Whatever happened to Jane's baby?
Florrie Kavanagh was a desperately poor Irishwoman hoping to give her son a chance of a better life with Hollywood screen goddess Jane Russell. Donal Lynch tells the story of the princess and the pauper, and the international scandal that embarrassed Ireland over the adoption of little Tommy
Published 14/06/2009 | 00:00
Standing in the lobby of London's Savoy hotel, pregnant and with a crying bundle in her tattered shawl, Dublin woman Florrie Kavanagh must have attracted some disdainful looks.
A combination of desperate poverty and daring had brought her here. While she waited to hear whether she would be seen, she would have cried a little herself and tried to quieten the child. And, most of all, she would have reasoned with herself: this was the Fifties and babies were abandoned all the time. Better to be left in the plush suite of a Hollywood film star than in some dire orphanage or at a railway station.
Florrie, like everyone else in London, had heard the news. Jane Russell, the "moody, mean and magnificent" Queen of Hollywood had swept into town and was looking for a young addition to her family. On the front page of the paper that morning there had been just two huge photos. One showed a smiling Winston Churchill, who had just been re-elected Prime Minister. The other showed the bejewelled screen goddess with the caption: "Miss Russell in London to adopt baby boy."
Years before, Florrie had moved to England in search of a better life, but things had not been easy. She already had three small children and was living in a shabby, tiny house in south London with no working toilet inside. She and her husband Michael, also from Ireland, were struggling to make ends meet. This latest baby, Tommy, left her young family on the brink, and with one more on the way she had few other options. She had heard of rich Americans adopting children back home and had read that Jane Russell was devoutly religious. Florrie told herself she was securing her little boy "a place in heaven".
In ordinary circumstances, of course, an Irish church mouse with a crying baby would have had no chance of getting in the orbit of an imperious film deity such as Russell. The actress had starred alongside Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and, together with Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth, embodied the sensuously contoured "sweater girl" look. With her topaz-coloured eyes and perfect figure, she represented what one publicist described as "lust, desire and everything that good boys are not supposed to think about". She was one of the biggest stars in the world.
But lately, Russell had been feeling vulnerable. A botched back-street abortion years earlier had left her infertile and now she badly wanted a baby. The search 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 out of tin cans on wooden benches. The children did not laugh or cry and she realised it was because they had never had families "and nobody had ever loved them." 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 spirit a child back to the States. England did not hold much possibility either -- during that period only a British subject could adopt another British subject.
At that time, Ireland had much more informal and unregulated adoption laws than any of those countries and Russell was already in the process of looking for an Irish child to take back to America. In 1951 she 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 Russell advising her that she wouldn't be able to simply come to Dublin and pick a child. There would have to be home studies and background investigations to ensure that the child's welfare would be protected. The star, who was very much used to red tape being summarily sliced through in her honour, felt that this would be rather too much hassle. A Catholic child with dual English-Irish citizenship could represent something of a loophole. She sent word: she would grant Florrie Kavanagh an audience.
The meeting between the film star, Russell's mother, Geraldine Jacobi, and the young Irishwoman was tense. Florrie was tearful and Russell was full of trepidation: she found the Irish accent hard to understand and she didn't want to know the parents of the child she would adopt. However, when 15-month-old Tommy was laid out on the bed, he brought up a welter of memories for the star.
"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 explained 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. Mother did all of the talking. I was numb. Now it was my turn to be afraid. I said I'd let her know."
After Florrie had been shown out of the suite, Russell went into her bedroom and prayed. As apparently often happened when she looked for answers from God, she began to pray in tongues. The cries came out loud and clear: "Take him. Take my babies. I hear their cries. I will break down every barrier. They do not give him, I give him."
At first, the plan to bring Tommy to America seemed to go smoothly and the Irish embassy quickly issued a passport. He was handed over to the actress and although Florrie Kavanagh claimed to be sure of her decision, she appeared at the airport weeping when Russell was leaving to go back to the US. She wanted one more chance to say goodbye to her little boy.
More drama was to follow, for if Russell was sure that God was on her side, others were not so certain. News of the adoption had got out in England and there was uproar. Crowds gathered outside Florrie Kavanagh's tiny house screaming "how could you give up your baby?" and it wasn't long before an MP had stood up in the British parliament demanding that American movie stars stop "stealing" British and Irish children. Meanwhile, even though no money had changed hands, the Kavanaghs were being charged with breaking British law. Russell arranged for a top-class 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 -- to shore up their then rather informal adoption laws. Ireland was being embarrassed internationally and made to look like a third-world backwater from which rich Americans could pluck children at will.
As with Madonna's adoption in Malawi, the perception was that the more money and power the adopting parents had, the more likely that the (admittedly hazy) adoption laws would be swept aside.
This impression had been forming for years. In March 1950, a New York Times story had shown a picture of six Irish children at Shannon where they were departing to live with American families and there were further press reports of wealthy American businessmen flying into Dublin to tour orphanages and adopt children.
Officially, in 1952 alone 330 passports were issued for Irish children to be adopted in America, but there is some evidence to suggest that the actual number may have been even higher than that. With both abortion and contraception illegal in Ireland and illegitimate children still facing a huge stigma, it seems likely that far more babies made their way out of the country. All of this had happened below the radar but the Russell case, it seemed, was going to be the tipping point that would force official action.
Hollywood, too, was forced to sit up and take notice of the scandal in London. Already, the actress's studio bosses feared that the adoption would prove bad for box office takings and her manager suggested she return the boy to his Irish parents. At this point her husband Robert sided with them, telling Jane: "My God, send him back!"
Russell 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. Since he already had a passport and Irish officials were now persisting in the fiction that Tommy was merely "going on holidays", Russell focused on the British authorities.
She travelled back to England and met immigration officials. There was a hearing at which the Kavanaghs were reprimanded by the judge, who also accepted that they had been trying to do the best for their son. At length it was clarified that the adoption could go ahead and baby Tommy would be granted American citizenship. He was headed for Hollywood.
Although the Kavanaghs had not been paid, Jane did arrange for their house to be lavishly refurbished and redecorated and for a toilet to be installed. The moment the decorators left, however, Florrie sold all of the furniture.
In the years that followed, 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 in the first place. She revealed that she had slept with Robert Waterfield on her 18th birthday and become pregnant. "In those days, no nice girl got pregnant," she remembered. "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?"
She had been taken to hospital and was bleeding so profusely on arrival that she nearly died. "I've never known pain like it," she remembered. "People should never, ever have an abortion."
She eventually married Waterfield and, tragically, as a result of the abortion could not have children. "The saddest part was that I think I was born to be a wife and mother," she later recounted. "I just assumed that children grew on trees and that every woman would be able to have a baby at some point."
Despite the poignancy of Russell's story, there were reports after the adoption that she and Robert Waterfield were having second thoughts. They had really wanted a girl all along, Jane admitted, and the whole process had been emotionally draining.
Meanwhile, the scandal had sent ripples across the water to Ireland. Initially, the task of regulating the overseas adoption process fell to Archbishop McQuaid who, predictably, felt that the primary concern be that the adopting parents be of the Catholic faith and also that they sign an affidavit swearing they were "not deliberately shirking natural parenthood".
While his recommendations were mostly implemented, The Department of Foreign Affairs still displayed a marked reluctance to become involved in overseas adoptions and issued a standard letter denying "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 the time when birth rates were extremely low and immigration at near-record highs. There was also much public apathy about 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. The regulations that were finally put in place had everything to do with religion and Ireland saving face internationally and very little to do with the welfare of the children involved. It was the Seventies before overseas adoptions petered out and it happened then largely because of an acceptance of unmarried motherhood, rather than any groundbreaking official action.
By then, Tommy was a young man and very much an American. He grew up with an older sister, Tracey, and a younger brother, Robert, whom Russell and Waterfield had adopted in 1956. Like many teenagers, Tommy had clashed with his father who called him "a spoiled rotten kid". The young man had not been much good at American football, preferring playing drums in his band, and this was a further source of tension with Robert Waterfield, who was a legend of the game.
Robert, meanwhile, had also soured on Jane and had an affair with his secretary. He would eventually try to get custody of the kids, unsuccessfully arguing in court that Jane was a drunk and an unfit mother. Tommy also had to deal with coming home to find his sister Tracey (also adopted) after a suicide attempt. Jane would eventually divorce Waterfield and in 1968 married actor Roger Barrett. They travelled back to London, taking Tommy. He was to meet his biological family.
The day before the reunion, Roger took him to buy a new tweed suit, a nod to his Irish heritage. "He was all grown up, with long hair," Jane remembered, "quite a change from the 15-month-old toddler she gave to me." The reunion did not go as well as planned, however, and Tommy said he missed the California sunshine and felt alien and maybe somewhat ashamed in the pokey little house the Kavanaghs called home. The trip to London did not last long.
Florrie Kavanagh died in 1980 and her husband Michael was buried next to her in 1998. After Roger Barrett's death Jane Russell married again, this time to real estate broker John Calvin Peoples. Her career was flagging at this point -- by the mid-Seventies she was starring in TV commercials. Her husband jinx also continued and, after Peoples' death and the death of his son in 1999, she began drinking heavily.
"I just went home (after the funeral) and started drinking so that I didn't have to think. I didn't care what happened to me." A year later, as she started drinking even more seriously, her three children, including Tommy, rallied around her. They found her unconscious, took her to hospital and when she awoke they were standing around her bed. It was her 79th birthday and they gave her an ultimatum: check into rehab. "They said if I'd go the Lord would go with me," she said.
A staunch Republican and born-again Christian, she apparently hasn't had a drink since. Wanting to get away from what he called the "Hollywood scene", Tommy moved to live on a quiet ranch in rural Arizona in the Seventies. Now in his 50s and with a family of his own, he still lives there today and plays in a pub band, Toucan Eddy. According to his mother, he also "looks after flowers and plants for three garden centres". When contacted by the Sunday Independent, he seemed uninterested in discussing his Irish heritage or the strange circumstances that brought him to America.
"In his own way, Tommy probably had a pretty tough life," a friend of his commented. "Which just goes to show you, you can plan these things and give a kid every advantage, but you can't predict how things are going to turn out."
The little blonde Irish boy had wanted for nothing materially, but Florrie Kavanagh had possibly been wrong when she thought she was "sending him to heaven".