The great love of her life, actor William Powell, found Jean Harlow desperately ill after she collapsed into Clark Gable’s arms on the set of the MGM film Saratoga on May 20, 1937. He had been called to her side from a near-by sound stage where he was working. He took her to her home in his car, arranged for medical attention including doctors and attending nurses. He called his fiancé’s domineering mother, also named Jean who was away on a vacation lavishly spending her daughter’s money.
Harlow’s health had deteriorated rapidly while shooting the film, alarming her close friend and co-star Myrna Loy noted how bloated, listless, and ashen colored she had become. Her traditional cheerful demeanor on the set, which made her among the most beloved of all stars by the crews with whom she worked, was replaced by exhausted languor and uncharacteristic snappishness.
As her condition worsened, Mother Jean restricted her visits to those closest to her—herself, Powell, and Gable who considered himself her best friend and big brother. Although she was getting the best medical care available, her mother turned back the MGM staff doctor who she suspected of trying to hurry her back to work with quack remedies—something quite common at the studio under Louis B. Mayer. The miffed doctor later told reporters that he had been barred by her mother because she was a Christian Scientist starting an unfounded legend that would be repeated many times.
At home doctors tried to figure out what was happening to her. Everything from influenza to a gall bladder attack, alcohol induced cirrhosis of the liver to poisoning from the bleach she used on her famous hair was considered. It wasn’t until Gable leaned over to kiss her on a visit and smelled urine on her breath that the doctors realized she was suffering from renal failure. Her kidneys were shutting down and her bloated body was literally sweating urine.
Given the state of medicine at the time—before antibiotics to treat infection, dialysis, or transplant—there was nothing to be done to save her.
Powell, who had only recently finally agreed to marry Harlow after a tempestuous two-year red-hot romance, visited her daily, emerging from her room after hours at her bedside with his face contorted with grief and wet with tears.
When he arrived on June 6 to visit her, she sent word by a nurse that she could not see him. Alarmed, Powell called an ambulance which took her to Good Samaritan Hospital. She fell into a coma and died on June 7. She was only 26 years old.
The whole of Hollywood—and much of the nation that idolized her—reacted with shock. MGM writer Harry Ruskin recalled, “The day the Baby died there wasn’t one sound in the commissary for three hours... not one goddamn sound.”
Powell paid $25,000 for a private room of multicolored marble in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Gable, beside himself with grief, managed to hold up as one of her pall bearers. She was laid to rest in one of her signature white satin gowns from the Libeled Lady, a film she co-starred in with Powell, Loy, and another close pal, Spencer Tracy. Before the coffin lid was closed Powell slipped a white gardenia in her folded hands with the handwritten note, “Goodnight, my dearest Darling.” The inscription on the wall simply reads “Our Baby”. Room was left for Mother Jean and Powell. Her mother died exactly 21 years to the day of her daughter in the same hospital and finally joined Jean. Powell spent the rest of his life grieving over Harlow, but remarried in 1940 and when he died in in 1984 was cremated and his ashes scattered near Palm Springs.Jean Harlow's funeral. In this case the outpouring of Holiday grief was genuine. She was one of the most beloved actresses in film by both her fellow performers and all of the workers on the set.
Although only two-thirds of the principle shooting of Saratoga had been finished when Harlow was taken ill, Mayer determined to finish the film. He ordered Gable back to work. Using over-the-shoulder shots, body doubles, and dubbed dialogue the film was finished and released. Gable compared holding a body double to “embracing a ghost.” Eager to see Harlow one last time, fans turned out in droves. It became the studio’s second-highest grossing picture of 1937. Even critics who had often been harsh on the blonde sex pot called it the best performance of her career.
There is nothing like an early, tragic death, to create a cultural icon. But Jean Harlow might well have become one even if she had died in bed at 90. The stunning beauty had created a new persona embraced by the public, lusted after by men, and admired for her heart and spunk by women. Her signature look—the blindingly blonde hair which studio publicists dubbed platinum—had millions of women reaching for the bleach bottle. Her voluptuous body, made to be swathed in clinging white satin, ended once and for all the fad of the flat chested Flapper. Her persona as a street-smart tart and temptress was tempered by an unexpected gift for comedy and the classic “heart of gold” made even respectable women adore her.
She was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter on March 3, 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri where her father earned a comfortable living as a dentist and her mother was the pampered daughter of a wealthy real estate developer with a taste for high living, adventure, and a yearning to go on stage. From the beginning her family called her simply The Baby, a nickname that stuck through the rest of her life. She later claimed she did not know her real name was Harlean until she was registered for high school.
Her parent’s marriage, orchestrated and supported by her paternal grandfather, was unhappy. Mother Jean turned to her daughter for love and support. It was a bond, strained by the mother’s ambitions and domination, which would be the center of most of her daughter’s life. After her parents divorced in 1922, Jean moved with her daughter to Hollywood the next year in search of film stardom. But she quickly discovered that even beautiful women of 34 were too old to become leading ladies in a town where teenagers were “discovered” and turned into stars every week.
The grandfather ordered the return of his daughter and her child to Kansas City in 1925 by threatening to disinherit them. They spent two unhappy years back home. One year the grandfather sent Harlean to a Michigan summer camp where she came down with scarlet fever—the disease which probably originally damaged her kidneys.Jean and Jean--Harlow with her dominating mother who drove her to an acting career she never really wanted.
In 1927 she was enrolled at the toney private Ferry Hall School in Lake Forest, Illinois so that her mother could be near her boyfriend, Marino Bello in Chicago. Later that year mother Jean married her suitor without her daughter being present. Hurt and bewildered, the girl eloped at age 16 with Charles “Chuck” McGrew, the older brother of a wealthy classmate. It set the stage for a repeating pattern for the young girl who wanted more than anything to be a loving housewife and raise children in a stable, happy home.
When McGrew got an inherited fortune when he turned 21 the young couple moved to Los Angeles where for a while Harlean happily played the role of a rich young married in a fashionable home. Leading the life of idle socialites caused both to drink. And McGrew drank exceptionally heavily.
On a lark Harlean offered a ride to a friend who was seeking an audition at the Fox Studios. She was spotted there and encouraged to audition herself. She had no interest and refused for several days until she gave into a dare. She was accepted at Central Casting registering under her mother’s maiden name, Jean Harlow. Publicity stills were taken and circulated and soon she was receiving calls for parts—all of which she firmly turned down, until her mother and Belo showed up in town and pressed her to accept.
After one un-credited appearance in a bit part, she found herself on call for small parts with billing. That led to a $100 a week contract with the Hal Roach Studio which co-starred her in three Laurel and Hardy two-reel comedies in 1928 and ’29. But she didn’t need the money and her husband was resentful of his wife’s new career. When she complained to Roach that the work was “ruining my marriage” the producer willingly tore up her contract.
But the marriage was doomed anyway by McGrew’s jealousy and heavy drinking. The couple divorced in 1929 and Harlow moved in with her mother and stepfather, who encouraged her to go back to work. She got her first speaking role in a Clara Bow film, The Saturday Night Kid. Bow was the quintessential flapper/vamp, just the kind of sex symbol Harlow was on the verge of rendering obsolete.
Playboy inventor and director Howard Hughes was re-shooting his silent aviation epic Hell’s Angels as a talkie. Almost by fluke he was introduced to Harlow by an actor who had spotted her on another set. Hughes cast her as the blonde heroine, replacing a Danish actress with a heavy accent. As was usual, Hughes romanced his leading lady. The film was a smash hit thanks to Hughes’s daring aerial photography and Harlow’s stunning looks.
Although derided by critics she was a hit with audiences and suddenly a star. But not too big a star for her next role to an un-credited bit in Charles Chaplin’s City Lights. Under contract to Hughes, who was not a prolific film maker, she was leant to other studios to work in mostly undistinguished films. But one of them was The Secret Six which paired her for the first time with another rising star, Gable. Another was a small, but memorable role in James Cagney’s classic Public Enemy. Most of the others were just double bill fodder.
Howard Hughes "discovered" Harlow and, of course, romanced her. Like all of the other men in her life, she thought the notorious cad was serious about her.
Then Hughes put her back to work in a film starring one of the hottest leading ladies in the business, Loretta Young. Harlow was cast as a scheming rival for her husband’s attention. But after previews, Hughes changed the title name of the film to Platinum Blond and got his publicity department working overtime to hype Harlow’s hair. It worked. Everybody forgot that Young was the real star.
In 1932, once again on loan, Harlow got her first starring role in Columbia’s Three Wise Girls with Mae Clark. MGM, where she was already seeing a producer, Paul Bern snapped her up to co-star with Walter Houston in a grim crime drama Beast of the City. Although consigned to the bottom half of a double bill by Mayer, who felt its violence and the sexy siren that lures a young man to destruction ran against the studio’s image as a maker of wholesome films, Bern took Harlow on an East Coast barnstorming publicity tour of theaters showing the film. She shocked studio executives when fans turned out in droves to see her.
Although Mayer still balked at signing the unwholesome star, Bern convinced studio head of production Irving Thalberg to buy Harlow’s contract from Hughes. Then Thalberg went into high gear finding her better roles showcasing her unique talents. The deal was completed on Harlow’s birthday.
It was Thalberg who discovered her gift for comedy when he cast aside her signature look and starred her in Red-Headed Woman, a romantic farce in which the heroine breaks up a marriage, has multiple affairs and pre-marital sex, and attempts to kill a man to advance in society. It was a huge hit.Despite her genuine desire for a conventional life as a wife and mother, Harlow was no prude and was proud of her body. She posed naked several times including this series of photos with gauzy wraps in nature when she was 18.
But the film, and others which followed, cemented Harlow’s image as a low class sex pot on the make. The persona was entirely counter to Harlow, who came from a privileged background and yearned more than anything for a home and family. Not that she was a prude. She was comfortable with her sexuality and proud of her body. She posed nude several times both before and after achieving stardom, most famously an ecstatic series of shots taken outdoors with her draped in a diaphanous scarf. But she was not a tramp who slept around loosely. She sought out a stable, monogamous relationship which she dreamed would be forever. Her tragedy was that these relationships failed.
Back at MGM her career was white hot when she was re-united with Gable in the classic Red Dust. He became her most enduring co-star and they were paired four more times, including the ill-fated Saratoga.
Clark Gable and Harlow sizzled in Red Dust. Her frequent co-star considered her his best pal and little sister.
During the making of the film Harlow married Bern. Their union seemed happy but after just three months he was found dead in their home—a suicide by gunshot to the head. Harlow was suspected in the press, but she had been visiting her mother’s house, perhaps after an argument. Bern left a cryptic suicide note, “Dearest dear, Unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and wipe out my abject humiliation. I love you. Paul. You understand last night was only a comedy.”
It turned out Bern had been visited that night by his mentally ill ex-common-law wife, Dorothy Milette who may have tried to extort him. She was found three days later, a drowning suicide. Stunned and grieving, Harlow paid off her husband’s many debts, mostly to gamblers, and even paid for Milette’s funeral and headstone. Traumatized, she refused to speak about her husband or what happened to anyone else for the rest of her life.
On the re-bound, Harlow turned to an indiscreet affair with boxer Max Baer, whose wife threatened to sue for alienation of affections. To hush up potential ruinous publicity in the wake of the Bern suicide, Mayer ordered studio executives to pay off the aggrieved wife and arranged a marriage of convenience with one of Harlow’s many devoted friends from the sets, cinematographer Harold Rossen. The platonic marriage ended quietly after seven months.Clara Bow and Jean Harlow--falling and rising film sexpots defined two eras.
Whatever her personal tragedies and scandals, the audience loved her. Never more so than in her scene-stealing comedic tour de force in the classic Dinner at Eight opposite Wallace Beery. And the same year, 1933 she satirized her own life, and that of former It Girl Clara Bow in the comedy Bombshell as the Hollywood sex goddess seeking respectability even in the face of her rapacious and eccentric family. It is said that Mother Jean never recognized that she was parodied in the movie.
Box office hit after hit followed repairing her with Gable, twice each with Tracy and Powell, and with rising stars like Franchot Tone and Robert Taylor. Female pals like Loy, with whom she was exceptionally close, and Una Merkle also shared the screen with her.
By 1935 she was MGM’s biggest, most bankable female star, eclipsing the fading stars Greta Garbo, Norma Schearer (Mrs. Irving Thalberg), and Joan Crawford. She also began her love affair with middle-aged Powell, recently divorced from the studio’s other big time blonde, Carole Lombard.
Studio boss Mayer was dead set against the romance and Harlow told pals that “he would never let us marry.” They often had to sneak around, as they did one weekend when they went to Palm Springs with Powell’s Thin Man co-star Loy. The hotel clerk imagined that Powell and Loy were married in real life.
Despite evident passion and mutual devotion, the relationship was sometimes strained. Harlow wanted marriage and children. Powell was gun shy about marriage after the painful break-up with Lombard and was adamant that he was too old to become a father. When Harlow became pregnant with his child, her mother pressured her into an abortion which left her incapable of having a child of her own. She was heartbroken, but never told Powell what had happened. Powell is said to have finally proposed officially just weeks before she fell ill. No announcement had been made to the press.
After Harlow died the legend mill ginned up. The death of Marilyn Monroe, another tragic blonde bombshell, re-ignited interest in Harlow and set off a small industry. Several biographies, some salacious and fast and loose with the facts, climbed best seller charts. Two commercial films, both titled Harlow were released in 1965 staring Carol Lynley and Carol Baker. Both re-interpreted her in the light of Monroe as hyper-sexed, troubled, and alcoholic.
Myrna Loy, Gable, and Harlow, seen here in a studio publicity still from Wife Vs. Secretary, were best pals. Both railed against grafting Marylin Monroe's troubled persona onto the original Blonde Bombshell. "She was not like that at all."
In truth, although she could belt drinks side by side with Gable and other pals, she was not a drunk or a substance abuser. Nor was she a tramp or for all the travail in her life particularly troubled. Her many friends found her constantly warm, amusing, and engaging. People on Monroe sets often loathed to work with the troubled and temperamental actress. People on Harlow’s sets adored her and admired her work ethic.
After one particularly salacious book was printed in the Sixties an exasperated Loy told reporters, “It makes me wild when I think about the rubbish that is printed.” Powell was terser, “She wasn’t like that at all.”
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