Jean Harlow Bio
(born Harlean Harlow Carpenter; March 3, 1911 – June 7, 1937) was an American film actress and sex symbol of the 1930s. Known as the “blonde Bombshell” and the “Platinum Blonde” (owing to her platinum blonde hair), Harlow was ranked as one of the greatest movie stars of all time by the American Film Institute. Harlow starred in several films, mainly designed to showcase her magnetic sex appeal and strong screen presence, before making the transition to more developed roles and achieving massive fame under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (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 the age of 26.
Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri. The name is sometimes incorrectly spelled Carpentier, which came from later studio press releases in an attempt to sound more aristocratic, and the inaccuracy has been frequently repeated. Her father, Mont Clair Carpenter (1877–1974), was a dentist who came from a working-class background and attended dental college in Kansas City. Her mother, Jean Poe Carpenter (née Harlow), was the daughter of a wealthy real estate broker, Skip Harlow, and his wife Ella Harlow (née Williams). The marriage was arranged by Skip Harlow in 1908 and Jean, an intelligent and strong-willed woman, was resentful and became very unhappy in the marriage. The couple lived in Kansas City in a house owned by Skip Harlow.
Harlean was nicknamed “The Baby”, a name that would stick with her for the rest of her life. She did not learn that her name was actually Harlean and not “Baby” until the age of five, when she began to attend Miss Barstow’s Finishing School for Girls in Kansas City. Harlean and Mother Jean, as she became known when Harlean became a film star, remained very close as the relationship eased Mother Jean’s empty existence and unhappy marriage. “She was always all mine,” she said of her daughter. Harlean’s mother was extremely protective and coddling, instilling a sense that her daughter owed everything she had to her.
With her daughter at school, Mother Jean became increasingly frustrated and filed for divorce, which was finalized, uncontested, on September 29, 1922. She was granted sole custody of Harlean, who loved her father but would rarely see him for the rest of her life.
Mother Jean moved with Harlean to Hollywood in 1923 with hopes of becoming an actress. Harlean attended the Hollywood School for Girls and met some of Hollywood’s future figures, including Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Joel McCrea and Irene Mayer Selznick. Mother Jean’s dream of stardom did not come true as she was too old, at age 34, to begin a film career in an era when major roles were usually assigned to teenage girls. Facing dwindling finances, the pair returned to Kansas City within two years after Skip Harlow issued the ultimatum that they return or he would disinherit her. Harlean dropped out of school in Hollywood in the spring of 1925. Several weeks later, Skip Harlow sent her to a summer camp called Camp Cha-Ton-Ka in Michigamme, Michigan, where Harlean became ill with scarlet fever. Mother Jean traveled to Michigan to care for Harlean, rowing herself across the lake to the camp when she was told that she could not see her daughter.
Harlow attended the Ferry Hall School (now Lake Forest Academy) in Lake Forest, Illinois. Mother Jean had ulterior motives for Harlean’s attendance at the school, as it was close to the Chicago home of Mother Jean’s beau, Marino Bello. Freshmen were paired with a “big sister” from the senior class and Harlean’s big sister introduced her to Charles “Chuck” McGrew, heir to a large fortune, in the fall of 1926, and soon, the two began to date. On January 18, 1927, Mother Jean married Bello, although Harlean was not present.
Sixteen-year-old Harlean and twenty-year-old McGrew eloped on September 21, 1927. McGrew turned 21 two months after the marriage and received part of his large inheritance. The couple moved to Los Angeles in 1928, settling into a home in Beverly Hills, where Harlean thrived as a wealthy socialite. McGrew hoped to distance Harlean from her mother with the move. Neither McGrew nor Harlean worked, and both, especially McGrew, were thought to drink heavily.
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. It was there that Harlean was noticed by Fox executives sitting in the car waiting for her friend. Harlean was approached by the executives, but stated that she was not interested. She was given dictated letters of introduction to Central Casting. 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 enthusiastic mother, Harlean drove to Central Casting and signed in under her mother’s maiden name, Jean Harlow.
After several calls from Central Casting, who had called for “Miss Harlow”, and a number of rejected job offers, Harlean was pressured by her mother, now relocated to Los Angeles, into accepting work. Harlow then appeared in her first film, Honor Bound, as an unbilled extra for $7 a day. This led to bit parts in silent films such as Moran of the Marines (1928), Chasing Husbands, Why Is a Plumber? (1927), and Unkissed Man. In December 1928, she signed a five-year contract with Hal Roach Studios for $100 per week. She had more substantial roles in Laurel and Hardy‘s short Double Whoopee, and appeared in two other films alongside the double act. In March 1929, however, she parted with Roach, who tore up her contract after Harlow told him, “It’s breaking up my marriage; what can I do?” In June 1929, Harlow separated from her husband and moved-in with her mother and Bello.
After her separation from McGrew,Harlow worked as extra in several movies, and was cast as an extra in The Love Parade (1929), followed by small roles in This Thing Called Love and The Saturday Night Kid (1929), a Clara Bow movie. Her next extra work was inWeak But Willing (1929). During filming of Weak But Willing in 1929, she was spotted by James Hall, an actor filming a Howard Hughes film called Hell’s Angels. Hughes, re-shooting the film from silent into sound, needed a new actress because the original actress, Greta Nissen, had a Norwegian accent that proved undesirable for a talkie. Harlow made a test and got the part.
Hughes signed Harlow to a five-year, $100 per week contract on October 24, 1929. Hell’s Angels premiered in Hollywood on May 27, 1930 at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. During the shooting, Harlow met MGM executive Paul Bern. The movie made Harlow an international star and a sensation with audiences, but critics were less than enthusiastic. Variety was a bit more charitable in remarking, “It doesn’t matter what degree of talent she possesses … nobody ever starved possessing what she’s got.” The New Yorker called Harlow “plain awful.” She was again an uncredited extra, in the 1931 Chaplin film City Lights.
With no projects planned for Harlow, Hughes sent her to New York, Seattle and Kansas City for Hell’s Angels premieres. In 1931, loaned out by Hughes’ Caddo Company to other studios, Harlow began to gain more attention when she appeared in The Secret Six with Wallace Beery and Clark Gable, Iron Man with Lew Ayres and Robert Armstrong, and The Public Enemy with James Cagney. Though the films ranged from moderate to smash hits, Harlow’s acting ability was damned by critics as awful and was mocked. Concerned, Hughes sent her on a brief publicity tour, which was not a success, as Harlow dreaded such personal appearances.
Stardom: “The Platinum Blonde”
Harlow was next cast in Platinum Blonde (1931) with Loretta Young. The film, which had originally been titled “Gallagher,” was renamed “Platinum Blonde” by Hughes to promote Harlow’s image, thereby capitalizing on her signature hair color, which had been christened as platinum by Hughes’ publicity machine. This was an era when the chemical composition of hair dyes had not yet become perfected. It is reported that Harlow’s signature platinum color was achieved by a primitive bleaching method, the weekly application of a mixture of ammonia, Clorox bleach and a cleaning detergent, Lux (soap) Flakes. This process, which was harsh and sometimes painful, weakened and damaged Harlow’s naturally colored ash-blonde hair. Many of Harlow’s female fans began 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 who could match Harlow’s shade. However, Harlow herself denied her hair was dyed.
Harlow next filmed Three Wise Girls (1932), after which Paul Bern arranged to borrow her for The Beast of the City (1932). When the shooting wrapped, Bern booked a ten-week personal appearance tour on the East Coast. To the surprise of many, especially Harlow herself, she packed every theater in which she appeared, often appearing multiple nights in one venue. Despite critical disparagement and poor roles, Harlow’s popularity and following was large and growing, and in February 1932, the tour was extended for an additional six weeks.
Apprised of this, Paul Bern, by now romantically involved with Harlow, spoke to Louis B. Mayer about buying-out her contract with Hughes and signing her to MGM, however Mayer would have none of it. MGM’s leading ladies were presented in an elegant way, and Harlow’s silver screen image was that of a floozy, which was abhorrent to Mayer. Bern then began urging close friend Irving Thalberg, production head of MGM, to sign Harlow, noting Harlow’s pre-existing popularity and established image. After initial reluctance, Thalberg agreed, and on March 3, 1932, Harlow’s twenty-first birthday, Bern called her with the news that MGM had purchased Harlow’s contract from Hughes for $30,000. Harlow officially joined the studio on April 20, 1932. Her first task at MGM would be a screen test for Red-Headed Woman.
According to Fay Wray, who played Ann Darrow in 1933’s King Kong, Harlow was the original choice to play the screaming blonde heroine. Because MGM put Harlow under exclusive contract during the pre-production phase of the film, she became unavailable forKong, and the part went to the brunette Wray, wearing a blonde wig.
in Red Dust (1932)
Harlow became a superstar at MGM and was given superior movie roles to show off not only her beauty but also what turned out to be a genuine comedic talent. In 1932, she had the starring role in Red-Headed Woman, for which she received $1,250 a 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, the power of Harlow’s name was sometimes used to boost up-and-coming male co-stars, such as Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone.
At this point, MGM began to distance Harlow’s public persona from that of her screen characters, changing her childhood surname from common “Carpenter” to chic “Carpentier”, claiming that writer Edgar Allan Poe was one of her ancestors, and publishing photographs of Harlow doing charity work. MGM tried to change her image from a brassy, exotic platinum blonde to the more mainstream, all-American type preferred by studio boss Mayer. Her early image proved difficult to change, and once Harlow was heard muttering, “My God, must I always wear a low-cut dress to be important?” Though Harlow’s screen image changed dramatically throughout her career, one constant was her apparent sense of humor.
During the making of Red Dust, Harlow’s second husband, MGM producer Paul Bern, was found shot dead at their home, creating a lasting scandal. Initially, there was speculation that Harlow had killed Bern, though Bern’s death was officially ruled a suicide. Harlow kept silent, survived the ordeal, and became more popular than ever.
After Bern’s death, Harlow began an indiscreet affair with boxer Max Baer. Although he was separated from his wife, Dorothy Dunbar, at the time of their affair, Dunbar threatened divorce proceedings, naming Harlow as a co-respondent for “alienation of affection”, a legal term for adultery. MGM defused the situation by arranging a marriage between Harlow and cinematographer Harold Rosson. Still feeling the aftershocks of Bern’s mysterious death, the studio did not want another Harlow scandal on its hands. Rosson and Harlow were friends, and Rosson went along with the plan. They quietly divorced seven months later.
After the box office hits Hold Your Man and Red Dust, MGM realized it had a goldmine in the Harlow-Gable teaming and paired them in two more films: China Seas with Wallace Beery and Rosalind Russell and Wife vs. Secretary with Myrna Loy and young James Stewart. Other co-stars included Spencer Tracy, Robert Taylor and William Powell.
James Stewart later spoke of a scene in a car with Harlow in Wife vs. Secretary, saying, “Clarence Brown, the director, wasn’t too pleased by the way I did the smooching. He 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 been really kissed.”
By the mid-1930s, Harlow was one of the biggest stars in the United States and, it was hoped, MGM’s next Greta Garbo. Still young, her star continued to rise while the popularity of other female stars at MGM, such as Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, waned. Harlow’s movies continued to make huge profits at the box office, even during the middle of the Depression. Some credit them with keeping MGM profitable at a time when other studios were falling into bankruptcy.
Following the end of her third marriage in 1934, Harlow met William Powell, another MGM star, and quickly fell in love. Reportedly, the couple were engaged for two years, but differences kept them from formalizing their relationship (she wanted children; he did not). Harlow also said that Louis B. Mayer would never allow them to marry.
Harlow complained about ill health on May 20, 1937, when she was filming Saratoga. Her symptoms – fatigue, nausea, water weight and abdominal pain – did not seem very serious to her doctor, who believed she was suffering from gall bladder infection and flu. However, he was apparently unaware of Harlow’s ill health during the previous year: a severe sunburn, bad flu attack and septicemia after a wisdom tooth extraction. In addition, her friend and co-star Myrna Loy noticed Harlow’s grey complexion, fatigue and weight gain. On May 29, Harlow was shooting a scene in which the character she was playing had a fever. Harlow was clearly sicker than her character, and when she leaned against her co-star Clark Gable between scenes she said, “I feel terrible. Get me back to my dressing room.” Harlow requested that the assistant director phone William Powell, who left his own set to escort Harlow back home.
On May 30, Powell checked on Harlow, and recalled her mother from a holiday trip when he found her condition had not improved and summoned her doctor to her home. Harlow’s illnesses had delayed three previous films (Wife vs. Secretary, Suzy and Libeled Lady), so there was no great concern initially. On June 2, it was announced that Harlow was suffering from the flu. Harlow felt better on June 3 and co-workers expected her back on the set by Monday, June 7. Press reports were contradictory, with headlines like “Jean Harlow seriously ill” and “Harlow past illness crisis.” When Harlow said on June 6 that she could not see Powell properly, he again called a doctor. As she slipped into a deep slumber and experienced difficulty breathing, the doctor finally realized that she was suffering from something other than gall bladder infection or flu.
That same evening, Harlow was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where she slipped into a coma. Harlow died in the hospital at the age of 26 on Monday June 7, 1937, at 11:37 a.m. In the doctor’s press releases, the cause of death was given ascerebral edema, a complication of renal or kidney failure. Hospital records mention uremia.
For years, rumors circulated about Harlow’s death. Some claimed that her mother refused to call a doctor because she was a Christian Scientist, or that Harlow herself declined hospital treatment or surgery. There were also rumors that Harlow had died because of alcoholism, a botched abortion, over-dieting, sunstroke, poisoning due to platinum hair dye, or various venereal diseases. However, based on medical bulletins, hospital records and testimony of her relatives and friends, it was proven to be a case of kidney disease. From the onset of her illness, despite resting at home, Harlow was attended by a doctor, two nurses visited her house and various equipment was brought from a nearby hospital. However, Harlow’s mother barred some visitors, such as the MGM doctor, who later stated that it was because they were Christian Scientists. It has been suggested that she still wanted to control her daughter, but there is no truth to the allegation that she refused medical care for Harlow.
Harlow’s kidney failure could not have been cured in the 1930’s. The death rate from acute kidney failure has decreased to 25% only after the advent of antibiotics, dialysis, and kidney transplantation. Harlow’s grey complexion, recurring illnesses, and severe sunburn were signs of the disease as her kidneys had been slowly failing and toxins accumulated in her body, exposing her to other illnesses and causing symptoms including swelling, fatigue, and lack of appetite. Toxins also adversely impacted her brain and central nervous system. Speculation has suggested that Harlow suffered a post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, following scarlet fever when she was young, which may have caused high blood pressure and ultimately kidney failure.
News of Harlow’s death spread quickly. Spencer Tracy wrote in his diary, “Jean Harlow died today. Grand gal.” One of the MGM writers later said: ”The day Baby died there wasn’t one sound in the commissary for three hours.” MGM closed down on the day of Harlow’s funeral on June 9. She was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California in the Great Mausoleum in a private room of multicolored marble which William Powell bought for $25,000. She was buried in the gown she wore in Libeled Lady, and in her hands she held a white gardenia and a note in which Powell had written: ”Goodnight, my dearest darling.” Spaces in the same room were reserved for Harlow’s mother and William Powell. Harlow’s mother was buried there in 1958, but Powell remarried in 1940 and after his death in 1984, he was cremated and his ashes were scattered over the Palm Springs Desert area. There is a simple inscription on Harlow’s grave, “Our Baby.”
MGM planned to replace Harlow in Saratoga with another actress, but because of public objections the film was finished by using three doubles (one for close-ups, one for long shots and one for dubbing Harlow’s lines) as well as writing her character out of some scenes. True to their star until the end, fans came out in droves to see Harlow’s last movie. The film was MGM’s highest grossing picture of 1937 and proclaimed to be her best film. Ever since the film’s release, viewers have tried to spot these stand-ins and signs of Harlow’s illness.