Grave Spotlight

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

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Gail Russell

Sept. 21, 1924 – Aug. 27, 1961

Dec. 31, 2011 -- Gail Russell never wanted to be an actress. Even when she became an actress, she didn't want to be an actress. She wanted to be an artist. Born Elizabeth "Betty" Russell to George, an auto insurance salesman, and Gladys Russell in Chicago in 1924, she started drawing sketches at the age of 5, and eventually became a talented oil painter.

Russell moved to California with her parents and older brother, George, when she was 14, and attended Santa Monica High School. A dark-haired beauty with gray-green eyes, Russell bore a striking resemblance to actress Hedy Lamarr. A talent scout from Paramount Pictures heard about "the Hedy Lamarr of Santa Monica," tracked her down, and invited Russell to the studio for a screen test.

Although Russell wasn't too impressed by the invitation, her mother was. "My mother wanted either my brother or myself to go into the movies," Russell later recalled. "When I told her I’d been sent for to make a test, she was dressed in a minute and nothing flat to take me to the studio."

When Paramount Executive Producer B.G. DeSylva saw Russell's screen test, he described her as "a good long-term investment," and she was offered a seven-year contract at $50 per week. Even though Russell still wanted to become an artist, she was pressured by her mother to sign the contract because the family needed the money.

Russell was quickly put on a path to become a star, even thought she had no acting experience, and was nearly incapacitated by shyness and stage fright. Most of the early interviews with Paramount's newest star-to-be describe her as extremely timid, painfully shy and insecure, and lacking self-confidence -– not the typical description of a young starlet.

Russell received quick and intense acting training at Paramount, and made her film debut in a small role in "Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour" (1943), when she was 18. A reporter who interviewed her during production said "she gave the impression that she wished she'd never heard of Hollywood."

The following year, Russell appeared in small roles in "Lady in the Dark" and "The Uninvited," before starring in "Our Hearts Were Young and Gay" (1945). "Everything happened so fast," Russell said later. "I was a sad character. I was sad because of myself. I didn't have any self-confidence. I didn't believe I had any talent. I didn't know how to have fun. I was afraid. I don't exactly know of what -– of life, I guess."

During her early film roles, Russell turned to alcohol to steady her nerves and boost her self-confidence. As her film roles increased, so did her drinking -– a decision that fairly quickly lead to the end of her career, and her life.

Russell starred in "Salty O’Rourke" (1945), with Alan Ladd; "The Unseen" (1945), with Joel McCrea; "Our Hearts Were Growing Up" (1946), a sequel to "Our Hearts Were Young and Gay"; "The Bachelor's Daughters" (1946); "Calcutta" (1947), with Ladd; and "Angel and the Badman" (1947), her first film with John Wayne, who would become her lifelong friend, and her co-star in two more films -– "Wake of the Red Witch" (1948) and "El Paso" (1949).

In 1949, Russell married actor Guy Madison. After Russell starred in "The Lawless" (1950), with Macdonald Carey, her contract with Paramount expired and wasn't renewed, primarily because of her drinking problem.

Russell starred in "Air Cadet" (1951), produced by Universal International Pictures and featuring one of the first screen appearances of Rock Hudson, then disappeared from movie screens for the next five years. Russell had been scheduled to co-star with George Raft in "Loan Shark" (1952), but she withdrew from the project, citing illness. She was replaced by Dorothy Hart.

Russell was first arrested for drunk driving on Nov. 24, 1953, in Santa Monica, when she was 29 years old, and her marriage was starting to unravel. She divorced Madison in 1954, and was arrested again for drunk driving in 1955 after she rear-ended a car in North Hollywood and drove away. On July 4, 1957, Russell was driving her new white convertible when she plowed into the front of Jan's Restaurant at 8424 Beverly Blvd. in Los Angeles at 4 a.m., crashing through the large windows and coming to rest after hitting the coffee counter, pinning a 21-year-old janitor under her vehicle.

Photos of the crash scene and Russell taking and failing a sobriety test on the street outside the coffee shop ran the next day in the Los Angeles Times, along with this quote from Russell: "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 was found guilty of driving while under the influence, fined $420 and sentenced to three years probation. With that, her film career was essentially over.

Russell joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and spent a year in a clinic to beat her addiction, but without success.

In the 12 years before the accident, Russell appeared in 21 films. After the accident, she appeared in small roles in only two films. She spent her final years alone in her small apartment off Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, where she kept to herself, finally able to devote her time and attention to her real interest -– painting.

Russell -- her family's meal ticket and her studio's long-term investment -- was found dead in her apartment on Aug. 27, 1961, at the age of 36, surrounded by her paintings and her empty liquor bottles. Her death certificate listed the cause of death as "severe, acute and chronic alcoholism," and "terminal aspiration (of) stomach contents." Basically, she choked to death on her own vomit. Her obituary in the Los Angeles Times described her as "a movie star at 18 and a has-been at 30."

Russell was buried at Pierce Brothers Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood, Calif.

When Russell married Guy Madison, his legal name was his birth name -– Robert Moseley. So she became Gail Russell Moseley, and that's the name on her grave marker.

Russell is buried between her parents, George H. Russell (1888 – 1958) and Gladys M. Russell (1894 – 1974).

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