Harlean Harlow Carpenter was born March 3, 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Her parents nicknamed her “The Baby,” a name that would stick with her for the rest of her life.
When her mother and father divorced in September of 1922, her mother was granted sole custody of Harlean. Mother Jean soon left Kansas City with her daughter for Hollywood.
Mother Jean had hopes of becoming an actress but was too old at the age of 34 to begin a film career.
The two were forced to return to Kansas City after two years of dwindling finances.
Baby Harlean next attended the Ferry Hall School in Lake Forest, Illinois.
In 1926 at school, she met and fell in love with Chuck McGrew, an heir to a large fortune.
Then on September 21, 1927, at the age of 16, Baby Harlean and Chuck McGrew eloped. Two months later McGrew turned 21 and received a large part of his inheritance.
The couple moved to Los Angeles in 1928, settling into a home in Beverly Hills where Baby Harlean thrived as a wealthy socialite.
Then Baby Harlean befriended Rosalie Roy, a young aspiring actress. Rosalie did not have a car, and one day Baby Harlean drove Rosalie to Fox Studios for an appointment.
While waiting for her friend, Baby Harlean was noticed and approached by Fox executives.
Harlean was not interested, however, she was given a letter of introduction to Central Casting in the event she changed her mind.
A few days later Rosalie bet Harlean that she did not have the nerve to go and audition.
Unwilling to lose a pride wager, and pressed by an overly enthusiastic mother, Baby Harlean drove to Central Casting and signed in under her mother’s maiden name, Jean Harlow.
After rejecting several calls from Central Casting, Baby Harlean was pressed into accepting work by her mother, now back in Los Angeles.
In 1928, Jean Harlow appeared in her first film, Honor Bound, as an unbilled extra for $7 a day.
This led to more small parts in silent feature films such as Moran of the Marines, This Thing Called Love, Close Harmony, and The Love Parade among others.
Then in December 1928, Jean Harlow signed a five-year contract with Hal Roach Studios for $100 per week.
Jean then became a co-star in Laurel and Hardy’s short Double Whoopee in 1929, and went on to appear in two more of their films that year: Liberty and Bacon Grabbers.
By March of 1929, however, Jean Harlow parted with Roach Studios, who tore up her contract after Jean told him, “It’s breaking up my marriage, what can I do?”
In June 1929, Jean Harlow separated from her husband and moved in with her mother.
After her separation from Chuck McGrew, Jean Harlow worked as an extra in several movies.
She landed her first speaking role in 1929’s The Saturday Night Kid, starring Clara Bow.
Then in late 1929, Jean was spotted by James Hall, an actor filming Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels. Howard Hughes was re-shooting the previous silent film into sound, and needed a new actress to replace Greta Nissen, who had a Norwegian accent that was considered to be undesirable for a talkie.
Jean Harlow shot a test and got the part.
Howard Hughes signed Jean 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.
The movie made Harlow an international star over night, but though she was popular with audiences, critics were less than enthusiastic.
The New Yorker called her performance “plain awful”, though Variety magazine conceded; “It doesn’t matter what degree of talent she possesses … nobody ever starved possessing what she’s got.”
During the shooting Jean had met MGM executive Paul Bern.
Jean once again worked as an uncredited extra in the 1931 Charlie Chaplin film City Lights.
With no projects planned for Jean Harlow, Hughes sent her to New York, Seattle and Kansas City for Hell’s Angels premieres.
In 1931, Howard Hughes’ Caddo Company loaned Jean Harlow out to other studios.
Soon Jean gained more public 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 successes of these films ranged from moderate to a hit, Jean Harlow’s acting was again mocked by critics.
Concerned, Howard Hughes sent her on a brief publicity tour which was not a success as Jean dreaded such personal appearances.
Jean Harlow was next cast in the 1931 film Platinum Blonde with Loretta Young.
The film, originally titled “Gallagher,” was renamed by Howard Hughes to promote Jean Harlow, capitalizing on her hair color, called “platinum” by Hughes’ publicists.
Though Jean denied her hair was dyed, this color was reportedly achieved by bleaching with a weekly application of ammonia, Clorox bleach and Lux soap flakes, weakening and damaging her naturally ash-blonde hair.
Many female fans began dyeing their hair to match hers and Howard 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.
Jean Harlow next filmed Three Wise Girls with Mae Clark and Walter Byron.
Paul Bern then arranged to borrow Jean for The Beast of the City that co-starred Walter Huston.
After filming, Bern booked Jean for a ten-week personal appearance tour on the East Coast.
To the surprise of many, especially Jean Harlow herself, she packed every theater in which she appeared, often appearing in a single venue for several nights.
Despite critical disparagement and poor roles, Jean Harlow’s popularity and following was large and growing and, in February 1932, the tour was extended by six weeks.
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 had 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 Fay Wray, wearing a blonde wig.
Soon, Jean Harlow and Paul Bern became romantically involved.
Paul Bern spoke to Louis B. Mayer about buying-out her contract from Howard Hughes and signing her to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but Mayer declined.
MGM’s leading ladies were presented as elegant, while Harlow’s “floozy” screen persona was abhorrent to Mayer.
Bern then began urging close friend Irving Thalberg, production head of MGM, to sign Harlow, noting her popularity and established image.
After initial reluctance Thalberg agreed and, on March 3, 1932, Jean Harlow’s twenty-first birthday, Paul Bern called her with the news that MGM had purchased her contract from Hughes for $30,000.
Jean Harlow officially joined the studio on April 20, 1932.
At MGM, Jean Harlow was given superior movie roles to show off her looks and nascent comedic talent. Though Jean’s screen persona changed dramatically during her career, one constant was her apparent sense of humor.
In 1932, she starred in the comedy Red-Headed Woman, for which she received $1,250 a week. The film is often noted as being one of the few films Harlow did not appear in with platinum blonde hair; she died her hair red for the role.
She next starred in Red Dust, her second film with Clark Gable, appearing more at ease in front of the camera, so that her ability in comedy became evident.
Harlow and Gable worked well together and went on to co-star in a total of six films.
Jean was also paired multiple times with Spencer Tracy and William Powell.
At this point MGM began trying to distinguish Jean 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 to change her image from that of a tramp to a all-American girl.
This transformation proved difficult: as Jean Harlow was once overheard muttering, “My God, must I always wear a low-cut dress to be important?”
During the making of Red Dust, Jean Harlow married second husband, MGM producer Paul Bern on July 2, 1932.
Two months later, on September 5, 1932, Paul Bern was found dead from a gunshot to the head in their home.
Police discovered a note at the scene that read as follows:
Unfortunately [sic] this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation, I Love [sic] you.
You understand that last night was only a comedy”
Authorities viewed this as a suicide note signed by Bern.
To the police, and before a grand jury, Jean Harlow’s only statement was that she “knew nothing”. She never publicly spoke on the matter.
Initially there was speculation that Jean Harlow had killed Bern, but his death was officially ruled a suicide.
Jean Harlow remained silent, survived the scandal, and became more popular than ever.
After Paul Bern’s death, Jean Harlow began an indiscreet affair with boxer Max Baer who, though separated from his wife Dorothy Dunbar, was threatened with divorce proceedings naming Harlow as a co-respondent for “alienation of affection”, a legal term for adultery.
After Bern’s mysterious death the studio did not want another scandal and defused the situation by arranging a marriage between Jean Harlow and cinematographer Harold Rosson.
Rosson and Harlow were friends and Rosson went along with the plan.
They quietly divorced seven months later.
By 1933, MGM realized the value of the Jean Harlow-Clark Gable team and paired them again in Hold Your Man. The same year, Jean played the lonely wife of Wallace Beery in the all-star Dinner at Eight, and played a pressured Hollywood film star in Bombshell with Lee Tracy.
The film has often been cited as being based on Harlow’s own life or that of 1920s “It girl”, Clara Bow.
The following year, Jean was teamed with Lionel Barrymore and Franchot Tone in The Girl from Missouri. The film was MGM’s attempt to present Jean Harlow as a more elegant and classy film actress, like that of other female stars of MGM at the time. While the movie drew unfavorable reviews, it was a large box office success upon release.
Remembering the financial success of Red Dust and Hold Your Man, MGM cast Jean Harlow with Clark Gable in two more films: China Seas (1935), with Wallace Beery and Rosalind Russell, and Wife vs. Secretary (1936), with Myrna Loy and James Stewart. James Stewart later spoke of a scene in a car with Jean 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.”
From 1933 to 1935, Jean Harlow was consistently listed in the “Top Ten Moneymaking Stars Poll” of the Motion Picture Herald. She ranked fourth at the box office in 1933, which at that time was higher than fellow MGM actresses: Greta Garbo who ranked seventh, Norma Shearer who ranked ninth, and Joan Crawford who ranked tenth.
Jean Harlow ranked seventh in 1934 and sixth in 1935.
In 1935, Jean appeared in Reckless with William Powell and Franchot Tone. It was her first musical film, and while her character sings in the movie, Harlow’s voice for the performance was dubbed with skilled vocalist Virginia Verrill.
By the mid-1930s Jean 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.
After her arranged third marriage ended in 1934, Jean Harlow met William Powell, another MGM star, and the two 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).
Jean Harlow was quoted as having said that Louis B. Mayer would never allow them to marry.
In late 1936, Jean filmed W.S. Van Dyke’s comedy Personal Property, co-starring Robert Taylor. It would prove to be Harlow’s final fully completed motion picture appearance.
Jean complained about ill health on May 20, 1937, while 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 cholecystitis and influenza.
However her doctor was apparently unaware that Jean Harlow had been ill during the previous year with a severe sunburn, the flu, as well as septicemia after a wisdom tooth extraction.
Her friend and co-star Myrna Loy noticed Jean’s grey complexion, fatigue and weight gain.
On May 29, 1937, Jean 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 told him; “I feel terrible. Get me back to my dressing room.”
Jean Harlow requested that the assistant director telephone her boyfriend William Powell, who left his own movie set to escort her back home.
On May 30, William Powell recalled Jean’s mother from a holiday trip when he found her condition had not improved and summoned the doctor to her home.
Jean Harlow’s illnesses had previously 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 Jean Harlow was suffering from influenza.
Jean sais she felt better on June 3 and co-workers expected her back on the set by Monday, June 7.
Press reports were contradictory, with headlines stating the extremes of “Jean Harlow seriously ill” to “Harlow past illness crisis.”
When Jean told William Powell on June 6 that she could not see him properly, he again called for her doctor.
As Jean slipped into a deep slumber and experienced difficulty breathing, the doctor finally realized that she was suffering from something serious.
That evening Jean Harlow was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where she slipped into a coma.
The next day, June 7, 1937 at 11:37 a.m. Jean Harlow died in the hospital at the age of 26.
In the doctor’s press releases the cause of death was given as cerebral edema, a complication of kidney failure. Hospital records mention uremia.
For years rumors circulated about Jean Harlow’s death. Some claimed that her mother had refused to call a doctor because she was a Christian Scientist or that Harlow herself had 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 medical bulletins, hospital records and testimony of her relatives and friends prove it was kidney disease.
From the onset of her illness, resting at home, Jean Harlow had been attended by a doctor: two nurses visited her house and various equipment was brought from a nearby hospital.
However, it was also reported that Harlow’s mother had barred some visitors, such as the MGM doctor, who later stated that her death was because they were Christian Scientists.
Jean Harlow’s kidney failure could not have been cured in the 1930s.
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.
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 for her funeral on June 9th.
Jean Harlow 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 which Powell had written: “Goodnight, my dearest darling.”
There is a simple inscription on Harlow’s grave; “Our Baby”.
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 was cremated: his ashes were scattered over the Palm Springs Desert area.
MGM planned to replace Jean Harlow in Saratoga with either Jean Arthur or Virginia Bruce, 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) and re-writing some scenes without her.
The film was MGM’s second-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.
Since her death, Jean Harlow as been recognized as one of the greatest movie stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood and as one of the brightest film comediennes ever to grace the silver screen.
The American Film Institute has also ranked her among the greatest movie stars.
Now WE know em