Jean Harlow (March 3, 1911 – June 7, 1937) was an American film actress and sex symbol of the 1930s. She was known as the "Platinum Blonde" and "The Blonde Bombshell" for her famous platinum blonde hair. Harlow starred in several films, mainly designed to showcase her magnetic sex appeal and strong screen presence before transitioning to more developed roles and achieving massive fame under contract to MGM. Harlow's enormous popularity and "laughing vamp" image were in distinct contrast to her personal life, which was marred by disappointment, tragedy, and, ultimately, her sudden death from renal failure at 26.
Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri, the daughter of Mont Clair Carpenter, a dentist, and his wife, Jean Poe Carpenter (née Harlow). Young Harlean's father came from a working-class background while her mother was the daughter of a wealthy real estate broker, Skip Harlow and his wife Ella Harlow (née Williams). The marriage was arranged by Jean Carpenter's father, Skip. Carpenter, an intelligent and strong-willed woman, resented it, and would become very unhappy in the marriage.
Harlean's childhood was not marked by poverty and unhappiness. Harlean lived with her parents in a very large house in Kansas City that was her grandfather's second home. The only grandchild in the family, Harlean was nicknamed "The Baby", a moniker that would stick with her for the rest of her life. Without any siblings, Harlean became extremely close to her mother, and Jean Carpenter, unhappy in her marriage, turned all her focus onto her daughter. She was extremely protective and coddling to young Harlean, instilling in her a sense that Harlean owed everything she had to her mother, which in turn, inspired a deep devotion from daughter to mother, another aspect which would carry through to adulthood. So coddled was young Harlean that she did not learn until the age of five, when she began to attend school at Miss Barstow's Finishing School for Girls in Kansas City, that her name was actually Harlean and not "Baby".
With her daughter at school, Mother Jean become increasingly frustrated and filed for divorce (no small matter at the time) which was finalized, uncontested, September 29, 1922 and was granted, among other things, sole custody of her daughter. Harlean would only see her father again once more in her lifetime.
In 1923, with hopes of becoming an actress, Mother Jean moved with Harlean to Hollywood, where the child briefly attended the Hollywood School for Girls. However with no good prospects forthcoming in acting for Mother Jean and dwindling finances, they returned to Kansas City within two years. In the summer of 1925, Harlean's grandfather sent her to a summer camp called Camp Cha-Ton-Ka in Michigamme, Michigan. It was during this summer that Harlean would catch scarlet fever. From there Harlean attended the Ferry Hall School in Lake Forest, Illinois. Freshmen were paired with a "big sister" from the senior class, and fifteen-year-old Harlean was paired with a girl who would introduce her to nineteen-year-old Charles "Chuck" McGrew, heir to a large fortune, in the fall of 1926. Harlean and McGrew fell in love and were married at the end of 1927, much to the annoyance of Mother Jean (who had earlier that year married Marino Bello); marriage would free Harlean from her control.
Shortly after the marriage, Chuck McGrew turned twenty-one and received part of his large inheritance and the couple moved to Los Angeles, where Harlean thrived as a wealthy socialite and more importantly, away from her mother. In Los Angeles, Harlean befriended Rosalie Roy, a young aspiring actress. Lacking a car, Roy asked Harlean to drive her to Fox Studios for an appointment she had. It was there, sitting in the car waiting for her friend, Harlean was noticed by Fox executives. Approached by the executives, Harlean was given dictated letters of introduction to the Central Casting Bureau despite stating she was not interested. Recounting this story a few days later, Rosalie Roy made a wager with Harlean that she did not have the nerve to go back and audition for roles. Unwilling to lose a wager and pressed by her enthused mother, Harlean drove to Central Casting and signed in under her mother's name: Jean Harlow.
After several calls and turned-down job offers from Central Casting, Harlean was pressured by her mother (now relocated to Los Angeles) into accepting work. Harlean then appeared in her first film, Honor Bound as an unbilled extra, for $7 a day. This led to several other roles, and Harlean landed bit parts in silent films such as, Why Is a Plumber? (1927), Moran of the Marines (1928) and The Love Parade (1929). She had more substantial roles in Laurel and Hardy's short Double Whoopee, and the Clara Bow vehicle The Saturday Night Kid, both in 1929. Under pressure from Harlean's career ascent, she and Chuck McGrew separated in June 1929, and Harlean moved in with her mother and Bello.
During filming of Weak But Willing in 1929, she was spotted by James Hall, an actor in a then-shooting Howard Hughes film called Hell's Angels. Hughes, re-shooting the film from silent into sound, needed a new actress as the original actress Greta Nissen's Norse accent proved undesirable for a talkie. Harlean met briefly with Hughes and was hired on the spot. Hughes signed Jean Harlow to a five-year contract on October 24, 1929. It was during shooting that Harlow would meet MGM executive Paul Bern. Hell's Angels premiered in Hollywood on May 27, 1930 at Grauman's Chinese Theater.
Harlow was a sensation with audiences, but critics were less than besotted. The New Yorker called Harlow "plain awful". Variety was a bit more lenient in remarking, "It doesn't matter what degree of talent she possesses....nobody ever starved possessing what she's got", referring to her sex appeal. In 1931, loaned out by Hughes' Caddo Company to other studios, Harlow began to gain more attention when she appeared in The Public Enemy (with James Cagney), Goldie, The Secret Six (with Wallace Beery and Clark Gable), and Platinum Blonde with Loretta Young. In fact, Hughes convinced the producers of Platinum Blonde to rename it from its original title of Gallagher in order to promote Harlow's image. Though the films ranged from moderate to smash hits, Harlow's acting ability was damned by critics as awful and was mocked, with some saying she ruined any scene she was in.
Concerned about Harlow's status, Hughes sent her on a personal appearance tour of the East Coast in late 1931. To the surprise of many, especially Harlow herself, she packed every theatre she appeared in, often appearing multiple nights in one venue. Despite critical assailment and poor roles, Harlow's popularity and following was large and growing, to the extent that the tour was extended through early 1932. Many of Harlow's female fans were dyeing their hair platinum to match hers. To capitalize on this craze, Hughes' team organized a series of "Platinum Blonde" clubs across the nation, with a prize of $10,000 to any beautician that could match Harlow's shade.
Apprised of this, Paul Bern (now romantically involved with Harlow) spoke to Louis B. Mayer about buying out Harlow's contract from Hughes and signing her to MGM. Mayer would have none of it. MGM's leading ladies were just that, and Harlow's silver screen image was that of a floozy, which was abhorrent to Mayer. Bern then began urging good friend Irving Thalberg, production head of MGM, to sign Harlow, noting Harlow's pre-existing popularity and established image. After initial reticence, Thalberg agreed, and on March 3, 1932, Harlow's twenty-first birthday, Bern called with the news that MGM had bought Harlow's contract from Hughes for $30,000. Harlow would afterwards be required to report to MGM and officially joined the studio on April 20, 1932.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer
MGM was where Harlow would become a superstar. She was given superior movie roles to show off not only her beauty, but what turned out to be an authentic talent for comedy. In 1931, she had the starring roles in Red-Headed Woman, for which she received a salary of $1,250 per week, and Red Dust, her second film with Clark Gable. These films showed her to be much more at ease in front of the camera and highlighted her skill as a comedienne. Harlow and Gable worked well together and co-starred in a total of six films; she was also paired multiple times with Spencer Tracy and William Powell. As her star ascended, sometimes the power of Harlow's name was used to boost up-and-coming male co-stars, such as Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone. Evolving tastes, plus the grooming MGM was noted for, changed Harlow from a brassy, platinum blonde exotic to the more mainstream, all-American type preferred by studio boss Louis B. Mayer; the screen Harlow at the end of her life was quite different from that of 1930, when audiences first took notice of her.
It was during the making of Red Dust that Harlow's second husband, MGM producer Paul Bern, was found dead at their home, creating a scandal that reverberates to this day. Initially, the Hollywood community whispered that Harlow had killed Bern herself<citation needed>, though this was just rumor, and Bern's death was officially ruled a suicide. Harlow kept silent and survived the ordeal, and became more popular with audiences than ever.
After Bern's death, Harlow began an indiscreet affair with boxer Max Baer. Despite being separated from his wife, Dorothy Dunbar, at the time of their affair, Dunbar threatened divorce proceedings, naming Harlow as a co-defendant for "alienation of affection", then the common term for adultery. MGM defused the situation by arranging a marriage between Harlow and cinematographer Harold Rosson. Still feeling the aftershocks of the mysterious Bern death, the studio didn't want another Harlow scandal on its hands. Rosson and Harlow were prior friends, and Rosson went along with the plan. They divorced quietly seven months later.
After the box office hits, Hold Your Man and Red Dust, MGM realized the goldmine of the Harlow-Gable vehicle, putting them in two more films: China Seas with Wallace Beery and Rosalind Russell and Wife vs. Secretary with Myrna Loy and James Stewart. Other co-stars included Spencer Tracy, Robert Taylor and William Powell.
By the mid-1930s, Harlow was one of the biggest stars in America and the foremost female star at MGM. She was still a young woman with her star continuously on the ascendant while the popularity of other female stars at MGM such as Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer were waning. Her movies continued to make huge profits at the box office, even during the middle of the Depression. Some credit Harlow's films with keeping MGM in the black while other studios fell into bankruptcy.
Following the end of her third marriage, Harlow met MGM star William Powell and quickly fell in love. Reportedly, the couple was engaged for two years, but differences kept them from marrying swiftly (she wanted children; he did not). Harlow also said that studio head Louis B. Mayer would never allow them to wed.
Later career and death
Although no records exist, It is rumored that in the early part of 1937, Harlow fell ill with influenza. Although she recovered, the attack weakened her body against the onslaught of a more serious illness that was just beginning to take hold: kidney disease. In retrospective analysis, Harlow's kidneys may have been slowly failing during the ten years since she contracted scarlet fever while in her early teens. In the days before kidney dialysis and transplants, this condition was usually fatal. In addition, Jean needed to have her wisdom teeth extracted, and elected to have all four teeth removed during the same procedure. Requiring general anaesthesia and hospitalization, this may have exacerbated her already declining health.
In the spring of 1937, Harlow began filming Saratoga with Clark Gable. It would be her final film. Off screen, Harlow perspired heavily and she began coming late to shooting. On May 29, 1937, Harlow collapsed on set and was rushed to the hospital where she was diagnosed with uremic poisoning. She was cared for at home for the next eight days and was given constant medical attention despite her mother's Christian Scientist beliefs. Nonetheless, her condition worsened. On June 6, 1937, she was rushed to the hospital. Jean Harlow died the following morning at 11:35 a.m. She was 26 years of age.
Harlow is entombed at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in Glendale, California in a private room in the Great Mausoleum; her crypt bears the simple inscription "Our Baby". Her funeral took place in the Wee Kirk O' The Heather Chapel at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
She was buried in the negligee that she had worn just weeks before while filming a scene from the movie Saratoga. It was reported that a single white gardenia with an unsigned note attached that read "Good night, my dearest darling" was placed in her hands. It is assumed both were from William Powell, who also paid for her final resting place—the $25,000, 9×10-foot private room lined with multicolored imported marble located in the "Sanctuary of Benediction."
Many myths have swirled around Harlow's death, and it was not until the early 1990s that her long-sealed medical records were uncovered. Legend had it that Harlow's mother, a follower of Christian Science, prevented doctors from attending to her dying daughter, but this myth has been extinguished. Records prove Harlow received constant medical attention. Other long-standing myths, such as the suggestion that Harlow's kidneys were damaged in a beating from husband Paul Bern or that bleach from her hair seeped into her brain and killed her, are also untrue.
Portrayals in movies
In 1965 there were released two movies about Jean Harlow, one starring Carroll Baker and the other starring Carol Lynley. Both movies received rather bad reputations. In 2004, Gwen Stefani briefly appeared as Harlow in Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic "The Aviator".
- Jean Harlow at the Internet Movie Database
- Jean Harlow at the Turner Classic Movies Database
- The Official Jean Harlow Site
- Jean Harlow: The Platinum Page
- Memorial Page for Jean Harlow at FindaGrave
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