Jean Harlow (born Harlean Harlow Carpenter; March 3, 1911 – June 7, 1937) was an American film actress and sex symbol of the 1930s. Harlow was only on the screen from 1928 to 1937, before her death at the age of 26, but she became one of the biggest movie stars in the world, whose image in the public eye has endured. Often nicknamed the "Blonde Bombshell" and the "Platinum Blonde", she was popular for her "Laughing Vamp" movie persona.
Harlow in 1933
Harlean Harlow Carpenter
March 3, 1911
Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.
|Died||June 7, 1937 26) (aged|
|Cause of death||Kidney failure|
|Resting place||Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale|
|Education||Ferry Hall School|
(m. 1927; div. 1929)
(m. 1932; died 1932)
(m. 1933; div. 1934)
Harlow was signed by billionaire producer Howard Hughes, who directed her first major appearance as a sex symbol in Hell's Angels (1930). In 1932, after a series of critically unsuccessful films and Hughes losing interest in her career, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought out Harlow's contract. Harlow became a leading lady, starring in a string of hits including her breakthrough acting role Red-Headed Woman (1932), Red Dust (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Reckless (1935) and Suzy (1936). Harlow became one of MGM's biggest stars of the 1930s, her popularity soon surpassing that of MGM colleagues Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer.
Harlow died during the filming of MGM's Saratoga (1937). The studio was able to complete the film by using body doubles for Harlow in long shots. The picture was released a little over a month after Harlow's death. The American Film Institute ranks Jean Harlow as the 22nd-greatest female star of classic Hollywood cinema.
Jean Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in a house located at 3344 Olive Street in Kansas City, Missouri. Her father, Mont Clair Carpenter (1877–1974), son of Abraham L. Carpenter and Dianna (née Beal), was a dentist who attended dental school in Kansas City. He was from a working-class background.
Her mother, Jean Poe Carpenter (née Harlow; 1891–1958), was the daughter of wealthy real estate broker Skip Harlow and his wife, Ella Harlow (née Williams). In 1908, her father arranged her marriage to Mont Clair Carpenter. She was underage at the time and grew resentful and unhappy in the marriage, but they remained married, for a time, living in a Kansas City house owned by her father.
Harlean Harlow Carpenter was born to Mont Clair and Jean Poe Harlow Carpenter on March 3, 1911. Harlean was called "The Baby, " a nickname that endured for the rest of her life. She was so accustomed to being called "The Baby" that she did not learn that her real name was Harlean until she was five years old, when staff and students at Miss Barstow's Finishing School for Girls used the name. Harlean was always very close to her mother, who was extremely protective and coddling, reportedly instilling a sense in her daughter that she owed everything she had to her. "She was always all mine!", Mama Jean said of her daughter. (Jean Carpenter became known as "Mama Jean" when Harlean achieved star status as Jean Harlow.)
When Harlean was at school, her mother filed for a divorce. On September 29, 1922, the uncontested divorce was finalized, giving sole custody of Harlean to her mother. Harlean loved her father very much but would rarely see him again. Because of her untimely death at the age of twenty-six, he would survive his daughter by thirty-seven years
In 1923, Jean Carpenter, age 34, took her daughter and moved to Hollywood in hopes of becoming an actress. However, Mama Jean was told that she was too old to begin a film career. Young Harlean attended the Hollywood School for Girls and met Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Joel McCrea, and Irene Mayer Selznick. She dropped out of school at age 14, in the spring of 1925.
With their finances dwindling, Jean and Harlean moved back to Kansas City after Skip Harlow issued an ultimatum that he would disinherit Jean if they did not return. Several weeks later, Skip sent his granddaughter to summer camp at Camp Cha-Ton-Ka, in Michigamme, Michigan, where she became ill with scarlet fever. Her mother traveled to Michigan to care for Harlean, rowing herself across the lake to the camp, but was told that she could not see her daughter.
1927–1929: Marriage and beginnings
Harlean next attended the Ferry Hall School (now Lake Forest Academy) in Lake Forest, Illinois. Jean Carpenter had an ulterior motive for her daughter's attendance at this particular school: It was close to the Chicago home of her boyfriend, Marino Bello. During Harlean's freshman year at the school, she was paired with a "big sister" from the senior class who introduced her to 19-year-old Charles "Chuck" Fremont McGrew, an heir to a large fortune. By the fall of 1926, Harlean and Chuck were dating seriously, and they were married in 1927. Jean Carpenter was also married that same year to Marino Bello, on January 18th. However, Harlean did not attend her mother's wedding.
In 1928, the McGrews left Chicago and moved to Beverly Hills. Chuck McGrew turned 21 two months after the marriage and received part of his large inheritance. The couple moved to Los Angeles, 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 Chuck nor Harlean worked during this time, and both were considered heavy drinkers.
In Los Angeles, Harlean befriended a young aspiring actress named Rosalie Roy. Not owning a car herself, Rosalie asked Harlean to drive her to Fox Studios for an appointment. The story goes that Harlean was noticed and approached by Fox executives while waiting for her friend, and Harlean said that she was not interested. Nevertheless, she was given letters of introduction to Central Casting. A few days later, Rosalie Roy bet Harlean that she did not have the nerve to go in for an audition. Unwilling to lose a wager and pressed by her enthusiastic mother who had followed her daughter to Los Angeles by this time, Harlean went to Central Casting and signed in under her mother's maiden name, Jean Harlow.
After several calls from Central Casting and a number of job offers that she rejected, Harlean’s mother finally pressed her into accepting work at the studio. Harlean appeared in her first film, Honor Bound (1928), as an unbilled "extra" for $7 a day and a box lunch, common pay for such work. This led to wage increase of $10 per day and small parts in feature films such as Moran of the Marines (1928), This Thing Called Love (1929), Close Harmony (1929), and The Love Parade (1929), among others as she gained more work and was noticed on the lot. In December 1928, Harlean as Jean Harlow signed a five-year contract with Hal Roach Studios for $100 per week. She had a co-starring role in Laurel and Hardy's short Double Whoopee in 1929, and went on to appear in two more of their films: Liberty and Bacon Grabbers (both 1929).
In March 1929, 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 an "extra" in several movies. She landed her first speaking role in 1929's The Saturday Night Kid starring Clara Bow. Harlean and her husband divorced in 1929.
In late 1929, Jean Harlow was spotted by James Hall, an actor filming Howard Hughes's Hell's Angels. Hughes was reshooting most of his originally silent film with sound and needed an actress to replace Greta Nissen, whose Norwegian accent was undesirable for her character. 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 at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on May 27, 1930, and became the highest-grossing film of that year, besting even Greta Garbo's talkie debut in Anna Christie.
Hell's Angels had made Harlow an international star. Though she was popular with audiences, the 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, Harlow met MGM executive Paul Bern. In spite of her relative success with Hell's Angels, Harlow again found herself in a role as an uncredited extra in the 1931 Charlie Chaplin film City Lights, though her appearance did not make the final cut.
With no other projects planned for Harlow at the time, Hughes decided to send her to New York, Seattle, and Kansas City for Hell's Angels premieres. In 1931, his Caddo Company loaned her out to other studios, where she gained more attention by appearing 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. Even though the successes of these films ranged from moderate to hit, Harlow's acting ability was mocked by critics. Hughes sent her on a brief publicity tour in order to bolster her career, but this was not a success, because Harlow dreaded making personal appearances.
Harlow briefly dated Abner Zwillman, and he got her a two-picture deal at Columbia Pictures by making a large cash loan to studio head Harry Cohn. Zwillman bought Harlow a jeweled bracelet and a red Cadillac, but reportedly referred to her in derogatory and vulgar terms when speaking to other mobsters, as revealed in secret surveillance recordings.
Harlow was next cast in Platinum Blonde (1931), for Columbia Pictures, with Loretta Young. The film, originally titled Gallagher, was renamed by Hughes to promote Harlow, capitalizing on her hair color, called "platinum" by Hughes's publicists. Though Harlow denied her hair was dyed, the platinum blonde color was reportedly achieved by bleaching with a weekly application of ammonia, Clorox bleach, and Lux soap flakes. This process weakened and damaged Harlow's naturally ash-blonde hair. Many female fans began dyeing their hair to match hers. Howard Hughes' team organized a series of "Platinum Blonde" clubs across the nation and offered a prize of $10,000 to any beautician who could match Harlow's shade.No one could, and the prize went unclaimed. However, Hughes' publicity scheme worked and the "Platinum Blonde" nickname stuck with Harlow.
Harlow next filmed Three Wise Girls (1932), for Columbia Pictures, with Mae Clarke and Walter Byron. Paul Bern then arranged to borrow her for The Beast of the City (1932), co-starring Walter Huston. After filming, Bern booked a 10-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 in a single venue for several nights. Despite critical disparagement and poor roles, Harlow's popularity and following were large and growing, and in February 1932, the tour was extended by six weeks.
According to Fay Wray, who played Ann Darrow in King Kong (1933) for Radio Pictures, Harlow was the original choice to play the screaming blonde heroine, but was under an exclusive contract with MGM during the film's pre-production phase—and the part went to Wray, a brunette who had to wear a blonde wig.
When mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel came to Hollywood to expand casino operations, Harlow became the informal godmother of Siegel's eldest daughter, Millicent, when the family lived in Beverly Hills.
1932–1936: MGM stardom
Paul Bern was now romantically involved with Harlow and spoke to Louis B. Mayer about buying out her contract with Hughes and signing her to MGM, but Mayer declined. MGM's leading ladies were presented as elegant, and 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, Harlow's 21st birthday, Bern called her with the news that MGM had purchased her contract from Hughes for $30,000. Harlow officially joined the studio on April 20, 1932.
At MGM, Harlow was given superior movie roles to show off her looks and nascent comedic talent. Though Harlow's screen persona changed dramatically during her career, one constant was her sense of humor. In 1932, she starred in the comedy Red-Headed Woman for which she received $1,250 a week. It was her first film in which she "resembles something of an actress", portraying a woman who is successful at being amoral in a film that doesn't moralize or punish the character for her behavior. The film is often noted as being one of the few films in which Harlow did not appear with platinum blonde hair; she wore a red wig for the role. One day, after a screen test for the film, actress Anita Page passed Harlow on the studio lot and didn't acknowledge her. She later told Page that she was so hurt by the snub that she went back to her dressing room and cried. When she lifted her head and saw herself in the mirror, she noticed the red wig and realized Page hadn't recognized her. "That shows you how sensitive she was", Page said. "She was a lovely person in so many ways."
She next starred in Red Dust, her second film with Clark Gable. 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. At this point MGM began trying to distinguish Harlow's public persona from that of her screen characters, putting it out that her childhood surname was not common 'Carpenter' but chic 'Carpentier', claiming that writer Edgar Allan Poe was one of her ancestors, and publishing photographs of her doing charity work so as to change her image of being disreputable to that of an all-American woman. This transformation proved difficult; once, Harlow was heard muttering, "My God, must I always wear a low-cut dress to be important?"
During the making of Red Dust, Bern—her husband of two months—was found dead at their home; this created a lasting scandal. Initially, Harlow was suspected of killing Bern, but his death was officially ruled a suicide by self-inflicted gunshot wound. Louis B. Mayer feared negative publicity from the incident and intended to replace Harlow in the film, offering the role to Tallulah Bankhead. Bankhead was appalled by the offer and wrote in her autobiography, "To damn the radiant Jean for the misfortune of another would be one of the shabbiest acts of all time. I told Mr. Mayer as much." Harlow kept silent, survived the ordeal, and became more popular than ever. A 2009 biography of Bern asserted that Bern was, in fact, murdered by a former lover and the crime scene re-arranged by MGM executives to make it appear Bern had killed himself.
After Bern's death, 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 Harlow and cinematographer Harold Rosson. Rosson and Harlow were friends, and Rosson went along with the plan. They quietly divorced eight months later.
By 1933, MGM realized the value of the Harlow-Gable team and paired them again in Hold Your Man (1933), which was also a box-office success. In the same year she played the adulterous wife of Wallace Beery in the all-star comedy-drama Dinner at Eight, and played a pressured Hollywood film star in the screwball comedy Bombshell with Lee Tracy. The film has been said to be based on Harlow's own life or that of 1920s "It girl" Clara Bow.
The following year, she was teamed with Lionel Barrymore and Franchot Tone in The Girl from Missouri (1934). The film was the studio's attempt to soften Harlow's image, but suffered from censorship problems, so much so that its original title, Born to Be Kissed, had to be changed.
After the financial success of Red Dust and Hold Your Man, MGM cast Harlow with Clark Gable in two more successful films: China Seas (1935), with Wallace Beery and Rosalind Russell; and Wife vs. Secretary (1936), with Myrna Loy and James Stewart. 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."
From 1933 onward, Harlow was consistently voted one of the strongest box office draws in the United States, often outranking her female colleagues at MGM in audience popularity polls. Reckless (1935) was her first movie musical. It co-starred her then-boyfriend William Powell and Franchot Tone. When her character sings in the movie, the voice is that of skilled vocalist Virginia Verrill.
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 Garbo, 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.
After her third marriage ended in 1934, Harlow met William Powell, another MGM star, and quickly fell in love. The couple was reportedly engaged for two years, but differences ranging from past marriages to Powell's uncertainty about the future, kept them from publicly formalizing their relationship. MGM also liked the box office of the attainable, single Harlow.
Suzy (1936), in which she played the title role, gave her top billing over Franchot Tone and Cary Grant. While critics noted that Harlow dominated the film, it was a reasonable box-office success. She then starred in Riffraff (1936) with Spencer Tracy and Una Merkel, a financial disappointment, and the worldwide hit Libeled Lady (1936), in which she was top-billed over Powell, Myrna Loy, and Tracy. She then filmed W.S. Van Dyke's comedy Personal Property (1937), co-starring Robert Taylor. It was Harlow's final completed motion picture appearance.
In January 1937, Harlow and Robert Taylor traveled to Washington, D.C., to take part in fundraising activities associated with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's birthday, for the organization later known as the March of Dimes. The trip was physically taxing for Harlow, and she contracted influenza. She recovered in time to attend the Academy Awards ceremony with William Powell.
Filming for Harlow's final film, Saratoga, co-starring Clark Gable, was scheduled to begin in March 1937. However, production was delayed when she developed sepsis after a multiple wisdom tooth extraction and had to be hospitalized. Almost two months later, Harlow recovered, and shooting began on April 22, 1937.
On May 20, 1937, during the filming of Saratoga, Harlow began to complain of illness. Her symptoms—fatigue, nausea, fluid retention and abdominal pain—did not seem very serious to her doctor, who believed that she was suffering from cholecystitis and influenza. Unfortunately, the doctor was not aware that Harlow had been ill during the previous year with a severe sunburn and influenza. Her friend and co-star, Una Merkel, noticed Harlow's gray pallor, fatigue and weight gain on the set of Saratoga.
On May 29, 1937, Harlow filmed a scene in which the character she was playing had a fever. Harlow was clearly sicker than her character. She leaned against co-star Gable between scenes and said, "I feel terrible! Get me back to my dressing room." Harlow requested that the assistant director telephone William Powell, who immediately left his own movie set, in order to escort Harlow back home.
The next day, on May 30, 1937, Powell checked on Harlow and discovered that her condition had not improved. He contacted her mother and insisted that she cut her holiday short to come be at her daughter's side. Powell also summoned a doctor. Because Harlow's previous illnesses had delayed the shooting of three movies (Wife vs. Secretary, Suzy, and Libeled Lady), initially there was no great concern regarding Harlow's latest bout with a recurring illness. On June 2, 1937, it was announced that Harlow was again suffering from influenza. Dr. Ernest Fishbaugh who had been called to Harlow's home to treat her, diagnosed her with an inflamed gallbladder. Harlow felt better on June 3, 1937, and co-workers expected her back on the set by Monday, June 7, 1937. Press reports were contradictory, with headlines reading "Jean Harlow seriously ill" and "Harlow recovers from illness crisis." Clark Gable, who visited Harlow during this time, later remarked that she was severely bloated and that he smelled urine on her breath when he kissed her — both signs of kidney failure.
Dr. Leland Chapman, a colleague of Fishbaugh, was called in to give a second opinion on Harlow's condition. Chapman recognized that she was not suffering from an inflamed gallbladder at all, but was in the final stages of kidney failure. On June 6, 1937, Harlow said that she could not see Powell clearly and could not tell how many fingers he was holding up.
That evening, she was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where she slipped into a coma. The next day at 11:37 a.m., 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 Harlow's death. Some claimed that her mother had refused to call a doctor because she was a Christian Scientist or that Harlow had declined hospital treatment or surgery.
From the onset of her illness, Harlow had been attended by a doctor while she was resting at home. Two nurses also visited her house, and various equipment was brought from a nearby hospital. Harlow's grayish complexion, recurring illnesses, and severe sunburn were signs of the disease. Toxins also adversely affected her brain and central nervous system.
She had suffered from scarlet fever at age 15 in 1926. Speculation that Harlow suffered a poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis following the scarlet fever incident, which may have caused high blood pressure and ultimately kidney failure, has been suggested.
Harlow's death certificate gives the causes of her death as "acute respiratory infection", "acute nephritis", and "uremia". One of the MGM writers later said, "The day Baby died...there wasn't one sound in the commissary for three hours." Spencer Tracy wrote in his diary, "Jean Harlow died today. Grand gal." MGM closed on the day of her funeral, June 9, 1937.
She was buried in the gown she wore in Libeled Lady, and in her hands, she held a white gardenia and a note that Powell had written: "Goodnight, my dearest darling." The simple inscription on Harlow's grave is, "Our Baby". Spaces in the same room were reserved for Harlow's mother and Powell. Harlow's mother was buried there in 1958, but Powell married actress Diana Lewis in 1940. After his death in 1984, he was cremated and his ashes buried in Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, California.
MGM planned to replace Harlow in Saratoga with either Jean Arthur or Virginia Bruce; but due to public objections, the film was finished using three doubles (one for close-ups, one for long shots, and one for dubbing Harlow's lines) and rewriting some scenes without her; subsequent viewers have since tried to spot signs of Harlow's illness, or clearly perceive the scenes where Harlow was replaced by a double. Saratoga was released on July 23, 1937, which was less than two months after Harlow's death, and it was a hit with audiences. In fact, Saratoga became MGM's second-highest grossing picture of that year (1937).
Harlow wrote a novel titled Today is Tonight. In Arthur Landau's 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, though no film was made. The publication rights were passed from Harlow's mother to a family friend, and the book was finally published in 1965.
Film adaptations of Harlow's life were considered at different times during the 1950s. Twentieth Century-Fox had slated Jayne Mansfield for the role and ideas for Columbia Pictures actress Cleo Moore to play Harlow were also tabled. These projects never materialized. Actress Marilyn Monroe was given a Harlow script in 1953, however, she turned down the part of her idol, feeling it was underdeveloped.
In 1965, two films about Jean Harlow were released, both called Harlow. The first film was released by Magna in May 1965 and stars Carol Lynley. The second was released in June 1965 by Paramount Pictures and stars Carroll Baker. Both were poorly received and did not perform well at the box office.
On February 8, 1960, Jean Harlow was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 6910 Hollywood Boulevard on the south part of the Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA.
Harlow's signature, hands and footprints are located in a cement slab near the forecourt on the west side of the box office at The TCL Chinese Theater at 6925 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, CA.
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