Russell moved from the Midwest to California, where she had her first film role in 1943 in The Outlaw. In 1947, Russell delved into music before returning to films. After starring in multiple films in the 1950s, Russell again returned to music while completing several other films in the 1960s. She starred in more than 20 films throughout her career.
Russell married three times, adopted three children, and in 1955 founded Waif, the first international adoption program. She received several accolades for her achievements in films, including having her hand- and footprints immortalized in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and having a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Russell was born on June 21, 1921, in Bemidji, Minnesota. She was the eldest child and only daughter of the five children of Geraldine (née Jacobi; 1891 – 1986) and Roy William Russell (1890 – 1937). Her brothers are Thomas (b. 1924), Kenneth (b. 1925), Jamie (b. 1927), and Wallace (b. 1929).
Her father had been a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, and her mother an actress with a road troupe; her mother was also the subject of a portrait by Mary Bradish Titcomb, Portrait of Geraldine J., which achieved some notoriety when purchased by Woodrow Wilson. Russell's parents lived in Edmonton, Canada until shortly before her birth and returned to that city nine days after her birth, where they lived for the first one or two years of her life. The family then moved to Southern California where her father worked as an office manager.
Russell's mother arranged for her to take piano lessons. In addition to music, she was interested in drama and participated in stage productions at Van Nuys High School. Her early ambition was to be a designer of some kind, until the death of her father in his mid-40s, when she decided to work as a receptionist after graduation. She also modeled for photographers, and, at the urging of her mother, studied drama and acting with Max Reinhardt's Theatrical Workshop and with acting coach Maria Ouspenskaya.
In 1940, Russell was signed to a seven-year contract by film mogul Howard Hughes, and made her motion-picture debut in The Outlaw (1943), a story about Billy the Kid that went to great lengths to showcase her voluptuous figure. The movie was completed in 1941, but it was not released until 1943 in a limited release. Problems occurred with the censorship of the production code over the way her ample cleavage was displayed. When the movie was finally passed, it had a general release in 1946. During that time, she was kept busy doing publicity and became known nationally. Contrary to countless incorrect reports in the media since the release of The Outlaw, Russell did not wear the specially designed underwire bra that Howard Hughes had designed and made for her to wear during filming. According to Jane's 1985 autobiography, she said that the bra was so uncomfortable that she secretly discarded it and wore her own bra with the cups padded with tissue and the straps pulled up to elevate her breasts.
Russell's measurements were 38D-24-36, and she stood 5 ft 7 in (97-61-91 cm and 1.7 m), making her more statuesque than most of her contemporaries. Her favorite co-star Bob Hope once introduced her as "the two and only Jane Russell". He joked, "Culture is the ability to describe Jane Russell without moving your hands." Howard Hughes said, "There are two good reasons why men go to see her. Those are enough." A publicity still for the movie showed her lying on a pile of straw, her blouse stretched tight across her voluptuous breasts. Her right hand was behind her head of black hair and her left hand held a revolver. The image was a popular pin-up photo with servicemen during World War II. She did not appear in another movie until 1946, when she played Joan Kenwood in Young Widow for RKO.
Speaking about her sex appeal, Russell said, "Sex appeal is good—but not in bad taste. Then it's ugly. I don't think a star has any business posing in a vulgar way. I've seen plenty of pin-up pictures that have sex appeal, interest, and allure, but they're not vulgar. They have a little art to them. Marilyn's calendar was artistic."
In 1947, Russell attempted to launch a musical career. She sang with the Kay Kyser Orchestra on radio and recorded two singles with his band, "As Long As I Live" and "Boin-n-n-ng!" She also cut a 78 rpm album that year for Columbia Records, Let's Put Out the Lights, which included eight torch ballads and cover art that included a diaphanous gown that for once put the focus more on her legs than on her breasts. In a 2009 interview for the liner notes to another CD, Fine and Dandy, Russell denounced the Columbia album as "horrible and boring to listen to." It was reissued on CD in 2002, in a package that also included the Kyser singles and two songs she recorded for Columbia in 1949 that had gone unreleased at the time. In 1950, she recorded a single, "Kisses and Tears," with Frank Sinatra and The Modernaires for Columbia.
She performed in an assortment of movie roles. She played Calamity Jane opposite Bob Hope in The Paleface (1948) on loan out to Paramount, and Mike "the Torch" Delroy opposite Hope in another western comedy, Son of Paleface (1952), again at Paramount. Russell played Dorothy Shaw in the hit film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) opposite Marilyn Monroe for 20th Century Fox.
She appeared in two movies opposite Robert Mitchum: His Kind of Woman (1951) and Macao (1952). Other co-stars included Frank Sinatra and Groucho Marx in the comedy Double Dynamite (1951); Victor Mature, Vincent Price and Hoagy Carmichael in The Las Vegas Story (1952); Jeff Chandler in Foxfire (1955); and Clark Gable and Robert Ryan in The Tall Men (1955).
In Howard Hughes's RKO production The French Line (1954), the movie's penultimate moment showed Russell in a form-fitting one-piece bathing suit with strategic cutouts, performing a then-provocative musical number titled "Lookin' for Trouble". In her autobiography, Russell said that the revealing outfit was an alternative to Hughes' original suggestion of a bikini, a very racy choice for a movie costume in 1954. Russell said that she initially wore the bikini in front of her "horrified" movie crew while "feeling very naked."
In 1955, Russell and her first husband, former Los Angeles Rams quarterback Bob Waterfield, formed Russ-Field Productions. They produced Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955) in which she starred alongside Jeanne Crain, The King and Four Queens (1956) starring Clark Gable and Eleanor Parker, Run for the Sun (1956) starring Richard Widmark and The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown (1957), which was a box-office failure. She also starred in The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956).
On the musical front, Russell formed a gospel quartet in 1954, with three other members of a faith-sharing group called the Hollywood Christian Group. The other original members were Connie Haines, Beryl Davis, and Della Russell. Haines was a former vocalist in the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey orchestras, while Davis was a British emigrant who had moved to the U.S. after success entertaining American troops stationed in England during World War II. Della Russell was the wife of crooner Andy Russell. Backed by an orchestra conducted by Lyn Murray, their Coral single "Do Lord" reached number 27 on the Billboard singles chart in May 1954, selling two million copies. Della Russell, no relation to Jane, soon left the group, but Jane, Haines, and Davis followed up with a trio LP for Capitol Records, The Magic of Believing. Later, another Hollywood bombshell, Rhonda Fleming, joined them for more gospel recordings. The Capitol LP was issued on CD in 2008, in a package that also included the Coral singles by the original quartet and two tracks with Fleming replacing Della Russell. A collection of some of Russell's gospel and secular recordings was issued on CD in Britain in 2005, and it includes more secular recordings, including Russell's spoken-word performances of Hollywood Riding Hood and Hollywood Cinderella backed by a jazz group that featured Terry Gibbs and Tony Scott.
In October 1957, she debuted in a successful solo nightclub act at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. She also fulfilled later engagements in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, South America, and Europe. A self-titled solo LP was issued on MGM Records in 1959. It was reissued on CD in 2009 under the title Fine and Dandy, and the CD included some demo and soundtrack recordings, as well. "I finally got to make a record the way I wanted to make it," she said of the MGM album in the liner notes to the CD reissue. In 1959, she debuted with a tour of Janus in New England, performed in Skylark and also starred in Bells Are Ringing at the Westchester Town House in Yonkers, New York.
Her next movie appearance came in Fate Is the Hunter (1964), in which she was seen as herself performing for the USO in a flashback sequence. She made only four more movies after that, playing character parts in the final two.
In 1999, she remarked, "Why did I quit movies? Because I was getting too old! You couldn't go on acting in those years if you were an actress over 30."
In 1971, she starred in the musical drama Company, making her debut on Broadway in the role of Joanne, succeeding Elaine Stritch. Russell performed the role of Joanne for almost six months. Also in the 1970s, she started appearing in television commercials as a spokeswoman for Playtex "'Cross-Your-Heart Bras' for us full-figured gals", featuring the "18-Hour Bra", still one of International Playtex's best-known products even as of early March 2011. She wrote an autobiography in 1985, Jane Russell: My Path and My Detours. In 1989, she received the Women's International Center Living Legacy Award.
Russell's hand- and footprints are immortalized at Grauman's Chinese Theatre and she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6850 Hollywood Boulevard.
Russell was voted one of the 40 Most Iconic Movie Goddesses of all time in 2009 by Glamour (UK edition).
Russell was referenced in a 1956 episode of the Honeymooners. Ralph Kramden (played by Jackie Gleason) arrives home "dead" tired, vowing to go straight to bed after dinner, quipping "If Jane Russell were throwing a party upstairs, I wouldn't go!" Later, Kramden becomes aware that his best friend and neighbor, Ed Norton, is in fact throwing a party upstairs and did not invite him. After being reminded by his wife, Alice, of his reluctance to attend even a party that Jane Russell were throwing, an insulted Kramden rants, "I was talking about Jane Russell: I said nothing about any party that Norton's running!"
Russell was portrayed by Renee Henderson in the 2001 CBS miniseries Blonde, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates and portrayed leaving her imprints at Grauman's along with Marilyn Monroe in the HBO film Norma Jean & Marilyn, starring Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino.
At age 18, she became pregnant while dating her high school sweetheart, Bob Waterfield, who would become her first husband. Russell went to a backstreet abortionist. "I had a botched abortion and it was terrible. Afterwards, my own doctor said: 'What butcher did this to you?' I had to be taken to the hospital. I was so ill I nearly died." The abortion left her infertile and for the remainder of her life she believed that abortion was wrong under any circumstances, even rape or incest. She described herself as "vigorously pro-life".
Russell was married three times, first to Waterfield; they were married from 1943 until their divorce in July, 1968. He was a UCLA All-America, Cleveland Rams quarterback, Los Angeles Rams quarterback, Los Angeles Rams head coach, and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Two months after her divorce from Waterfield, she married actor Roger Barrett; the marriage ended when he died of a heart attack only two months later in November, 1968. She married real estate broker John Calvin Peoples on January 31, 1974, living with him until his death from heart failure April 9, 1999. Russell and Peoples lived in Sedona, Arizona, for a few years, but spent the majority of their married life residing in Montecito, California.
In February 1952, Russell and Waterfield adopted a baby girl, who they named Tracy. In December 1952, they adopted a 15-month-old boy, Thomas, whose birth mother, Hannah McDermott, had moved to London to escape poverty in Northern Ireland, and, in 1956, they adopted a nine-month-old boy, Robert John. In 1955, she founded Waif, an organization to place children with adoptive families and which pioneered adoptions from foreign countries by Americans. At the height of her career, Russell started the "Hollywood Christian Group", a weekly Bible study at her home which was attended by many of the leading names in the film industry.
In the 2013 film Philomena, Russell's photograph appears on a wall; a character states that Russell bought a child for £1000 from the tainted Sean Ross Abbey in Ireland featured in this true-life movie, but this claim is countered in at least one recent British report, which states that in the mid-1950s, Russell and her husband "rather informally adopted a son from a woman living in London, but originating in Derry, Northern Ireland. There was a major scandal and a court case, after which Russell was allowed to formalise the adoption."
In 1953, she tried to convert Marilyn Monroe during the filming of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; Monroe later said, "Jane tried to convert me (to religion) and I tried to introduce her to Freud". Russell appeared occasionally on the Praise The Lord program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, a Christian television channel based in Costa Mesa, California.
Russell was a prominent supporter of the Republican Party and attended Dwight Eisenhower's inauguration along with such other notables from Hollywood as Lou Costello, Dick Powell, June Allyson, Hugh O'Brian, Anita Louise, and Louella Parsons. She was a recovering alcoholic who had gone into rehab at the age of 79 and described herself in a 2003 interview as "These days I am a teetotal, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded, conservative Christian bigot, but not a racist."
Russell resided in the Santa Maria Valley along the Central Coast of California. She died at her home in Santa Maria of a respiratory-related illness on February 28, 2011. She is survived by three children: Thomas Waterfield, Tracy Foundas, and Robert Waterfield. Her funeral was held on March 12, 2011, at Pacific Christian Church, Santa Maria.