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Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

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Gail Russell--in memoriam

 

Gail_russell_1957_0705b
Photographs by the Los Angeles Times
Sgt. C.H. Specht examines damage to Jan's Restaurant, 8424 Beverly Blvd., caused by Gail Russell's convertible.
Below right, Russell fails a test for intoxication administered by Specht.   


1957_0706_russell

Gail_russell_1957_0705a_2 July 6, 1957
Los Angeles

You poor thing. Look at you lying there, probably for a couple days now, sealed off from the world in a little home on the Westside. No husband, no children and no career. Just an empty vodka bottle on the floor and you sprawled next to it in a blouse and the pants from your pajamas. Dead at 35. Your mother wanted you to have the career she never had. I'm sure she didn't realize you weren't cut out to be a movie star; so tightly wound and such a painfully shy, insecure bundle of nerves.

Let's go back 20 years to 1941, when you were studying to be an artist and someone started calling you "the Hedy Lamarr of Santa Monica High." How you hated that nickname and kept apologizing for it, so embarrassed that when you finally ran into Lamarr volunteering one night at the Hollywood Canteen you looked the other way.

You said: "We lived first in Chicago, came gypsying to California. When my family first came here it was a vacation, really. Then we put a down payment on a house and a down payment on some furniture. My brother went into the Army and one by one pieces of furniture went.

"When I was discovered for the movies I was sleeping on the living room floor on newspapers. I went for my first interview with paint all over my face--I'd been helping paint a room at the technical school. Paramount offered me a minimum salary--$50 a week--and Mom said, 'Take it, we need the money.' "

(Below right, Russell with Richard Lyon and Nona Griffith in 1944 after their juvenile movie contracts were approved).

Gail_russell_1944_0720 "Mother practically dragged me in to see William Meiklejohn, supervisor of talent and casting at Paramount, who had tracked me down at University [Santa Monica] High School. I was petrified. Mr. Meiklejohn, a kindly man, kept trying to get me to talk, but nothing would come out.

"For my first test they put me into an evening gown. I had never even worn high heels before--or makeup of any kind. To say I was self-conscious is understatement plus. A week later they cast me in a Henry Aldrich picture, wearing a bathing suit and a transparent raincoat. It had been raining and there was a large puddle across from the studio commissary where the scene was to be shot. Of course they had to do it just as the sets broke for lunch and such stars as Alan Ladd, Bing Crosby and others were passing by.

"There I was trying to speak my lines while holding an umbrella which kept slipping from my nervous fingers. To this day I refuse all bathing suit scenes in public or private."

For one audition at Paramount, they put you in the fishbowl, a glass booth lit so that the actor couldn't see who was outside watching.

Below right, a studio publicity shot, 1949.

Gail_russell_1949 "My coach accompanied me and we read the script together. Then he excused himself. There I stood, sat, or something, for 10 minutes waiting for him to return. Finally they turned on the outside lights and to my horror I saw 15 executives filing away one by one. I frantically tried to remember what I had done those 10 minutes. What an experience!

"I started out weighing 125 pounds," you said of making "The Uninvited," then I was rushed to New York for the opening. When I got back I weighed 106--all in two months. Everything was that way, rush... rush... rush... So many pictures one after another. I tried to be a nice guy and took on too many things and didn't take care of my health."

You nerves got so bad that you spoiled one take after another.

"I have hand trouble. Unconsciously I clasp my hands and then start wringing them. It's getting to be a gag now on the set. Director John Farrow ("Calcutta" and "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes") had a stock line to deliver every time my hands wouldn't behave. It was, 'Hands, Gail, cut.'  They finally tied my hands to my sides with handkerchiefs."

Then there was "The Angel and the Badman," the first of  the movies you made with John Wayne. A few years later when his wife, Esperanza, sued for divorce, she testified that she nearly shot him when he broke into their home the next morning after spending the night with you. She also said he gave you a car, although he claimed it was only the down payment.

 

Gail_russell_1953
Russell and defense lawyer Harvey Silbert in 1953, when she pleaded not guilty to drunk driving.

You and Wayne testified that there was no relationship between you. But your first arrest for drunk driving was only a few weeks later, Nov. 24, 1953, about the time your marriage to Guy Madison was unraveling. By the next year, you were in such bad shape that your lawyer wanted the trial held in your hospital room.

In 1955, you drove off after rear-ending a car in North Hollywood. And then you plowed into Jan's Restaurant, 8424 Beverly Blvd., at 4 a.m. on the Fourth of July, 1957 and pinned the janitor under your new convertible. 

You said: "I had a few drinks. I had two. No four. Oh, I don't know how many I had. It's nobody's business anyway."

 

Gail_russell_1956
Russell, age 31, in 1956.

In August 1957, you ended up in General Hospital's prison ward when two officers found you passed out after you failed to appear for a hearing in the drunk driving case.

You tried so hard to beat the bottle. You joined A.A. and spent a year in a clinic. "It was so lonely in the hospital in that oxygen tent for three months with no one to talk to except the Man Upstairs," you said. "I had long talks with Him--that's the reason I'm here today."

 

Gail_russell_1958
Russell and an unidentified man, presumably attorney Rexford Eagan, for another court hearing in 1958. She is  32 in this photograph. Note her dilated pupils.

And then for the last eight months of your life, you sealed yourself up in your home at 1436 Bentley Ave., and sketched and painted and drank until the place was full of art and empty liquor bottles. You wouldn't even open the door for the neighbors, just talked to them through the window. Your sister-in-law phoned every day in the week before you died. You told her you were painting and sketching and planning to get back into acting.

Your sister-in-law will say: "She was really, really and truly trying to stop drinking. It was tragic because she was so talented and suffering so much. If she had enjoyed drinking it would have been something else--but she didn't. No matter what they say about Hollywood, the people there were always wonderful to her through the long years she had her problems. She always got through when she made a call and anybody who ever worked with her always believed in her."

You once told Hedda Hopper: "I've learned you can't satisfy everyone. You start and then, all of a sudden, it stops and you can't even please yourself."

You'll get a private service at Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood and be buried next to your father.  Some of your old co-stars will be there: Alan Ladd, Jimmy "Henry Aldrich" Lydon, Diana Lynn and Mona Freeman. No sign of John Wayne, though.  Or Guy Madison.

Rest in peace, Gail Russell Moseley,  1925-1961

Here's "The Angel and the Badman" on Google video.

Bonus fact: Jan's is still in business.

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Comments (20)

A great movie screened the other night on TMC. 7 men from now, directed by Budd Boetticher. It starred Randolph Scott, Lee Marvin and Gail Russel. Gail worked with some of the greats, Raoul Walsh, Jack Arnold, Joseph Losey. What a pity.

Gail felt alone in the world and used vodka to defeat her demure nature. Too bad, as the world could use more shy people like her.

Gail Russell has always been one of my favorite stars. I saw Angel and the Badman by chance one night and fell in love. It breaks my heart to think what became of her, but I will choose to always remember her as she was in her younger days....sweet and pure and beautiful. Rest in peace Gail Russell.

WE HAVE SEEN ANGEL AND THE BAD MAN ON SEVERAL
OCCASIONS. IT IS A REAL JOY TO WATCH MS. RUSSELL
IN THIS ROLE. YOU CAN FEEL THE CHEMISTRY BETWEEN
THE 'DUKE' AND MS. RUSSELL, A TALENTED YOUNG LADY. ITS THE CHEMISTRY THAT MADE THE FILM THE
SUCCESS IT WAS AND THE REASON IT IS STILL ENJOYED
TODAY. I CANNOT HELP BUT THINK IF MS. RUSSELL HAD
A BETTER SUPPORT SYSTEM (EMOTIONAL) SHE WOULD
NOT HAVE TURNED TO ALCOHOL AS SHE DID TO CALM
HER NERVES AND INSECURITIES. HER TALENT WAS HERE TO BE ENJOYED BY ALL BUT INSTEAD IT WAS LOST IN A SEA OF ALCOHOL; TRULY A WASTE OF A
BEAUTIFUL AND GIFTED YOUNG WOMAN.

It is truly a waste of youth, beauty, talent and a wonderful purity. Hollywood had done this to so many and it is still startling to us, But is it just the drink or drugs that drives these lonely souls to self-destruct or is the mental and emotional breakdown. Personally, I believe that Gal, like Marilyn, was emotionally and mentally unprepared for such exposure. Yet the public always demands more and Hollywood seduces us and as well as the stars....We should ask of ourselves why we push these actors and artists, instead of wondering why they can't handle the fame. They are just frail people, like all of us, afterall. When we don't have our Soul fulfilled in the love of God, so much is hopelessness and despair. We were made to love and to be loved - and that's often confused by adulation and idol-worship. A true pity. I hope that she found the Lord, as she relates she did much praying or "talking with the Man upstairs" during her lonely hours. She will be forever remembered as one of the iconic beauties of the big screen, yet also by just being so pure that Hollywood willed her to change and she just couldn't deal with it. God bless your Soul, Gail, and much love always~

That "unidentified man" in the above photo certainly is Rexford Eagan. I knew him when he was a Little League coach in Sherman Oaks in the mid 1960s.

I ALWAYS THOUGHT GAIL RUSSELL WAS A BEAUTIFUL WONDERFUL ACTRESS . SHE COULD SEE THE PERSONAL PAIN IN HER EYES EVEN IN HER MOVIES .
WHICH ACTUALLY GAVE ME DEEP FEELINGS FOR HER . AS I COULD RELATE TO PERSONAL EMOTIONAL PAIN .
I WAS NOT AWARE SHE DIED SO YOUNG AND HAD SO MANY PERSONAL ISSUES THAT CAUSED HER EARLY DEMISE . SO SAD OF A STORY .
I MISS HER . JAY

Here's to Gail Russell. I never heard of her before, but saw her last weekend on a late night local cable movie channel in The Angel and the Bad Man - and had to check out who this actress was. She was not only beautiful, she had something else. Hollywood definitely wasted a potential talent.

There has never been a more beautiful or tragic actress in Hollywood.
Why no Biography? She is a natural for exploration in books and also on screen. I know Jane Fonda based her performance on Gail in a film she made with Jeff Bridges.
Gail was the most unique actress in Hollywood's history.
God bless her and please bless her for the joy she gave her fans.
The most beautiful girl Hollywood ever used up.

What a great talent. I loved her work. Let's be careful about making Gail a victim of alcohol or the studio system. There is no power in being a victim. Her gift to us all can be a great lesson and I think that the tender heart of Gail would want us to learn from her tragic life.There are ways that some people avoid themselves through the use of alcohol and drugs Alcoholism is a devastating disease. Just wanting to quit is not enough. They don't want to face their pain. It's important to remember that each of us has a responsibility in our own life to face the demons of self judgment and the loneliness in believing that we have some defect that separates us from everyone else...to the point of self destruction. I think that a lot of movie stars get a certain amount of attention, self expression in the films that they are in. In many ways they get validated by public acceptance and adoration. The important lesson of Gail's life is to realize that self acceptance is an inside job and clearly Gail did not get enough support. We are not defined by what we do in our work. We have to find a way to love ourselves and for that to be enough. Then we can share who we are with others. Maybe Gail didn't feel that she was enough. The rush of fame, the validation of self expression in the medium of film can cause someone to feel so inner dependent on their audience, to feel good about themselves, that they never learn to self validate. A lot of actors, when they are seen in films, they get to be seen in their inner most feelings. You can see that with Gail. What a great expression of self.... the medium of films. Let's remember though that as individuals we need to be able to have this place of self expression in our daily lives, however difficult it may be. We have to, as individuals, find a way to face our demons and to bring the painful places out into the light. To view them and to see that the beliefs we carry about ourselves are really distortions that we need to let go of. We need to get help and be wiling to reach out for help. I wonder if Gail had done a film where she brought forth the emotion, pain and shame that she was not willing to feel into one of her films. Perhaps this would have been a cathartic experience for her that could have been very healing. Ultimately though we must feel these places for ourselves on a daily basis. Going to a 12 step program is great, but it is how you show up and your attitude while being there. The challenge is really receiving the support that others give. To really see yourself as being no different from the guy next to you in their own struggle. That is the beauty of identification. If Gail had truly identified within herself that her struggle was a universal struggle, shared by a lot of people, she may have been able to survive. Unfortunately, the "specialness" that comes along with being a star in the movie industry can only help to further isolate some in believing they are alone in their struggles. I think this happened with Gail. Thanks for teaching this valuable lesson about life Gail!

I think Gail Russell was the most beautiful women to ever hit Hollywood to this day.So sad to here how her life ended.GOD BLESS YOU GAIL.

Gail Russell and John Wayne were having a affair, and John Wayne was to in love with himself and his career to admit it. He was a piece of crap, user and alcoholic himself. He could have helped her and taken care of her, but, oh no, he didn't want the publicity. What a jerk. Phony like all his dumb movies, pretending to be somebody he wasn't like most stupid actors.

I don't know where the article and photos on Gail Russell popped up from, but they are wonderful. I was there the night she plowed her Chevy convertible into Jan's restaurant. It was a sad, funny and heart-wrenching scene where she was so high she put her finger on the police officer's nose, not her own, during a sobriety test.If you look at the scene from "Angel and the Badman" where she's up in John Wayne's room (he's recovering from a gunshot wound) you'll see her do some of the most natural acting ever. She was fantastic. A bright, pretty, talented, tragic figure.

One of the great but little known movies, The Uninvited, starred Gail Russell.
In this wonderful ghost story, she was utterly captivating. She illuminated the screen with tremendous presence and potential. It is so sad how this beautiful girl burnt out at such an early age. The later photos of her show a woman looking twenty years older than her chronologial age.

I saw Ms. Russell for the first time yesterday evening in the movie "seven men from now". I was impressed by her beauty and her sweet demeanor. That was the reason that I looked her up in google this morning. I was very touched when I read her tragic life story. Mr. Harnisch, you described her life beautifully and I felt that your heart was in.
Benno Ehrlich

Yes "The Uninvited" is not only a great movie, with some truly terrifying moments, it is also another film that really showcases Gail Russell's beauty and presence. I have long wished that someone would put this movie on DVD. Gail Russell is one of the truly under appreciated stars of Hollywood's golden era.

Gaul russell a very beautiful and talented actress. Her chronic shyness lead het to drink the vodka to get some instant confidence but sadly it lead to her death. I am struggling with drink at the moment and my drink is vodka. It is so easy to slide and lock yourself away and let the vodka take your life. I wished she had given up the acting that was her trigger to drink.
She needed to quit Hollywood such a sensitive soul was never fashioned for such a place. I will always remember her smile in Angel and the Badman. Hope she is in a better place.

What beautiful hands she had! You can see them in the photo above captioned, "Age 31 in 1956." I've never known much about her, but saw "The Uninvited" last night for the first time. I'll definitely be looking for more of her movies!

I recently saw a film called MOONRISE on Tv and for the first time was aware of Gail Russell. My word, has there ever been a lovelier girl on screen?
I would say not.
She had everthing a movie star needed except confidence.
I read a D.W. Griffith biography some years back and he said that Gail Russell was the only girl in Hollywood who you could compare to the finest actresses of the early days of Hollywood.
I totally agree. I will now look up and find her films where ever I can and watch them.
How did I ever miss this fabulous creature.
Ted

There was never anyone quite like Gail Russell,ever.She was beauty personified,and anyone who ever met her never forgot her.With her sparkling sapphire blue eyes and her raven black hair she was a sight to behold.Like seeing a lovely rose,a beautiful rainbow,or any sunset.Gail always spoke with a light whisper,as if the sound of her own voice frightened her.She only made 25 films in her short career,all in the space of 18 years.Called a "star of tomorrow"by the Motion Picture Exhibitors in 1947,Gail at the height of her career in 1949 made 4 films,although 3 were only released.She made 2 more in 1950,and then only 1 in 1951.She virtually disappeared from the silver screen almost overnight.Her shy nature and paralyzing stage fright,together with her addiction to alcohol,proved her undoing.Gail was found dead in her West Los Angeles apartment surrounded by empty liquor bottles in 1961 at the young age of 36.She made some bad films,some average,and some very good films.Like "The Uninvited","Our Hearts Were Young and Gay","Angel and the Badman",and "The Lawless".Gail was a much underrated actress and deserved a much better fate.I still miss her very much,even though its been 50 years since her passing.Whenever I hear the song"Stella By Starlight",I think of Gail.Whenever I see yellow roses,I think of Gail because she adored them.Rest in Peace,Gail.From your dear friend,Steve


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