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Buxom actress Jane Russell dead at 89

"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" movie star Jane Russell, who became a controversial Hollywood sex symbol, died on Monday at the age of 89, her family said.
/ Source: Reuters

"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" movie star Jane Russell, who became a controversial Hollywood sex symbol, died on Monday at the age of 89, her family said.

Russell, best known as the buxom star of 1940s and 1950s movie, died of respiratory failure at her home in Santa Maria, central California, her family said.

"Jane Russell passed away peacefully today at home surrounded by her children at her bedside," Russell's son Buck Waterfield said in a statement.

Russell, who later in life was the "full-figured girl" in television bra ads, was at her best in comedies that, subtly or not, spoofed her sexpot image and focused on her figure.

Multimillionaire producer-industrialist Howard Hughes discovered Russell and put her in her first movie, "The Outlaw," which stuck her with the sexpot image based on her bosom, the bra for which reportedly was size 38-D.

In the photos, the sultry Russell languished on a bed of straw, looking petulant as her tight-fitting peasant blouse slipped off one shoulder. Censors held up "The Outlaw" for almost three years before a limited release in 1943.

"Except for comedy, I went nowhere in the acting department," Russell said in her autobiography. "The truth is that, more often than not, I've been unhappy about the pictures I've been in."

The promotional material was so striking that in one poll Russell was voted "favorite actress" before the voters had even seen her act. Reviews of "The Outlaw" and many of her films were less kind, with one critic calling her "the queen of motionless pictures."

In 1978, she made headlines by being jailed for four days for drunken driving and began her successful battle against alcoholism.

At the age of 60, Russell's figure once again gained the attention of millions -- this time on television screens advertising a brand of bras for "full-figured" women.

Russell once told an interviewer that "Christians have bosoms, too, you know," and in her autobiography she talked about the conflict between her religious faith and her image. She also expressed regret over her extra-marital affairs, her divorce and her alcoholism.

Russell was born June 21, 1921, in Bemidji, Minnesota, and grew up in Southern California's San Fernando Valley.

Bob Hope, who once introduced the actress as "the two and only Miss Russell," teamed with her in 1948 in the Western spoof "The Paleface," which led to a sequel.

In 1953 Russell paired with Marilyn Monroe in her biggest hit, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." "Jane tried to convert me (to religion) and I tried to introduce her to Freud," Monroe said.

Russell also had a hit with Clark Gable in "The Tall Men" in 1955. But many of her movies were quickly forgotten.

In 1952, however, as a dance hall girl in "Montana Belle," Russell sang, which led to a career singing in nightclubs and on television.

She divorced Waterfield after 25 years and married actor Roger Barrett but he died three months later. In 1971, Russell married John Peoples, a retired Air Force colonel who died in 1999.