Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow

circa 1930 Born Harlean Harlow Carpenter
March 3, 1911(1911-03-03)
Kansas City, Missouri, U.S. Died June 7, 1937 (aged 26)
Los Angeles, California, U.S. Occupation Actress Years active 1928–1937 Spouse Charles McGrew (1927–1929) (divorced)
Paul Bern (1932) (his death)
Harold Rosson (1933–1934) (divorced) Website

Jean Harlow (March 3, 1911 – June 7, 1937) was an American film actress and sex symbol of the 1930s.[1] Known as the “Platinum Blonde” and the “Blonde Bombshell” due 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 age 26.


Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter[2][3] in Kansas City, Missouri. Her father, Mont Clair Carpenter (1877–1974), worked as a dentist, and married to Jean Poe Carpenter (née Harlow). The name is sometimes incorrectly spelled Carpentier,[4] which came from later studio press releases in an attempt to sound more aristocratic, and the inaccuracy has been constantly repeated.[2] Mont Clair Carpenter came from a working-class background and had gone to Kansas City to attend dental college. Jean Poe Carpenter 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. Jean Carpenter, an intelligent and strong-willed woman, resented it, and became very unhappy in the marriage. The couple lived in Kansas City in a house owned by Skip Harlow.[5]Harlean was nicknamed “The Baby”, which would stick with her for the rest of her life. She was spoiled to the point that 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.[6] Harlean and her mother were both only children who remained very close to each other; the relationship fulfilled Mother Jean’s empty existence and unhappy marriage. “She was always all mine,” she said of her daughter.[7] Her mother was extremely protective and coddling, instilling a sense that her daughter owed everything she had to her mother.With her daughter at school, Mother Jean became increasingly frustrated and filed for divorce, which was finalized, uncontested, 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.[8]Mother Jean, as she became known when Harlean became a film star, 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; she was too old at age 34 to begin a film career in an era when major roles were usually assigned to teenage girls.[9] Facing dwindling finances, they returned to Kansas City within two years after Skip Harlow issued an ultimatum: either they returned or he would disinherit her. Harlean dropped out of her school in Hollywood in the spring of 1925.[10] Several weeks later, Skip Harlow sent her to a summer camp called Camp Cha-Ton-Ka in Michigamme, Michigan. It was there that 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 get to her daughter.[11]

Harlean 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 Chicago where Mother Jean’s beau, Marino Bello, was living.[12] Freshmen were paired with a “big sister” from the senior class, and Harlean was paired with a girl who introduced her to Charles “Chuck” McGrew, heir to a large fortune, in the fall of 1926. The two started dating.[13] On January 18, 1927 Mother Jean married Bello, although Harlean was not present.[14]The 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 of them were working, and both, especially McGrew, were thought to drink heavily.[15]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, while 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 sig
d in under her mother’s maiden name, Jean Harlow.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18] 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 broke her contract with Roach, who tore up her contract after Harlow told him, “It’s breaking up my marriage; what can I do?”[19] In June 1929 Harlow separated from Chuck McGrew, and moved in with her mother and Bello.[19]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 in Weak 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.[20]Hughes signed her 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, who escorted her, dressed all in white, to the premiere. The movie made Harlow an international star and a sensation with audiences, but critics were less than enthusiastic.[21] 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.”[21] The New Yorker called Harlow “plain awful”.

Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in a promotional still for The Secret Six (1931)With no projects planned for Harlow, Hughes sent her to New York, Seattle and Kansas City for Hell’s Angels premieres.[22] 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.[23] Concerned, Hughes sent her on a brief publicity tour, which was not a success, as Harlow dreaded such personal appearances.[24]Harlow was next cast in Platinum Blonde (1931) with Loretta Young. Hughes convinced the producers of Platinum Blonde to rename it from its original title of Gallagher in order to promote Harlow’s image, for whom the tag had just been invented by Hughes’s publicity director. 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 who could match Harlow’s shade. For some reason, Harlow denied her hair was dyed.[25]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, Bello booked a ten-week personal appearance tour in the East Coast. To the surprise of many, especially Harlow herself, she packed every theatre she appeared in, 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 additional six weeks.[26]Apprised of this, Paul Bern, by 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 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 bought Harlow’s contract from Hughes for $30,000. Harlow would afterwards report to MGM and officially joined the studio on April 20, 1932. Her first task at MGM would be a screen test for Red-Headed Woman.[27]According to Fay Wray, who played Ann Darrow in the classic King Kong (1933), Harlow had been 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 for Kong, and the part went to the brunette Wray, wearing a blonde wig.[28]

in Red Dust (1932)Harlow became a superstar at MGM. She 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, sometimes the power of Harlow’s name was used to boost up-and-coming male co-stars, such as Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone.At this point MGM began creating a distance between Harlow and 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 published 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?”[29] The screen Harlow at the end of her life was quite different from that of 1930, when audiences first took notice of her. One constant was that Harlow always seemed to have a sense of humor.During the making of Red Dust, Harlow’s second husband, MGM producer Paul Bern was found dead at their home, creating a scandal that still reverberates. Initially, the Hollywood community whispered

that Harlow had killed Bern herself, 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 than ever.

in Riffraff (1936)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 correspondent 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 didn’t 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.[30]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.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 in the ascendant, while the popularity of other female stars at MGM, such as Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, was waning. 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, while the pair were filming Reckless 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 having pains 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 not aware of Harlow’s ill-health during the previous year: a severe sunburn, bad flu attack and septicemia after pulling wisdom teeth.[31] In addition, her friend and co-star Myrna Loy had noticed Harlow’s grey complexion, fatigue and weight gain.[32] 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.[33]On May 30, Powell checked on Harlow, and when she did not feel any better, her mother was recalled from a holiday trip and Dr. Fishbaugh visited Harlow at her home.[33] Harlow’s illnesses had delayed three previous films (Wife vs. Secretary, Suzy and Libeled Lady), so at first there was no great concern. On June 2, it was announced that Harlow was suffering from the flu.[34] Harlow even felt better on June 3. Co-workers expected her back on the set by Monday, June 7.[35] Press reports were contradictory with headlines like “Jean Harlow seriously ill” and “Harlow past illness crisis”.[36] When Harlow said on June 6 that she could no longer see Powell properly, he called a doctor. When she slipped into a deep slumber and had difficulties in breathing, the doctor finally realized that she was suffering from something other than gall bladder infection and flu.[35]On that same evening, Harlow was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where she slipped into a coma.[35] 26-year-old Jean Harlow died in the hospital on June 7 at 11:37 am. In the doctor’s press releases, the reason of death was given as cerebral edema, which is a side effect of renal or kidney failure.[37] Hospital records mention uremia.[38]For years, rumors circulated about Harlow’s death. It was claimed that her mother had refused to call in a doctor because she was a Christian Scientist, or that Harlow herself had declined hospital treatment or surgery.[39] It was also rumored that Harlow had died because of alcoholism, botched abortion, over-dieting, sunstroke, poisoning due to platinum hair dye or various venereal diseases.[40] However, based on medical bulletins, hospital records and testimony of her relatives and friends, it was proven to be a case of kidney disease.[41] From the start, despite resting at home, Harlow was attended by a doctor, two nurses visited her house and various equipment was brought in from a nearby hospital.[42] However, Harlow’s mother prevented some people from seeing her, 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 it is categorically untrue that she refused Harlow medical care.[43]Harlow had suffered serious kidney failure which could not have been cured in the 1930s. Death rate from acute kidney failure has decreased to 25% only after antibiotics, dialysis and kidney transplantation, and Harlow’s grey complexion, recurring illnesses and severe sunburn were signs of the disease.[44] Her kidneys had been slowly failing and toxins started to build up in her body, exposing her to other illnesses and causing symptoms included swelling, fatigue and lack of appetite. Toxins also adversely impacted her brain and central nervous system.[45] It was suggested that Harlow had suffered a post-streptococcal kidney infection, following scarlet fever when she was young, and this might have caused high blood pressure and ultimately kidney failure.[46]News of Harlow’s death spread fast. One of the MGM writers later said: ”The day Baby died there wasn’t one sound in the commissary for three hours.”[47] MGM was 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 multicoloured marble, which William Powell had bought for $25,000. She was buried in the gown she wore in Libeled Lady, and in her hands she had a white gardenia and a note in which Powell had written: ”Goodnight, my dearest darling.”[48] Drawers in the same room were reserved for Harlow’s mother and William Powell.[49] Harlow’s mother was buried there in 1958[50], but Powell remarried in 1940 and was buried elsewhere when he died in 1984[51]. There is a simple inscription on Harlow’s grave, “Our Baby”.[52]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 off some scenes.[53] The film was proclaimed to be her best film. Ever since, viewers watching the film have tried to spot these stand-ins and signs of Harlow’s illness.[54]

Main article: Today is TonightHarlow wrote a novel, titled Today is Tonight. According to Arthur Landau in his introduction to the 1965 paperback edition, Harlow stated her intention to write the book around 1933–1934, but it was not published during her lifetime. After her death, Landau writes, her mother sold the film rights to MGM, but no film was made. The publication rights to the novel were passed from Harlow’s mother to a family friend. The book was finally published in 1965.[55]

In 1965, two films about Jean Harlow were released, both called Harlow. One starred Carroll Baker[56] and the other, Carol Lynley.[57] Both were poorly received and did not perform well at the box office.[58] In 1978, Lindsay Bloom portrayed her in Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell.[59] More recently, Gwen Stefani briefly appeared as Harlow in Martin Scorsese‘s 2004 Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator.[60]


Year Title Role Notes
1928 Honor Bound Uncredited unconfirmed
1928 Moran of the Marines Uncredited
1929 New York Nights Party Guest Uncredited
1929 This Thing Called Love Uncredited
1929 Fugitives Uncredited
1929 Why Be Good? Uncredited
1929 Close Harmony Uncredited
1929 Saturday Night Kid, TheThe Saturday Night Kid Hazel Uncredited
1929 Love Parade, TheThe Love Parade Lady-in-Waiting Uncredited
1929 Weak But Willing Uncredited
1930 Hell’s Angels Helen as Jean Harlowe
1931 City Lights Extra in restaurant scene Uncredited
1931 Secret Six, TheThe Secret Six Anne Courtland
1931 Public Enemy, TheThe Public Enemy Gwen Allen
1931 Iron Man Rose Mason
1931 Goldie Goldie
1931 Platinum Blonde Anne Schuyler
1931 Beau Hunks Jeanie-Weenie (in photo) Uncredited
1932 Three Wise Girls Cassie Barnes
1932 Beast of the City, TheThe Beast of the City Daisy Stevens, aka Mildred Beaumont
1932 Red-Headed Woman Lillian ‘Lil’/’Red’ Andrews Legendre
1932 Red Dust Vantine
1933 Hold Your Man Ruby Adams
1933 Dinner at Eight Kitty Packard
1933 Bombshell Lola Burns
1934 Girl from Missouri, TheThe Girl from Missouri Eadie
1935 Reckless Mona Leslie
1935 China Seas Dolly ‘China Doll’ Portland
1936 Riffraff Hattie
1936 Wife vs. Secretary Helen “Whitey” Wilson
1936 Suzy Suzy
1936 Libeled Lady Gladys Benton
1937 Personal Property Crystal Wetherby
1937 Saratoga Carol Clayton
Short subjects

Year Title Role Notes
1928 Chasing Husbands Bathing beauty Uncredited
1929 Liberty Woman in cab as Harlean Carpenter
1929 Why Is a Plumber?
1929 Unkissed Man, TheThe Unkissed Man Uncredited
1929 Double Whoopee Swanky blonde
1929 Thundering Toupees
1929 Bacon Grabbers Mrs. Kennedy
1929 Weak But Willing
1932 Screen Snapshots Herself
1933 Hollywood on Parade No. A-12 Herself
1933 Hollywood on Parade No. B-1 Herself
1934 Hollywood on Parade No. B-6 Herself
1937 Candid Camera Story (Very Candid)
of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures 1937 Convention, TheThe Candid Camera Story (Very Candid)
of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures 1937 Convention
Herself Uncredited

  • ^ Obituary Variety, June 9, 1937, page 54.
  • ^ a b Parish, James Robert; Gregory W. Mank and Don E. Stanke (1978). The Hollywood Beauties. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House Publishers. p. 192. ISBN 0-87000-412-3. 
  • ^ “Harlean” was a feminization of the name “Harlow”, which her parents had planned to name the baby if it were a boy (source: Parish, p. 192).
  • ^ Eve Golden: Platinum Girl: The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow, p. 13. Abbeville Press, 1991.
  • ^ Stenn, p. 7-9
  • ^ Stenn, pp. 12–13
  • ^ Stenn, p. 9, 12–13
  • ^ Stenn, p. 14
  • ^ Stenn, p. 14-15
  • ^ Stenn, p. 17
  • ^ Stenn, p. 18
  • ^ Stenn, pp. 20–21
  • ^ Stenn, pp. 22–24
  • ^ Stenn, p. 25
  • ^ Stenn, pp. 25–26
  • ^ Stenn, pp. 27–28
  • ^ Stenn, pp. 28–29
  • ^ Stenn, p. 29-30
  • ^ a b Stenn, pp.30–33
  • ^ Stenn, pp.34–38
  • ^ a b Stenn, pp. 42, 46–47
  • ^ Stenn, pp. 50–51
  • ^ Stenn, pp. 54–57
  • ^ Stenn, p. 59
  • ^ Stenn, pp. 65–66
  • ^ Stenn, pp. 67–71
  • ^ Stenn, pp. 73–74
  • ^ Parish, p. 203
  • ^ Stenn, pp. 146–147
  • ^ Wayne, Jane Ellen (2002). The Golden Girls of MGM. Carroll & Graf. p. 114, 115. ISBN 0-786-71303-8. 
  • ^ Golden, p. 194, 207–208
  • ^ Stenn, p. 207
  • ^ a b Golden, p. 208
  • ^ Stenn, p. 226
  • ^ a b c Golden, p. 210
  • ^ Stenn, p. 227
  • ^ Golden, p. 211, 214
  • ^ Stenn, p. 355
  • ^ Parish, p. 232-233
  • ^ Golden, p. 214
  • ^ Golden, p. 214
  • ^ Stenn, p. 225-226
  • ^ Stenn, p. 228-229
  • ^ Golden, p. 208-210
  • ^ Golden, p. 208-210
  • ^ Stenn, p. 232-233, check also Jean Harlow web pages
  • ^ Golden, p. 211
  • ^ Golden, p. 214-215
  • ^ Golden, p. 214-215
  • ^ Golden, p. 222
  • ^ Golden, p. 222-223
  • ^ Stenn, p. 239
  • ^ Golden, p. 218-219
  • ^ Golden, p. 218-219
  • ^ Sheppard, Eugenia (1965-06-22), “Harlow Novel Leaves No Dry Eye”, The Montreal Gazette: 20,,4793576&dq=today-is-tonight&hl=en, retrieved 2010-01-17 
  • ^ Harlow at the Internet Movie Database
  • ^ Harlow at the Internet Movie Database
  • ^ Parish, p. 238
  • ^ Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell at the Internet Movie Database
  • ^ The Aviator at the Internet Movie Database
    • Golden, Eve: Platinum Girl: The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow. Abbeville Press, 1991.
    • Stenn, David. Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow. Bentam Doubleday Dell Publishing, New York, 1993.


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