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How blue-eyed Irish boy won icon's heart

Sunday Independent, Mar 6 2011

She was the 'mean, moody and magnificent' queen of Hollywood, but to a little Irish boy, she was just 'mom'. And when 89-year-old screen legend Jane Russell died of respiratory failure at her home in Santa Maria, California last Monday morning, Tom Waterfield, the son whom she adopted from an impoverished Irish couple, was by her side, as ever.

"She had an incredible life," the grieving 60-year-old singer songwriter told the Sunday Independent from his home in Arizona's Verde Valley. "And she always encouraged me to seek out my roots in Ireland. When mom toured Europe in the Sixties, I met the Kavanaghs [his birth family]. And as a matter of fact, I just got back from Ireland and spent time with my relatives in Co Clare, the McNamaras. I plan to come back and play there with my band in the near future."

Waterfield was an infant in 1952 when his biological mother, Florrie Kavanagh, presented herself at Jane Russell's suite at London's Savoy hotel. Florrie, who had moved to London from Galway, had seen the paper that morning showing the bejewelled screen goddess, saying 'Miss Russell in London to adopt baby boy'.

Under ordinary circumstances, a ragged Irishwoman with a crying baby would have had no chance of getting in the orbit of a film deity such as Jane Russell. The actress had starred alongside Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and along with Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth, embodied the sensuously contoured "sweater girl" look. With her topaz-coloured eyes and hourglass figure, she represented what one publicist described as "lust, desire and everything that good boys are not supposed to think about".

But Florrie found the film star at a vulnerable time. A botched abortion years earlier had left Jane infertile and now she badly wanted a baby. The search for a child had taken her all across Europe. In France, she had visited orphanages and watched nuns bring rows of two-year-olds to eat their lunches on wood benches out of tin cans. In Italy, she was told that her Protestantism and her age would disqualify her. In Germany, she learned that a special act of congress would be needed to bring a child back to the States. England did not hold much hope either as then only a British subject could adopt another British subject.

At that time, Ireland had much more informal and unregulated adoption laws and Jane was already in the process of looking for an Irish child to adopt. In 1951, Jane wrote: "My husband [the American football star Robert Waterfield] is of Irish extraction and I would very much like to adopt an Irish baby. If it is possible I would like to fly to Dublin this week to pick out a child and make all of the arrangements for him to fly back to America with me."

The Church of Ireland Moral Welfare Organisation, which handled adoptions of Protestant children, had written to Jane advising her that she wouldn't be able to simply come to Dublin and pick a child from an orphanage. There would have to be background investigations. The star, who was very much used to red tape being swept aside in her honour, felt that this would be rather too much hassle. A Catholic child, with dual English-Irish citizenship, represented something of a loophole. And when she saw the tiny boy, she fell in love.

"He had blue eyes that looked straight through you and a mass of golden curls," she recounted in her 1985 autobiography, My Path & My Detours. "He looked exactly like the pictures of my brother, Billie, who had died at 16 months. The mother explain-ed that they had other children and that they could never provide him with an education. She wanted him to go to America with a Christian family. I think she thought she was sending him to heaven."

At first the plan to bring Tommy to America seemed to go smoothly and the Irish embassy in London quickly issued a passport for him. He was handed over to the actress and although Florrie claimed to be sure of her decision, she appeared weeping at the airport when Russell was leaving for the US. She wanted one more chance to say goodbye to her little boy.

That was not to be the end of the matter, however. News of the adoption had gotten out in England and there was uproar. Crowds gathered outside Florrie Kavanagh's house, screaming "how could you give up your baby?". And even though no money had changed hands, the Kavanaghs were charged with breaking British law. Russell arranged for a top barrister to represent them.

The publicity surrounding the case resulted in immense pressure on Irish authorities, who insisted they thought Tommy was merely leaving temporarily. Ireland was being made look like a Third World backwater from which rich Americans could simply pluck children at will. In March 1950, a New York Times story had shown a picture of six Irish children at Shannon, leaving Ireland to live with American families and there were further reports of wealthy American businessmen flying into Dublin to tour orphanages and find children to take home. Officially, in 1952 alone, 330 passports had been issued for Irish children to be adopted in America but with both abortion and contraception illegal in Ireland, and a huge stigma over illegitimate children, it seems likely that far more babies made their way out of the country.

Hollywood, too, was forced to take notice of the scandal. Studio bosses feared that the adoption would prove bad for box office profits and Jane's manager suggested she return the baby to his Irish parents. At this point, her husband Robert sided with them, telling Jane "My God, send him back!" Jane held firm, however, and vowed that even if she had to take a case to the House of Lords or the Supreme Court in Ireland, she would keep Tommy.

There was a hearing in London at which the Kavanaghs were reprimanded by the judge, who also accepted that they had been trying to do the best for their son. Eventually it was decided that the adoption could go ahead and baby Tommy would be granted American citizenship. Although the Kavanaghs had not been paid, Jane did make arrangements for their house to be refurbished and for a toilet to be installed. After the decorators left, however, Florrie sold all of the furniture.

In the years that followed, Jane Russell established her own adoption foundation -- The World Adoption International Fund -- and spoke out about the chain of events that had forced her to adopt children. She revealed that she had slept with Robert Waterfield on her 18th birthday and become pregnant: "In those days; no nice girl got pregnant. Robert was in school and marriage was out of the question. The only solution was to find a quack and get an abortion." Afterwards her internal injuries were so severe that her doctor asked her "what butcher did this to you?"

The scandal had sent ripples across the water to Ireland. Initially, the task of regulating overseas adoptions fell to Archbishop McQuaid who, predictably, felt that the primary concern should be that the adopting parents were of the Catholic faith and also that they signed an affidavit swearing they were "not deliberately shirking natural parenthood". The Department of Foreign Affairs denied having "any function in connection with an overseas adoption". The thinking behind this was that the department should not be seen to encourage any exodus of babies from the country, especially at a time when birth rates were extremely low and immigration at near record highs. There was also much public apathy for the fate of illegitimate children so it was easier for the Government to simply allow foreign adoptions to happen more or less under the table. It was the Seventies before overseas adoptions petered out and it happened then largely because of an acceptance of unmarried motherhood rather than any official action.

Tom Waterfield grew up in America with a sister, Tracy, and a younger brother Robert (Buck), both of whom were also adopted. Like many teenagers, Tommy had clashed with his father, who called him "a spoiled rotten kid".

Robert's relations with Jane also ran into difficulties and he had an affair with his secretary. He would eventually try to get custody of the kids, unsuccessfully arguing that Jane was a drunk and an unfit mother.

Tom was reunited with his birth family when his mother toured Europe. Florrie died in 1980 and her husband Michael was buried next to her in 1998. Jane Russell remarried in 1968 but her second husband Roger Barrett died three months after their wedding. She married again in 1974, and after the death of her husband John Peoples in 1999, she began drinking heavily. However, at the time of her death, she had been sober for over 10 years.

Today Tom runs a landscaping business in Arizona and sings in a group called the Russell Band. His American passport has lapsed and he says he now intends to apply for Irish citizenship and an Irish passport. His cousins are dotted around Co Clare. He plans to tour Europe and visit Ireland again this year.

"I was gone a long time but I want to come back again," he said. "I do wonder what my life would have been like if I had stayed in Ireland but God has a plan. I always loved music above all. I'm sure that's the Irish in me."

Sunday Independent

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“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 



 

 

 

 

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