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Gail Russell: Life, Films, and Tragic Death

Darla Sue Dollman, B.A., M.F.A., is a freelance writer with 42 years combined experience as a journalist, author, photographer, and editor.

Gail Russell postcard photo circa 1950s.

Gail Russell postcard photo circa 1950s.

Gail Russell's Painfully Shy Childhood

Gail Russell was a hauntingly beautiful, yet emotionally fragile Hollywood actress with large blue eyes and a beguiling smile. During her short career, she starred with some of the most popular leading men in films, including John Wayne, Ray Milland, Joel McCrae, and Alan Ladd.

In spite of her success, she was tortured by her low self-esteem, extreme shyness, and stage fright. She eventually turned to alcohol to calm her nerves before performing and lost both her career and her life to the devastating effects of alcoholism.

Gail Russell in "Wake of the Red Witch."

Gail Russell in "Wake of the Red Witch."

Young and Naive

Gail Russell was born in Chicago in 1924 and named Elizabeth by her parents, George and Gladys Russell. She often visited her uncle's farm in Michigan, but even there she remained alone with her charcoal and sketchpads. She was an introvert with a limited social life, unprepared for the big city. She once told a reporter that her shyness was so severe that she hid beneath her parent’s piano when they entertained. Nevertheless, the press and the public adored her.

Gail's interest in art was more than a hobby. She focused on drawing because it was an art she could perform alone in a quiet atmosphere. She started sketching at age five and never stopped. Her dream was to become a professional commercial artist.

Gail Russell, Richard Lyon and Nona Griffith. The young Paramount stars posing for a publicity shoot after their contracts were approved.

Gail Russell, Richard Lyon and Nona Griffith. The young Paramount stars posing for a publicity shoot after their contracts were approved.

The Discovery

The Russell family moved to Los Angeles when Gail was 14. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Russell told the story of when her parents asked her to wear an evening gown and try to look glamorous, a task she found challenging considering she had never worn makeup.

Russell was a student at Santa Monica High School on vacation with her mother in 1942 when she visited Paramount Studios with two friends. It was here that she was "discovered" by Paramount talent scout William Meiklejohn. She was offered a contract, but her parents thought she was still too young. She was offered a standard seven-year contract and $50 a week. Her parents agreed to the contract, but on the condition that Russell should be allowed to finish high school first. She officially signed with Paramount as soon as she graduated.

Ray Milland in 1947. Milland and Russell worked together in numerous movies including  "Lady in the Dark" and "The Uninvited."

Ray Milland in 1947. Milland and Russell worked together in numerous movies including "Lady in the Dark" and "The Uninvited."

Stage Fright

Although the studio hired an acting coach, Russell’s stage fright was a problem from the start and discussed often by her costars and the crews on the set as it interfered with filming. Nevertheless, she started her career with an explosion of films.

Russell made her first film appearance at 19 in the 1943 film Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour. In 1944 she played Barbara in Lady in the Dark, starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland. Although Russell’s role was hardly noteworthy, the film was nominated for three Oscars, which boosted Russell's career.

Critics compared Russell's great beauty to Hollywood favorite Hedy Lamarr and Paramount acted quickly, casting Russell in two more films in 1944. Russell quickly discovered she was expected to appear in two to three films each year, which would be a challenging task for anyone, especially someone whose fear of appearing in public consumed her every thought.

Photo by Ned Scott of John Wayne from the 1940 film "The Long Voyage Home."

Photo by Ned Scott of John Wayne from the 1940 film "The Long Voyage Home."

Early Beginnings of a Deadly Disease

Gail Russell's raven hair and enigmatic beauty were particularly suited to the ghost story plot of The Uninvited, her second film of 1944. Russell was again cast with Ray Milland, this time as his love interest.

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During filming, Russell’s stage fright was so great that one of her co-stars suggested she use alcohol to calm her nerves. More than one biographer repeats the rumors that the suggestion came from actor John Wayne, but Wayne heard these rumors as well and adamantly denied having anything to do with Russell's struggles with alcohol. In fact, he insisted that the suspicious amount of time he spent in Russell's dressing room was an attempt to help her calm her nerves.

Russell completed The Uninvited, but lost 20 pounds. She later suffered a nervous breakdown. No one seemed to understand that her shyness and widely-publicized struggles with alcohol were cries for help.

This film was also nominated for an Oscar, drawing even more attention to the young star, but her use of alcohol to calm her fears continued and was clearly the beginning of the end for Gail Russell.

The Stress of a Hollywood Starlet

In her next film, Russell starred in the well-received 1944 comedy Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, also starring Diana Lynn. The film is based on a book with the same name written by actress Cornelia Otis Skinner and journalist Emily Kimbrough. The book describes their jaunt through Europe in the 1920s, when they were fresh out of college. Russell played Skinner and Lynn played Kimbrough, roles that seemed to be written for both of these talented young women.

The following year, Russell starred as a schoolteacher opposite Alan Ladd in Salty O'Rouke, another Oscar-nominated film. She then appeared with Joel McCrae in the supernatural tale, The Unseen. Although both Russell and McCrae were established actors by this time, the film failed to attract the same attention as The Uninvited. And again in 1945 Russell joined many famous actors of her time in Duffy's Tavern. After suffering from a nervous breakdown she was forced to repeat her three-films-a-year routine.

In 1946, Russell and Lynn revived their roles in Our Hearts Were Growing Up, the sequel to Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. This film was also well-received by audiences and reviewers. Before the year was over Russell would complete yet another movie, The Bachelor’s Daughters, with Adolphe Menjou. Added to this grueling schedule was Russell’s torturous ordeal with stage fright, which she continued to treat with a liberal dose of alcohol.

Angel and the Badman

In 1947, Russell performed one of her most famous roles as the innocent Quaker love interest of John Wayne in Angel and the Badman.

It was during the filming of Angel and the Badman that John Wayne first noticed Russell's struggle with alcohol outweighed her problems with shyness. As mentioned before, Wayne offered to help his costar with her fears and panic and spent what many biographers referred to as a suspicious amount of time with Russell, which did not go unnoticed by Hollywood gossips.

Once again, Russell was required to make three films in one year. In addition to Angel and the Badman, she played Virginia Moore in Calcutta and appeared as herself in Variety Girl.

Irene Rich, Gail Russell and John Wayne in "Angel and the Badman."

Irene Rich, Gail Russell and John Wayne in "Angel and the Badman."

Angel and the Badman Receives Strong Reviews

The film was well-received by reviewers. The New York Times review stated: "John Wayne makes a grim and laconic, converted renegade, who is torn by love, a new faith and the desire for revenge on an arch enemy. Gail Russell, a stranger to Westerns, is convincing as the lady who makes him see the light."

Angel and the Badman was an important film for Russell as a vehicle to attract the attention of fans. Her soft, innocent looks combined with the naivete of her character appealed to audiences.

Gail Russell and John Wayne in "Wake of the Red Witch."

Gail Russell and John Wayne in "Wake of the Red Witch."

Controversy and Conflict Plague the Young Actress

Gail Russell made three films in 1948, a grueling schedule. She played Gilly Johnson in Moonrise, then Jean Courtland in Night has a Thousand Eyes.

To top off the year, Russell was hired for a repeat performance as John Wayne's love interest. This time it was as Angelique Desaix in Wake of the Red Witch. John Wayne received 10% of the gross from the movie, which entitled him to help choose the cast...and he chose Gail. Her appearance in "Wake of the Red Witch" was controversial in ways she could never have predicted.

John Wayne and Esperanza Baur at the "Sands of Iwo Jima" premiere, 1949.

John Wayne and Esperanza Baur at the "Sands of Iwo Jima" premiere, 1949.

The Dangers of Friendship

At the time of the filming of "Angel and the Badman" John Wayne was married to Esperanza "Chata" Baur. Baur, was convinced that her husband was having an affair with Russell. According to Ronald L. Davis in his John Wayne biography Duke, although Wayne openly admitted to affairs in the past, both Wayne and Russell firmly denied anything more than friends.

Nevertheless, when Baur learned that her husband had chosen Russell to costar in yet another film, "Wake of the Red Witch" Baur exploded in a jealous rage.

Wayne returned home late from the cast party for Wake of the Red Witch and, according to Wayne, Baur was waiting at the door with her mother. Baur aimed a gun at her husband and pulled the trigger. The bullet barely missed Wayne’s head.

Russell was called upon to testify at the divorce trial of John Wayne and Chata Baur, which turned into a humiliating and painful drama for Russell, but she insisted throughout the trial that she was friends with Wayne, and nothing more.

Adding to the drama, Russell was still fulfilling her contract. In 1949 Russell played Princess Tara in Song of India, Susan Jeffers in El Paso, and Cissy Lathrop in The Great Dan Patch.

Gail Russell and Guy Madison, 1946.

Gail Russell and Guy Madison, 1946.

Russell Is Arrested

Russell married her long-time boyfriend, television actor Guy Madison. According to biographers their marriage was "on the rocks" from the start, and as always for Russell, embarrassing and public. The couple were often seen drunk and fighting in restaurants and bars.

Russell was still working, but her drinking was beginning to affect her career with an almost immediate slow-down. In 1950 Russell appeared as Sunny Garcia in Captain China and Kim Mitchell in The Lawless. In 1951 she starred as Janet Page in Air Cadet.

In 1953, Russell was called to testify in John Wayne’s divorce trial, which greatly increased her stress. Once again, Russell and Wayne both denied having an affair, but the damage from the stress of the trial was apparent to everyone who knew Russell, as well as those who didn't as her personal problems became more public.

Two weeks after the Wayne divorce trial Russell was arrested for drunk driving. The arrest fueled even more rumors about an affair with John Wayne and caused serious damage to her marriage to Guy Madison. Russell's alcoholic reputation troubled Paramount executives and they refused to renew her contract.

Gail Russell with defense lawyer Harvey Silbert.

Gail Russell with defense lawyer Harvey Silbert.

A Quick Divorce and Short-Lived Hope for the Future

Russell and Madison divorced in 1955, adding to her feelings of despair. She was soon arrested for leaving the scene of a crime after rear-ending another vehicle while intoxicated. She continued to try to work in spite of her troubles, but her life did not improve. The following year, in 1957, Russell drove her new convertible through the glass windows of Jan's Restaurant in Beverly Hills and the janitor was pinned beneath her vehicle. There was very little more she could have done to destroy her career.

Remarkably, Russell was picked up by Universal Studios and continued to star with some of the most famous names in Hollywood, including Randolph Scott in Seven Men from Now, but she also continued to drink. However, in August of 1957, when she failed to appear in court for the incident at Jan's Restaurant, officers were sent to Russell's home and found her drunk and unconscious. The hearing was held at General Hospital where she was bedridden with severe effects from alcoholism.

For the first time in her adult life, Russell made a move to try and salvage her career, and reputation. She joined Alcoholics Anonymous while she was staying at the hospital. She continued to attend AA meetings for an entire year, giving hope to her family and friends that she would finally be able to fight her demons, but less than a year later Russell was drinking again.

Gail Russell in 1946.

Gail Russell in 1946.

A Great Beauty Succumbs to a Deadly Disease

Still clinging to her last bit of hope, Russell continued to seek employment. In 1958 Russell played Carol Morrow in The Tattered Dress and in 1959 she played Lynn Dillon in No Place to Land.

Film studio executives were concerned that Russell's alcoholism was beginning to age her appearance and with her tarnished reputation she could no longer play the innocent young woman. In 1960, Gail Russell played Cassandra Bannister in the episode "Noblesse Oblige" of the television series The Rebel and Mrs. Clark in the episode "Matinee Monster" for the series Manhunt. Russell's final appearance was as Flore Brancato in a film eerily titled The Silent Call. When filming was completed, she locked herself in her Los Angeles studio apartment, sketching and drinking.

On August 26, 1961, 35-year-old Gail Russell died from an alcohol-induced heart attack. She wasn't found until the next day, and the certificate lists August 27 as her date of death. Russell is buried in Pierce Brothers Valhalla Memorial Park in Hollywood, California.

Gail Russell continues to have a fan following, based mainly on her role in the popular John Wayne film The Angel and the Badman. Actress Jane Fonda also modeled her Oscar-nominated role in the 1986 film The Morning After on the life of Gail Russell. Gail Russell has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6933 Hollywood Blvd.


  • "Angel and the Bad Man" with John Wayne and Gail Russell called Superior to Usual Western." The New York Times. March 3, 1947. Retrieved July 14, 2014.
  • Davis, Ronald L. Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, Oklahoma: 1998.
  • “Gail Russell.” Turner Classic Movies Online Database: Retrieved July 14, 2014.
  • Harnisch, Larry. “Gail Russell-In Memorium.” Los Angeles Times/The Daily Mirror: July 5, 2007. Retrieved on January 19, 2016.

Questions & Answers

Question: How many movies did Gail Russell make with John Wayne?

Answer: Russell and Wayne co-starred in two films: "Angel and the Badman" and "Wake of the Red Witch." Toward the end of her career, Wayne cast her in the film "Seven Men from Now." Wayne was only one of the producers of this last film, but it was made by Batjac Productions, Wayne's film company, so he had the authority to hire Russell even though her reputation was tainted by her highly-publicized struggles with alcoholism.

© 2016 Darla Sue Dollman


Darla Sue Dollman (author) from Alice, Texas on November 12, 2020:

I understand, and this scenario is certainly something I've personally considered. However, I do want to point out that your statements are also opinions. All we really know about the relationship between Russell and Wayne is that there was a lot of emotions involved and negative publicity, and sadly, negative publicity is something all celebrities must endure.

Elizabeth Oreilly on June 02, 2020:

Gail Russell was a talented and gifted actress it’s sad as her fame and fortune grew she didn’t have the courage to leave Hollywood and live her own life doing the one thing she truly loved sketching. I truly believe John Wayne and Gail were just friends nothing more. I believe John saw her destructive vulnerability and tried to help and encourage her to lead her own life.I think their friendship was a genuine one something the Hollywood gossip mongers could never understand.It’s sad that a reputation can be ruined with unfounded lies and whispers. A beautiful lady and soul gone too soon.

Darla Sue Dollman (author) from Alice, Texas on November 05, 2019:

So true! It breaks my heart to think of her dying in her apartment alone. And yes, she is one of the many celebrities with tremendous talent who died too young.

sverigegrabb on November 02, 2019:

Hollywood has so many tragedies, but Gail Russell is one of the most tragic. Despite that, she had an enormous acting ability that shows up in many films. RIP.

Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on September 09, 2019:

I have to share a few truths that I have with this hub:

1. Laid-out perfectly. I enjoyed the sequence that you used.

2. Your information was perfectly-researched.

3. Your talent for writing such a deep topic was also perfect.

4. Enjoyed reading about such a wonderful girl, Gail Russell.

Keep up the fine work.


Marc Leslie Kagan on September 07, 2019:

Gail Russell and Diana Lynn starred in both Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1944) and the sequel Our Hearts Were Growing Up (1946). In the two films Gail Russell played Cornelia Otis Skinner and Diana Lynn played Emily Kimbrough both the older actresses would out-live the younger actresses that portrayed them by at least 20 years with Russell dying at age 36 in 1961, while Diana Lynn passed away at the age of 45 in 1971 from a stroke.

Clancy Thornhall on August 16, 2019:

The Duke was willing to give Russell a chance when no one else would. Also, I don’t for a minute think that Duke and Russell were having an affair. It’s a shame that friendship is so often assumed to require a sexual element. Sometimes it actually is based on genuine affection and not lust.

Thank you. Thank you very much.

Darla Sue Dollman (author) from Alice, Texas on July 11, 2019:

Was part of your comment deleted Ernie?

Ernie on July 09, 2019:

The 1st time I saw Gail and the Duke in Angel Gai

Darla Sue Dollman (author) from Alice, Texas on March 09, 2019:

I have witnessed alcohol destroy so many lives of those I love. I cannot drink--I suspect I may even be allergic to alcohol, which is why I find it so odd that it has affected my life so tremendously. I believe it is the most dangerous drug available and should be illegal. Gail Russell was shy, that's true, but if you watch her later films she did develop into a talented actress and knowing she died alone from the affects of alcoholism is heartbreaking.

David Gorris on February 10, 2019:

Thanks for the great article, sad life story, I love tradional ways of the past but I guess it was not as great as it seems, it seems they had many of the same issues but it never came to light...alcoholism (Gail Russel)and cheating on spouse (John Wayne). I had began drinking heavily also as a teen because of extreme shyness as a teen in high school, I thank God for helping me finally quit for good 8 years ago.

THEODORE SMITH on April 25, 2018:

Reading all the terrible life Hollywood handed Gail Russell,

it is a miracle she survived as long as she did.

I for one found her to be much more naturally beautiful than Hedy Lamarr of even Lana Turner. She had a quality than no one could match

I recall as a youngster going to see ANGEL AND THE BADMAN. I went 3 days running and sat through every performance of the film, Only to watch Gail Russell. I could not take my eyes off this girl. She was voted STAR OF TOMORROW from that film.

I was hooked, She was great in NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES, MOONRISE, WAKE OF THE RED WITCH and THE LAWLESS, In fact Newsweek magazine in their review of the latter said Gail was so wonderful, the critic said it was like seeing her for the first time..

Bless her, the vulnerable beauty of Hollywood

Darla Sue Dollman (author) from Alice, Texas on December 18, 2017:

This is true, for the most part. When you watch her later films you see a more refined actress, greater skill. It was the Hollywood atmosphere that destroyed her.

Lawrence Roberts on December 18, 2017:

I watched 'Angel and the Badman' last night, and every time I watch it, I can't take my eyes off of Gail Russell. I start to think about how alcohol destroyed this beautiful woman and her life. Hollywood wasn't the place for her

Mike Laman on October 12, 2017:

I tried acting over the past ten years in Houston. I worked as an extra. I was shocked to see stage mothers still out there trying to get their kids noticed or in front of the camera. It was scary and sad. No child should enter show business unless they have strong support, training, and truly wants it on their own. I would never want my child to enter that career.

Darla Sue Dollman on February 11, 2017:

I agree, and the problem seems to be much worse in Hollywood, although they did start passing laws to force parents to back off a bit. I think a few major lawsuits changed the way parents behaved, as well.

Natalie Frank on February 10, 2017:

It's so sad when a parent pushes a child to do something they don't want. It seems like Russell was a reluctant star her entire career. Is there anything that says she came to love being a film star or is the social anxiety, stage fright and alcoholism all evidence of her never enjoying it and to the contrary finding it stressful. (Welcome back by the way. You were missed).

Darla Sue Dollman (author) from Alice, Texas on February 28, 2016:

Thank you. I was trying to emphasize that point--she made it clear from the start that she wanted a quiet, solitary life. Writers and artists work alone. In the end, she was alone.

FlourishAnyway from USA on February 28, 2016:

what a tragic life for someone who wanted to live so quietly but who was forced to become someone she was not. Well written.

Darla Sue Dollman (author) from Alice, Texas on January 23, 2016:

It is sad. When I think of her, I rarely think of her films. I think of a shy woman hiding in her apartment with her bottle and her sketch pad. She probably had no idea she was killing herself--our knowledge of the effects of alcoholism is surprisingly new--and the thought that it so long for anyone to realize she had died is heart-wrenching. She seemed to hesitate in her early films and I think you can sense her reluctance, but that is apparent in the first films of many actors. In her later films she is wonderful. I noticed the same about Queen Latifah. When she first appeared in a television sitcom she was terrible. Now she is fantastic!

Marcia @ Menopausal Mother on January 22, 2016:

Such a sad tale. She really was a beauty and quite the actress.

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