jane russell trumps charo any day

If you've been reading other San Francisco blogs lately, you may or may not have heard it's Charo Week here in San Francisco. No, really. It seems our board of supervisors had nothing better to do but make it Charo Week in the City by the Bay. Last night, she judged a Charo look-alike contest at Trannyshack. I was thinking about going to see it, but was actually dreading several things about going to the Stud, the crushing crowds who came to see the "coochie-coochie girl" being only one of them.

Good thing something better -- and definitely more civilized -- came along.

My friend Greg called me and asked if I wanted to accompany him on a roadtrip. Greg knows I love a good roadtrip, and I'll usually drop everything I'm doing to go on an unplanned excursion.

"Hey, I need to drive Jane Russell to her house in Santa Maria on Tuesday. You wanna go with me?"


"Jane Russell."

"The actress?"

"Yeah. She dated Howard Hughes, that's why she refuses to fly and I need to drive her there."

"Um...okay. Sounds like fun."

"It'll be in a 2005 Saab 9-5," Greg informed me. He's a fellow gearhead who is as nutty for things automotive as me.

"Yay. Even better."

"Cool...we'll leave on Tuesday morning."

My plans for Trannyshack quickly evaporated. To be honest, I'm glad something better came up, because there's no way I was going to sit at home while Charo was judging her own look-alike contest.

Greg came and picked me up on Tuesday morning in the silver Saab, and we drove to the Sir Francis Drake hotel on Union Square. Ms. Russell was waiting outside with her cousin; Greg jumped out of the car, I slid over behind the wheel, and pulled it as close to the curb as I could without blocking the cable car. I popped the trunk, luggage was stowed, doors were opened, ladies were assisted into the vehicle, and we were off.

Ms. Russell had an elegant, aristocratic air about her. Even at age 84, she was still beautiful; those trademark cheekbones were still there and her stunning blue-green eyes just sparkled. She was the epitome of the old-school Hollywood diva...cordial, just a bit of attitude, but not too much...an absolute lady. Greg handled most of the small-talk as we made our way through nightmarish traffic (it seems every street in San Francisco is being torn up right now) to 101 southbound, the historic El Camino Real route we'd take all the way to Santa Maria. Ms. Russell (I cannot bring myself to refer to her as "Jane" because she never authorized it...so Ms. Russell it is) was quiet at first, but eventually warmed up a bit. We stopped at an Arco station in Redwood City to refuel, and I asked her if I could get her anything to eat or drink while I was inside the food mart.

"Fritos. I'd love some Fritos," she said.

"Certainly," I replied, and went inside to fetch some. I grabbed a turkey sandwich out of the cooler (which later proved to be a mistake, as I am in utter agony right now as I type this, suffering from food poisoning...ugh) and a bag of Fritos. I returned to the car, handed her the chips, and started chatting a bit as we made our way back to the freeway. Once we were underway, Ms. Russell asked me if it would be okay if she stretched out her legs and rest them on the center armrest, effectively putting her feet about a foot and a half from my face.

Like I was going to tell her no.

So there I am, chatting with this Hollywood diva about just about everything with her feet stretched out into the front seat. We talked a bit about Howard Hughes, and how Leonardo DiCaprio came to her house to talk with her about Howard so he could portray him accurately in The Aviator. She said Howard definitely had a thing for cleanliness, but didn't obsessively repeat himself over and over again, or at least she never saw him do anything like that while they were "involved" if you may.

I asked her what it was like working with Mr. Hughes when she made the movie "Outlaw" back in 1943. She sighed and rolled her eyes.

"He was such a perfectionist. He spent nine months shooting a film that shood have wrapped in less than nine weeks."

Her cousin started talking about her grandson and how he was a vegan ever since he married a british woman who attended San Francisco State University. Ms. Russell was unclear on the concept.

"A what?" she asked.

"A vegan," replied her cousin.

"A veygan?" Jane asked again, not sure what she had just heard.

"No, no, a veeegan."

"What the heck is that?"

"It's someone who doesn't eat meat, or dairy, or eggs."

"Why on earth would anyone not want to eat meat?"

"It's just her thing. She didn't get into a vegan sorority because she used honey, and the sorority said the bees were forced and enslaved to make honey."

"But that's what bees do. What else are they going to do but eat honey?" Ms. Russell was baffled as to why someone would discriminate against someone who eats honey.

"That's what I said. It's ridiculous." Her cousin just shook her head.

Ms. Russell thought for a second, then gave us her final opinion on the whole subject.


Greg and I about died laughing at that one...she proceeded to drop a few more "S" bombs during the trip, but nothing more coarse than that. Like I said, she was an absolute lady.

There wasn't much to listen to on the radio, and I doubt our backseat passengers wanted to listen to anything Greg or I brought for the return trip, so Ms. Russell actually spent a bit of time just singing, giving us an impromptu concert in the Saab. I decided then and there I was quite lucky, and started shaking my head, thinking about how surreal my life gets at times.

Eventually, Ms. Russell's cousin said she was getting hungry, and wanted to go to Taco Bell. Luckily, we were just arriving in Soledad, and we saw the familar Taco Bell logo from the highway. So there I was, sitting in a Taco Bell in freaking Soledad, watching Jane Russell eat a Cheesy Gordita Crunch. She basically inhaled the thing and finished it in less than five minutes.

"Hungry?" I asked her, smiling.

"A bit," she answered, dryly, then smiled at me.

We eventually arrived at her suburban Santa Maria home, a modest dwelling of four bedrooms. I carried her suitcase and garment bag inside, and asked her where I could place them.

"Follow me," she replied, and I followed her into her bedroom. "You can put the suitcase there, and hang the garment bag there, pointing to the enormous walk-in closet. I stepped inside, and marveled at the dozens of hats, pairs of shoes, and gorgeous frocks. I couldn't believe it. I was standing inside Jane Russell's closet.

"Would you like something to drink, honey?" she asked, smiling. "I have some ice tea."

"Yes please," I replied. She walked to the kitchen and poured me a tumbler of tea, topped off with cranberry juice, and then filled a wine goblet with the same beverage for herself.

Gurl, that's what I'm talking about. Drink it with style!

Her house was dramatically decorated, with two deep violet draperies covering one end of the living room windows, and lots of brightly colored fabrics and candles. She, like me, is definitely not afraid of color.

Her cousin asked me if I wanted an autographed glossy of Jane, and of course I said yes. She spread about a dozen different ones on the dining room table. I found a copy of the one I picked on the net:

Ms. Russell smiled at me, and signed it:

"I'd shoot you, Chad, but I'm too tired to get up. Love, Jane Russell"

I vowed to myself to treasure it and frame it as soon as possible. I mean, it's kind of a hot photo.

At one point during my visit, I asked her if I could take her photo, and she said yes. Her eyes danced when she saw me pull my camera out of my bag (it's big, and professional-looking) and we went out onto her patio, where the light was good.

These two are my favorites...you can see she still has every bit of moxie she ever had:

Like I said, Diva to the Core. We were talking about when she did Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn Monroe. She did a hysterical deadpan Marilyn imitation (which left me in stitches), and said yes, that's the way she really did talk most of the time.

As she showed me her home, I couldn't help but notice tons of old photos everywhere, several of Ronald Reagan in fact. Turns out she's friends with Nancy.

Who knew?

We said our goodbyes, and I shook Ms. Russell's hand, telling how what an extreme pleasure it was to make her acquaintence. Her cousin suddenly said, "Oh go ahead, hug her. She wants to hug you. Then I want one too!" I leaned over and hugged her, and she gave me a strong hug back. She may be 84, but she's definitely not frail.

Pulling away from the house, Greg and I briefly entertained the idea of visiting Neverland Ranch, but after getting lost in a labyrinth-like suburban housing development where all the houses were identically beige, we gave up and headed back to San Francisco, stopping at Denny's in Pismo Beach to eat dinner.

We eventually got back on the road, and at one point, I asked Greg to pose for a photo.

He did.

See, Greg? You should always smile nice. You never know what I'm gonna throw up on the internet. :-)

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