Harlow, Jean (1911–1937)
Harlow, Jean (1911–1937)
American film actress who rose above her "blonde bombshell" image to become a fine screen comedian. Born Harlean Carpenter on March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri; died on June 7, 1937, age 26, from complications of kidney disease at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, California; daughter of Jean (Harlow) Carpenter and Mont Clair Carpenter; married Charles McGrew, in 1927 (divorced 1929); married Paul Bern, in 1932 (committed suicide, 1932); married Harold Rosson, in 1933 (divorced 1934); no children.
At 16, eloped with a wealthy young businessman (1927); eventually moved to Los Angeles and found part-time work as a walk-on in features and comedy shorts; given first important role in Hell's Angels (1930) but confined to vulgar, blatant roles until signing with MGM (1932), when her acting ability in both dramatic and comedic roles became apparent; developed into one of Hollywood's superstars (early 1930s), playing opposite such actors as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy; fell seriously ill while shooting Saratoga (1937).
The Saturday Night Kid (1929); Hell's Angels (1930); The Secret Six (1931); The Iron Man (1931); The Public Enemy (1931); Goldie (1931); Platinum Blonde (1931); Three Wise Girls (1932); Beast of the City (1932); Red-Headed Woman (1932); Red Dust (1932); Hold Your Man (1933); Bombshell (1933); Dinner at Eight (1934); The Girl from Missouri (1934); Reckless (1935); China Seas (1935); Riffraff (1936); Wife vs. Secretary (1936); Suzy (1936); Libeled Lady (1936); Personal Property (1937); Saratoga (1937).
On an afternoon in early 1930, a car pulled up in front of a bungalow on Metro's lot in Hollywood to deposit a slim, blonde, statuesque young woman who walked timidly up to the cottage's screen door. She was not invited to enter; rather, she answered through the door the few questions posed to her by an invisible interrogator inside, then returned to the car, where an older woman was anxiously waiting. "He hired me, Mommie," the young lady murmured. He was maverick film producer Howard Hughes; the older woman was Jean Carpenter , known to everyone as Mother Jean; and the young lady was her daughter, Harlean, known to everyone as "the Baby." Hughes had just hired Harlean for a picture that would launch a film career that Jean Carpenter had been denied but had always felt she deserved. Her daughter had even chosen her mother's maiden name, Jean Harlow, for her screen identity.
Mother and daughter shared another attribute; both were strikingly beautiful, though most used the word "angelic" to describe the daughter born to Jean and Mont Clair Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 3, 1911. Young Harlean turned heads all over town with her pale blonde hair, green eyes, and flawless white skin. Few admirers, however, knew of her troubled home life. Mother Jean, the daughter of prominent real-estate developer Skip Harlow and one of Kansas City's most eligible and attractive women, had nearly created a scandal over her affair with a railroad conductor. Her father had hastily put an end to the relationship by marrying her off to Mont Clair Carpenter, a successful dentist with a chain of offices and a promising future. Although both father and grandfather doted on her child Harlean, Jean Carpenter took pains to keep her away from both men as much as possible and from other children who could carry tales of a loveless marriage to Kansas City's finer homes. The mother-daughter relationship was virtually exclusive during those early years. In a birthday note, an eight-year-old Harlean wrote to her mother, "I love you better than anything that ever its name was heard of. Please know I love you better than ten lives." Meanwhile, her mother confided to a friend that she wished every morning her husband had died in his sleep.
The Carpenters grew increasingly estranged until, in 1922, Mont Clair did not contest the divorce proceedings begun by his wife, granting her sole custody of their daughter and $200 a month in support. Neither he nor Skip Harlow could convince Jean Carpenter to abandon her stated plan to move to Los Angeles to become a movie star, for enough people had told her she was beautiful, and movie magazines, with their rags to riches yarns, had long been her favorite reading. Thus it was that Harlean entered the 1923 class of the Hollywood School for Girls while her mother made the rounds of studio casting calls. While Jean Carpenter, at 34, soon discovered she was considered too old for films, her daughter, at 11, was attracting the attention of both teachers and fellow students. She was the only student, jealous classmates noted, on which the school's required middy blouse and long, pleated skirt looked attractive—so much so that Harlean had to be admonished by school authorities for an excessive and alluring sway to her hips. Cecilia De Mille , who entered the school in the same year, complained to her father, director Cecil B. De Mille, that Harlean seemed unusually knowledgeable about sex and had so many boyfriends that there were no dates to be had. Harlean's notoriety grew even more when it became common knowledge that her mother, whom another classmate described as "a nightmare," had become the mistress of a wealthy European, disappearing for weeks at a time and leaving her daughter in the care of friends. When news of his daughter's scandalous behavior reached Skip Harlow, he threatened to cut off all support unless she returned to Kansas City. After barely two years in California, Jean and her daughter moved back to Missouri in 1925.
While Jean Carpenter promptly began an affair with a naturalized Italian named Mario Bello, Harlean was enrolled at her grandfather's insistence at Ferry Hall, a proper girl's boarding school in Illinois, where she had just as much impact as in Hollywood. "When we walked down the street, she would literally stop traffic," her "big sister" at the school later remembered. "Men would climb out of their cars and follow her." Also as in Hollywood, Carpenter was as much a subject of conversation as her daughter. "Harlean was passive, and Mother Jean was strong," another classmate at Ferry Hall noted. "She had complete control over that girl. Harlean had no willpower; she didn't stand up for anything." Nevertheless, nine months after Carpenter married Mario Bello, 16-year-old Harlean defied her by taking a husband herself. He was Charles McGrew, whom she met through a Ferry Hall classmate and married without her mother's consent on September 21, 1927. McGrew was the sole heir of a wealthy Chicago family, and rumors spread about how Mother Jean had threatened legal action unless McGrew promised to support her and her new husband as well as Harlean. Perhaps to remove Harlean as far as possible from her mother's influence, McGrew took his young bride to California, moving into a house in Beverly Hills in January of 1928.
Harlean's first exposure to a movie studio came shortly afterward, when she drove a friend to an audition at Fox. She later admitted to being fascinated by the environment, but said she had felt no compulsion to become an actress, even when her friend returned to the car with three Fox executives who took one look at her and produced a letter of introduction to Fox's head of casting. Weeks later, to win a bet that she would never use the letter, Harlean appeared at Fox's Central Casting department and signed in as "Jean Harlow." Central Casting was Fox's clearing house for extras, more than a hundred of which could be found on any one day milling hopefully and waiting for the next roundup to fill out crowd scenes. Jean Harlow was offered work almost immediately but turned down her first few offers until her mother, who had just moved back to Hollywood with husband Mario, ordered her to do otherwise. Jean Harlow accepted her next offer.
It was a brief appearance in Honor Bound, a prison drama starring matinee idol and former prizefighter George O'Brien. She was paid seven dollars for the day, was given a box lunch, and had sufficiently illuminated the few scenes in which she appeared for Fox to send her around to Paramount and to Hal Roach's studio. Roach decided Harlow was worth more than extra work and offered her her first contract to appear in a number of his two-reeler comedies. "She was different," he recalled many years later. "Her hair was an odd type, and she had a beautiful face and body. There was nobody like her." Roach offered her a five-year contract at $100 a week and saw his hunch pay off when Harlow strode through her first scene as a contract actress in a Laurel and Hardy comedy called Double Whoopee. In the scene, Stan Laurel, playing a hotel doorman, accidentally closes a taxi door on Harlow's dress, which gracefully rips away as she heads for the lobby, oblivious that she is wearing nothing but a thin slip below her waistline. The scene had to be shot twice, as it turned out, since Harlow had neglected to don the requisite, skin-colored tights for such "nude" scenes and revealed to one and all in the first take that she wore no underwear. It was a personal habit for which she would become famous in later years, and a possible indication of her complete innocence about displaying her considerable physical attributes.
After her third two-reeler for Roach, Harlow asked to be released from her contract, claiming that her husband objected to her film work. Roach, who agreed, suspected the real reason was that Mother Jean and Bello had visions of a bigger studio and more money. "Her mother made the decisions," he said. "Not that she was any good at business, but she and Bello
were always around." The truth was that Harlow was pregnant. Carpenter and Bello, without Charles McGrew's knowledge, convinced "the Baby" that a child was not in her best interests and arranged for an abortion. "I wanted that child that was taken from me," Harlow later confessed to a friend. "My whole life would have been different if I'd been given that baby." Furious, McGrew struggled with Carpenter for control of her daughter and lost. On June 11, 1929, after only 20 months of marriage, Harlow and McGrew separated.
It ain't art, but it's box office.
—Variety's critique of Jean Harlow (1935)
McGrew refused to pay any support money to Harlow, knowing full well it would land in her mother's pockets. Meanwhile, back home in Kansas City, Grandfather Harlow had seen Double Whoopee and had disinherited his granddaughter until she gave up films. For the first time in her life, Harlow—not to mention her mother and stepfather—was broke. "I turned to motion pictures because I had to work or starve," Harlow frankly admitted, although without Hal Roach's support the only work she could get was as an extra. She vented her hatred for the abuses and abasements of an extra's life in an unpublished short story, in which a young actress is told she will finally get a closeup only to discover it is of her legs, not her face.
But it was precisely her stunning good looks that got her noticed in 1929's The Saturday Night Kid, a Paramount vehicle for Clara Bow in which Harlow was given a small part. Harlow was hired over the star's objections, for Bow, famous as the provocative "It" girl, rightly complained that she would be ignored in any scene with such a beauty. But Jean Harlow's naiveté and complete lack of guile eventually won over even Bow, who lent her some old costumes and insisted the two of them pose for publicity shots together. "See if you can help her out," Bow told Paramount's publicity director. "She's gonna go places." Bow's prediction proved accurate when, on the strength of her brief appearance in the film, Harlow was offered a management contract, a $500 advance, and an interview with Howard Hughes.
Two years previous, in 1927, Hughes had begun shooting a World War I aerial drama called Hell's Angels as a silent film. The son of a wealthy Texas oil baron, Hughes had arrived in Hollywood in the early '20s with deep pockets, an ambition to write, direct, and produce his own films, and a reputation as an eccentric playboy with a taste for beautiful women. Hell's Angels was his most ambitious film to date and would eventually cost some $4 million—an enormous sum at a time when most films were made for well under $1 million. Hughes had been caught off-guard by the rapidly rising demand for talking pictures and had decided to add sound effects to his aerial sequences and reshoot his dramatic scenes with sound, the only problem being that his tough-talking, brazen female love interest in the silent version was a Norwegian actress with a thick accent. No established actress would work with a producer of such shady reputation, and Hughes decided that Jean Harlow had the looks and sufficiently clear diction to play his Helen.
Harlow was the first to admit that her acting abilities at the time were minimal, calling herself at one point "the worst actress that was ever in pictures. But I can learn," she added, "and I will." Unfortunately, she got no help from Hell's Angels' director James Whale or from Hughes, who directed some of her scenes himself. No one was more surprised than Harlow when Hughes offered her a five-year contract at $100 a week. Hughes sensed that the public would be so impressed with Harlow's physical appearance that it would overlook the deficiencies in her acting. With the aid of a lavish promotional campaign and the kind of opening night ceremonies at Graumann's Chinese Theater that are the stuff of Hollywood legend, Hughes proved that he had guessed right. "It doesn't matter what degree of talent she possesses, for this girl is the most sensuous figure to get in front of a camera in some time," Variety told its readers the next morning, observing that "she'll probably always have to play these kinds of roles, but nobody ever starved possessing what she's got." The New York Times, in a more restrained mood, admitted she was "the center of attention" in an otherwise mediocre film; while The New Yorker bluntly called her "plain awful." But newspapers throughout the country carried a photo of Harlow taken on opening night. She looked celestially beautiful in a solid white, full-length gown, her arm through Hughes' on one side and through Mother Jean's on the other. Radio listeners had heard her effusively thank Hughes for having such confidence in her. Harlow was terrified of the crowds and the attention, as she would be throughout her career. "How I got through that night and talked in the microphone I'll never know," she later confided. "I don't remember seeing the picture at all, and what's more I never intend to."
Her work as the amoral predator in Hughes' film set the pattern for Harlow's career, leading her to confess her horror at the way audiences she met on nationwide tours equated her with the bra-less, cleavage-sporting harridans she played—"a bitch in heat," as she earthily put it. Hughes refused to cancel her contract or give her more dramatic roles in his other films, choosing instead to lend her out to other studios and make a healthy profit out of the sex queen he had created. Harlow dutifully portrayed the gun moll in MGM's underworld melodrama The Secret Six, the first of five films in which she played opposite Clark Gable; was panned in her first sympathetic role as a prizefighter's loyal wife in Universal's The Iron Man ("Harlow can by no means be classed as an actress," a more sober Variety said of her performance); and barely managed to attract attention in her most prestigious film up to that time, 1931's Public Enemy for Warner Bros., playing opposite James Cagney and Mae Clarke . "She was an original," Clark said years later. "She had personality and presence, and that came through whether she could act or not." By May of 1931, Harlow had been loaned out to so many studios that she had three films open at once, Secret Six, Iron Man, and Public Enemy, the last of which was an overnight sensation. Harlow's style, movements, and mannerisms were mimicked by women throughout the nation, from the bell-bottomed pajamas she wore on screen to the white blonde shade of her hair.
If nothing else, Harlow had by now endeared herself to Hollywood, for her earnest desire to learn and for her comaraderie with the cast and crew of any set she graced. Numerous insiders told her she was being mismanaged by Hughes, and these same advisors wanted to take "the Baby" under their wing. Several studios tried to convince Hughes to sell them her contract, but Hughes turned them all down and insisted on sending her out on "personal appearance" tours before live audiences, as if offering the public the chance to gawk at his merchandise. Hughes took care to always include in Harlow's appearances a dropped handkerchief, a discarded flower, a lost earring—any excuse for her to bend forward and prove that the publicity about her aversion to bras was true. Typically, Hughes was paid $3,500 for each appearance, of which Harlow received $200.
Harlow's famous sobriquet "Platinum Blonde" was the idea of Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, to whom Harlow was loaned out to play in the studio's film Gallagher, a fast-paced comedy about a poor newspaper reporter who marries a society girl of loose morals (which was, of course, the role assigned to Jean). Hughes liked Cohn's appellation so much that he insisted it become the name of the film and devised a national promotion which offered $10,000 to any beautician who could reproduce Jean Harlow's hair color. The result was a 35% increase in peroxide sales (although the prize money was never won) and a box-office hit. Harlow publicly claimed she had never dyed or bleached her hair, concealing the fact that her natural color was ash blonde and that she spent every Sunday with a studio hairdresser, who used peroxide, ammonia, bleach, and soap flakes to produce the desired effect.
More important, Platinum Blonde's director, Frank Capra, gave Harlow a much-needed education in acting for films. "She wanted to learn all the time," he recalled. "I remember telling her to go home when her scenes were finished, but she'd always stick around the set and watch the others." Capra's efforts and Harlow's willingness to learn paid off; she received her first positive reviews for her work in a sympathetic role in MGM's Beast of the City, an antigangster film in which she played opposite Walter Huston. "The Platinum Baby really acts this one!" The Daily News reported, while the Times devoted most of its review to her performance and called her "a shining refinement of Clara Bow." Harlow had won the part of Daisy Stevens in Beast through the efforts of Paul Bern, a production assistant to MGM's brilliant head of production, Irving Thalberg. Bern, who over-saw all of Greta Garbo 's pictures, had befriended Harlow two years earlier at a party Hughes had thrown to promote Hell's Angels. He had been quietly working to get her away from Hughes and into the fold at MGM, at the time Hollywood's most respected studio, famous for its careful handling and development of talent. Bern quickly followed up on the Platinum Blonde's positive reception by negotiating a deal for MGM to pay Hughes $30,000 for Harlow's contract; and it was Bern who developed a problem property at MGM into the film that would make Jean Harlow a respected actress.
MGM had been struggling to develop a script based on a French novel which featured an adulteress who kills one lover, is acquitted of the crime, and lives happily ever after with another, wealthier paramour. After four years, all Louis B. Mayer had was a deadly serious script by F. Scott Fitzgerald and a letter from Will Hays, the government's movie censor, threatening to block the release of any story in which adultery goes unpunished. Paul Bern convinced Thalberg and Mayer that the story could be a star vehicle for Jean Harlow and sold the two men on hiring Anita Loos to write a new script. Loos, who would later give the world Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, turned the story on its head and made it a satirical sex comedy which she called Red-Headed Woman. "We made it over completely for [Jean]," said Loos. "It was, to all intents and purposes, a Jean Harlow story." Though nervous, Harlow was intrigued by the character of Lil Andrews, the stenographer who sails full steam ahead in her quest to win her boss' heart. Loos crafted an opening sequence displaying Lil's careful preparations for the coming battle:
Lil, trying on a tight, revealing dress: "Can you see through it?"
Salesgirl: "Yes, ma'am, I'm afraid you can."
Lil: "I'll wear it."
Harlow's portrayal of the golddigger with a heart instantly won her audience's heart. "It was the first chance I ever had to do something in pictures other than swivel my hips," Harlow said later of the film that elevated her from a sex goddess to a comedic actress.
Harlow's gratitude to Paul Bern culminated in her marriage to him on July 2, 1932, the year of Red-Headed Woman's release. "All I want is to sit at Paul's feet and have him educate me," she said. Friends quietly wondered about the future of the union, for while Bern was respected in the business, he was known as an emotionally cold man whom no one remembered having ever been romantically involved with a woman. It was rumored that he was inordinately interested in morbid psychology and always carried a handgun in his coat pocket.
After only a month or two of marriage, Bern was criticizing Harlow in public about her lack of education and making jokes about her character, but Harlow seemed to take it all in stride and went to work on her second picture for MGM and her second with Gable, Red Dust, a steamy jungle melodrama set in Indochina. Meanwhile, the studio's publicity department embarked on a campaign to soften her image by showing her cooking for Bern at home, sewing and crocheting on the set (long a favorite pastime of Harlow's), or having tea with Mother Jean, who by now had divorced Mario Bello but was maintaining a business relationship with him by appointing him Harlow's personal manager.
The Red Dust shoot was a long and difficult one, it being a challenge to recreate a humid Southeast Asian jungle on a soundstage in Hollywood, and Harlow often spent the night at her mother's house, nearer to the studio, as she did the night of September 4, 1932. The next morning, a maid who arrived for work at the Bern household found Paul Bern dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, his naked body lying in a pool of blood in the bathroom and a now-famous note addressed to Harlow lying on a nearby table, in which he told her that "last night was a comedy." MGM made sure to comb the Bern household for evidence damaging to any of its stars or personnel before the police were called, a delay that further obscured what was a clear instance of suicide and led to speculation, which persists to this day, that Bern was murdered. Harlow was never directly implicated, and it appears that Bern's note had been written the day after an unexpected visit, while Harlow was at home, from a former common-law wife named Dorothy Millette , distressed at his marriage to Jean. (Millette herself committed suicide several days later.) There is also a good chance that Bern's desperate act was at least partly due to his impotence, which had long been rumored. Harlow, distraught at Bern's death and at the kind of relentless publicity she dreaded, quickly finished work on Red Dust and went into a seclusion jealously guarded by Mother Jean, who was unable to stop her daughter's increasing consumption of alcohol. Six weeks after Bern's death, Red Dust opened to great acclaim, grossing more than $1 million on the studio's $400,000 budget.
Friends later said privately that Harlow never fully recovered from the trauma of Bern's suicide, although her professional fortunes had never been better. She more than held her own in 1933's comedy of manners, Dinner at Eight, in such distinguished company as John and Lionel Barrymore, Billie Burke and the venerable Marie Dressler , and emerged victorious from another studio makeover of her screen persona after several boycotts of her films by the Catholic League of Decency and more threats from the Hays office. MGM dyed her hair light brown and cast her opposite Spencer Tracy in 1935's Riffraff. Harlow played a good-hearted cannery worker in San Francisco carrying the torch for Tracy's scruffy mariner. "Maybe it's the brownette hair that works the charm," Louella Parsons speculated, "or maybe it's a more experienced little Harlow, but something has inspired her, because she gives her most sincere and convincing performance."
By now, Harlow had married and divorced her third husband, Hal Rosson, who had been the cinematographer on several of her earlier films. The marriage had survived barely a year. Rosson, like Chuck McGrew before him, blamed Mother Jean for breaking it up. The divorce papers merely accused him of torturing Harlow by reading "in their bedchamber to a late hour." By the time of her divorce from Rosson in 1934, Harlow had already begun an affair with William Powell, her co-star in The Girl From Missouri, a liaison of which Mother Jean fully approved and which she thought might end in marriage.
Everyone hoped that Harlow's increasingly troublesome health was a temporary condition related to her incipient alcoholism. She had survived a bout of appendicitis in 1933 but complained of colds, aches, and vague abdominal pains throughout 1934 and 1935, when she collapsed on the set of Wife vs. Secretary, holding up production to recuperate from what was said to be fatigue. She reacted badly to anaesthesia during an operation to remove her wisdom teeth in 1936 and nearly died on the operating table; while later that same year, she was absent for several weeks from the set of Suzy, one of two musicals in which she starred, for what was said to be a bad cold. The truth in this case was that Carpenter and Bello had arranged for another abortion after Harlow became pregnant with what was probably Powell's child. By the time Harlow reported for work on 1937's Saratoga, everyone was shocked by her appearance. Her skin color, once so radiantly white, was now an ashen gray; and the figure that had once been the envy of millions of women appeared bloated and bruised. Considerable time was spent in makeup and wardrobe concealing the deterioration and shooting began on schedule in April of 1937.
Near the end of the shoot, in late May, it seemed as if Harlow could not possibly continue working, but she insisted on finishing her scenes to keep the picture on schedule. She shot her last scene on Thursday, May 27, with co-star Walter Pidgeon, whom she asked to hold her especially lightly during an on-camera embrace because her stomach hurt so badly. As soon as the cameras stopped rolling, she doubled over in pain and was driven home to bed, where a doctor diagnosed a gall bladder inflammation. News of her illness was first reported in the press on June 3; her mother was quoted as saying her daughter merely had a bad cold and was recovering. Carpenter denied that she had refused to take Harlow to a hospital because of her Christian Scientist beliefs and pointed out that several doctors and three nurses were in attendance around the
clock. She refused requests for visits, even from concerned family members who had traveled out from Missouri.
But two days later, even Carpenter had to admit that her "Baby" was gravely ill. She called in Harlow's favorite doctor who recognized that Harlow's condition had been misdiagnosed and that her kidneys had been failing for some time. Fluid retention was so severe by then that even Harlow's skull was swollen, and it was from cerebral edema and from uremic poisoning that Jean Harlow died on the morning of June 7, 1937, at Good Samaritan Hospital. She was 26 years old.
Despite her early death, Harlow had appeared in more than 40 films by the time of her passing and had transformed herself on screen from a mere sex object to a sensitive, funny, and warmly passionate woman. True to her word, she had learned her craft well. It has often been said that had she lived, Jean Harlow would have become one of the most accomplished actresses of American cinema. Harlow probably would have been as surprised as anybody. "I never quite believe," she once said, "that I am me!"
Katz, Ephraim, ed. The Film Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. NY: Harper Perennial, 1994.
Stenn, David. Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow. NY: Doubleday, 1993.
Thompson, David. A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema. London: Secker and Warburg, 1975.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York