She was born Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell in Bemidji, Minnesota, the only daughter of Roy William Russell (January 5, 1890-July 18, 1937) and Geraldine Jacobi (January 2, 1891-December 26, 1986). Her four younger brothers are Thomas Ferris Russell (born April 16, 1924), Kenneth Steven Russell (born September 2, 1925), James Hyatt Russell (born February 9, 1927) and Wallace Jay Russell (born January 31, 1929).
Her parents were both born in North Dakota. Three of her grandparents were born in Canada, while her paternal grandmother was born in Germany. Her parents married in 1917. Her father was a former commissioned First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and her mother was a former actress with a road troupe. When Jane was a child they moved temporarily to Canada, then moved to the San Fernando Valley of Southern California. They lived in Burbank in 1930 and her father worked as an office manager at a soap manufacturing plant.
Jane's mother arranged for her to take piano lessons. In addition to music, she was interested in drama and participated in stage productions at Van Nuys High School. Her early ambition was to be a designer of some kind. But her father died when he was forty-six and after graduation, she went to work as a receptionist. She also modeled for photographers and, at the urging of her mother, studied drama and acting with Max Reinhardt's Theatrical Workshop and with famed Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya.
In 1940, Russell was signed to a seven-year contract by millionaire Howard Hughes and made her motion picture debut in The Outlaw (1943), a story about Billy the Kid that went to great lengths to showcase her voluptuous bust. Although the movie was completed in 1941, it was released for a limited showing two years later. There were problems with the censorship of the production code over the way her ample cleavage was displayed. When the movie was finally passed, it had a general release in 1946. During that time, Russell was kept busy doing publicity and became famous.
Besides the thousands of quips from radio comedians, including Bob Hope once introducing her as "the two and only Jane Russell", the still of her on a haystack glowering with sulking beauty and youthful sensuality as her bosoms push forcefully against her amply filled dress was a popular pin-up with Service men during World War II.
Though The Outlaw was not a spectacular Western, it did well at the box office. It appeared that Hughes was only interested in her being cast in movies that showcased her physique, however, reportedly refusing an offer from Darryl Zanuck for her to play Dora Sol in Blood and Sand. She was not in another movie until 1946, when she played Joan Kenwood in Young Widow for RKO. Though her early movies did little to show her true acting abilities, they helped parlay her into a career portraying smart, often cynical, tough "broads" with a wisecracking attitude.
In 1947, Russell attempted to launch a musical career, recording a single with the Kay Kyser Orchestra, "As Long As I Live". She went on to perform with proficiency in an assortment of roles, which includes playing Calamity Jane opposite Bob Hope in The Paleface (1948) on loan out to Paramount; and Mike Delroy opposite Hope in Son of Paleface (1952), again at Paramount.
Though her screen image was that of a sex goddess, her private life lacked the sensation and scandal that followed other actresses of the time, such as Lana Turner. At the height of her career, Russell started the "Hollywood Christian Group", a weekly Bible study at her home for Christians in the movie business that was attended by some of the biggest names. Russell was a prominent Republican who attended the Eisenhower inauguration, along with Lou Costello, Dick Powell, June Allyson, Anita Louise, Louella Parsons, and other conservatives.