There’s no doubt Harlow is one of the hot names for baby girls right now. It made the top 100 in the latest list from Victoria, and has a touch of old Hollywood glamour about it. Nicole Richie and Joel Madden gave the name to their daughter in 2008, with Madden saying he liked the actress Jean Harlow.
But who exactly was Jean Harlow? Sexy and scandalous, she was one of the biggest stars of the 1930s before she died in mysterious circumstances while shooting a movie opposite Clark Gable.
She was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in 1911, but everyone called her “The Baby.” Her father, Mont Clair Carpenter, was a dentist, while her mother, Jean Harlow, was a bored housewife with movie star ambitions. Her parents divorced, and when Harlow was 12, her mother took the two of them to Hollywood. But her mother was too old for the acting career she dreamed of.
Harlow was just 16 when she married for the first time. Her husband was Chuck McGrew, the young heir to a huge fortune. They lived in Beverly Hills. Neither worked, but both partied – and drank – a lot.
Through her partying, Harlow became friends with a wannabe actress called Rosalie Roy. Roy didn’t have a car, so Harlow drove her to an audition at Fox Studios. Waiting outside the car, the gorgeous blonde teenager was spotted by three Fox executives. When she told them she wasn’t interested in acting, they didn’t believe her, and offered her work anyway.
A few days later, pushed by her mother, she went along and auditioned, calling herself by her mother’s name. Before long, Harlow was appearing in Laurel and Hardy short films. Her new career caused tension in her marriage. She had her contract torn up, saying, “It’s breaking up my marriage, what can I do?”
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However, just months later, she left her husband – supposedly at the insistence of her mother. She was still only 18 years old.
Harlow was cast in the 1929 movie The Saturday Night Kid, alongside ageing sex symbol Clara Bow. She turned up on set in a crocheted dress and no underwear.
“Who’s gonna see me next to her?” Bow reportedly asked.
Not long afterwards, magnate Howard Hughes gave Harlow the starring role in the movie Hell’s Angels. There, she spoke the famous line: “Would you be shocked if I changed into something more comfortable?”
Reviews of her performance were pretty awful, but as Variety magazine pointed out, “Nobody ever starved possessing what she’s got.” Her status as America’s new sex symbol was cemented. She became the first woman to be known as a “blonde bombshell”.
Hughes’ publicity director came up with the name “platinum blonde” for her hair colour, which was reportedly achieved with a mix of ammonia, Clorox bleach and Lux soap flakes, applied weekly. Women went wild for the “platinum blonde” look and tried to copy it, often destroying their own hair in the process.
She was in a string of hit movies, including Platinum Blonde and Red Dust, where she starred opposite Clark Gable.
In 1932, Harlow got married again, to MGM producer Paul Bern.
“He likes me for my mind,” she told journalists before the wedding. “He isn’t pawing me all the time.”
However, it’s rumoured that Bern beat her savagely, including with a walking stick on their wedding night. Two months later, Bern was found dead, shot through the head. Although some people suspected Harlow fired the gun, she was never charged.
Later, Harlow fell for married boxer Max Baer. To avoid more scandal, MGM encouraged Harlow to marry cameraman Hal Rosson. They barely lived together.
Harlow’s star continued to rise. She showed her talent for comedy in movies such as Dinner At Eight and Bombshell, and was a huge box office draw. She began dating actor William Powell.
But her health was suffering. She’d had several serious illnesses in her life, including coming down with scarlet fever, at a summer camp, when she was a child. Her alcoholism didn’t help, and neither did her mother’s insistence on looking after her. When she looked to be gaining weight, her mother would put her on a daily diet of a scoop of cottage cheese, a slice of pineapple and one shredded carrot.
Harlow went through a series of health crises, including a botched wisdom teeth extraction where her heart temporarily stopped beating.
In April 1937, she began shooting the movie Saratoga, opposite Clark Gable. On May 29, while shooting a scene where her character had a fever, she told Gable, “I feel terrible. Get me back to my dressing room.”
She was taken home. Gable visited her there days later, and reported, “It was like kissing a dead person, a rotting person.”
On June 6, Harlow was taken to hospital. She died the following day.
Not surprisingly, there was a huge amount of speculation about the cause of her death. There were rumours it was caused by a botched abortion, or the chemicals she used to bleach her hair, or the beating she received from her second husband. Her mother was blamed for not taking her to hospital sooner. But officially, she died of kidney failure, a complication of the scarlet fever she suffered as a child.
She was buried wearing a dress from one of her movies, Libeled Lady, and holding a note written by Powell, reading, “Goodnight, my dearest darling.”
Saratoga was finished using doubles. Released two months after Harlow’s death, it was MGM’s second-highest-grossing movie of the year.
It was Harlow’s final hit.
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