“Can you believe who that is?” then-Rep. Tom Tancredo (R.-Calif.) whispered to me excitedly during the Western Conservative Political Action Conference in Los Angeles back in June of 2001. “That’s Jane Russell!”
Sure enough, the screen legend—famed for her background as a World War II pinup and for films ranging from The Outlaw to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—had come to listen to speakers and participate in workshops at the annual conclave of conservative activists on the West Coast.
“Miss Russell,” as everyone called her, wanted no special attention and was just like any other activist there, listening attentively to panels on illegal immigration, possible Chinese Communist infiltration in the Panama Canal Zone, and the coming midterm elections.
When it became news yesterday morning that Jane Russell had died at age 89, that is how I remembered her. For all the times I had watched her movies (my favorite being The Paleface, with Bob Hope) and seen her make guest appearances on television series such as the police drama “Hunter,” my most distinctive memory of the actress was seeing her as I saw thousands of other conservatives: standing with her political soulmates and gathering more information about the issues that invigorated her.
Unlike friends Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston—both of whom were active Democrats until they became Republicans at middle age—Jane Russell, I later learned, was a lifelong Republican who once called the Democratic Party “crazy.” Along with Reagan, Heston, and Robert Mitchum (with whom she co-starred in His Kind of Woman), she belonged to the conservative faction of the Screen Actors Guild that was always battling the Left in the motion picture industry.
In her autobiography, Russell admitted that she had become pregnant while in high school and had undergone an abortion. Believing that this may have been related to her later inability to conceive (Russell and first husband, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Bob Waterfield, adopted three children), the actress became a fighting pro-lifer who opposed abortion under any circumstances.
Russell campaigned for conservative Republican candidates in California. When she appeared at an event for state Sen. Dick Mountjoy, father of the state’s anti-illegal immigration Proposition 187, the conservative lawmaker later told me, Russell embraced him warmly. And, Mountjoy said, “I told her, ‘Jane, when I was in the service, I would have killed for this opportunity!’ ”
She later spoke out strongly in favor of the U.S. action in Iraq under George W. Bush. Well into her 80s, Russell attended several national Conservative Political Action Conferences in Washington, D.C., where she was often mobbed by well-wishers and autograph-seekers. Asked once by the Washington Times what she was doing at a CPAC, the then-retired actress replied without hesitation: “I belong here!“
When Jane Russell appeared at that Los Angeles conference in 2001, she made it clear she was there as a fellow conservative and not a celebrity. But I finally did draw her aside and ask her to autograph some postcards, notably for my movie-buff friend and Republican activist Tom Klunzinger of Lansing, Mich., and my father, a World War II veteran. She complied graciously.
Tancredo, then-state Sen. (now U.S. Rep.) Tom McClintock (R.-Calif.), and I recall very few details of that Western CPAC a decade ago.
But we all remember meeting Jane Russell there—and undoubtedly will never forget it or her.