"Men like me because I don’t wear a brassiere. Women like me because I don’t look like a girl who would [take] a husband. At least not for long". – Jean Harlow
For a time in the 1930s, Jean Harlow was the biggest star in Hollywood. Her vampy good looks, easy glamour, and natural sensual appeal earned her the nickname "The Blonde Bombshell," but underneath her polished façade was a tender soul too often abused by studios and wracked with heartache—all the way until her devastating end. Put on a maribou-feather dressing robe and read these facts about Jean Harlow.
1. Working Class to World Class
Harlow had humble beginnings. She was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri—just about as far as you could get from the bright lights of Sunset Boulevard. Her father Mont Clair Carpenter came from a working-class background and made his living as a dentist, but her mother Jean grew up the privileged daughter of a real estate broker.
2. Certified Platinum
Jean Harlow was famous for her so-called "platinum blonde" hair—in fact, it was her stardom that helped first coin the shiny term. When he was promoting Harlow in one of his films, director Howard Hughes publicized her hair color as new-fangled "platinum," quickly turning Harlow into the original Blonde Bombshell.
3. The Bare Truth
At the height of her fame, rumors abounded that Harlow only slept in the buff—and perhaps more scandalously, that she never wore underwear.
4. The Long Goodbye
Harlow was always a favorite with her male co-stars. Jimmy Stewart once recalled a kissing scene with her that he deliberately messed up. As he said, the director "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".
5. Bringing up Baby
Harlow was born on March 3, 1911. Her nickname was "The Baby," a name that she kept even in her silver screen days. People actually called her "The Baby" so often that she didn’t even know her real name was "Harlean" until she was five years old.
6. Overbearing Mother
Harlow and her mother were disturbingly close. Mama Jean (as she came to be known) doted on, spoiled, and coddled her darling daughter to the point of smothering. When Harlow got famous, Mama Jean only got worse. Commenting on Harlow’s adoring fans and hard-won stardom, Mama Jean once yelled out, "She was always all mine!"
7. Queen Kong
According to monster movie queen Fay Wray herself, Jean Harlow was actually the first choice to play King Kong’s damsel in distress, Ann Darrow.
8. Maybe She’s Born With It, Maybe It’s Clorox Bleach
As a Hollywood starlet, Harlow swore up and down that her white-blonde hair was her natural color—but nothing could be further from the truth. She actually reportedly kept up the façade with weekly bleachings of ammonia, Clorox, and Lux soap flakes, a process that did horrific damage to her naturally ash-blonde locks.
9. An Indecent Proposal
Mama Jean’s marriage to Harlow’s father was very far from a Cinderella story. Mama Jean’s father actually arranged and forced her into the union with Mont Clair—and that went just about as badly as you think it would. Although Mama Jean went along with it for a time, she grew more and more resentful of her husband.
10. Broken Home
One day while Harlow was off at finishing school, Mama Jean enacted a ruthless plot. She divorced Mont Clair Carpenter and quickly got sole, uncontested custody of their daughter, all before the little girl even knew what had hit her family. Though she loved her father deeply, Harlow almost never saw him again after that fateful day.
11. The Cat’s Meow
Jean Harlow partly inspired the iconic Batman character Catwoman. Creator Bob Kane once said that when he was an impressionable boy, Harlow "seemed to personify feminine pulchritude at its most sensuous". The other inspiration for the leather-clad anti-heroine was actually Harlow’s fellow screen siren Hedy Lamarr.
12. Critical Sass
In 1934, Harlow reportedly went head-to-head with the cutting British socialite Margot Asquith at a dinner party—and received a brutal comeback. Apparently, the naïve Harlow kept pronouncing Asquith’s name as "Mar-GOT" rather than "Mar-GO". Unable to bear it any more, Asquith snapped back, "No, no; the 't' is silent, as in 'Harlow'". That’s right, she called poor unsuspecting Jean a "Harlot".
13. Over the Hill
It was actually Mama Jean who gave Harlow her first taste of Hollywood. In 1923, the older woman set her sights on stardom and carted her young daughter with her to Los Angeles in the hopes of igniting her own career. Sadly, producers told Mama Jean that at the super gross and decrepit age of 34, those dreams were long gone.
14. Young Love
Few people know that Jean Harlow was married before she ever became a star. When she was still a freshman at her prep school, she met and fell head over heels in love with Chuck McGrew, a handsome 19-year-old from a wealthy family. The two lovebirds simply couldn’t wait: they married in 1927 after a scant year of dating.
15. The High Life
Harlow’s marriage to McGrew was full of luxe living, midnight galas, and dry martinis. After McGrew got his inheritance, the couple moved to Beverly Hills and posted up in a mansion. While there, Harlow happily played the part of the wealthy socialite, though this luxury had a dark side. Both Harlow and McGrew became notorious lushes, drinking their days away.
16. Dyeing to Do It
Harlow’s platinum hair was all the rage with her young fans, and girls began begging their hairdressers to give them the shade. Howard Hughes even ran an elaborate publicity stunt called the "platinum blonde club". He challenged hair dressers to reproduce Harlow's exact color. If anyone could, they'd win a prize. No one was able to do it, further solidifying the myth that Harlow's hair couldn't be faked (even though, as we know, it definitely was).
17. Gambling Woman
Jean Harlow’s "discovery" was right out of the Old Hollywood starlet playbook. While waiting for her actress friend Rosalie Roy after an audition, a studio executive approached Harlow and told her to give tinsel town a shot herself. When she refused the first time, Roy bet her that she was too nervous to go through with a real audition.
Never one to back away from a bet, Harlow strut into the casting agency and signed on with her mother’s maiden name, Jean Harlow.
18. What, Like It’s Hard?
Most people struggle for years trying to break into the acting business. But most people aren’t Jean Harlow. In fact, she had to beat casting directors away with a stick. Right after her first audition, she got flooded with calls and gigs, all of which she rejected. It was only after enduring constant pestering from (who else?) Mama Jean that she finally accepted a role.
19. Tearing up My Heart
Near Christmas, 1928, Harlow signed her first bona fide film contract with Hal Roach studios—but it all ended in heartbreak. Three months later, she tearfully went to Roach and confessed that she had to get out of the business. As she said, "It's breaking up my marriage, what can I do?" In response, Roach angrily tore up the contract right in front of her.
20. Nurse Jean
Mama Jean was a helicopter parent extraordinaire. One time, little Jean was in summer camp spending some (probably much needed) time away from her mother when she came down with a nasty case of scarlet fever. Instead of letting her daughter get better in peace, quiet, and quarantine, Mama Jean immediately hauled herself over on a rowboat to the remote cabin and demanded to see "The Baby".
21. Love Lost
Despite all her efforts to keep her relationship together, McGrew and Harlow divorced in 1929. Still in her teenage years, Harlow now had one failed marriage under her belt.
22. It’s an Honor Just to Be Here
Harlow’s first film was 1928’s Honor Bound. Producers paid her a whopping $7.00 a day as an uncredited extra.
23. A Heavenly Part
By late 1929, Harlow was ready to take on the acting world again—and she got another lucky break. Actor James Hall was filming Hell’s Angels with director Howard Hughes when he spotted Harlow. Hall instantly thought she’d make a great leading lady for the movie, which recently lost its starring actress. Harlow got the part—and the film became the number one hit of 1930.
24. Baby Sister
Though almost everyone in Hollywood called her "The Baby," Clark Gable called her "Sis".
25. Putting the "B" in "Bombshell"
When Harlow made her big debut, audiences loved the alluring ingenue—even though many critics despised her. One publication even called Harlow "plain awful". But some reviewers saw the blonde performer's, er, appeal. As Variety put it, "It doesn't matter what degree of talent she possesses...nobody ever starved possessing what she's got".
26. Camera Shy
Even though she oozed screen presence from her every pore, Harlow was painfully shy. Early on in her career, she hated making public appearances, and often refused to go on tours for film premieres.
27. An Icon’s Idol
Marilyn Monroe absolutely loved Jean Harlow, and even lobbied to play Harlow in a biopic after her idol’s life was cut tragically short. But once Monroe read the badly written and exploitative script, she point-blank refused to do it. Monroe later confessed to her agent, "I hope they don’t do that to me after I’m gone".
28. The Old Jean Hancock
To this day, Harlow’s autograph is incredibly rare and valuable; Mama Jean signed most of her daughter’s fan mail.
29. The Ladies and the Tramp
Throughout her rise to stardom, Harlow was romantically involved with Paul Bern, a studio executive at MGM. Besotted with her, Bern went to the volatile MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer and asked him to sign Harlow to a contract. Instead of politely declining, Mayer snidely reminded Bern that MGM ladies were elegant, and that Harlow was nothing but a detestable "floozy" on screen.
30. Babes in Arms
Harlow got a reputation as a bit of a mob moll: she dated mafioso Abner Zwillman, and was even an informal godmother to the daughter of infamous gangster "Bugsy" Siegel. Critic and writer Graham Greene once even crudely commented on her acting, "Her technique was a gangster’s technique—she toted a [bosom] like a man totes a [pistol]". Um, whatever you say Graham.
31. Good Haul This Year
On her 21st birthday, Harlow found out that MGM had in fact signed her to a $30,000 contract.
32. Extra Credit
True to form, Mama Jean always claimed that she was mostly responsible for Harlow’s success.
33. A Novel Pursuit
Harlow actually wrote a novel during her short lifetime, Today Is Tonight, about Hollywood’s dissolute elite. It came out long after her passing in 1965, and many believe it to be a thinly veiled account of her relationship with Paul Bern. One modern critic calls the book "utter, utter nonsense" but admits that she enjoyed it tremendously anyway.
34. The Bar Is Low
Harlow struggled with both her public and private images throughout her life. MGM was in a constant battle to turn her into the blonde beauty-next-door, and went through many publicity manoeuvres to alter her persona. Frustrated and hurt by all these machinations, someone once heard Harlow mutter, "My God, must I always wear a low-cut dress to be important?"
35. Cover Girl
Harlow was the first actress to appear on the cover of Life magazine.
36. Caught Red-Headed
While preparing to film the 1932 comedy Red-Headed Woman, Harlow passed fellow actress and friend Anita Page on the MGM lot, only to watch as Page didn’t acknowledge her and walked right on by. Harlow was so hurt by the snub that she ran into her dressing room and cried—it was only later that she realized what had really happened.
The title role of the movie required Harlow to hide her iconic blonde hair under a red wig, which she wore when Page passed her on that fateful day. In truth, the actress simply didn’t recognize Harlow on the lot. As Page later commented about the event, "That shows you how sensitive she was. She was a lovely person in so many ways".
37. Woman’s Best Friend
Fans knew the actress as much for her beauty as for her kind, sweet heart. When she was a bona fide star, she lived next door to the Hollywood celebrity dog Rin Tin Tin, who was getting on in age at 16 years old. When Rin Tin Tin was dying, Harlow went over and held his head in her lap until the very good boy passed on.
38. Paul and Jean Forever
After their deep friendship developed into something much more, MGM executive Paul Bern and Jean Harlow married on July 2, 1932. Bern was one of the only people who truly believed in Harlow as a serious actress and selflessly wanted her to succeed. It was a loving marriage—but sadly, it was doomed to an utterly heartbreaking end.
39. Infamous Last Words
Just two months after the wedding, authorities found Bern lifeless in the couple’s home from a gunshot wound. When authorities first took in the scene, many speculated that Harlow had taken the life of her new husband. The truth was actually much darker; In the short note that lay beside beside Bern, he wrote his devastating final words.
These words were also incredibly mysterious, and have puzzled old Hollywood sleuths to this very day. "Dearest Dear," the note read, "Unfortuately [sic] this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation, I Love [sic] you. Paul You understand that last night was only a comedy".
40. No Small Matter
Interpretations about what Bern meant when he referred to his "frightful wrong" and the reasons for his self-destructive act are varied, and many of them scandalous. After his passing, rumors abounded that he was impotent or embarrassed about the size of his manhood. Other theories claimed that his family history of self-harm finally overtook him.
41. Mr. Fix-It
Film historians have long suspected that MGM studios tampered with the forensic evidence. Allegedly, they sent notorious fixer Eddie Mannix to alter the scene before the authorities arrived in order to avoid dragging Harlow’s name through the mud.
42. Murder Mystery
There is, however, one final, disturbing possibility. Though the authorities soon cleared Harlow of any involvement in Bern’s demise, many still suspect the note was a fake and that someone had taken Bern's life. Indeed, many Hollywood insiders believe that Bern’s ex-lover Dorothy Millette took his life in a jealous rage, an allegation that one of Bern’s biographers backs up.
Tragically—and perhaps tellingly—just days after the murder, Millette jumped off of a ferry, taking her own life. Nonetheless, the official cause of Bern’s demise is suicide.
43. A Marriage of Convenience
In the wake of the scandal, MGM worked overtime on damage control, even arranging a marriage between Harlow and her friend Harold Rosson. The two were in on the scheme, and amicably divorced after eight months. Later, Harlow found love with her frequent co-star William Powell—though by this time she was just about done with matrimony (fair enough, Jean). The two never wed.
44. Tragedy Comes in Twos
Harlow’s heartache was far from over. In 1937, her health took a terrifying turn. She had been mildly ill for months, but while filming Saratoga, the star began to complain of nausea, bloating, and abdominal pain. It got so bad that she had to lean on her co-star and friend Clark Gable between takes. When they found out the truth, it was too late.
45. Last Days
Harlow took time off work to recover from what doctors now diagnosed as an inflamed gallbladder, but when Clark Gable visited her, he was heartbroken to find her severely bloated with, astonishingly, urine on her breath. Soon after that, medical professionals confirmed the young, beautiful girl was in the final stages of kidney failure.
46. The Show Must Not Go on
Harlow worked for months throughout her illness, tirelessly trying to please her exploitative studio heads while becoming weaker and weaker. She was so determined to curry their favor that she even attended the Oscars ceremony in 1936 while incredibly ill. She was apparently so sick that fellow actress Carole Lombard had to help her reapply her makeup in the powder room.
47. The Baby Sleeps
On June 6, 1937, Harlow was taken to the hospital. That night, she slipped into a coma. By the next morning, she was gone. She was only 26 years old.
48. Not a Dry Eye in the House
The warning signs were here, but no one paid attention to them. Harlow’s pallid complexion, many illnesses, and even an earlier severe sunburn all pointed to kidney failure—yet everyone missed the bigger picture. As one MGM writer later wrote of Harlow’s utterly senseless end, "The day Baby [passed on]...there wasn't one sound in the commissary for three hours".
49. An Epic End
Before her passing, Harlow was reportedly reading Gone With the Wind. She even packed it for her last hospital visit, causing one of the nurses to look at the tome tearfully and say, "She’ll never finish it". She passed on within the week.
50. Rest in Glamour
Harlow’s family buried her in a gown from one of her films, with a white gardenia in her hand and a note from Powell that read, "Good night, my dearest darling". The inscription on her grave reads simply, "Our Baby".