For a period of time in the 1930s, when Hollywood was in its Golden Age, Jean Harlow was one of the industry’s biggest stars. She fit the mold of a classic starlet with her striking good looks, natural sex appeal, and glamour that landed her the nickname “The Blonde Bombshell.” She was actually Hollywood’s first bombshell. In fact, Marilyn Monroe looked up to Jean Harlow.
But underneath that platinum, glamorous façade was a sensitive soul who was in such a toxic industry. She was a dedicated star and just wanted to please her studio, but, unfortunately, they didn’t always have her best interest at heart. Jean Harlow tragically lost her life at a young age. She didn’t even make it into the 27 Club.
Although it was short-lived, Harlow overcame and achieved a lot during her lifetime.
Like many Golden Age Hollywood actors, Harlean Harlow Carpenter came from humble beginnings. She was born in Kansas City, Missouri, just about as far as you can get from the glamorous Hollywood lights.
Her father, Mont Clair Carpenter, came from a working-class family, and he supported his own family with his job as a dentist. Her mom Jean (whose name she later went by), on the other hand, was raised comfortably as the privileged daughter of a real estate broker. When Harlow was a kid, her parents split up, and she spent most of her time with her mom.
Jean Harlow was known for her so-called “platinum blonde” hair. She was actually the starlet who helped coin the term. Director Howard Hughes promoted Harlow in one of his movies and advertised her hair color as new-fangled “platinum.”
Before Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield were famous for the light blonde look, Jean Harlow had it. The actress was often referred to as a “Blonde Bombshell” and the “Platinum Blonde.” So, despite only starring in movies for nine years, she was Hollywood’s original bombshell and one of the industry’s biggest stars.
As you can imagine, Harlow was definitely a favorite with her male co-stars. I mean, which actor wouldn’t want to work alongside such a stunning girl. Jimmy Steward admitted that he deliberately messed up one of their kissing scenes.
Steward explained how the director “made us repeat the scene about half a dozen times… I botched it up on purpose. That Jean Harlow sure was a good kisser. I realized that until then, I had never really been kissed.” The two famously starred together in Wife vs. Secretary.
Jean Harlow was welcomed into the world on March 3, 1911, and almost immediately landed the nickname “The Baby.” She even went by that name during her silver screen days. Her parents called her that so often that she didn’t even know her actual name was “Harlean” until she turned five.
She started attending Miss Barstow’s Finishing School for Girls, and the students and teachers suddenly called her by her name. It’s not uncommon for a child to be referred to as “The Baby,” especially if they are the youngest in the family. What is strange is being unaware that you have a real name.
Harlow and her mother were uncomfortably close. Mama Jean spoiled, doted on, and coddled her perfect, darling daughter to the point of smothering her. And the more famous Harlow got, the worse Mama Jean got. She was reportedly extremely protective and made her daughter believe that she owed everything to her.
She once spoke about Harlow’s loving fans and hard-earned stardom, yelling out, “she was always mine!” Stage moms are not uncommon, but Harlow’s mom was on another level. She was the Mama June of Old Hollywood.
These days, celebrities are more comfortable speaking about plastic surgery because the stigma around it has changed. However, that certainly wasn’t the case in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Something as innocent as dying your hair was considered scandalous.
So, naturally, Harlow swore up and down that her platinum blonde locks were completely natural. Obviously, she wasn’t exactly telling the truth. She reportedly kept up the façade by using ammonia, Clorox, and Lux soap flakes every week. Predictably, the process caused some terrible damage to her natural, darker, blondish hair.
Harlow’s parents didn’t exactly have that Cinderella story, a fairy tale marriage that most girls dream about. Instead of being swept off her feet and falling in love, Mama Jean’s father arranged and forced her to tie the knot with Mont Clair.
Although arranged marriages were pretty common at the time, this went just as badly as you would expect. Mama Jean went along with the marriage for quite a while and even had her beautiful daughter with Clair. However, as time went on, Jean grew more and more resentful of her husband.
When her daughter was off at finishing school, Mama June went through with a ruthless plan one ordinary day. Not only did she divorce Mont Clair Carpenter, but she got sole, uncontested custody of their daughter. All this before little Harlow knew what was going on.
Harlow loved her father, but things weren’t the same after that fateful day. On September 29th, 1922, the uncontested divorce was finalized, and Harlow almost never saw her dad again before her untimely death – with the exception of a few rare occasions. He outlived Harlow by 37 years.
Jean Harlow helped inspire the iconic Batman character, Catwoman. Creator Bob Kane confessed that when he was a young, impressionable boy, “Harlow seemed to personify feminine pulchritude at its most sensuous.” So, if you are a Catwoman fan, you have Jean Harlow to thank. The other inspiration behind the leather-clad anti-heroine stunner was Hedy Lamarr, Harlow’s fellow screen siren.
When she was at the peak of her career, rumors were going around about Harlow only sleeping nude. What was even more scandalous at the time were rumors about how the starlet never wore underwear.
In 1934, Harlow reportedly got in a scuffle at a dinner party with the cutting British socialite, Margot Asquith, and got a brutal comeback in return. Apparently, innocent, naïve Harlow kept calling Asquith “Mar-GOT” instead of “Mar-Go.” Let’s just say the countess couldn’t stand it anymore and snapped back: “No, no; the t is silent, as in ‘Harlow.’”
That’s right, she called the poor, unsuspecting star “Harlot.” How rude! I understand that it could be frustrating when someone continuously gets your name wrong, but sheesh! She could have been a little bit nicer.
Surprise, surprise, it was Mama Jean who gave Harlow her first taste of Hollywood. Like many stage mothers, Mama Jean lived vicariously through her daughter. In 1923, Mama Jean was captivated by stardom and dragged her daughter with her to Los Angeles in the hopes of becoming a star herself.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to start a Hollywood career. Producers straight up told Mama Jean that her dreams were long gone at the repulsive, decaying age of 34 years old. So, she did what any good mother would do: push her daughter into the industry.
Not many people know that before she became a star, Jean Harlow was married. That’s right. When she was a prep school freshman, she had a whirlwind romance with Chuck McGrew, and the pair fell head over heels in love.
The handsome 19-year-old came from a rich family, and Harlow was smitten with him. The lovebirds couldn’t wait and tied the knot in 1927, after just one year of dating. Ah, young love. Unfortunately, like her parent’s marriage, this one didn’t last. However, their relationship had some fun aspects to it.
Harlow’s marriage to McGrew came with a luxurious, privileged life, which included fancy things like midnight galas and dry martinis. After McGrew got his inheritance, the pair moved into a beautiful mansion in Beverly Hills.
While they were living in the famously expensive town, Harlow was pleased to play the part of a wealthy socialite. However, this lifestyle had a dark side. Like many others who don’t have to worry about money, Harlow and McGrew became notorious drinkers, literally drinking their days away.
In her time, Harlow’s platinum blonde hair was all the rage, and, naturally, all her young fans wanted that gorgeous look. Girls were begging their hairdressers to attain that light shade. Howard Hughes used the trend to run an elaborate publicity stunt called the “platinum blonde club.”
The director actually challenged hair stylers to replicate Harlow’s exact color. If anyone could achieve it, they would win a prize. As it turned out, nobody was able to do it, which solidified the myth that Harlow’s hair couldn’t be fake – even though we now know it most definitely was.
The way Harlow was discovered could have come straight out of the Old Hollywood starlet playbook. She was just innocently waiting for her actress friend Rosalie Roy to finish up an audition when she was approached by a studio executive who told her she should take a shot at Hollywood.
When Harlow refused the first time, Roy bet her that she was too nervous to actually go to a real audition. To prove her wrong, Harlow marched into the casting agency and signed up with her mom’s maiden name, Jean Harlow. Reverse psychology works every time!
Most people spend years struggling to make it in the cut-throat entertainment industry. But, then again, most people aren’t Jean Harlow. Most aspiring actors don’t have the luxury of choosing their roles, but Harlow had to push casting directors away with a stick.
After the first audition she went to, the promising star got flooded with calls about acting gigs – all of which she rejected. She simply wasn’t all that interested. It wasn’t until she was constantly being bothered by Mama Jean (who else?) that she finally accepted a part.
Around Christmas 1928, Harlow singed her first bona fide movie contract with Hal Roach studios – but it all came crumbling down shortly after. Three months after signing with the studio, she tearfully told them that she needed to get the heck out of the industry.
Apparently, her husband didn’t like the idea of Harlow becoming a star, as she said, “It’s breaking up my marriage. What can I do?” Needless to say, Roach wasn’t very happy about this and ripped up the contract right in front of her face. No matter how hard she tried to keep her marriage together, Harlow and McGrew divorced in 1929. Now, as a teenager, Harlow had one broken marriage under her belt.
As we mentioned, Mama Jean was an overbearing parent extraordinaire. One time, when little Jean went to summer camp, and she spent some (probably needed) time away from her helicopter mother, she contracted a case of scarlet fever.
Instead of letting her sick daughter get better in quarantine with some peace and quiet, she immediately got on a rowboat to the remote cabin and demanded to see “The Baby.” Some people have zero boundaries. And I thought I have overprotective parents…
Harlow’s very first movie appearance was in 1928’s Honor Bound. She got a $7.00 a day paycheck as an uncredited extra. Despite most of her Hollywood palls referred to her as “The Baby,” Clark Gable called her “Sis.” Harlow and Gable were actually really close friends up until her death.
Even though she oozed stage presence and confidence from every pore of her body, Harlow was actually extremely shy. At the start of her career, she rarely made public appearances and frequently refused to go on tours or movie premieres.
Harlow was ready to take on the acting world again in 1929, and she got another lucky break. At the time, actor James Hall was shooting Hell’s Angels with director Howard Hughes when he noticed Harlow.
As soon as he saw her, he thought she would make a perfect leading lady for the film. Fortunately for Harlow, the movie had just lost its starring actress. She got the part, and the movie quickly became the biggest hit of 1930—what a wonderful entrance into the world of entertainment. Everyone knew Harlow’s name after that.
When Harlow made her remarkable debut, audiences loved her alluring innocence. However, most of the critics despised her. She was even described as “plain awful” by one publication. But she still had a bunch of fans who enjoyed her breakout performance.
But it was more than her acting chops that captivated viewers; it was her beauty and charm. “It doesn’t matter what degree of talent she possesses… nobody ever starved [possessing] what she’s got,” as Variety put it.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that Marilyn Monroe was a huge Jean Harlow fan. The star even hoped to play Harlow in a biopic after her idol tragically died far too early. However, once Monroe read the exploitative and poorly written script, she refused to do it.
Furthermore, Monroe later told her agent, “I hope they don’t do that to me after I’m gone.” The film wasn’t released until 1965, and the part ultimately went to Carol Lynley. Sadly, just like her idol, Monroe’s life was also cut dreadfully short.
During her rise to stardom, Harlow was involved in a romance with Paul Bern, an MGM studio executive. Since he was so captivated by her, Bern went to the notorious MGM studio head, Louis B. Mayer, and asked him to sign a contract with his girlfriend.
Instead of politely saying no, Mayer stayed true to his cruel reputation and reminded Bern that the ladies in MGM were elegant and that Harlow was nothing a detestable “floozy” on TV. Wow. Way to soften the blow. MGM ultimately signed Harlow to a $30,000 contract on her 21st birthday.
As her career was blossoming, Harlow gained a reputation as a little bit of a gangster. At one point, she dated mobster Aber Zwillman and was even the unofficial godmother to the baby daughter of infamous gangster “Bugsy” Siegel.
No one denies her involvement with the mob, but she once got a crude comment from critic and writer Graham Greene who said, “Her technique was a gangster’s technique – she toted a breast like a man totes a gun.” Umm… if you so say so, Graham.
Monster movie queen Fay Wray admitted that King Kong’s damsel’s role in distress, Ann Darrow, was intended for Harlow. She was the first choice for the part. She was the first actress to ever be featured on the cover of Life magazine.
True to her stage mom persona, Mama Jean always felt as though she was the one responsible for Harlow’s success. To this day, Harlow’s autograph is extremely valuable and rare. An original Harlow autograph is so hard to get ahold of because Mama Jean signed most of her daughter’s fan mail.
Impressively, Harlow did more in her short life than most people do in their long lives. One of the many things she got to dabble in was writing and even wrote a book about the Hollywood elite.
However, the novel wasn’t released until 1965, long after her death, and many people believe that it is partly based on her relationship with Paul Bern. One modern critic said the book was “utter, utter nonsense” but admitted she enjoyed it immensely anyway.
Throughout her life, Harlow has struggled with both her public and private images. MGM studios had trouble transforming the star from a sex symbol to the bombshell-next door. They went through various publicity drills in order to alter her reputation.
However, this wasn’t Harlow’s idea, and all these machinations actually hurt her. It made her feel like she wasn’t good enough the way she was because her studio was constantly trying to control her image. At one point, she got so frustrated and said, “My God, must I always wear a low-cut dress to be important?”
While getting ready for the 1932 film Red-Headed Woman, Harlow ran into her friend and fellow actress Anita Page on the MGM lot, but Page walked right by Harlow and ignored her. Harlow was so hurt that she ran into her dressing room and cried. She later realized what had actually happened.
The movie role meant Harlow had to hide her iconic hair under a red wig, which she wore the day she saw Page. As it turned out, the actress honestly couldn’t recognize Harlow in the parking lot. Page later commented, “that shows you how sensitive she was. She was a lovely person in so many ways.”
Besides her on-screen performances, fans recognized Harlow for her beauty and heart of gold. At one point, she lived right next door to Rin Tin Tin, a Hollywood celebrity dog who was almost 16 years old.
When Rin Tin was dying of old age, Harlow went over and put his head on her lap, and she pet him until he passed away. The German Shepard was an international star in motion pictures. He was rescued by an American soldier, Lee Duncan, who managed to get him some silent film work in World War I.
After their friendship turned, romance continued to develop. Jean Harlow married MGM executive Paul Bern on July 2, 1932. Bern seemed to be the only one who really believed in Harlow, saw her as a serious actress, and unselfishly wanted to see her succeed.
It was a loving marriage with a truly devastating end. Unfortunately, this marriage had less of a happy ending than her first one. Two months after walking down the aisle, police found Bern dead in the newlywed’s home with a gunshot wound.
Naturally, when Bern’s body was found, police thought maybe Harlow had murdered her new husband. However, the truth turned out to be much darker. Bern left a short suicide note where he wrote his truly heartbreaking final words.
What he wrote was so mysterious that it stumped even some of Old Hollywood’s biggest sleuths. The note read: “Dearest Dear, Unfortunately [sic] this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation, I Love [sic] you. Paul, You understand that last night was only a comedy.”
There are many interpretations about what exactly Bern was talking about when he referred to his “frightful wrong,” and there are various opinions about the reason for his suicide, most of which is scandalous. Rumors swirled that he was embarrassed about the size of his manhood. Others believe his family’s suicide history finally reached him.
Many film historians suspect that MGM studios tampered with the crime scene and evidence. They allegedly sent notorious fixer Eddie Mannix to alter the crime scene before police got there so that Harlow’s name wouldn’t get dragged through the mud.
However, there was one more possibility that was quite disturbing. Although police cleared Harlow of any involvement in Bern’s death, many people still believe the suicide note was fake, and somebody killed Bern. One suspect is Dorothy Millette, his ex-lover. This big allegation was backed up by one of Bern’s biographers.
Tragically, and perhaps tellingly, Millette jumped off a ferry and killed herself just days after Bern’s death. Officially, Paul Bern’s cause of death remains a suicide. I guess we will never know for sure.
MGM Studios worked overtime on damage control in the wake of the scandal, they even arranged for Harlow to marry her friend Harold Rosson. The two were part of an elaborate ploy and amicably divorced after eight months together—what a surprise.
Clearly, Harlow didn’t have the best luck with marriages, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t find love again. She was soon romantically involved with William Powell, one of her frequent co-stars. But understandably, Harlow didn’t want to exchange vows this time. They simply dated without tying the knot.
But Harlow’s heartache certainly wasn’t over. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse. Her health took a terrifying turn in 1937. She was feeling slightly off for a few months while shooting Saratoga. She began complaining about feeling nauseous, bloated, and she even had some abdominal pain.
The poor girl couldn’t catch a break. It got so bad that she literally had to lean on her close friend and co-star Clark Gable in between takes. The most devastating part is that when they found out the truth, it was too late.
Doctors diagnosed Harlow with an inflamed gallbladder, and she took some time off to recover from what turned out to be an incorrect diagnosis. When her pal Clark Gable visited her, he was devastated to see Harlow severely bloated, with urine on her breath.
Not long after that, medical professionals confirmed that the young, beautiful girl was in the final stages of kidney failure. However, Harlow continued to work tirelessly trying to please her exploitative studio heads. Even with her terrifying new diagnosis.
As Harlow continued to work for MGM, she was becoming weaker and weaker, and her illness was starting to take over. Still, she was so determined to make her studio happy that she even attended the 1936 Oscars ceremony, despite being incredibly sick.
Apparently, she felt so ill that actress Carole Lombard helped her reapply makeup in the powder room. On June 6, 1937, Harlow was taken to the hospital. That night, the actress slipped into a coma, and by the next morning, the stunning, talented 26-year-old actress was dead.
The worst part about Harlow’s death is that all the warning signs were there, but nobody paid attention. All the studio wanted was their money-making actress to work, and they didn’t care much about her physical health. She had all the symptoms: a pallid complexion, constantly sick, and severe sunburn.
All these symptoms pointed directly to kidney failure, yet, somehow, everyone missed what was going on with her. One MGM writer later wrote about Harlow’s utterly senseless and disappointing death: “The day Baby died… there wasn’t one sound in the commissary for three hours.”
Reportedly, before she died, Harlow was reading Gone With the Wind. She even packed it for her last visit to the hospital. One of the nurses said she had tears in her eyes when she saw it, knowing very that “she’ll never finish it.” Harlow was dead within a week.
Harlow’s family decided to bury her in a gown from one of her movies, a gardenia flower in her hand, and a note from Powell that said, “Good night, my dearest darling.” And the inscription on her grave reads “Our Baby.”