of her in low-cut costumes, swimsuits and other outfits that became favorite pinups of World War II GIs.

To contain her ample bust the designer of the “Spruce Goose” airplane used his engineering skills to make Russell a special push-up bra (one she said she never wore). He also bought the ailing RKO film studio and signed her to a 20-year contract that paid her $1,000 a week.

By the time she made her third film, the rollicking comedy-western “The Paleface,” in which she played tough- but-sexy Calamity Jane to Bob Hope’s cowardly dentist sidekick, she was a star.

She went on to appear in a series of potboilers for RKO, including “His Kind of Woman” (with Robert Mitchum), “Double Dynamite” (Frank Sinatra, Groucho Marx), “The Las Vegas Story” (Victor Mature) and “Macao” (Mitchum again).

Although her sultry, sensual look and her hourglass figure made her the subject of numerous nightclub jokes, unlike Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and other pinup queens of the era, Russell was untouched by scandal in her personal life.

During her Hollywood career she was married to star UCLA and pro football quarterback Bob Waterfield.

“The Outlaw,” although it established her reputation, was beset with trouble from the beginning. It took two years to make, according to its theatrical trailer, and director Howard Hawks, one of Hollywood’s most eminent and autocratic filmmakers, became so rankled under producer Hughes’ constant suggestions that he walked out.

“Hughes directed the whole picture _ for nine bloody months!” Russell said in 1999.

It had scattered brief runs beginning in 1943, earning scathing reviews. The Los Angeles Times called it “one of the weirdest Western pictures that ever unreeled before the public.”

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