In 1951, Jane Russell was invited to attend a Command Film Performance in England and be presented to Queen Elizabeth. She had recently adopted a baby girl in the States and was hoping to add an older son to the family. While she was in Europe, Jane visited some of the orphanages which were overflowing with children, many of whom were the product of brief relations between local women and American G.I.s. At one of the orphanages, Jane sought to adopt a German boy, but could not as international adoption was not permitted.
As Jane was preparing to come back to the states, she was approach by a woman who had read in the local newspapers about Jane’s failed adoption attempt. The woman was mother to 15-month-old Thomas Cavenaugh, but felt Jane would be able to provide the child with a much better life than she could. She offered to give the boy up for adoption. Jane agreed and took the child back to the States which caused an international uproar and prompted the FBI to investigate her.
Ultimately, Jane and husband Robert Waterfield were able to formally adopt Tommy, but the whole experience was so negative that Jane became determined to use her celebrity to do something about restrictions on international adoption. In 1953 Jane help lobby to amend the Refugee Relief Act, which authorized 4,000 non-quota Visas to orphans eligible for adoption. In 1955, Jane formed WAIF, an organization that for nearly 25 years served in part as a fundraising arm for International Social Service. WAIF chapters sprung up all over the country (including the New York chapter, founded by Helen Hays) and raised millions of dollars which enabled the placement and adoption of over 35,000 children.
In 1978, WAIF’s partnership with International Social Services came to an end, and Jane along with Executive Director Gerry Cornez turned the organization’s focus to adoption advocacy. One of the organization’s notable victories from this period occurred after expenditures for programs stemming from Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 were frozen. This prompted WAIF, led by Jane and Gerry, to successfully lobby Congress to restore the funding. WAIF was officially dissolved in 2000 after four decades of advocating for children.
Jane Russell may have been a household name as a film actress, but she viewed WAIF as her true life’s calling and worked tirelessly to provide homes for orphans around the world.
*Page banner images courtesy of the Valley Times & Herald Examiner Collections/Los Angeles Public Library. Far right image from the author’s collection.