Jane Russell interview, September 1, 2009
In September 2009 I was fortunate enough to speak with the charming (and good-humored) Jane Russell, who left us recently, about her work with Sinatra on Double Dynamite, and a few other things….
JAMES KAPLAN: I’m the Sinatra book guy, and Michael Feinstein gave me your number. I hope it’s ok for me to be calling.
JANE RUSSELL: Yes, it is.
JK: I just want to tell you what an absolute thrill it is to talk to you and to continue to watch you, both in connection with my Sinatra research and just for fun.
JK: And thank you for all you have given me and all of us.
RUSSELL: Oh…I had fun.
JK: You sure did, and you let us have fun, too, and we’re still having it. I have a very specific question to ask you, and it concerns John Quinlan. I don’t know whether Michael Feinstein mentioned this or not.
RUSSELL: No. It was the gal who works with Michael who called me.
JK: My understanding, Miss Russell, is that you once took voice lessons with John Quinlan.
JK: All right. I’m barking up the wrong tree.
RUSSELL: John Quinlan.
JK: This was a guy who worked with Sinatra. He was a vocal coach. He was Australian, although I don’t know if he had an accent or not. He worked with Sinatra in New York, and then Sinatra bankrolled him and Quinlan went out to the West Coast for a little while and did some singing teaching. But you did not encounter him?
RUSSELL: No. I’m pretty sure I never did.
JK: I’m sorry to hear it.
RUSSELL: I wonder what year it was even. Because Frank was singing fantastically when I met him.
JK: It wasn’t that he was so much in need of help. I think Quinlan worked with him very early, and after that, he almost thought of Quinlan as almost a talisman, somebody from the early days that had helped give him luck. So you never took any singing lessons?
RUSSELL: No, I really didn’t. I had sung in high school…once. [LAUGHS] Everything that happened about singing is going to be in my book called The Lord’s Accident.
JK: Wow. What a great title.
RUSSELL: Well, everything that happened to me, as I look back, had to be something that the Lord planned but I was not aiming for.
JK: again, I think I have to sprinkle salt on everything, because I think where I read that you had worked with Quinlan was in one of the gossip columns, and we all know how often they tell the truth.
RUSSELL: Oh, yeah. They’re full of it.
JK: Yeah, they’re full of it. But I read somewhere that you were working in a dentist’s office when Mr. Hughes…
RUSSELL: No, that’s another lie.
JK: so how did Mr. Hughes…
RUSSELL: And that’s another one for The Lord’s Accident.
JK: You want to leave that for the book?
RUSSELL: Well, it’s part of it, for sure.
JK: But you were not working in a dentist’s office.
JK: I’m glad to get that straight.
RUSSELL: Like, one day I worked in a foot place where you bring a pail of water and take people’s shoes off and put their foot in it. And that was the end of that—one day.
JK: That’s all you need of that.
RUSSELL: it was another long accident thing that happened about how I got…how I met Howard Hughes. It was an accident where I met a photographer, and worked with him for quite a while, and then an agent saw a picture of me on the wall and took it off… Oh, he was a friend of Tom Kelly, the photographer…
JK: Of course. The famous Tom Kelly.
RUSSELL: He said, “who is that?” They were good friends, and Tom said, “She’s a nice little girl from the Valley, you silver fox. Leave her alone.” So the agent, Lowes, walked over and took the picture off the wall, and stuck it in his briefcase when Tom wasn’t watching, and took it around to different casting offices. He took it to the Hughes Casting Office, and there was no Howard Hughes there at all. They said they were doing testing for a bunch of boys and girls next week, and that I looked the type, and they only had four girls but five boys, so they would stick me in there.
JK: How about that.
RUSSELL: Yeah. Just crazy things. So then the agent had to go back to Tom and say, “what’s her name? Where does she live? What’s her phone number?” [LAUGHS] Oh my God. Yeah, it was one after another. Singing was definitely one of those.
JK: As long as I am fortunate enough to be speaking with you, can you tell me a little bit about working with Mr. Sinatra in Double Dynamite, or as it’s sometimes…
RUSSELL: They had another…
JK: It’s Only Money, I think they called it also.
RUSSELL: yes. And I wish they’d kept it, because Double Dynamite…
JK: I know, I know.
RUSSELL: But they knew it was not a very good picture. Frank and I certainly knew it. He had just left Nancy. I don’t think they’d even divorced yet. He was going with Ava Gardner. Ava was sitting up in the sound booth most of the time while we made the picture.
JK: What did you think of her?
RUSSELL: Well, I got to know Ava later. But she certainly was a character.
JK: yes, she was.
RUSSELL: A raving character. I think one of the last things that happened to them is, they were there with another fella, and she had said she had to go to the bathroom, so she got up and went, and never came back. That was the end of that. I think they didn’t see each other later, you know, off and on. Anyway, that was when I met Frank. So both of them were very unpopular at the time, because in those days you didn’t break up a marriage, like they do today. My Lord, it’s ridiculous! But that was a very important thing way back then.
But Frank was always very polite and very sweet, and there was no…
JK: no funny business?
RUSSELL: No, not at all. Even with the actor that was with us…
RUSSELL: Groucho Marx. No fun [funny business?] at all.
JK: I heard that Groucho and Frank did not get along. Did you see that at all?
RUSSELL: Well, I am just saying that everybody was kind of down on Frank. I wasn’t down on him. But he was just not… They weren’t doing the thing you were supposed to be doing, so everybody was… I don’t know what else. Frank was very nice to me, and the only part of the picture I even liked was where we’re knocking on the wall and singing to each other.
JK: I’ve seen it recently, and it’s a pretty cute picture. It’s not a great picture, but it’s a cute picture.
RUSSELL: Oh, well. All right.
JK: But was there a feeling when you were working on it that it wasn’t much?
RUSSELL: Yeah. Sure.
JK: Everybody was sort of punching the time clock.
RUSSELL: Well, they had to change the name. I know Howard even took it off… It wasn’t played right afterward. It was held up for a long time, and they would put it out with another picture that was very popular.
JK: Right, as the B-feature.
RUSSELL: They had to change the name and hope people got fooled.
JK: They shot it in late 1948, and it didn’t come out until Christmas of 1951. Unbelievable.
RUSSELL: Yeah. Well, that’s what they did. Changed the name and held it up.
JK: so Mr. Sinatra was a gentleman.
RUSSELL: Oh, yes. He was very good.
JK: Did you get the feeling that he was not particularly happy to be making this movie?
RUSSELL: Sure. We both knew it was sort of boring.
JK: Sort of boring.
JK: The director was Irving Cummings, who didn’t exactly strike light…
RUSSELL: Well, he didn’t have a good script. It was nothing. I had to make several of those, and they held them all up. [LAUGHS]
JK: You did a great job anyway. I thought you were so cute in it, and the two of you were cute together. So it was clear to me…I’m not talking about funny business, but that there was some sort of chemistry between you, that you liked each other.
RUSSELL: Mmm-hmm! Sure, we did. We got along very well.
JK: That was the only picture…
RUSSELL: That was the only picture I ever made with him. Then of course he got to do the…I just can’t remember the name of it, but where he went on the beach, where he really got popular.
JK: Yes. From Here to Eternity.
JK: Did you see him in later years, after working with him?
RUSSELL: I only saw him once, and it was at his house.
JK: In Palm Springs?
RUSSELL: No. This was up…
JK: On top of the hill.
RUSSELL: Up on the hill. There were some other people there that had taken me, and of course, I knew Frank, and then finally he started singing. Somebody else got on the piano, and it was lovely.
JK: You don’t remember anything that he sang that night, do you?
RUSSELL: No. This was YEARS ago.
JK: Of course it was. Do you remember anything else about the occasion?
RUSSELL: No. I just remember when he started singing a certain thing, I made a big sigh. They were laughing, because that’s what had always been happening when he was singing with the girls. They would all go in…
JK: They swooned.
RUSSELL: Yeah. So I was doing that, but I didn’t even realize it until after I did it, and they started to laugh.
JK: So you were not fooling around. It was involuntary.
RUSSELL: Oh, yes. He really was fabulous. One of my absolute favorite singers.
JK: He was a genius, I think.
JK: I wanted to tell you… I don’t mean to make you sad, but I talked for many enjoyable hours with your good old friend Connie Haines for my book. She spoke so fondly of you.
RUSSELL: Oh, Connie. Oh, yes. Well, Connie and Beryl [Davis] and I just became a hunk! We had a wonderful time. Because all of us had been singing alone in different clubs in those days, and to be able to do it… That was another of the Lord’s Accidents, because we certainly weren’t planning to do that. It was an accident that just happened. Beryl’s church was having a fundraiser, so he invited Connie, myself, and even Dale Russell, who was Andy Russell’s wife. She was Catholic and Beryl was Episcopal, and Connie had been raised Baptist, and I was raised…my mom was the best Bible teacher I ever heard, so we didn’t belong to any denomination—it was all Bible. But I knew all those songs, which the Catholic and the Episcopal didn’t. We were invited to go to this fundraiser that the Evangels, Catholic and…what’s the other one I used…
JK: I think you said Episcopalian.
RUSSELL: Episcopalian. It was an Episcopalian church fundraiser, so Beryl invited us. We were all standing backstage, and I said, “Well, Connie is going to sing. What are we going to do? Sit here with egg on our face?” Connie said, “Well, I’ve been thinking maybe we could teach them a chorus of ‘Do, Lord.’” I said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” So we did. We taught them both a song that they’d never heard, “Do lord, oh, do lord, oh, do remember me…” Connie went out and sang, and then she invited us out, and we all harmonized on “Do Lord,” and did our own little verse, and came back, and we were laughing and said, “Well, I guess it was ok.” There was a knock on the door. A guy in the audience that day had come back. He was with Coral Records, and he wanted to know would we record. If he hadn’t been at that thing, it would never have…
JK: Another accident.
RUSSELL: After that, we worked together for several years.
JK: Now, when can I look forward to this book with all these stories?
RUSSELL: Oh, I’m writing it now. The accidents, you mean.
RUSSELL: I had a book that came out in ‘85, but it’s much later that I really looked back and thought every single thing was an accident that the Lord had planned, but we had no idea was happening.
JK: Well, you did some wonderful things, and it sounds like you’re still doing them.
RUSSELL: Well, I have always said, “Lord, you do what you want.”
JK: Now, I am looking… It’s Earl Wilson. You knew him, right?
JK: Earl Wilson, the columnist. He had a syndicated column. He wrote about entertainment. He’s writing in February 1949, “Jane Russell is taking singing lessons from John Quinlan, Sinatra’s voice coach, on the Coast.” He made it up, huh?
JK: Made it up.
RUSSELL: Or somebody told him that.
JK: Yeah, somebody told him, but it never happened.
JK: Well, Miss Russell, it is an honor to be talking to you. May I ask you one thing, and you can tell me yes or no. It’s just this. If I think of anything else, may I call you back, if I promise not to pester you?
RUSSELL: Sure. That’s ok.
JK: It’s an awful lot of fun to talk with you, and I hope you feel a little bit the same way.
RUSSELL: Yes, it’s fine, because usually I can’t understand what people are saying on the phone.
JK: And you understand me ok?
RUSSELL: Oh, yes. Perfectly. They just rattle.
JK: Well, we should get together more often.
RUSSELL: [LAUGHS] Ok.
JK: But seriously, thank you so much for this, and again, it’s such a kick to talk with you.
RUSSELL: [LAUGHS] Ok.