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Gail Russell--in memoriam

July 5, 2007 | 10:42 pm


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.   


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.


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."


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."


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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