Between the roar of Clapham and South Lambeth Roads lies a maze of residential streets. Mostly lined with Victorian terraces, they are surprisingly peaceful – especially towards the centre where you will find St Stephen’s Terrace.
In 1951, that street’s peace was disrupted by the chanting of a mob. The crowd had gathered outside number 8 to harangue the poverty-stricken couple inside for giving up their toddler for adoption. Hoping to secure a better future for their little boy, Florrie and Michael Kavanagh had set in motion an extraordinary train of events. A media frenzy, a court case and the humiliation of a national government ensued. All because the woman adopting the child was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars – Jane Russell.
Although the Second World War had ended six years before, the gloom of post-war austerity dragged on, with sweets, sugar, meat and many other foods still rationed. Times were tough for many, not least the five members of the Kavanagh family living in their ‘two rooms and a kitchen’ at 8 St Stephen’s Terrace.
Michael Kavanagh, originally from Dublin, was a carpenter but found work difficult to come by. Florrie (born Hannah Florence McDermott) had fled the poverty of Derry, Northern Ireland, in the hope of establishing a more prosperous life in London, but that dream was now slipping away. She and Michael had met a dance hall in Cricklewood, married quickly and had their two children in quick succession.
When the third child, Tommy, came along, the added burden on the family’s means seemed to push Florrie over the edge. She suffered a nervous breakdown and the children were placed in care homes until she was well enough to take them back.
To the Kavanaghs, Jane Russell’s life must have seemed like, well, something out of the movies. Her first film, The Outlaw, had made her a star Eventually. Filmed in 1941, the censors objected to the expanse of cleavage on display. So much wrangling ensued that it wasn’t until 1946 that the film secured a general cinema release. By this time, thanks to some ingenious ‘no such thing as bad publicity’ stirring up of wasps’ nests by producer Howard Hughes, the public was eager to see what all the fuss was about. The Outlaw was a huge hit and Russell went on to play Calamity Jane opposite Bob Hope in The Paleface and then to co-star with Groucho Marx and Frank Sinatra in Double Dynamite and Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
When the star flew into London in 1951 to appear in the Royal Command Film Performance, it must have seemed to the Kavanaghs that this impossibly rich, beautiful, and successful actress wanted for nothing.
Yet she wanted children. Unable to have any of her own thanks to a botched abortion in her youth, Jane Russell was nonetheless determined to build a family. She and her husband, American football star Robert Waterfield, had already adopted one child, Tracy, and she was now – very publicly – on the lookout for a second. She had written: “My husband 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.”
Perhaps understandably, the Irish response to being treated as some kind of baby supermarket for rich Americans was somewhat cool.
But in London, Florrie and Michael saw an opportunity for everyone to benefit: a much-wanted Irish child for Russell; the opportunity for little Tommy to enjoy a life of comfort and security; and one less mouth for the Kavanaghs to feed.
The Royal Command Film Performance that year was the now little remembered (despite being the second most popular film at the British box office in 1952) Where No Vultures Fly at the Odeon in Leicester Square. Russell was invited to sing in the accompanying live show in the presence of the then Queen Elizabeth (later to be the Queen Mother) and Princess Margaret.
While in London, Russell was staying in the luxurious splendour of the Savoy Hotel. Unlikely as it may seem, Michael and Florrie simply phoned the hotel, left a message for the star offering their child up for adoption, and a meeting was set up. Florrie took 15-month old Tommy to the hotel to meet Russell, who was immediately smitten. “He had blue eyes that looked straight through you and a mass of golden curls,” she wrote in her biography. “He looked exactly like the pictures of my brother, Billie, who had died at 16 months.”
The adoption was agreed (no money changed hands) and the Irish embassy quickly issued Tommy with the passport necessary for him to be flown back to the United States.
But when the arrangement became public, there was outrage. Crowds gathered outside 8 St Stephen’s Terrace to castigate the Kavanaghs, especially Florrie, for giving up her child. In Parliament, an MP demanded that American movie stars stop ‘stealing’ British and Irish children. An embarrassed Irish government was forced to overhaul its lax adoption laws. The Kavanaghs were charged with breaking British adoption laws but, with the help of a Geoffrey Lawrence, barrister hired by Russell, the case was dismissed. If the report in The Times on 25 April 1951 is anything to go by, the Chief Magistrate seems not to have been swayed entirely by legal points:
Sir Laurence Dunne said he had had an opportunity of seeing letters written home by Miss Russell to the child’s parents, and if they were any reflection of Miss Russell’s character she must be a very nice woman, doing nothing that would not be done by any mother to her own children.
The adoption went ahead and Russell, undaunted by the furore – or perhaps spurred on by it – went on to found an organisation called the World Adoption International Fund (WAIF) to help place children with adoptive families. WAIF also championed the practice of Americans adopting children from other countries.
And so it was that little Tommy Kavanagh of 8 St Stephen’s Terrace, South Lambeth, came to grow up in Hollywood as as Tommy Waterfield, the son of a movie icon.
He did see his biological family one more time. In 1968, when Tommy was 18, Russell flew her family to London to meet Florrie and Tommy’s brother Michael and sister Theresa (Tommy’s biological father Michael appears to have left the family). “I think looking back I was too young to really realise or appreciate how much it meant. I remember we all had dinner, and it was very pleasant, but it’s only as I’ve gotten older that I’ve realised how much Hannah [Florrie] did for me,” he told the Derry Journal when he visited his mother’s birthplace in 2013.
Florrie was destined to make one final appearance in the newspaper headlines. She died in 1980, aged only 53. Her body was discovered in her burned-out remains of her flat (she had moved from St. Stephen’s Terrace by this time). According to a report in The Guardian on 11 January 1980:
Police believe 53-year-old Mrs Florence Kavanagh was strangled in her council flat in Forester Road, Clapham, South London, set on fire in a bid to hide the crime. Mrs Kavanagh, who lived alone, was last seen leaving a Clapham pub with a man last Thursday.
Despite a murder hunt by the police, the case was never solved.
- Whatever happened to Jane’s Baby?, Sunday Independent, 14 June 2009.
- Obituary – Jane Russell, Daily Telegraph, 1 March 2011.
- Summonses under the Adoption Act, The Times, 25 April 1952.
- Jane Russell and the Springtown Mother, BBC Radio, 2015.
- From Derry rags to Hollywood riches: Jane Russell and the Springtown adoption, BBC News NI, 27 March 2015.
- Film siren Jane Russell and her adopted Derry son, Belfast Telegraph, 2 March 2011.
- Jane Russell’s adopted link to Londonderry, Londonderry Sentinel, 30 March 2012.
- From Hollywood back to Derry, Derry Journal, 7 March 2013.