Jean Harlow (March 3, –June 7, ) was an American film actress and sex symbol of the 1930s. Known as the "Platinum Blonde" and the "Blonde Bombshell" due to her famous platinum blonde hair and 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 transitioning 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.
Harlean's childhood was not marked by poverty and unhappiness. Harlean lived with her parents in a very large house in Kansas City that was her grandfather's second home. The only grandchild in the family, Harlean was nicknamed "The Baby", a moniker that would stick with her for the rest of her life. Without any siblings, Harlean became extremely close to her mother, and Jean Carpenter, unhappy in her marriage, turned all her focus onto her daughter. She was extremely protective and coddling to young Harlean, instilling in her a sense that Harlean owed everything she had to her mother, which in turn, inspired a deep devotion from daughter to mother, another aspect which would carry through to adulthood. So coddled was young Harlean that she did not learn until the age of five, when she began to attend school at Miss Barstow's Finishing School for Girls in Kansas City, that her name was actually Harlean and not "Baby".
With her daughter at school, mother Jean became increasingly frustrated and filed for divorce (no small matter at the time) which was finalized, uncontested, September 29, 1922 and was granted, among other things, sole custody of her daughter. Harlean would only see her father again once more in her lifetime.
In 1923, with hopes of becoming an actress, mother Jean moved with Harlean to Hollywood, where the child briefly attended the Hollywood School for Girls. However with no good prospects forthcoming in acting for mother Jean and dwindling finances, they returned to Kansas City within two years. In the summer of 1925, Harlean's grandfather sent her to a summer camp called Camp Cha-Ton-Ka in Michigamme, Michigan. It was during this summer that Harlean caught scarlet fever. From there, Harlean attended the Ferry Hall School in Lake Forest, Illinois. Freshmen were paired with a "big sister" from the senior class, and fifteen-year-old Harlean was paired with a girl who introduced her to nineteen-year-old Charles "Chuck" McGrew, heir to a large fortune, in the fall of 1926. Harlean and McGrew fell in love and were married at the end of 1927, much to the annoyance of mother Jean (who had earlier that year married Marino Bello); marriage would free Harlean from her control.
Shortly after the marriage, Chuck McGrew turned twenty-one and received part of his large inheritance and the couple moved to Los Angeles, where Harlean thrived as a wealthy socialite and more importantly, away from her mother. 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 she had. It was there, sitting in the car waiting for her friend, Harlean was noticed by Fox executives. Approached by the executives, Harlean was given dictated letters of introduction to the Central Casting Bureau despite stating she was not interested. 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 enthused mother, Harlean drove to Central Casting and signed in under her mother's name: Jean Harlow.
During filming of Weak But Willing in 1929, she was spotted by James Hall, an actor in a then-shooting Howard Hughes film called Hell's Angels. Hughes, re-shooting the film from silent into sound, needed a new actress as the original actress Greta Nissen's Norse accent proved undesirable for a talkie. Harlean met briefly with Hughes and was hired on the spot. Hughes signed Jean Harlow to a five-year contract on October 24, 1929. It was during shooting that Harlow would meet MGM executive Paul Bern. Hell's Angels premiered in Hollywood on May 27, 1930 at Grauman's Chinese Theater.
Harlow was a sensation with audiences, but critics were less than besotted. The New Yorker called Harlow "plain awful". Variety was a bit more lenient in remarking, "It doesn't matter what degree of talent she possesses....nobody ever starved possessing what she's got". In 1931, loaned out by Hughes' Caddo Company to other studios, Harlow began to gain more attention when she appeared in The Public Enemy (with James Cagney), Goldie, The Secret Six (with Wallace Beery and Clark Gable), and Platinum Blonde with Loretta Young. In fact, Hughes convinced the producers of Platinum Blonde to rename it from its original title of Gallagher in order to promote Harlow's image. Though the films ranged from moderate to smash hits, Harlow's acting ability was damned by critics as awful and was mocked, with some saying she ruined any scene she was in.
Concerned, Hughes sent her on a personal appearance tour of the East Coast in late 1931. 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, to the extent that the tour was extended through early 1932. 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 that could match Harlow's shade.
Apprised of this, Paul Bern (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 just that, ladies (or at least, they were presented that way) and Harlow's silver screen image was that of a floozy, which was abhorrent to Mayer. Bern then began urging good friend Irving Thalberg, production head of MGM, to sign Harlow, noting Harlow's pre-existing popularity and established image. After initial reticence, Thalberg agreed, and on March 3, 1932, Harlow's twenty-first birthday, Bern called with the news that MGM had bought Harlow's contract from Hughes for $30,000. Harlow would afterwards be required to report to MGM and officially joined the studio on April 20, 1932.
It was during the making of Red Dust that Harlow's second husband, MGM producer Paul Bern, was found dead at their home, creating a scandal that reverberates to this day. 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.
After Bern's death, Harlow began an indiscreet affair with boxer Max Baer. Despite being separated from his wife, Dorothy Dunbar, at the time of their affair, Dunbar threatened divorce proceedings, naming Harlow as a co-defendant for "alienation of affection", then the common term for adultery. MGM diffused 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.
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 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 on the ascendant, while the popularity of other female stars at MGM, such as Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, was waning. Her movies continued to make huge profits at the box office, even during the middle of the Depression. Some credit Harlow's films with keeping MGM profitable while other studios fell into bankruptcy.
Following the end of her third marriage, Harlow met MGM star William Powell and quickly fell in love. Reportedly, the couple were engaged for two years, but differences kept them from marrying swiftly (she wanted children; he did not). Harlow also said that Louis B. Mayer would never allow them to wed.
In the spring of 1937, Harlow began filming Saratoga with Clark Gable. It would be her final film. Off screen, Harlow perspired heavily and she began coming late to shooting. On May 29, 1937, Harlow collapsed on set and was rushed to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with uremic poisoning. She was cared for at home for the next eight days and was given constant medical attention, despite her mother's Christian Science beliefs. Nonetheless, her condition worsened. On June 6, 1937, she was rushed to the hospital. Jean Harlow died the following morning at 11:35 a.m. She was 26 years of age.
Harlow is entombed at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in Glendale, California in a private room in the Great Mausoleum; her crypt bears the simple inscription "Our Baby". Her funeral took place in the Wee Kirk O' The Heather Chapel at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
She was buried in the negligee that she had worn just weeks before while filming a scene from the movie Saratoga. It was reported that a single white gardenia with an unsigned note attached that read "Good night, my dearest darling" was placed in her hands. It is assumed both were from William Powell, who also paid for her final resting place—the $25,000, 9×10-foot private room lined with multicolored imported marble located in the "Sanctuary of Benediction."
Many myths have swirled around Harlow's death, and it was not until the early 1990s that her long-sealed medical records were uncovered. Legend had it that Harlow's mother, a follower of Christian Science, prevented doctors from attending to her dying daughter, but this myth has been extinguished. Records prove Harlow received constant medical attention. Other long-standing myths, such as the suggestion that Harlow's kidneys were damaged in a beating from husband Paul Bern or that bleach from her hair seeped into her brain and killed her, are also untrue.