September 21, 1924 – August 26, 1961
by Mark Langlois
Motion picture actress Gail Russell is (sadly) the poster child of “Pick the right career – otherwise, it may kill you.”
She moved from Chicago to Los Angeles with her parents in 1938 when she was 14. The doe-eyed, raven-haired beauty was discovered by an agent while she was a student at Santa Monica High School. She was offered Paramount Studios’ standard seven-year contract upon graduation. A painter since age 5, her lifelong dream to become an artist was put aside in favor of the $50 per week starlet salary she accepted on behalf of her struggling family.
With no acting experience, Gail began her studio training and grooming, despite her insecurity, clinical shyness and terrible stage fright. Within a few years, she received small roles and found courage in a bottle.
Her big breaks came in her early 20s, when she was cast in the thriller-classic The Uninvited, and later as John Wayne’s love interest in two films: The Angel & The Badman (1947) and Wake of the Red Witch (1949). See the Trailer for Wake of the Red Witch.
This professional relationship with Wayne incurred the wrath of his jealous, volatile, soon-to-be-ex-wife, Esperanza.
In 1949, Gail was implicated as the “other woman” in the Waynes’ ugly divorce trial. Gail swore she had no interest in Wayne – besides, look who she was going home to – actor Guy Madison. You can have John Wayne.
“Duke” got divorced, and so did Gail in 1954, when her union with Guy was dissolved, and her drunken-driving arrests started piling up.
One of the most infamous was in the wee hours of July 5, 1957, when Gail drove her car into the front of Jan’s Coffee Shop on Beverly Boulevard, pinning the janitor under her new convertible.
The LA Times was on the scene and Gail gave this remarkable quote: “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.”
In her final years, Gail struggled to find sobriety and film roles. She was in and out of hospitals — and B-movies.
Her final eight months of life were spent as a recluse in her Bentley Ave apartment off Santa Monica Boulevard, which is now demolished, along with Gail’s career by that time.
She spent her time sketching, painting — and drinking. Her former sister-in-law called her daily in her last weeks, and Gail reassured her that she was fine and planning a comeback.
Malnourished and full of booze, Gail Russell died of a heart attack at age 36. Authorities found her August 27, 1961, surrounded by her paintings and empty vodka bottles.
She was buried in a private service in one of the most unattractive cemetery in existence, Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood.
She once told a reporter: “I was afraid. I don’t exactly know of what – of life, I guess.”
Gail Russell is remembered on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame with a star at 6933 Hollywood Blvd.
She sure knew how to pick ’em.
Kudos to Mark, thank you Mike Steen for Gail’s Death Certificate, and Harry for being my pal.