In case you are ever tempted to grow weary in praying, I want you to remember Jane Russell's great-great-grandmother Ellen Stevenson in Ireland, whose eight children knew better than to disturb her at prayer. You may know Jane as a World War II pin-up girl (though not one of Andy Dufresne's protectresses in The Shawshank Redemption). That was all I knew until this past winter, when my mother asked God into her life and Jane Russell died.
I got the autobiography, Jane Russell: My Path & Detours, and Mom and I hunkered down for reading dates. Russell's life will drive you crazy if your God is too small, or boxed up, but it is as laced through with God as an 18th-century bodice. Here is the part about life after her teenage abortion:
"I had a raging fever. . . . Mom . . . prayed for me and read the Bible. Every morning as I looked out on her beautiful garden, all I could see was the good Lord and how much He loved me. . . . Mother said, 'Daughter the Ten Commandments are like the guardrails on the mountain passes. The Lord puts those white guardrails there to protect you, not to restrict you. Now if you crash through, you go over the other side, but if you give Him all the pieces, He'll put you back together.' I did, and He slowly healed me. . . . No one, but no one, could ever tell me again that there wasn't a God and that I didn't need Him."
There were more "detours," but when Lew Wasserman of MCA offered Russell the moon if she would break her contract with Howard Hughes, her mother sent a letter with this verse: "He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not . . . shall never be moved" (Psalm 15:4-5). Jane kept her obligation to Hughes-and mailed him the Scripture.
Though she says she never preached, Russell must have "exuded," because fellow actors became regulars around her mother's table for Bible study. On the set of The Paleface at Paramount she "talked about the Lord" and another actress, Carmen Cabeen, "was glued to the conversation-starving, not just hungry. She ended up in Mom's kitchen."
Geraldine Russell's kitchen got too crowded, and Jane decided to build her own chapel. It was "rustic modern," with wooden benches forming a U. "One thing we had at chapel was a blackboard. On it were written prayer requests, and as they were answered, they were erased. . . . When Judy Garland tried to do herself in and was released from MGM, her name went on the blackboard. When we prayed, the Lord said I was to go and give her a message but that there would be a man who would interfere with my seeing her. I was stunned and felt like a jackass. I'd met Judy only once, . . . but I didn't dare not go."
Russell wheedled Judy's address from her manager and rang her doorbell. Vincente Minnelli, her husband, "came to the door and informed me that Judy was not to see anyone. I thought, 'Lord, You're too much. You said a man would stop me.' I gave him my phone number and said if she could call me, I had a message for her, figuring that would be the end of that. But that afternoon the phone rang and it was Judy. I told her about the blackboard and chapel and that the Lord had told me to say this to her:
'The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He restoreth my soul.'
"She gave a little gasp, mumbled thank you, and hung up. . . . I never knew what effect my call had on her until several years later. She called me about a young friend of hers who was in trouble. She had asked for help and if we could pray."
Jane said she always wished C.S. Lewis could be her next husband. She liked that in Mere Christianity he argued that comparing Jane, a crabby Christian, with Dick, a good-natured agnostic, "does not tell us whether Christianity works. The question is what Jane's tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick's would be like if he became one." Russell's conclusion: "Imagine what a hell-raiser I might be if I didn't have the Lord!"
Email Andrée Seu
Listen to Andrée Seu podcasts