Some Hollywood murders just seemed to have all the right elements, and the story of Paul Bern absolutely reeks of them: a rising and beautiful starlet, a powerful MGM producer, a secret and possibly deranged ex-wife, and a white bathroom slowly filling with blood. This absolutely true story even has a butler in it—although I'm pretty sure he didn’t do it. There is one thing that this story lacks, though: someone behind bars. So, get out your fedora and fingerprint kit: these facts may just lead you to solving the mystifying case of Paul Bern.
Paul Bern started his life as Paul Levy in 1889 in Prussia. He and his five siblings lived quite literally like kids in a candy store—because their parents owned one. Life, however, was not at all sweet for the family and, because of prejudice against Jews, Bern’s father took a drastic measure. He packed them all up and looked for somewhere new to live.
Like many Europeans at the time, they put all their hopes in one place: America.
In 1908, just ten years after settling in New York City, Bern’s father passed—leaving his wife alone with six children. Somehow the family continued to survive in their still relatively new country. But then Bern faced yet another tragedy. Twelve years after his father passed, his mother had a terrible accident. Although, some say it wasn’t an accident at all.
This is what we do know: Henriette Levy drowned. What we don't know is why. The easy answer is that it was some sort of accident, but there are darker accounts as well. Some say Bern’s mother purposely drowned herself, and for a startling reason—one that should have messed up Bern’s life forever.
Before there was the drowning, there was a problem. Paul Bern had met a woman and, like most young men, wanted to marry her. Bern met Dorothy Millette in 1911, and his mother was strongly against the two love birds tying the knot. Was it because of Millette’s deep emotional and mental problems? Sounds like a good reason to me.
Well actually, the real reason was much more troubling than that.
It’s pretty clear that Bern’s mother was very close to her son—but how close? Some people believe that Henriette Levy purposefully drowned herself because she couldn’t face the fact that her beloved son Paul wanted to marry. Apparently, Levy couldn’t get her head around the idea that she was losing her best boy to another woman. Ewww, creepy.
Levy had very strong apron strings, and when Bern tried to cut them, it appears to have pushed her over the edge.
Bern tried to put the loss of his parents behind him and started studying for a new career. He first tried acting and began studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. You’d think that losing both parents probably gave Bern a ton of misery to draw from—especially for those teary-eyed scenes every actor has to play. Sadly, it didn’t quite work out that way.
By the time Paul Levy changed his name to the Hollywood-friendly Paul Bern, he’d already pretty much given up on acting. Even with all his family misery to draw from, Bern couldn’t squeeze the tears out to make it work as an actor. He did, however, know that he wanted to work in show business. He started as a stage manager and then felt a pull from the west. Yes, Hollywood was calling his name.
But wait, what about Dorothy Millette?
After his mother’s drowning, Bern did—rather callously I’d say—marry Millette. Sadly, Millette’s mental health deteriorated, and she became quite a strain on him financially. Bern had to do something drastic. He wanted to head to Hollywood, but wouldn’t Millette just be some unwanted emotional baggage if he brought her along? Wouldn’t she just ruin all his plans?
There was one thing that was hard for Bern to swallow: Maybe his mother had been right all along about Millette.
Bern's wife was a big problem—but no one could say she deserved what he did to her. He arranged to have Millette put in a sanatorium in Connecticut. With her mental issues, maybe it ended up being the right decision, but it's hard to argue Bern did it for her. With Millette locked away, he was free to pursue a new life in Hollywood: a new life as a single man.
As we’ll soon see, this decision would come back to haunt Bern in a shocking way.
It was the early 1920s, and young and talented people were arriving by the busload in Hollywood. Bern was just one of thousands—but he had a fire in his belly. He was soon working as a film editor and then moved up to writing and directing films for United Artists and Paramount. Bern was quickly becoming a success, but there was one thing he needed to make his life perfect: a beautiful woman at his side.
Unfortunately for Bern, this would prove to be an extremely difficult task.
Bern, because he was in show business, was constantly in the presence of beautiful actresses. It didn’t take long for him to set his sights on the one he wanted, and he could not have been aiming higher. The object of his affection was Barbara La Marr, superstar actress and writer. La Marr had a nickname: "The Girl Who Is Too Beautiful".
Well, the name was correct: She was definitely too beautiful for Bern.
Bern took one look at La Marr and knew that he had to have her. Unfortunately, she took one look at Bern and felt the opposite. Bern proclaimed his love for her, and she quickly drop-kicked him into the friend zone. Some good advice for Bern would have been to count his losses and walk away. But what did he actually do? He became her Best Friend Forever. Unfortunately, he quickly realized he'd made a terrible mistake.
Being La Marr’s best friend turned out to be a heck of a lot of work; Bern was more like a manager than just a friend. He helped her with her career and, when she became ill, he paid for some of her medical costs—something that sounds more like a husband’s role. Just like with Millette, Bern had found himself helping a needy woman. There was a pattern forming here of helping the helpless. A pattern that Bern would be smart to stop as soon as possible.
While Bern’s love life was certainly not where he wanted it to be, his career was. Bern had gotten a full-time job as a production assistant to wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg at MGM studios. This was a huge step for Bern and helped him move into his own job at MGM as a producer. One of the perks of being a producer for a major studio was all the eye candy walking around.
Bern was used to seeing beautiful women around the studio—until he saw one who made him stop in his tracks.
When Bern met Jean Harlow, she was a slow-rising star. She was in the middle of filming the Howard Hughes directed Hell’s Angels—her breakthrough role after languishing in small parts for years. Like La Marr, the press and movie-going public were going gaga over her looks. It seemed that Bern wasn’t content with mid-level beauty—he wanted someone who the whole country was in love with.
But how would Harlow react to him?
I’m sure when Bern met the stunning Harlow, he had a personal mantra: "Avoid the friend zone, avoid the friend zone". But as soon as he met her, he made a classic mistake: He offered to help her with her career. No one in Hollywood was taking the blonde actress seriously, but Bern was. Also, he was able to use his pull at MGM to move her career forward.
But here he was again, helping a gorgeous actress, but not becoming the boyfriend.
So let’s get this straight: Bern had set up his ex-wife in a sanitarium. He was also helping Barbara La Marr with her growing medical expenses, and now he was volunteering to help Jean Harlow with her career. This poor guy didn’t seem to be able to get a break. Everywhere he looked there were beautiful women, except in his bedroom. Bern had once again ended up the best friend, which seemed to be his fate.
Then suddenly, fate did a full 180.
It’s not clear how he did it, but Bern's relationship with Harlow went in a When Harry Met Sally kind of direction. He actually got himself out of the friend zone and into romance. The two started dating and then, in July 1932, they tied the knot. Bern had miraculously broken his pattern and had landed the gorgeous actress.
He thought he'd finally found his fairy tale ending. Turns out, it was more like a horror story.
Bern and Harlow were eager to get their wedded life started, so Harlow moved into Bern’s pride and joy: his Benedict Canyon house. The house was a bit bizarre, as it was built in a Bavarian style that seemed to cry out to be on an Alp somewhere in Germany—not in Los Angeles. Many reports say that Harlow hated the house.
Don’t worry Jean: You won't be living there for long.
On September 5, 1932, just two months after his marriage to Harlow, Bern’s butler walked into his employer’s bedroom and found it surprisingly empty. Puzzled, the butler continued his search and eventually found his way to Harlow’s bathroom. There the butler found a horrifying sight: Bern's unclothed, lifeless body was on the floor.
Not only did the butler see Bern’s lifeless body, he also saw that there was blood everywhere. The scene must’ve been especially horrific, as Harlow’s bathroom was completely white—or had been. Beside Bern’s body lay a revolver and a note. It’s unlikely the butler had the piece of mind to notice, but it later came out that Bern had more than just blood on him: He also reeked of his wife’s favorite cologne.
Law enforcement soon arrived, and the coroner made his declaration: Bern’s fatal wound was self-inflicted. It was an open and shut case—or was it?
To support the coroner’s report of a self-inflicted fatal injury, there was the note that Bern had left. In it, he apologizes to someone only mentioned as "Dear". The reason for the apology is not clear, but it does mention something about his "abject humiliation". The speculation is that he was referring to his failure to fulfill Harlow’s desire in the bedroom.
It’s the last line of the note, however, where the mystery deepens.
The last line of the note continues to baffle people today. The line is simply this: "You understand that last night was only a comedy". If you’re penning the last letter you’ll ever write, would you end it with such a cryptic comment? What on earth was Bern referring to? Amateur sleuths have been trying to figure out the meaning of this sentence for years. The majority of them agree on one thing: This note was not a message from a man about to take his own life.
So what had happened that night? And how had Bern ended up on his wife’s bathroom floor covered in blood?
The obvious person to answer these questions was Harlow—she was his wife after all. However, on the night of the deadly incident, Harlow wasn’t at home. She was spending time with her mother, which gave her a pretty solid alibi in case someone questioned her innocence. In addition to the alibi, the butler also later reported that Bern and Harlow were an incredibly happy couple.
So, Harlow seemed to be pretty much in the clear...unless you spoke to the gardener.
Bern’s gardener had a very different story to tell. He was sure that Bern and Harlow were not at all happy—he’d witnessed many fights between the supposed love birds. Detectives, trying to get closer to the truth, then moved on to talk to someone else in the household: the cook. The cook didn’t have any speculation about the state of the Bern/Harlow marriage, but she had something better: Clues straight out of a murder mystery.
Bern’s cook said that she’d seen something suspicious on the night of the incident: a strange woman walking around the property. The cook said she didn’t know who the woman was, but later found something suspicious. Down by the swimming pool, she found two used glasses and something more alarming: a swimming suit that she didn’t recognize.
Who was the mystery woman? And why the heck had she taken off her swimsuit?
If there was a mystery woman at Bern’s house, I’d put my money on Dorothy Millette: his ex who had emotional problems. She had a motive—jealousy over his marriage to Harlow—and she had pretty severe mental health issues. But wait, wouldn't being locked up in a sanitarium on the other side of the country be the best alibi ever?
It would be...if she were actually there.
It turned out that Millette had actually checked herself out of the Connecticut sanitarium. More intriguing still was a letter Millette had sent to Bern just a few months before the fateful night. In the letter, she asks for hotel recommendations for San Francisco. So, not only was she not under lock and key at the sanitarium, there was a good chance she was in California the night Bern lost his life.
The authorities soon figured this out, and it was time to bring Millette in for questioning.
The detectives on the case needed to talk to Millette and find out if she was at Bern’s home on September 5, 1932. They learned that she was staying in the Plaza Hotel in San Francisco—probably one of Bern’s recommendations. The officers, however, got to the hotel too late: Millette had already checked out. The detectives asked if she had said where she was going next.
According to the hotel concierge, Millette was rushing to catch the Delta King Riverboat. The chase was on.
It may have been a coincidence that Millette checked out of the Plaza Hotel just before officers got there. Or it may have been something worse. Did she have something to hide? Was she running? One thing we do know: She definitely boarded the Delta King Riverboat, and even more mysterious: She never walked off.
Was it possible that Millette had eluded the authorities and was running off to spend the rest of her life as a fugitive?
Before detectives had a chance to question Dorothy Millette about her whereabouts on September 5, the case took a sinister turn: Someone discovered her lifeless body floating in the Sacramento River. It seems that Millette had, in a striking similarity to Bern’s own mother, drowned herself. But what did this mean to the mystery of Bern’s demise?
Like everything else in this case: it was just fuel for more speculation.
We know that Millette never left the Delta King alive, but what happened to her? There are two prominent theories. Remember she had some serious mental and emotional issues. It could be that she drowned herself because of grief that she didn’t have the capacity to deal with. She still loved Bern, so maybe she was just really sad.
Yeah, that’s possible. But isn’t there a more obvious—and darker—reason for her drowning?
The other theory behind Millette's deadly dip in the river claims it wasn't grief driving her—it was guilt. And what might she have felt so guilty about? What about murder? Obviously, Millette was unstable, so many took the fact that she drowned herself so soon after Bern's passing as proof of her guilt. And let's not forget that had better motive than just about anyone: Bern had abandoned her and married the most beautiful woman in the world.
But could there be a more financial reason for Millette’s behavior?
Despite abandoning her, Paul Bern had been supporting Millette for years. With his passing, Millette was left on her own financially. Even worse, Bern had left everything to his new wife. Was it possible that Millette knew that Harlow was his sole beneficiary? Was she trying to get rid of Bern because she was angry? Or, more cunningly, was she planning to contest the will after she did Bern in?
While detectives were looking into Millette’s connection to Bern, they discovered another shocking twist: There were no divorce papers for the termination of Bern’s marriage to Millette. I’m sure Harlow always assumed that the two had got a divorce—likely Bern had lied to her. This seems like more evidence against Millette. She came to California with a revolver to get her man out of Harlow’s evil clutches.
The detectives next wanted to talk to Bern’s insurance advisor. Apparently, he could provide proof as to whether or not Bern had divorced Millette. They tracked down the advisor and confirmed the awful truth: Bern was a bigamist. He had married Harlow when he was still married to Millette. The advisor added something even more chilling to his account: Bern had suggested to him that Millette had passed at the sanitarium.
If Harlow had found out that Bern was still married to Millette, and had lied to her all that time, doesn’t that place her as a suspect?
Another theory is that Harlow is the guilty party. As mentioned, there is reason to suspect that the Bern/Harlow marriage was already on the rocks. The gardener attested to that. But arguments between couples are fairly common—disagreements happen all the time. Unless there was something that Bern had done to push an argument to a much darker place.
Even though Paul Bern had fought long and hard to make the glamorous Jean Harlow fall in love with him, he wasn’t always faithful to her. In fact, he carried on an affair with his secretary, Irene Harrison, the entire time he was with Harlow. It could be that Harlow found out about the affair and it pushed her to murder. Sure she had an alibi, but it came from her mother—and some mothers will do anything to protect their children.
Besides, Harlow had some secrets of her own she was keeping.
Harlow had yet another reason to be mad at Bern: It's possible Harlow knew that Bern had another wife. While Harlow’s stepfather told the media that Harlow had no idea about the existence of Millette, Bern's brother, told another story. He said that Harlow absolutely knew about Millette, and that they had even talked about her before Harlow married Bern.
So now, there was a claim that Harlow was lying—but why?
Members of the public and Hollywood glitterati had always wondered what Harlow saw in Bern. With her curvaceous body and stunning blonde hair, she was Marilyn Monroe before there was Marilyn Monroe. Harlow could have had any man she wanted—and yet she chose Paul Bern. He was 40 years old, had a small frame and, to quote someone unkind, was "only as tall as a girl".
But Bern did have one thing she wanted: connections.
One thing Bern did have was connections to Hollywood. It was Bern who’d convinced MGM to sign Harlow on. It was Bern who helped Harlow find the more serious roles that had eluded. While most producers saw her only as eye candy, it was Bern who had delivered her to the upper echelon of Hollywood.
Could it be that Harlow had gotten what she’d wanted from Bern, and was through with him?
One thing that came out later was that Bern had been having serious financial problems at the time of his grisly end. The cost of keeping someone like Harlow happy was demanding on Bern’s billfold—not to mention paying for Millette back east. Maybe all of Bern’s disappointments as a husband had stacked up against him. He couldn’t provide financially, he had a not-so-secret first wife—who he was supporting—and, maybe worst of all, he was a dud in the bedroom.
One thing is certainly true: Harlow had no shortage of motives.
But what would Harlow gain if her husband no longer lived? He had almost no money, after all. Well, Harlow had already seen to it what little he did have would go to her. A few months before his passing, Bern had changed his will. Before, he’d left Millette $1,200 per month for the rest of her life. After Harlow got her hands on Bern, Millette was no longer in the will.
Maybe you’re thinking that Harlow didn’t have it in her to end someone’s life—especially her own husband’s. Well, there’s yet another theory that can help with that. You see, Harlow’s mother was what people used to call a piece of work. She was a loud, in-your-face woman who usually got what she wanted. She was very likely not happy with Bern—after all, he was supporting a second wife.
I know, being a piece of work doesn’t usually lead to a capital offense. But there’s one more thing you need to know about Harlow’s mother—and it’s a doozy.
Jean Harlow’s mother was not only aggressive. She also had connections—to the mafia. In fact, a few years previous, Harlow and her mother had hired gang members to dispose of some blackmailers who had some compromising photos of Harlow. And there’s more: Harlow had once dated a guy who they called the Al Capone of New Jersey. Could it be that Harlow and her mother hired someone to do Bern in?
Everything was adding up to Harlow’s guilt. It was time for her to answer these accusations.
Harlow had to face a grand jury about what happened on September 5, 1932. All of Hollywood—and no doubt the world—was waiting on the edge of their seats to hear what she had to say. All Harlow said to the questions was that she "knew nothing". Surprisingly, Harlow’s answer seemed to satisfy the grand jury. Not only did she get off, but she also got what was left of Bern’s money.
Sadly she didn’t get to enjoy it for long: She only had about five years left to live.
Around the time of Bern’s passing, Harlow was working on a film called Red Dust with Clark Gable. MGM studio head, Louis B. Mayer had a reputation for demanding that his actors have a squeaky clean reputation. So, having Harlow mixed up in a murder was not something he could tolerate. Even if Harlow were innocent, Mayer didn’t want the public making guesses about Harlow’s involvement.
Mayer needed to make the public believe that Bern had taken his own life. But how could he make that happen? If you’re a huge and powerful studio head, it’s easy.
By the time Harlow married Bern, she was fast becoming a very bankable star for MGM. When the butler discovered Bern’s body, some suggest that his first call was not to the authorities, but to someone else: MGM Studios. It was fairly common practice back then to instruct the servants to call the studio first, not law enforcement, if something untoward happened in an actor's home.
This gave the all-powerful studio a chance to alter the event and make their stars look innocent.
The theory goes that Mayer himself was the first one on the scene, followed closely by MGM’s security chief and Bern’s old boss, Irving Thalberg. Whatever the three men did there is a mystery. Allegedly, though, they waited two hours before calling call law enforcement. So, what did they do for two hours? Well, they did what desperate men do in a desperate situation.
According to this theory, Mayer and his buddies quickly altered the scene. They needed it to look less like a murder and more like Bern had done himself in. They rearranged the body, put the revolver in the right spot, and then added the finishing touch: a note. Where the note came from is anyone’s guess. Some say they wrote it themselves—copying Bern’s handwriting—others say it was torn from Bern’s diary.
The story should end there—but there’s one more piece left.
Louis B. Mayer was the kind of man who always had a plan B. In the case of Paul Bern, Mayer likely worried that the authorities would assume foul play. With this in mind, let’s ask some questions: Wasn’t it kind of convenient that poor Millette drowned in the Sacramento river? Wouldn’t it also be convenient to blame her for Bern’s demise? Some speculate that Mayer, to cover all his bases, had Millette heartlessly thrown off the boat.
Mayer had successfully removed Harlow from suspicion—and derailed the detective’s case. Because of Mayer, we may never know what actually happened to Paul Bern.
There could possibly be another suspect for Bern’s murder: the house itself. Many believe it’s haunted. Since Bern’s tragic passing, there have been a few other mysterious tragedies at the house: a drowning and one self-inflicted fatal injury. Then, in the 1960s, celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebrig, showing no concern for its macabre past, bought the Easton Drive home. Maybe Sebrig’s name rings a bell: He, alongside Sharon Tate, was later slaughtered by the Manson family.
The last time I checked, the Bavarian mansion was up for sale. Never have words been more apt: buyer beware.
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