Birth: March 3, 1911
Kansas City, United States
Death: June 7, 1937
Los Angeles, United States
Jean Harlow was born as Harlean Harlow Carpenter on March 3, 1911 in Kansas City. She was never called by her given name though; everyone who knew her called her Baby and would do so for the rest of her life. Her mother was the ambitious ‘Mama Jean’ who had married dentist Mont Clair Carpenter only because her staunch, rich father told her to do so. After ‘Baby’ Jean was born, her parents’ marriage was pretty much over, though they continued to live together for a few years.
Jean had a privileged upbringing, thanks to her grandfathers wealth. But she was excessively coddled by her protective and possessive mother. As Mama Jean would later say: ‘She was always all mine’. Jean attended the prestigious Miss Barstow’s Finishing School For Girls, but she was a sickly child who contracted a lot of childhood ailments. Her familiar, carefree upbringing ended when she was twelve. By 1923 her parents’ divorce was finalized and Mama Jean promptly decided that she was going to pursue her own dream of becoming a star. She moved to Hollywood and took Jean with her.
Jean’s world became a lot bigger. While her mother went to auditions, Jean went to school and socialized with people like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joel McCrea. But Mama Jean was in her thirties and quickly found out that she was considered too old by Hollywood standards to be a starlet. Nevertheless, she did take something from her Hollywood adventure: Mama Jean had converted to the popular Christian Science. A belief that was described by its founder as a ‘return to primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing’. But mother and daughter were struggling in Hollywood and in 1925 the pair moved back to Kansas. According to reports because Jean’s grandfather threatened to disinherit his daughter if they did not return. A few weeks later he sent Jean to a summer camp in Michigan. It would prove to be an eventful trip: Jean lost her virginity to a fellow camper, but also contracted scarlet fever.
When Jean came back she was in for an unpleasant surprise: her mother now lived in Chicago with her new boyfriend. And not just any boyfriend: Marino Bello, a Sicilian with an unsavory character and gangster connections. Meanwhile, Jean attended the Ferry Hall School in Illinois. It was here that she met Chuck McGrew, heir to a large fortune, in the fall of 1926 and they began dating. By now, Mama Jean had married Bello, who Jean despised. According to reports, Bello made sexual advances towards Jean and it is even said that he sexually abused her. But soon Jean would be gone: she and Chuck eloped and got married on January 18, 1927. They moved to Beverly Hills as Chuck was adamant about creating distance between Jean and her mother and stepfather.
Chuck and Jean lived large in L.A. and Jean reveled in her new role as socialite. In her new hometown, Jean befriended aspiring actress Rosalie Roy. She drove her to some auditions, where representatives of studios quickly offered the pretty Jean their business cards. She initially declined, but when Rosalie bet her that she just did not have the nerve, Jean decided to go to Central Casting. She signed in under her mother’s maiden name Jean Harlow. Still, it was just a dare and she was unsure about acting as a career. Her mother on the other hand, was very excited and pressed her to go ahead anyway.
This led to small parts in feature films such as This Thing Called Love and The Love Parade. But Jean’s marriage was unraveling and soon she found herself living with her mother and stepfather again. Jean and Chuck officially divorced in 1929.
Again, Jean was unsure if she should continue acting as a profession. But Mama Jean was invested in her daughter’s Hollywood adventure and did everything she could to convince Jean. Soon she got a helping hand from none other than Howard Hughes. Hughes was re-shooting his silent film Hell’s Angels to turn it into a talkie and needed an actress. When someone brought Jean to his attention, he gave her the part and a five year contract. Jean was very nervous throughout filming and she felt that she did not know how to act. Still, Hell’s Angels became the biggest hit of 1930. But critics were harsh, saying that Jean was ‘awful’ in the film. But she had other things on her mind now: on set she had met MGM executive Paul Bern and the two started dating.
Jean made several films back to back in the next two years, the most famous one being Platinum Blonde (1931). The film was named after Jean’s (dyed) hair color, for which she had become famous by now. She was still not seen as a great actress, but the audience loved her and. She was known for her glamour and straight-forward sexuality, but the latter also made her somewhat controversial. Her gowns were tight and her one-liners filled with sexual innuendo. In the meantime Paul was working hard to secure a contract for Jean at his studio MGM to make her a real star. The studio was known for its elegant and somewhat prudish style at the time, so they were not too excited about ‘blonde bombshell’ Jean. But Paul came through and on April 20, 1932 Jean signed with studio giant MGM. Her first movie for them was Red-Headed Woman, a comedy in which she showed her burgeoning comedic talent. That year, on July 2, Jean married Paul. She was 21 and he was 43.
They were an odd couple, but Jean said that she loved how Paul liked her for her mind and they seemed devoted to one another. Jean was then paired with Clark Gable to film Red Dust. It proved to be one of the most successful pairings in Hollywood history. The two would make five more films together and got along famously.
Then a tragedy occurred. On September 5th of that year, two months after their wedding, Paul was found dead from a gunshot to the head in their home. A suicide note was found and Jean was reported to have been hysterical for days. A line in the note read: ‘last night was only a comedy’, which was said to allude to impotence, which was given as a reason for his suicide. But soon rumors started swirling about murder. MGM colleagues were reportedly at the scene before the police and it was said that they had tampered with the evidence to make it look like a suicide. Jean was at her mother’s house that fatal evening and only stated that she ‘knew nothing’. Some claimed that Jean had something to do with Paul’s death, but the more common story is that Paul’s mentally ill ex-wife Dorothy Millette had shot him. Dorothy could not respond to the rumors anymore, since she had committed suicide by drowning soon after Paul’s death. Jean never spoke of the ordeal in public, but it secured her image as ‘femme-fatale’.
Jean’s career skyrocketed by now. Red Dust was a huge hit and she was paired with Clark Gable again for Hold Your Man. But scandal seemed to follow her; Jean had an affair with boxer Max Baer and she was named as a co-respondent for adultery in the divorce proceedings Max’ wife filed. Because MGM did not want another scandal they arranged for Jean to marry cinematographer Harold Rosson to distract the media and the public. The pair quietly divorced as friends eight months later. Meanwhile, her career thrived and she starred in one of her most famous roles during this time: the glamorous Kitty in the star-studded Dinner at Eight.
Jean made films back to back, but she was unhappy with her image as the sexy blonde bombshell. Another problem was that her mother was with her on every set and she put a lot of pressure on Jean. Although the two were very close, it is often said that Mama Jean lived vicariously through her daughter and forced her to be a star. But in 1935 Jean found somebody new to lean on: fellow actor William Powell.
They starred together in the musical Reckless. Jean was crazy about William and wanted nothing more than seeing her ultimate dream come true: to get married and have children. But William had already been divorced twice and he was not ready yet. Although this was obviously not her fault, it made Jean even more insecure and she started drinking more heavily.
In 1936 MGM finally gave Jean a chance to get rid of her ‘cheap’ image. They let her dye her hair darker and gave her more dramatic roles. The best example of this is the classic Wife vs. Secretary, which she starred in with her friend Myrna Loy. It was her who noticed a change in her friend’s physique during filming and wondered if Jean was sick. But Jean brushed it off. In late 1936 she had to sidetrack a promotional tour because of influenza. Not long after, she contracted a severe sunburn and septicemia after dental surgery to extract two wisdom teeth. But these were minor health problems and Jean had always gotten sick easily, so no one was alarmed.
In 1937, William finally asked Jean to marry him and the pair got engaged. Still, her health problems caused a delay in her schedule and it was not until the spring that she was ready to start working again. She started filming Saratoga with good friend Clark Gable on April 22. On May 20, she began to complain about feeling sick. A doctor was summoned, but he attributed her symptoms (fatigue, nausea, water weight and abdominal pain) to influenza. On May 29, she was playing a scene with Clark Gable in which her character had a fever. But she did not have to pretend. Jean was out of breath and covered in sweat when she told Clark: ‘I feel terrible. Get me back to my dressing room’. Once there, she requested William. He came, brought her home and called a doctor. She was diagnosed with influenza and an inflamed gallbladder. Still, it was not assumed that Jean was seriously ill and the studio expected her back in a few days. Her mother and a team of nurses took care of her, which started the rumor that her mother refused to take her to a hospital because she was a Christian Scientist. But Jean was not getting better and a doctor was called in for a second opinion. He realized that she was in the final stages of kidney failure. On the evening of June 6 Jean was taken to the hospital where she slipped into a coma. The next morning she died in William Powell’s arms at the age of 26.
America mourned and MGM made sure that a big funeral was held. Jean was buried in a private room of multicolored marble which William Powell bought. The inscription simply reads ‘Our Baby’. Her mother was placed in the same crypt after her death in 1958. Many rumors surfaced about the cause of Jean’s death. Besides her mother’s religious convictions, alcoholism, a botched abortion and even hair-dye were named as culprits. But when her medical records were unsealed in 1990 it showed that she in fact died of kidney failure. Something they could not cure in the 1930’s, when dialysis, kidney transplants and antibiotics were unheard of. It is assumed that she suffered a post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, following the scarlet fever she contracted at summer camp when she was young, causing her many illnesses and eventually kidney failure.
Jean’s final film Saratoga was eventually finished with three stand-ins and became a huge hit.
See Jean’s life in pictures in the Jean Harlow Gallery.