Her Kind of House
There have been many chapters in Jane Russell’s long, rich life, and most of them are reflected in her Santa Barbara home.
But the one chapter you might think would be the most apparent is one of the least evident: Russell the actress.
Although she was first and best known as a movie star, there is surprisingly little evidence of her days as the ingenue introduced to the world in Howard Hughes’ 1940s movie “The Outlaw.”
There are few reminders that Russell played opposite Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953), although Russell fondly remembers Monroe as a shy starlet and says matter-of-factly that “Blondes” was “the beginning for her and near the end for me.”
There’s hardly a hint of Russell’s nearly 20 other films with such leading men as Bob Hope and Robert Mitchum.
And there is almost nothing of her during the ‘70s as a star of the Broadway musical “Company” or her image as a “full-figured woman” in a long series of TV commercials for the Playtex “Cross Your Heart” bra.
The subject of a well-publicized bra that Hughes designed for her to wear in “The Outlaw” makes her smile. “You mean ‘tried’ to design for me,” she said. “I never wore it. I tossed it aside.”
The only mementos from Russell’s movie career are an “Outlaw” poster that her husband hung on the back of a pool house door and, on a hallway wall, about a dozen stills and publicity photos of Russell, collected by a fan in Italy and given to Russell’s husband as a gift.
“He had them framed and hung them up,” she said. Russell wouldn’t have bothered. “I once went to an actress’ house, and there wasn’t one table without her picture on it. I hated that,” she said.
Russell’s husband of 25 years, real estate broker and builder John Peoples, died at 74 in April. Since then, Russell, 78, decided that her nearly two-acre estate, in the Montecito area of Santa Barbara, is too large for her. It’s on the market at just under $2 million.
“If I don’t sell it, I could move to the guest house and rent out the rest of the place,” she said.
Russell and Peoples did just that for six years after they bought the house in 1985. They split their time between Santa Barbara and Sedona, Ariz., where she took up oil painting, a chapter of her life that is well represented in her home.
“I love color,” she said. Oranges, reds and pinks permeate her paintings, which hang prominently in her house.
One picture, in the living room, could be a self-portrait, it looks so much like Russell in her youth. It is, instead, a likeness of actress Carmen Cabeen, Russell’s movie stand-in and a close long-time friend until her recent death.
“She came to work with me in ‘Paleface,’ the first good picture I made [with Bob Hope in 1948],” Russell said. “Later, she worked with me in a play in New York.”
A not-so-visible chapter in her life is little known but dear to her: Russell, the children’s advocate.
In 1955, Russell founded the World Adoption International Fund, or WAIF, a New York-based adoption organization that has placed 43,000 children from around the world in homes in the United States.
“I started it because I have three adopted kids,” she said, “and it was in looking for my children that I saw that there were so many kids available in Europe and none in this country.”
“She had a hard road adopting hers and wondered what the ordinary person, who is not a movie star or somebody else well known, would do,” said Gerald H. Cornez, executive director of WAIF.
“Jane Russell founded the very first international adoption organization, and because of her, our immigration laws were changed so that children from overseas, mostly with American fathers, were allowed to come here.”
Since the late 1970s, WAIF has focused on hard-to-place American orphans: those who are older, are minorities, are physically or mentally disabled or have siblings who want to stay together.
Russell worked for WAIF for more than 40 years, through three marriages, including her first to her Van Nuys High School sweetheart, Bob Waterfield, who became a star quarterback with the L.A. Rams.
They adopted their three children as infants in the ‘50s. They include Tracy, Thomas and Robert “Buck” Waterfield Jr.
Divorced from Waterfield in 1968, Russell married actor Roger Barrett the same year. He died three months after their wedding. She married Peoples in 1974.
Russell is a WAIF board member for life. “She was extraordinary, appearing before Congress and doing whatever it took,” Cornez said.
At one point, she designed fashions for models to wear in raising funds for WAIF.
“They were colorful but practical things you could wash, dry and put on,” she said. “I had a line of pants, tops, jackets and turbans. We sold some of the clothes I designed, but artists are usually bad salespeople.”
She still wears bright colors, and they highlight the decor of her house. The striped couch in her living room is bright orange, red and pink. The coffee table is decorated with orange candles.
At her Montecito home, Russell was her own interior designer, and her husband was her builder. Together, they expanded the 1954 one-bedroom home. “We had a lot of fun fixing it up,” she said.
After they gave up their home in Sedona and returned full time to Montecito, they added a 2,300-square-foot master suite on the second floor. Now the master suite and a comfortable old armchair in a corner of the living room near an aviary are her favorite places. Off the bedroom is a deck with mountain and ocean views.
Estate Features Pathways,
a Creek and Two Bridges
The master suite has a wall of closets, a spa-bath and a decor accented by faux leopard skin. Wallpaper, pillows, sheets, two chairs with ottomans: All sport a leopard print. And on the wall behind the king-sized bed is a 3-by-4-foot oil painting of a leopard by local artist Jack Baker.
A desk, computer and small refrigerator allow Russell to spend hours in the suite. But she’s too active to stay there for long.
She swims nearly every day in the 20-by-40-foot pool that Peoples built and walks the estate’s pathways and two 50-foot bridges that span a creek running through the grounds. Her late husband built the paths and the bridges.
Peoples was still working on the house, building a garage with an apartment, when he died of a heart attack. His son, John Jr., known as Dude, is completing the work.
Between them, Russell and Peoples had eight children, 15 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Russell the hostess is yet another chapter.
She loves to entertain family and friends at home. Sometimes she has enjoyed holding large parties by the pool and extra-large barbecue, which Peoples also built. Other times she has preferred to gather in smaller groups in her 4,500-square-foot main house.
When Peoples died, Russell held what she describes as “a party in John’s honor, to celebrate him.”
“Half the town came,” she said. “They all knew him, because he had huge barbecue parties here. He had so many friends. We had many parties here for 100 or more.”
Russell’s gatherings often focused on subjects ranging from politics to religion.
“When it comes to politics,” she said, “our gang is all Republican. We had several ‘do’s’ for Christopher Mitchum.”
Mitchum, son of the late actor Robert Mitchum and his wife, Dorothy, ran for the state Assembly in November. “He came close to winning,” Russell said. She co-starred with Robert Mitchum in “His Kind of Woman” (1951) and “Macao” (1952).
Until he died in 1977, Mitchum was a longtime neighbor. Actor Stuart Whitman also lives nearby. “He was John’s best friend,” Russell said.
Another chapter in her life is Russell the evangelical Christian.
Raised by a Bible-studying mother who inspired her five children to build a chapel on the family’s Van Nuys ranch, Russell considers herself evangelical or Pentecostal without belonging to a specific denomination.
Singing Religious Songs,
‘No Sexy Numbers’
She regularly holds Bible classes in her home and appears on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
Closely linked to Russell’s religion is her singing.
During the 1950s, she recorded several religious-themed singles and albums with Beryl Davis, Connie Haines and Della Russell. “We sang gospel,” she said, " . . . no blues or sad songs, no sexy numbers.”
She’s booked to do some songs from the ‘40s on a cruise from Greece to France in May. “I’m going to have to start practicing,” she said. “Of all the things I did, singing was the most fun.”
After the cruise, she doesn’t know which direction her life will take.
“This is just such a big property for a single person, it’s ridiculous,” she said of her Montecito home, “but I can stay or I can go. I just plan to do whatever the Lord has in mind.”