Jane Russell: There’s more to the story

December 7, 2013



We saw the movie Philomena last night, and I was intrigued by the reference to Jane Russell. I think it’s well known by now that the movie deals with the practice of some convents and other institutions in Europe to force single young women to surrender their children for adoption and to require a large donation from American couples to take those children to the United States. The movie has to do with a particular instance in which a woman named Philomena Lee, whose child was taken from her in that manner, attempts decades later to find out what became of the boy.



In the more or less true account, Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena, who — in the company of a freelance writer — visits the convent where she was left by her father after becoming pregnant at the age of 18. The reporter notices among the photographs hanging in the reception room at the convent an autographed, provocative photo of Jane Russell. He asks a nun about the photo, and the clear implication is that Jane Russell was among the wealthy Americans who “bought” a child at this convent. That caught my interest because I met Jane Russell in 1971 when she was appearing here in New Jersey in a production of Catch Me If You Can. In fact, I had coffee with her in Manhattan and one of the topics of our conversation was adoption.



Jane Russell told me that during her first marriage, which was to Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield, she visited orphanages and similar institutions in five countries in Europe and was frustrated to find that it was nearly impossible for an American couple to adopt the children who were languishing there. She eventually did adopt three children, but her experience in Europe also inspired her in 1952 to found the World Adoption International Fund which eventually facilitated tens of thousands of adoptions. She became an advocate for adoptive parents and children, testifying before Congress in 1953 in favor of the Federal Orphan Adoption Bill which allowed American parents to adopt children fathered by American troops overseas. And in 1980 she lobbied for the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act which provides financial assistance based on the particular circumstances of foster and adoptive parents and adoptive children.

From what I have read so far, I deduce that Jane Russell did not adopt a child from the convent that is the focus of Philomena. I did read an account of an interview in which she told a reporter that after having failed to adopt a child in England, she was going to try her luck in Ireland. Whether any of her eventual adoptions amounted to “buying” babies, I cannot tell. I do notice that news stories that refer to her as one of the wealthy Americans alluded to in Philomena do not go on to report her work on behalf of adoptive parents and children.
Jane - 1


6 Responses to “Jane Russell: There’s more to the story”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    Bias by omission – always a nice touch.

    But here’s the good news. This film is playing in our theatres this week, and if it stays as cold and rainy as predicted, there’s not going to be any varnishing going on. Between your review and the presence of Judi Dench, I believe I’ll go to the movies!

  2. shoreacres Says:

    A friend and I finally managed to see the film on Saturday. I thought it was good, if a little contrived in places. I’ve seen Judi Dench in three films now – “Skyfall”, “Marigold Hotel”, and “Philomena” – and I’m amazed by her versatility.

    The storylines that most intrigued me were the developing relationship between Philomena and the journalist, and her attempts to deal with the “rock and a hard place” conflict in her life. I did think there were some gratuitous swipes taken that had nothing to do with the plot – toward the Republicans, for example – and in some places things began to drag. The long ride at the airport where Philomena is telling the story of her novel could have been tightened up and still done what it was supposed to.

    In a way, the mention of Jane Russell was equally gratuitous. Granted, there needed to be a way to catch the journalist’s attention. Still, the presence of such a provocative photo in the midst of such a buttoned-up place surely did suggest something overcame what would have been the sisters’ natural reluctance to have such a photo hanging on their walls. The obvious conclusion was that money did the trick.

    My favorite single moment of the film came when the journalist spotted the harp on his glass of Guiness and made the connection with the son’s lapel pin. And I thought the flashbacks were beautifully done – not at all intrusive or contrived.

    So – I enjoyed it, and I’m glad I saw it. Would I see it again? No. Will I go see Judi Dench in whatever she does next? You bet!

    • charlespaolino Says:

      If you’ve never seen it, you might want to try “Ladies in Lavender,” which stars Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. They’re quite a pair. I love that moment at the climax of “Marigold Hotel” when Maggie Smith — who has just saved the hotel — says something like, “We haven’t really spoken much” and Judi Dench answers, “My loss, apparently.”

  3. barefootflowergirl Says:

    So what about the “I knew he was gay from his breeches” comment? Odd.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I don’t know. I read that Philomena Lee said she was satisfied with the accuracy of the film even though it didn’t accurate reflect her personality. Also, she didn’t travel to the United States with the writer who was investigating the case. However, she said the heart of the story is correct. My wife just read the book that was written on this subject, and that concentrates on the life of the son. I plan to read it myself in a few weeks. There was some controversy when Jane Russell and Bob Waterfield adopted an Irish child, but the adoption was arranged in England directly with the child’s mother and did not involve a convent. Jane went back to Europe and straightened out the legal issues that had upset some people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s