Quite often, I think I’m going to write about something here…and then I don’t.

A couple of months back–under the fresh spell of the Criterion release of 1944’s The Uninvited–I was set to write a piece pondering whether the movie’s heroine, Gail Russell, (giving one of her several indelible performances, each markedly different from the rest, each forever attributed to her ability to “play herself” as it was well known she “couldn’t act”) might have been in the DNA of Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

I was coming down on the side of “yay, verily” (yes, I know it was probably “about” Dylan’s then wife Sara Lownds if it was about anybody, but, genius or no, it’s hard to believe that title would ever occur to any man who had never seen a Gail Russell movie).

Time got away from me. YouTube wouldn’t let me post the best scene from the movie. I decided to let it go.

Then a couple of weeks back, I was considering a piece on Rick Nelson’s fabuloso box set Legacy, which, after many a long year, had finally come within range of my budget via the used-on-Amazon-and-I-know-from-long-experience-that’s-the-cheapest-it’s-ever-gonna-get routine.

It was going to have something to do with him being at the core of so much that became “California” rock, even as far back as the late fifties (that is, long before the Byrds or even the Beach Boys), when he was supposedly a teenage idol being manipulated hand-foot-and-mouth by puppet-masters.

In the further, relentless press of time, I let that go, too.

I tend to let go of a lot. In this case I really regretted it, though.

I mean, I even had to let go of my own personal Gail Russell anecdote, which had to do with me saying, “She had a sad life,” after I had identified the mystery starlet in the 8X10 I was purchasing to the lady behind the counter of an antique store in North Dakota, to which the lady replied, “Yes, I think you can see that in her eyes.”

Then, this week, I came across this:

“I’ve learned you can’t satisfy everyone. You start and then, all of a sudden, it stops and you can’t even please yourself.” (Gail Russell to Hedda Hopper: Source “Gail Russell Memoriam” Los Angeles Times, 2007)

Russell died, alone in her apartment, in 1961. The cause was essentially acute alcoholism leading to liver failure. She was 36.

I’m guessing this quote would have been printed in some fan mag that was circulating in Hollywood, circa the late fifties, where Rick Nelson had grown up on television, very much a part of the world that produced that quote from an actress who, despite being on the short list of “most beautiful woman in the history of Hollywood” (and my own personal pick), suffered hobbling, then crippling, bouts of stage fright, insecurity, depression.

There’s no way of knowing if Nelson ever read that quote. If he did, he probably didn’t take any special note or remember it for the ages.

Strange, though, that a decade after Russell was found dead (her life and death bearing striking similarities to certain others: Marie Provost, a thirties’ star who had passed away at a similar age in similar circumstances and would become the inspiration for one of Kenneth Anger’s fantasies in Hollywood Babylon, which in turn became the source for Nick Lowe’s “Marie Prevost,” wherein Anger’s tale of Provost dying alone in her apartment and being partially consumed by her pet dachshund in the days that passed before the body was discovered was granted the power of myth; and, a year after Russell’s own death, she was joined by the pathologically insecure Marilyn Monroe, crippled by many of the same demons, playing out a truly myth-making version of the same tale), Rick Nelson would come off a bad gig at Madison Square Garden and scribble a song about the experience.


Somewhere in there, if you get the bifocals out and peer close enough, you can read the words that revived Nelson’s career (and shattered any doubt that he was ever anybody’s puppet):

Well it’s alright now
I’ve learned my lesson well
You see you can’t please everyone
So you got to please yourself.

And hey, a little more than another decade on, he died in a plane crash. But at least he didn’t die scared and he didn’t die alone.

He learned Gail Russell’s lesson well–took her truth to heart in a way she never could, even if he never knew it was hers before it was his.

But here’s something even stranger.

Once I started thinking about it, I realized Russell might just as well have been in the DNA of another Bob Dylan song.

The one that went “she never stumbles, she’s got no place to fall” and (nice line for a movie star who wrecked as many cars under the influence as Gail did and missed vehicular homicide only by the grace of some mysterious God) “she’s nobody’s child, the law can’t touch her at all.”

Which just happened to become an actual hit in the version done by….aw, you know how it works with mysterious muses around here:


13 thoughts on “ONE SAD EYED LADY TO RULE THEM ALL, ONE SAD EYED LADY TO BIND THEM….THINKING OF GAIL RUSSELL (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #39)

  1. Hi Johnny,
    Gail is a favorite of mine. The most haunting thing about the uninvited is the look in her eyes. She was a unique leading lady in John Wayne’s career, one who brought out his gentler, more protective side (offscreen as well). It’s easy to believe that her answer to his violent tendencies in Angel and the Bad Man, just a look the camera focused on without a word, would make him hang up his gun every time.

  2. Hey April, it’s great to hear from you! She’s a big favorite of mine, too. The only movies of hers that I’ve seen were The Uninvited, Angel and the Badman and 7 Men From Now…and she was wonderful in all three…Don’t know if you’ve had a chance to view the Criterion of The Uninvited, but in the extras someone who knew her said she did the best John Wayne imitation in Hollywood!.

    Just curious, but is something up with your site? I think my link is broken again and its not popping up on Google under “Directed By John Ford” at least not on the first couple of pages…Let me know if there’s any new info!

  3. Yes the site is down; it got hacked then my 27″ iMac died after I moved it to Hawaii with me. Too much going on to get back to it. The blog page survived and the Facebook page is still up, but I’ve not updated it much. I need time and have too little.
    Enjoy your posts.

  4. Hey John, thanks for the heads up….I actually have this in the queque. Been waiting until I have a block of time because if your other novel was any indicator, I figure I;m not going to want to put it down once I start!

  5. BTW: On Friday, 1/23, a long essay of mine goes up on The Los Angeles Review of Books. Lots of strange (but true) stuff about some of my brother’s (and mine) 50’s escapades. Summer camp, perverts, fist fights, a Robert Mitchum cameo, the usual. I think you might dig it.

  6. Also, I meant to mention a strange and little known anecdote about Ricky Nelson. For a brief period in the late 50’s or early 60’s, Ricky was involved with a girl named Leslie Petit, a proto-beatnik from Greenwich Village who (supposedly) the director John Frakenheimer brought out to Hollywood when she was 17. She ditched him and hooked up with the Dennis Hopper/Nick Adams crowd, and then met Ricky and fell in love. She was a Jean Seberg lookalike and a junkie, and she freaked Ozzie out, especially when, according to my buddy Floyd Mutrux, who was close to Ricky, she became pregnant with Ricky’s child. The story, according to Floyd, was that Ozzie paid for her abortion and gave her a big chunk of change to disappear. Nothing about her exists anywhere, except a few pictures with Rick in a teen mag I found on eBay. I’ve written a novel, The Delinquents, where she is the protagonist, but I haven’t been ready to show it around. Maybe after I finish the new one.

    The Gail Russell, sad-eye Sarah, Marie Provost trifecta brought all this to mind.
    In the late 1960’s I used to sit in my car outside Gale Russell’s apt on my lunch (booze) break from my job at CBS. Anyway, great stuff Johnny!


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