Family & Companions
Before Turner - Before Monroe - Before Mansfield - Jean Harlow was the original "Blonde Bombshell," with luminous skin swathed in white satin gowns, kewpie doll red lips, and that trendsetting platinum blonde hair. This golden girl tantalized moviegoers early on in her career with revealing costumes and sensational movie lines such as, "Would you be shocked if I changed into something more comfortable?" in her breakout film, "Hell's Angels" (1930). But unlike other Hollywood sirens, Harlow displayed real comedic chops, most notably in the films "Dinner at Eight" (1933), "Libeled Lady" (1936) and those she made with Clark Gable, such as "Red Dust" (1932) and "China Seas" (1935). Throughout her decade-long acting career, Harlow made 36 movies, received countless accolades, including landing the cover of LIFE magazine - a first for any movie actress - and was one of the most widely loved stars in town; certainly on her home lot of MGM. To her family and colleagues, the endearing actress was simply known as "the Baby" - a sweet, unassuming woman who was nothing like the vamp she played onscreen. Despite her mysterious death at age 26 of what was essentially kidney failure, Harlow would not be forgotten, with the American Film Institute voting her No. 22 on their esteemed list of the "50 Greatest Stars of the Cinema" some 60 years after her tragic death.
Harlean Harlow Carpenter was born March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, MO, the only child of Montclair Carpenter, a dentist, and his wife, Jean Harlow Carpenter, who harbored dreams of becoming an actress herself and whose name her famous daughter would later take as her stage name. Despite having few financial worries, Harlean's parents endured an unhappy marriage, leading her mother - known as Mama Jean - to focus all her attention on her only child. So coddled was the youngster, that she finally learned her real name was Harlean - not "Baby" - at age five when attending Miss Barstow's Finishing School for Girls. Mama Jean later divorced Carpenter in 1922 and took her daughter first to Hollywood; then to Chicago, IL, where the teen attended high school. In the summer of 1925, Harlow contracted scarlet fever while away at camp. In the fall of 1927, she left home at age 16 to marry her first boyfriend, Charles McGrew, much to the annoyance of Mama Jean - who had, a year earlier, married her second husband, Marino Bello, a shifty man Harlow never warmed to. Shortly after the wedding, the young couple moved to Los Angeles, where she took unbilled film parts through central casting to please her mother. She also signed on for films with her mother's name, Jean Harlow. She and McGraw divorced after two years, as Harlow's career began its ascent.
Harlow did not have to pound the pavement for very long, once producers got a glimpse of her curves, milky white skin and that platinum hair - all of which made her look as if she was lit from within. She landed substantial roles in the Clara Bow vehicle, "The Saturday Night Kid" (1929) and the Laurel and Hardy comedy, "Double Whoopee" (1929). The advent of sound in films brought about Harlow's big break at age 18, when she replaced an actress whose Swedish accent did not make the cut in the WWI adventure "Hell's Angels," produced by eccentric entrepreneur and billionaire, Howard Hughes, who immediately put Harlow under a five-year contract. Even if critics were immune, audiences fell in love with her instantly, with the "Hell's Angels" role solidifying her place as America's temptress du jour - replacing "It" girl and her former co-star, Clara Bow, as Hollywood's latest sex symbol. As she gained fame, so did the blonde ambition craze. Thousands of women began dying their hair platinum, attempting to emulate her come-hither look. To capitalize on her growing popularity, Hughes' team created a series of "Platinum Blonde" clubs across the nation, awarding $10,000 to any hairstylist who successfully matched her shade.
In 1931, Hughes loaned Harlow out for a series of films, including the gangster classic "Public Enemy," "The Secret Six" (her first onscreen pairing with Clark Gable) and "Platinum Blonde" - which Hughes convinced the filmmakers to rename in honor of his new star after his displeasure with its initial title, "Gallagher." Along the way, Harlow met a man who would become an integral part of her future stardom - Paul Bern, a high ranking MGM executive who saw great potential in Harlow. Convincing studio head Louis B. Mayer was another story, however, as Mayer considered her onscreen harlot image the antithesis to everything MGM stood for in terms of family entertainment. Bern would not be swayed, however, instead turning to second-in-command, Irving Thalberg, who agreed with Bern's assessment. On Harlow's 21st birthday, Bern informed the actress that MGM had bought out her contract from Hughes and she was now a member of the studio with "more stars than there are in heaven," officially joining MGM in April, 1932. Owing more to gratitude than to love, Harlow married Bern on July 2, 1932. As expected, Mayer and Mama Jean - who had by this time moved out to L.A. with Bello to be near her baby - were not pleased.
During the shooting of "Red Dust" - the film which made her a star overnight - tragedy struck. Only two months into her marriage with Bern, she became a widow when he shot himself in their Benedict Canyon home, leaving behind a mysterious suicide note which ended with the curious statement: "you understand that last night was only a comedy." MGM spin doctors rushed to the scene before police, removing any trace of scandal that might impact their newly minted star. Because of the cover-up, the death of Bern remains one of Hollywood's greatest mysteries, with theories still abounding, including that Bern was impotent or gay and therefore unable to perform (hence the last line of his suicide note), that Harlow killed him herself, or the most viable - that Bern had learned his mentally ill wife, Dorothy Millette, had reappeared back in his life after being institutionalized. Knowing that he had never divorced Millette and had committed polygamy, he killed himself out of the shame the scandal would have created for both he and his new bride. Despite her grief, Harlow shouldered on, back on set within days, which earned the respect of everyone involved with "Red Dust." Because she had stayed quiet and dignified in the face of the scandal, she earned great sympathy from moviegoers, making her an even bigger star after the fact. "Red Dust" was a smash hit and not only showcased Harlow's brazen sexuality - most famously as she bathed in a rain barrel - but her chirpy comic timing as well.
After Bern's death, Harlow became involved romantically with the famed boxer, Max Baer, who happened to be married at the time. His incensed wife filed for divorce, citing "alienation of affection" and naming Harlow as co-defendant. Having just cleaned up her last mess, MGM was not about to weather another Harlow scandal. They arranged a marriage between their star and one of her favorite cameramen, the much older Harold Rosson. Historians would later note that Harlow seemed drawn to men much older and less attractive than one would expect from the nation's leading sexpot - perhaps exposing some deep-seated "daddy issues" regarding her father's absence from her life. Regardless, both Rosson and Harlow were in on the arrangement, with the two friends putting on a lovey-dovey show for the cameras before quietly divorcing seven months later, still good friends.
A string of successful movies followed, with Harlow balancing the femme fatale role while simultaneously making audiences laugh by throwing dishes and tantrums like no one's business. Particularly well suited opposite the equally sexy Gable, the two literally sparked up the screen, starring in several movies together, including "Red Dust" (1932), "Hold Your Man" (1933), "China Seas" (1935) and "Wife vs. Secretary" (1936). On her own, she managed to steal the film "Dinner at Eight" (1933) from such established thespians as Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery, giving perhaps the finest comedic performance of her career. The scene in which she lies in bed, scantily clad in a negligee, while stuffing her face full of chocolates and giving her boorish husband (Beery) the business, became one of the most definitive Harlow onscreen moments.
By the mid-1930s, Harlow was at the peak of her career - and, along with Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo - one of the studio's foremost female stars. Beloved by moviegoers, she was equally adored by the entire MGM family - from the upper brass down to studio grips. So powerful was her star wattage, that she was paired with up-and-coming actors who would only benefit from roles in Harlow pictures, including Robert Taylor in "Personal Property" (1936), Franchot Tone in "The Girl from Missouri" (1934) and James Stewart in "Wife vs. Secretary." In addition to Gable, she also co-starred with the crème de le crème of 1930s leading men, including "the actor's actor," Spencer Tracy, in "Riffraff" (1936) and "Libeled Lady" (1936), Cary Grant in "Suzy" (1936), and the ever debonair William Powell in "Reckless" (1935) and "Libeled Lady."
In fact, it was the latter actor who would, at long last, bring Harlow some semblance of happiness in her sometimes tortured personal life. After spending considerable time with Powell on the set of "Reckless," the twosome fell head over heels in love, despite a considerable age difference. Powell was no doubt flattered that the most lusted after woman in the world chose to be with him. For Harlow, Powell validated her worthiness as a respectable woman. It was no coincidence that after the two began dating, Harlow's onscreen image softened - including, most importantly - her platinum hair color. The feature which had made her famous gradually returned back to her natural honey blonde; her makeup and eyebrows also became less severe. After dating for two years and giving Harlow a 150-carat sapphire ring, Powell, nevertheless, avoided any talk of marriage. This devastated Harlow and caused her no end of grief; that the man she loved refused to marry her - playing perhaps into her insecurities that he felt her unworthy as a wife. Despite this marital back-and-forth, the two were crazy for each other and to the delight of fans and the dismay of L.B. Mayer, they continued to date into 1937. Little did they know, their flawed but genuine love affair was about to come to a shocking end.
In early 1937, Harlow was rumored to have fallen ill with influenza while promoting "Personal Property" with co-star Taylor on a cross-country publicity blitz. Although she recovered from the flu, it took its toll on her body and would set into motion the disease which would ultimately claim her life. She grew increasingly weak that spring - even having problems recovering from dental surgery in which two wisdom teeth were extracted. She grew bloated in the face. Powell expressed his concern. By the time she began shooting the horse race comedy "Saratoga" with good friend Gable and director Jack Conway, it was obvious she was ill. For the first time in her career, the radiance was gone. She did not even read well on camera, due to her strangely hued skin and the face bloat. Despite her pain, "the Baby" shouldered on, refusing to let down the cast and crew. On May 29, 1937, as Gable lifted her up to throw her down on a couch, as called for in the script, he noticed Harlow's labored breathing and her brow covered in sweat. He set her down gently, signaling to Conway to "cut." Despite insisting she could go on, the studio doctor insisted she get medical attention and rest.
Instead of being hospitalized, Harlow was taken home, where her mother - a devout Christian Scientist - and a team of nurses took care of her for the next week. There grew a myth that, due to Mama Jean's anti-medicine/pro-prayer religion, Harlow was not medically attended to, but that was later proven incorrect. By that time, however, no team of doctors could have saved the doomed actress, as her mysterious condition - uremic poisoning (now called acute renal failure) had been damaging her body for some time without her knowledge. By day eight, Harlow was so incapacitated, she was rushed to L.A.'s Good Samaritan Hospital, her kidney infection spreading quickly though her body. The next day, despite every attempt to resuscitate her, Harlow died the morning of June 7 at 11:35 a.m. of a cerebral edema, brought on by kidney failure. When Powell and Mama Jean were informed the Baby had passed away, both broke down into hysterics, with the latter having to be sedated. Harlow was only 26 years old.
To say that Harlow's death was a complete and utter shock to her MGM family, fans and the world would have been a gross understatement. Knocking FDR, growing pre-war tensions in Europe and the depressed economy off the front page for days, Harlow's death was met with great sadness, particularly within the Hollywood community which had adored her. Mayer made sure his brightest female star was sent off with a bang, with her funeral at Forest Lawn Memorial Park one of the most over-the-top and shameless spectacles ever witnessed. Seemingly every star in town was invited, Powell had to be held up throughout the service, Harlow's stand-in had to be escorted from the church after freaking out; outside, the same mass of gawkers who had cheered each celebrity arrival, stripped the church of all the floral arrangements after the ceremony was over. Despite the craziness of her send-off, Powell made sure Harlow's final resting place was serene, paying for a $25,000 private room in Forest Lawn's Great Mausoleum, in which her marble crypt was inscripted with the simple words: "Our Baby."
One problem now remained for MGM - whether to finish "Saratoga," which was 90 percent completed. Fearing they would look like opportunists, the upper brass anguished on how to finish the film, as Harlow had not been able to film all her scenes. Knowing it was going to be money in the bank, however, the studio devised a way to finish "Saratoga" as a "tribute" to Harlow. Using long shots and employing a double in Mary Dees - who always seemed to wear floppy hats or have binoculars up to her face - as well as Paula Winslowe to dub Harlow's voice, "Saratoga" was released little over a month later to appease fans who wanted one last glimpse of their favorite star. It was the biggest moneymaker of the year.
For years after Harlow's death, rumors abounded as to what actually killed this woman, seemingly in the prime of her life. People whispered it was from a beating at the hands of Bern, a botched abortion or from the bleach seeping into her brain. It was not until the late 1990s that her long-sealed medical records were uncovered, revealing the simple truth - that, more than likely, once she had contracted scarlet fever as a teen, her fate was sealed. In the late 1930s, there was no medical help for failing kidneys; no dialysis nor transplants. It was a slow, poisonous process, but when the kidneys finally broke down, nothing could have prevented Harlow's tragic death.
Cast (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Short)
Briefly moved to California from the Midwest with her mother
Began playing bit parts in Laurel and Hardy shorts and such features as "The Saturday Night Kid"
Attracted attention with a role in Howard Hughes' "Hell's Angels" as a vamp who comes between two brothers during WWI
Signed MGM contract; assured star status with films "Red-Headed Woman" and "Red Dust"
Made exhibitors poll of top ten boxoffice stars
Co-authored novel "Today is Tonight" with Carey Wilson (published 1965)
Went on strike for better roles and better salary
Legally changed name to Jean Harlow, abandoned her famous platinum blonde hair for her natural honey blonde
Last film, "Saratoga"
Was the subject of two inaccurate feature film biopics of her life; both films were named "Harlow"; she was played by Carol Lynley in one and by Carroll Baker in the other
Was the subject of a TV biography aired on TNT and hosted by actress Sharon Stone, "Harlow: The Blonde Bombshell"