The first time I ever heard about Jane Russell’s Bible studies was here at GetReligion and I could hardly believe it. I imagined the star of Outlaw and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes pouring out of her blouse rather than poring over Scripture. Russell died on Monday and it was interesting to see how obituary writers handled it.
The first piece I read was over at The Hollywood Reporter. While it included great lines such as something about most of her roles being “designed around her towering physicality and frontal amplitude,” the most it said about her religious views was that she had remained active in “her church.”
Thankfully there were obituaries with more information elsewhere. The Associated Press had a great one written by John Rogers. Immediately after a poetic lede, we learn:
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.”
The phrases “voluptuous,” “stunningly beautiful,” “scandalously sexy” and “provactively dressed,” “sultry, sensual look and hourglass figure,” appear along with a ton of details about her movie career. (And we can’t forget those Playtex bra commercials from the 1970s!) Then we learn:
She was born Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell on June 21, 1921, in Bemidji, Minn., and the family later moved to Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. Her mother was a lay preacher, and she encouraged the family to build a chapel in their back yard.
Despite her mother’s Christian teachings, young Jane had a wild side. She wrote in her 1985 autobiography, “My Paths and Detours,” that during high school she had a back-alley abortion, which may have rendered her unable to bear children. …
She was the leader of the Hollywood Christian Group, a cluster of film people who gathered for Bible study and good works. After experiencing problems in adopting her three children, she founded World Adoption International Agency, which has helped facilitate adoptions of more than 40,000 children from overseas.
She made hundreds of appearances for WAIF and served on the board for 40 years.
We learn about some of her personal tragedies, including a bitter divorce and long struggles with alcohol:
She was able to rebound from troubles by relying on lessons she learned from her Bible-preaching mother.
“Without faith, I never would have made it,” she commented a few months after her third husband’s death. “I don’t know how people can survive all the disasters in their lives if they don’t have any faith, if they don’t know the Lord loves them and cares about them and has another plan.”
The funeral service will be held at an Assembly of God church in Santa Maria. Donations are requested for the Care Net Pregnancy and Resource Center of Santa Maria. All very interesting.
The New York Times also had an interesting obituary, albeit one more focused on social or political issues than religion. The first religion mention there was that “The Roman Catholic Church was one of the movie’s vocal opponents.” Not entirely sure what that means. Late in the piece we learn:
Ms. Russell was very public about her religious convictions. She organized Bible study groups in Hollywood and wrote about having experienced speaking in tongues. In her memoir, “My Path and My Detours” (1985), she described the strength she drew from Christianity.
A higher power was always there, she wrote, “telling me that if I could just hold tough a little longer, I’d find myself around one more dark corner, see one more spot of light and have one more drop of pure joy in this journey called life.”
If you’re interested in this facet of Russell’s life, this interview over at Christianity Today is full of good questions and answers about the role religion played in her life.