She was born Elizabeth L. Russell to George and Gladys (Barnet) Russell in Chicago, Illinois, and then moved to the Los Angeles, California area when she was a teenager. Russell's extraordinary beauty brought her to the attention of Paramount Pictures in 1942. Although she was almost clinically shy and had no acting experience, Paramount had great expectations for her and employed an acting coach to work with her.
At the age of 19 she appeared in her first film, Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour (1943). Russell appeared in several more films in the early and mid 1940s, the most notable being The Uninvited (1944) with Ray Milland, and Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1944), in which she co-starred with Diana Lynn. Russell later appeared in the more popular films, Calcutta (1947) with Alan Ladd, and two films with John Wayne, Angel and the Badman (1947) and Wake of the Red Witch (1948).
She continued working after 1947, and married actor Guy Madison in 1949, but by 1950, it was well known that she had become a victim of alcoholism, and Paramount did not renew her contract. She started drinking on the set of The Uninvited to ease her paralyzing stage fright and lack of self-confidence.
She was dragged into the nasty divorce trial of John Wayne and his wife, who accused Wayne of having an affair with Russell. Both Wayne and Russell strenuously denied the accusation.
Alcohol made a shambles of her career and personal life. She was divorced by Madison in 1954, and after a five-year absence, returned to work in a co-starring role with Randolph Scott in the western Seven Men from Now (1956), produced by her friend Wayne, and had a substantial role in The Tattered Dress (1957).
She appeared in two more films after that, but was not able to control her addiction, and on August 26, 1961, Russell was found dead in her apartment in Brentwood, Los Angeles, California at the age of 36. She died from a heart attack attributed to alcohol. She was found to have been suffering from malnutrition at the time of her death. She was buried in Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery in North Hollywood, California.