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Jean Harlow, Hollywood's Tragic Blonde Superstar
She was idolised by millions but died a tragic early death
Jean Harlow was just 26 years old when she died after a career which lasted barely 10 years. Yet her name is still famous today, as one of the original movie sex symbols, the Blonde Bombshell of Hollywood who was Marilyn Monroe's role model. Her life was successful but short and was scarred by failed romances, tragedy, disappointment and dramatic deaths.
She began her Hollywood career as an extra, little more than a beautiful piece of scenery, but her talent and comedic timing enabled her to make the transition to more rounded acting roles.
The American Film Institute placed her at number 22 on its list of the Greatest American Screen Legends (female), and she was the first movie actress to appear on the cover of Life magazine.
Biography - Early Days
First Camera Call, aged 8 months
Jean Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter on March 3, 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri, the daughter of a successful dentist and his wife, Jean, a strong-willed woman whose maiden name was Harlow. Harlean, whose nickname was 'The Baby', contracted meningitis and scarlet fever as a young child and remained in poor health throughout the early part of her life.
Her parents divorced when she was 11 and the following year she moved to Hollywood with her mother who had her own ambitions of becoming an actress. But Jean senior was too old at 34 to begin a Hollywood career and after 2 years she and Harlean returned to Kansas City.
Harlean studied at the Ferry Hall School (now Lake Forest Academy) in Lake Forest, Illinois, and one of her schoolfriends introduced her to Charles "Chuck" McGrew, a local socialite and heir to a large fortune. The 16 year old Harlean and McGrew, 4 years her senior, eloped in September, 1927 much to the disapproval of Harlean's mother who had, herself, married for a second time a year earlier. Harlean and her new husband left Chicago and moved to Beverly Hills where she sought work as an extra in films to please her mother.
After signing up with Central Casting using her mother's maiden name, Jean Harlow, she appeared as an uncredited extra in her first film, 'Honor Bound' in 1928. This led to bit parts in silent films such as 'Moran of the Marines' and the following year she appeared with Clara Bow in 'The Saturday Night Kid' and also a number of film shorts with Laurel and Hardy. Her developing career put pressure on an already shaky marriage and she and McGrew divorced in 1929. She continued to use her new name, legally changing it in 1935.
Jean and her mother in 1931
Jean made the break into stardom at age 18 in 1930 helped by the advent of Talkies. She replaced a Swedish actress in Howard Hughes's remake of his World War I epic, Hell's Angels. Audiences loved her performance and the movie was a major success.
With Ben Lyon in Hell's Angels
Hughes immediately put her under contract and she took her place as Hollywood's latest sex symbol, replacing the "It" girl and her former co-star, Clara Bow. She was loaned out by Hughes for a number of movies which, like Frank Capra's 'Platinum Blonde' in 1931, featured her distinctive dyed hair color, and as her fame increased so did the fad for blonde hair and thousands of women in America began dying their hair platinum. Later in 1931 her career received another boost when she appeared opposite James Cagney in the gangster epic 'The Public Enemy'
The Public Enemy 1931 - Jean with James Cagney
Jean became romantically involved with Paul Bern, a top MGM executive, and with his encouragement MGM bought out Jean's contract from Howard Hughes. She immediately began to get bigger, more fulfilling roles and her star began to rise rapidly. She married Bern in July 1932 and began filming 'Red Dust' with the young star, Clark Gable.
With Paul Bern
Within 2 months of her marriage Paul Bern was found naked, shot in the head, in their home in Beverly Hills. The Coroner's Jury concluded that the cause was suicide. It is claimed that to avoid scandal, the MGM management had fabricated an explanation, and evidence for it, that Bern had shot himself in the head because he was impotent.
A few days later the body of his mentally deranged common law wife, Dorothy Millette, was found floating in the Sacramento River, after allegedly committing suicide, giving rise to another theory that she had murdered Bern before killing herself.
Jean Harlow's life was starting to become like a movie script, but one that had no happy ending.
Clip from Red Dust, 1932, with Clark Gable
The Hollywood Superstar
Jean's dignified response to the tragedy won her many admirers. 'Red Dust' was a major hit and she became an even bigger star as a result.
Jean made another movie with Clark Gable in 1933, 'Hold Your Man' but had already become emmeshed in another scandal. After the death of Paul Bern
she had started an affair with the boxing champion, Max Baer, whose estranged wife named her as co-respondent in their divorce. MGM had no desire for another messy scandal and arranged for Jean to marry cameraman, Harold Rosson, who was 16 years her senior. They discreetly divorced 7 months later after things had died down and they remained good friends.
Jean with Harold Rosson
Also in 1933 Jean appeared in another hit, 'Dinner at Eight', which showed her her comedic qualities at their finest. Later in the same year she had another success in the Hollywood satire, 'Bombshell' as the "If Girl", spoofing 1920s sex symbol and "It girl" Clara Bow. It appeared she could do no wrong. MGM paired her again with Clark Gable in 1935 in 'China Seas' and the following year in 'Wife vs. Secretary' with Myrna Loy and the up and coming James Stewart.
China Seas 1935 - Jean with Wallace Beery and Clark Gable
In 1934, as her marriage to Harold Rosson was ending, Jean found the genuine romantic love of her life in popular heartthrob actor William Powell with whom she co-starred that year in 'Reckless' (see picture, right).
They were together, apparently engaged, for two years but were forbidden by Louis Mayer, head of MGM, to marry. Jean was now MGM's hottest property and she was paired with the top leading men of the time including Spencer Tracy in 'Riffraff', and Cary Grant in 'Suzy', both in 1936. But time was running out.
Jean's health began to decline in early 1937. She felt weak and nauseous, and had problems recovering from dental surgery in which two wisdom teeth were pulled. When she began shooting 'Saratoga' with Clark Gable it became immediately evident that she was ill.
Her normally luminescent complexion had turned grey and her face had become bloated. She collapsed on set and was taken home. She was diagnosed as having uremic poisoning and kidney failure, a direct result of scarlet fever which she had suffered during childhood. She had constant medical attention at home for eight days but her condition worsened and she was taken to L.A.'s Good Samaritan Hospital.
Jean Harlow slipped into a coma and died on June 7, 1937. Cause of death was given as cerebral edema, which is a side effect of kidney failure. She was buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in Glendale, California in a private room in the Great Mausoleum, paid for by William Powell. She was twenty-six years old.
The Wonderful, Irreplaceable Jean Harlow 1911-1937
Jean Harlow Resources
- Jean Harlow Biography and Filmography
A short biography, filmography and appreciation of one of the greatest of Hollywood stars.