The American born blonde ran away from home at the age of 16 to marry 23 year old businessman Charlie McGrew. They ended up in Los Angeles where Jean got work as an extra in movies in 1927 even though her husband was the heir to a small fortune. Jean got bit parts in a few films between 1927 and 1929 but it was her role in the Howard Hughes film "Hells Angels" in 1930 that got her noticed after many casting calls and two years of hard work After the success of "Hells Angels" Howard Hughes sold Jean's contract to MGM for $60,000. where the platinum blondes career thrived. Her marriage only lasted two years so by the time her big break came she was single and ready for stardom, becoming the legend that she is today.
In 1931 Jean co-starred in "Platinum Blonde" with Loretta Young earning her the nickname America's Sex Symbol. (The title was changed from its original title "Gallagher" to promote Harlow's distinctive hair color and after the movie debuted peroxide sales went through the roof). That same year she appeared in "Public Enemy" with James Cagney. The following year she paired with Clark Gable for "Red Dust", one of six films they would co-star in together.
Jean had remarried in 1932 before going away on location to film "Red Dust". (The movie took 44 days to shoot) She married MGM screenwriter, director and producer Paul Bern. But while away filming her husband committed suicide in their Beverly Hills home only a few weeks after their wedding. (Bern is most known for co-producing "Grand Hotel" 1932). There was plenty of speculation regarding his death but more on that later. Jean went on a salary strike in 1934 from MGM and wrote the novel Today Is Tonight during her down time but it wasn't published until 1965 long after her death. You can view a postcard image of Jean's early Beverly Hills mansion HERE.
with Clark Gable, stills from "Red Dirt"
Jean picked herself up after the funeral and finished filming then went on to star in several light comedies (Three with Spencer Tracy) before filming the hit "Saratoga" 1937 with Clark Gable. She married cinematographer Harold Rosson in 1933 but it ended in divorce within 7 months then she started a two year relationship with actor William Powell that ended with her death.
with Cary Grant in a publicity still for "Suzy" 1936.
Previously critics panned Harlow and her reviews usually mentioned her sex appeal on screen that over shadowed her great comedic talent but that all changed with her performance in "Saratoga". It was getting her serious praise and recognition for her acting and not just her sexuality. Sadly her career was cut short just when she was starting to be taken seriously as an actress and her popularity was at its peak. While on location filming "Saratoga" Jean fell ill and was eventually admitted to the hospital.
with Paul Bern at their wedding
Jean was exposed to influenza sometime in the 1930's which left her in poor health and progressed to her kidneys starting to fail. Long before dialysis and kidney transplants were the norm she could not over come it. She developed uremic poisoning which led to cerebral edema and her death at the age of 26. The original blonde bombshell appeared in over 40 movies during her short career. Harlow was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, CA. Her resting place can be viewed HERE. Jean's last Beverly Hills residence can be viewed HERE.
hand signed photo click to enlarge (please contact me for view of the back stamp)
Interesting Jean Harlow Facts:
She was the godmother of Millicent Siegel the daughter of notorious mobster Bugsy Siegel.
She dated notorious mobster Abner "Longy" Zwillman who secured her a two picture deal with Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures by loaning Cohn $500,000 in cash.
She turned down the lead in "King Kong" 1933 that went to Fay Wray and the lead in the cult classic "Freaks".
She was the very first film actress to grace the cover of Life magazine in 1937.
The only footage of her filmed in Technicolor was an eight minute segment in "Hells Angels".
She never wore any underwear and slept in the nude.
After divorcing her father Jean's mother took her to Hollywood to try to get her into pictures as a young girl without success. When Jean relocated to Hollywood later on her mother followed and hovered over her career. Her mother was finally banned from the studio's and remained in Hollywood living off of Jean until her death.
Jean was interred in her own private room at Forest Lawn with the word Harlow over the entrance. Her crypt and funeral were paid for by her fiancée William Powell. Jean was buried in a gown that she wore during "Libeled Lady" and with a single Gardenia in her hands and a note from William Powell that read "Good night my dearest darling".
There has been much speculation and rumors surrounding the death of her husband Paul Bern throughout the years. It was rumored that Jean herself shot Bern which was quickly ruled out after she was interviewed by the LAPD and then again before a grand jury. There was also a rumor that Mr. Bern committed suicide after a recent mishap in their bedroom during relations. Paul was found with a note that suggested his embarrassment over a certain impotence problem. Then there was the issue of his common law wife that he was still supporting. She was found floating in the Sacramento river a day after his death. There was also a rumor that Mr. Bern was shot by an ex lover who was suffering from mental problems. Amidst on going rumors the Los Angeles District Attorney's office reopened the case in 1960. After interviewing witnesses and viewing his autopsy records the findings proved that Paul Bern indeed committed suicide. The case was then officially closed.
Paul Bern's suicide note left for Jean read "Dearest dear, unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and wipe out my abject humiliation. I love you Paul. You understand last night was only a comedy". Paul also hid a second note that read "Don't tell my son:".
She was born Harlean Carpenter but took the name Jean Harlow as her stage name. An amalgam of her mothers name. When her fans found out her name wasn't actually Jean Harlow they demanded to know her real name. She added an "i" to Carpenter to make her birth name sound exotic when she finally released it to her fans.
The owner of the famous Hollywood canine Rin Tin Tin lived across the street from Jean and when she found out the dog was dying she rushed across the street and held his head in her lap until he passed away.
She once lived at the Château Marmont, the famous Los Angeles hotel.
Her stand-in Mary Dees replaced her in her remaining footage of her unfinished film "Saratoga". Jean was making $4,000 a week while filming "Saratoga" her highest pay during a film. And it was the highest grossing film of 1937.
At the time of her death in 1937 her estate was valued at over 1 million dollars and left entirely to her mother.
She was so ill during her attendance to the Academy Awards in 1936 that she had to be assisted by Carole Lombard to the powder room during breaks. She attended with her fiancée William Powell his ex wife Carole Lombard and Lombard's then lover Clark Gable.
Everyone in Hollywood called her "Baby" except Clark Gable who felt close enough to her to call her "Sis".
She struggled with her weight and stayed on a strict diet of fruits and vegetables.
The last photograph taken of her shows her carrying a copy of "Gone With the Wind". She was determined to read it and had it brought to the hospital for her. Sadly she died before she could finish it.
Her Personal Quote "Men like me because I don't wear a brassiere. Women like me because I don't look like a girl who would steal a husband. At least not for long".
Her funeral looked more like a Hollywood production than a funeral with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy performing Jean's favorite song. It was a media circus and mobs of fans swarmed in once it was over, stripping every flower and personal memento that could be taken. Upon seeing the madness actress Carole Lombard looked over at her husband Clark Gable and said "Paw, don't ever let them do this to me". Sadly Carole died just 5 years later in a plane crash.
Clark Gable and wife Carole Lombard attending Jean's funeral at Forest Lawn
Until next time,