Jean Harlow (born Harlean Harlow Carpenter; March 3, 1911 – June 7, 1937) was an American actress and sex symbol. Often nicknamed the "Blonde Bombshell" and the "Platinum Blonde", she was popular for her "Laughing Vamp" screen persona. Harlow was in the film industry for only nine years, but she became one of Hollywood's biggest movie stars, whose image in the public eye has endured. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Harlow No. 22 on their greatest female screen legends of classical Hollywood cinema list.
Harlean Harlow Carpenter
March 3, 1911
Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.
|Died||June 7, 1937 (aged 26)|
|Cause of death||Kidney failure|
|Resting place||Forest Lawn Memorial Park|
|Education||Ferry Hall School|
(m. 1927; div. 1929)
(m. 1932; died 1932)
(m. 1933; div. 1934)
|Partner(s)||William Powell (1934–1937, her death)|
Harlow was first signed by business magnate Howard Hughes, who directed her first major role in Hell's Angels (1930). After a series of critically unsuccessful films, and Hughes' losing interest in her career, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought out Harlow's contract in 1932 and cast her in leading roles in a string of hits built on her comedic talent: Red-Headed Woman (1932), Red Dust (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Reckless (1935) and Suzy (1936). Harlow's popularity rivaled and then surpassed that of MGM's top leading ladies Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer. She died at the age of 26 of kidney failure during the filming of Saratoga. MGM completed the film with the use of body doubles and released it less than two months after her death; it became MGM's most successful film of 1937, as well as the highest-grossing film of Harlow's career.
Harlow was born as 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 together living in a Kansas City house owned by her father.
Harlean was called "The Baby", a nickname she was accustomed to that endured for the rest of her life. It was not until she was five years old that she learned her real name was Harlean, 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 was reported to have instilled a sense in her daughter that she owed everything she had to her; "She was always all mine!", Mama Jean said of her daughter in interviews. (Jean Carpenter was later known by "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. Although Harlean loved her father, she did not see him often before her untimely death and he outlived her by thirty-seven years.
In 1923, the 34-year-old Jean Carpenter took her daughter and moved to Hollywood in hopes of becoming an actress, but was told that she was too old to begin a film career. Harlean was enrolled at the Hollywood School for Girls, where she met Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Joel McCrea, and Irene Mayer Selznick, but dropped out at the age of 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 his daughter 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. Jean Carpenter 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.
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 III, 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 18. However, Harlean did not attend her mother's wedding.
In 1928, two months after the wedding, Chuck McGrew turned 21 and received part of his inheritance. The couple left Chicago and 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.
1928–1929: Work as an extraEdit
While living 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. While waiting for Rosalie, Harlean was noticed and approached by Fox executives, whom she told 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 casting and a number of rejected job offers by Harlean, Mother Jean 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 a wage increase to $10 per day and small parts in feature films such as Moran of the Marines (1928) and the Charley Chase lost film Chasing Husbands (1928). In December 1928, Harlean as Jean Harlow signed a five-year contract with Hal Roach Studios for $100 per week. She had small roles in the 1929 Laurel and Hardy shorts: Double Whoopee, Liberty and Bacon Grabbers, with the latter giving her a costarring credit.
In March 1929, she parted with Hal 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 Mother Jean and Bello. After her separation from McGrew, Harlow continued working as an "extra" in such films as This Thing Called Love, Close Harmony, and The Love Parade (all 1929), until she landed her first speaking role in the Clara Bow film The Saturday Night Kid. Harlow and her husband divorced in 1929.
1929–1932: Platinum blonde starEdit
In late 1929, Harlow was spotted by Ben Lyon, an actor filming Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels; another account gives Angels head cameraman Arthur Landau as the man that spotted and suggested her to Hughes. 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 screen-tested for Hughes, who gave her the part and signed her to a five-year, $100-per-week contract on October 24, 1929. During filming, Harlow met MGM executive Paul Bern.
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 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."
In spite of her relative success with Hell's Angels, Harlow again found herself in the role of "uncredited extra" in the Charlie Chaplin film City Lights (1931), 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 as Harlow dreaded making personal appearances.
Harlow briefly dated Abner Zwillman, who bought her a jeweled bracelet and a red Cadillac, and made a large cash loan to studio head Harry Cohn to obtain a two-picture deal for her at Columbia Pictures. The relationship ended when he reportedly referred to her in derogatory and vulgar terms when speaking to other associated crime figures, as revealed in secret surveillance recordings.
Columbia Pictures' first cast Harlow in a Frank Capra film with Loretta Young, originally titled Gallagher for Young's lead character but renamed Platinum Blonde to capitalize on Hughes' publicity of Harlow's "platinum" hair color. Though Harlow denied her hair was bleached, the platinum blonde color was reportedly achieved 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 and Hughes' team organized a series of "Platinum Blonde" clubs across the nation offering a prize of $10,000 to any beautician who could match Harlow's shade. No one could, and the prize went unclaimed, but the publicity scheme worked and the "Platinum Blonde" nickname stuck with Harlow. Her second film for that studio was Three Wise Girls (1932), with Mae Clarke and Walter Byron.
Paul Bern then arranged with Hughes to borrow her for MGM's 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 RKO Pictures's King Kong (1933), 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.
1932–1937: Successful actress at MGMEdit
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 screen persona was not so 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 her 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 the first film in which she "resembles something of an actress", portraying a woman who is successful at being amoral in a film that does not 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. While Harlow was filming Red-Headed Woman, actress Anita Page passed her on the studio lot without acknowledging her. She later told Page that the snub had caused her to cry until she saw herself, noticed the red wig, and burst out laughing when she realized Page had not 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. MGM began trying to distinguish Harlow's public persona from her screen characters by putting out press releases that her childhood surname was not the common 'Carpenter' but the chic 'Carpentiér', claiming that writer Edgar Allan Poe was one of her ancestors and publishing photographs of her doing charity work to change her image 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 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 with Red Dust 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 and Franchot Tone. 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 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 hit Hold Your Man, MGM cast the Harlow-Gable team 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."
Harlow was consistently voted one of the strongest box office draws in the United States from 1933 onward, often outranking her female colleagues at MGM in audience popularity polls. By the mid-1930s, she was one of the biggest stars in the US, 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 were reportedly engaged for two years, but differences that ranged from past marriages to Powell's uncertainty about the future, kept them from publicly formalizing their relationship. The two co-starred in her next film Reckless (1935), her first movie musical; her voice was dubbed with that of skilled vocalist Virginia Verrill.
Suzy (1936), in which she played the title role, gave her top billing over four time co-star 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) a financial disappointment that co-starred Spencer Tracy and Una Merkel, afterwards the release of worldwide hit Libeled Lady (1936), in which she was top-billed over Powell, Loy, and Tracy, brought good reviews for Harlow's comedic performance. 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.
Illness and deathEdit
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. She also appeared on the May 3rd cover of Life magazine in photographs taken by Martin Munkácsi.
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 the studio doctor, who believed that she was suffering from cholecystitis and influenza. The doctor was not aware that Harlow had been ill during the previous year with a severe sunburn and influenza. Friend and co-star Una Merkel noticed Harlow's on-set weight gain, gray pallor and fatigue.
On May 29, while Harlow filmed a scene in which her character had a fever, she was clearly sicker than her character and leaned against her co-star Gable between takes and said, "I feel terrible! Get me back to my dressing room." She requested that the assistant director telephone William Powell, who immediately left his own movie set, in order to escort her back home.
The next day, 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 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 this latest bout with a recurring illness. On June 2, it was announced she 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. Mother Jean told MGM Harlow was feeling better on June 3, 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". When she did not return to set, a concerned Gable visited her and 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, 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 when she was 15. 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.
Harlow was interred in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale in a private room of multicolored marble, which William Powell bought for $25,000 (equivalent to $444,618 in 2019). She was laid to rest in the gown she wore in Libeled Lady; in her hands she had a white gardenia and a note that Powell had written: "Goodnight, my dearest darling." Harlow's inscription reads, "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 because of public objections the film was finished using three doubles (Mary Dees for close-ups, Geraldine Dvorak for long shots, and Paula Winslowe for dubbing Harlow's lines) and rewriting some scenes without her. The film was released on July 23, 1937, less than two months after Harlow's death, and was a hit with audiences, grossing $3.3 million in worldwide rentals and becoming MGM's most successful film of the year, as well as the highest-grossing film of Harlow's career.
Harlow's legacy in American cinema is that she was the first actress to wear and popularize the color platinum blonde on the screen. She was also the first movie star to launch a fad among young American women. The number of young spectators who dyed their hair with peroxide increased by 30%. She was also called “The Platinum Blonde”.
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, California.
Harlow's signature, hands and footprints were imprinted in cement on September 29, 1933, in the 24th ceremony at Grauman's Chinese Theater and are located near the forecourt on the west side of the box office at 6925 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, CA.
The 1977 Charlene song “I’ve Never Been to Me” mentions her in the lyric “I moved like Harlow in Monte Carlo and showed ‘em what I got”. A woman's hair color is described as "Harlow gold" in the first line of Kim Carnes' 1981 hit song "Bette Davis Eyes", and she is one of sixteen Hollywood icons named in Madonna's 1990 hit song "Vogue" in the rap lyrics: "Harlow, Jean, Picture of a beauty queen."
Harlow wrote a novel titled Today Is Tonight. In Arthur Landau's introduction to the 1965 paperback edition, Harlow stated in around 1933–1934 her intention to write the book, but it was not published during her lifetime. During her life, Harlow's stepfather Marino Bello shopped the unpublished manuscript around to a few studios. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, had prevented the book from being sold by putting an injunction on it using a clause in Harlow's contract: her services as an artist can't be used without MGM's permission. 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, but she turned down the part of her idol, feeling it was underdeveloped.
In 1965, two films about Jean Harlow were released, both titled Harlow. The first film was released by Magna Corporation in May 1965, and starred Carol Lynley. The second film was released in June 1965 by Paramount Pictures and starred Carroll Baker. Both were poorly received and did not perform well at the box office.
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