Jane Russell, who died this week at 89, was one of the last grown-ups in Hollywood, from a time when celebrating love of country was not a felony and a conservative Republican was not an endangered California species.
She was one of the last iconic movie stars, a playful actress in movies for adults before "adult" became a five-letter word for "pornographic." She had an incisive interest in politics and an instinct for the authentic, unusual then and now for the Hollywood glitterati, as I learned one day in the previous decade when she was in town to speak to the Conservative Political Action Committee's annual talkfest about life in the movies and called to invite me to lunch. I asked her to lunch at The Washington Times instead. She wanted me to dish about the thrilling John Kerry and the exciting Nancy Pelosi, to offer insights into foreign policy and perceptions of our native pols. I wanted her to dish about Jane and Marilyn, who lit up the silver screen in the movie musical "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."
Jane was long gone from the sound stages and Hollywood high life. She came to lunch in a matronly black dress with a lacy white collar up to her chin, with no hint of the famous decolletage that turned Hollywood on its ear and set off an angry debate, spiced by the wisecracks of a thousand radio comedians, over how far the movies could go. Was there any line left for Hollywood to cross? How quaintly innocent it all seems 50 years on, with vulgarity reigning unchallenged and all the "lines" the movies wouldn't dare cross long since painted out. Now there's a Baptist preacher who plays rock guitar in Jerry Falwell's old pulpit and dreams of playing top banana at the White House.
The contretemps over Jane Russell in Howard Hughes' movie "The Outlaw," an imaginative tale about Billy the Kid, is difficult to comprehend now. She was photographed tucking herself into bed, fully clothed, to relieve the chills of the gravely wounded Billy. The photographs of Jane perched atop a cloud of hay in a Daisy Mae blouse, cut low almost to the equator as if the dressmaker had run out of calico, became a pin-up for millions of homesick GIs in North Africa and the South Pacific to remind them of, they should be so lucky, the girl back home. Jane Russell circa 1943 was to boobs what Betty Grable was to gams — ironic because the Russell gams were equally spectacular. Bob Hope once introduced her as "the two and only Jane Russell," and on another occasion defined high culture as "the ability to describe Jane Russell without using your hands." Teenage men of all ages were further titillated by the story that Howard Hughes had invented a cantilevered bra to enhance the Russell assets. "He designed it," she told me over the lunch of breast of chicken, "but I never wore it and he never noticed. He should have kept to designing airplanes."
Nevertheless, Miss Russell, a shrewd businesswoman, became a television pitchwoman for a brassiere "for us full-figured gals" and her "living bra" was the biggest seller for Playtex until she was well into her 80s. By this time she had returned to music, having once been a torch singer. A devout born-again Christian in all the years she lived and worked in the belly of the beast, she years ago organized a gospel quartet with three other women she met at a church social, later joined by actress Rhonda Fleming, and their song, "Do Lord" ("… do Lord, oh do Lord, O do remember me …") reached the top of the Billboard charts and sold 2 million records.
But midway through our lunch, Jane frowned. "This is a very enlightening lunch," she said, "but you're not like your column. Your column is really funny, but in person you aren't very funny."
"Well, when you accepted my invitation to lunch I gave my writers the day off."
"That's a little better," she said, still not smiling.
"Well," I said, "I grew up in Little Rock, and after watching you and Marilyn sing about being 'two little girls from Little Rock from the wrong side of the tracks,' I hurried back home and drove across every railroad track I could remember. I couldn't find anyone who looked remotely like you or Marilyn."
She replaced the frown with the dazzling smile I remembered from nights dreaming in the dark at the Arkansas Theater on Louisiana Street. "Well," she said, "that's really funny."
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.