Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell was born in Bemidji, Minnesota. Her father was an US Army lieutenant and her mother had been a student of drama and an actress with a travelling troupe. Once Mr. Russell was mustered out of the service, the family took up residence in Canada, but moved to California when he found employment there. The family was well-to-do and although Jane was the only girl among four brothers, her mother saw to it that she took piano lessons. In addition to music, Jane was interested in drama much as her mother had been and participated in high school stage productions. Upon graduation, Jane took a job as a doctors receptionist. Although she had originally planned on being a designer, her father died and she worked to help the family. Jane modelled on the side and was very much sought-after especially because of her figure.
She managed to save enough money to go to drama school. She was signed by Howard Hughes for his production of The Outlaw (1943) in 1941, the film that was to make Jane famous. The film wasnt a classic by any means, but was geared to show off Jane's ample physical assets (Bob Hope once introduced her as the two and only Jane Russell). Although the film was made in 1941, it wasn't released until two years later and then only on a limited basis due to the way the film portrayed Jane's assets. It was hard for the flick to pass the censorship board. Finally, the film gained general release in 1946. The film was a smash at the box-office.
Janes next film was in 1946 called Young Widow. She had signed a seven year contract with Hughes, but it seemed the only films he put her in were those that displayed Janes figure. Films such as 1951's His Kind of Woman and The Las Vegas Story (1952) did nothing to showcase her true acting abilities. The pinnacle of her career was in 1953's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) as Dorothy Shaw, with Marilyn Monroe. This film showed Jane's comedic side very well. Films such as Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955) and The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956) showed her to be a fine actress.
Jane took a break from films, to dabble in television, returning in 1964 to film Fate Is the Hunter (1964). She appeared in only four pictures during the sixties. Her last film of the decade was 1967's The Born Losers. After three more years away from the big screen, she returned to make one last film called Darker Than Amber (1970). Her last commission before the public was in the 1970s when Jane was a spokesperson for Playtex bras.
Unable to bear children, Jane adopted 3 children with her first husband and childhood sweetheart Bob Waterfield. She championed the passage of the Federal Orphan Adoption Amendment of 1953, which allowed children of American servicemen born overseas to be placed for adoption in the United States.
She later divorced Bob, married twice more and was widowed twice.
Her favourite book is the Bible. She reads a passage from it every day. A born-again Christian decades before the term was coined, she held weekly Bible study at her home which was attended by some of the industry's biggest names.