THE recent first anniversary of the sad death of Silver Screen goddess Jane Russell, aged 89, has rekindled memories in the city of of her adoption of a toddler named Thomas, the son of a Springtown Camp resident called Hannah McDermott.
The actress married three times and over that time adopted several children, one of them being Hannah’s little boy, Thomas Kavanagh (pictured with sister Tracy and Jane Russell). So passionate was she about her adopted children taht in 1955 she founded the World Adoption International Fund. She died at her home in Santa Maria, California of a respiratory-related illness in March of last year.
Today’s younger generation may not in fact know that the Hollywood legend made sensational news around Springtown Camp in Derry in 1951, when news filtered through that she had adopted Thomas Kavanagh, who was just 15 months old.
He still has relatives in the Londonderry area. Sadly his biological mother, who continued to visit Londonderry, passed away in 1980, in London. Initially it was thought that she died in a fire, but a post mortem revealed that she had been strangled.
The remarkable story is recorded in Willie Deery’s book, ‘Springtown Camp’, published by Guildhall Press.
Born on July 29, 1950, Thomas was the son of Hannah Florence McDermott, of Hut 69b in the camp, and Dubliner Michael Kavanagh. Hannah (also known as Florrie) and Michael met in London. Michael had been working as a carpenter on building sites, and the pair made their acquaintance at a dance hall in Cricklewood. They married a short time after, and set up home in a small two-room flat at 8 St Stephen’s Terrace in South Lambert, in London, and had three children in quick succession: Theresa, Michael and Thomas.
Times were hard for the young couple living in such a small home with three children, and they struggled, particularly as Michael had become unemployed and they were suffering financially.
By chance, Jane Russell was in London, where she was scheduled to take part in a Royal Command Performance, and no secret was made in the Press at the time that Miss Russell also wanted to adopt a baby boy aged between the age of one and two.
The story captivated Hannah, who yearned to give her children a better life and she apparently dashed to a phone box, called the Savoy where Miss Russell was staying, and got speaking to Miss Russell’s mother. Hannah was asked to phone back as the actress was at rehearsals for the show, but the next time Hannah phoned she was put through to Miss Russell and the women met. Russell was struck by how like her younger brother, Billie, that Thomas looked. Sadley her brother had died at 16 months.
She reportedly said: “I was standing there, scared and numb. I let my mother do all the talking. I finally told the baby’s mother I would let her know. When they left my hotel room, I went to my bedroom and prayed hard. All that I heard myself saying was ‘take him, take him’. The day before the Royal Command Performance, I phoned the parents and told them I would take the baby boy”.
On November 6 1951 the publicist Gordon White phoned Russell and said that all of the papers had been cleared and an Irish passport for Thomas had been issued by the Irish Embassy in London that morning, and if she signed the papers little Thomas could go home to America with her that night.
With the papers signed, Russell took Thomas to the airport where a tearful final farewell took place between the two women and the 15-month-old boy.
As the airplane took off Hannah watched as her son Thomas began the first chapter in his new life as the son of Screen Siren Jane Russell in the lap of luxury in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California.