Bombshell Facts About Jean Harlow, Hollywood’s Platinum Blonde

September 16, 2019 | Dancy Mason

Bombshell Facts About Jean Harlow, Hollywood’s Platinum Blonde

“Men like me because I don’t wear a brassiere. Women like me because I don’t look like a girl who would steal 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 sex 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.

Jean Harlow Facts

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. 

Actress Jean Harlow poses for a publicity still for the MGM film 'Bombshell' - 1933Donaldson Collection, Getty Images

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.

 Publicity photo of Jean Harlow - 1930sstudio, Wikimedia Commons

3. The Naked Truth

At the height of her fame, rumors abounded that Harlow only slept in the nude—and perhaps more scandalously, that she never wore underwear.

Photograph of Jean Harlow from the cover of Time magazine - 1935Wikimedia Commons, Picryl

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.”

Portrait of James Stewart, 15 October 1934Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Image of Jean Harlow standing outside - 1931Movie Classic, Wikimedia Commons

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!"

Actress Jean Harlow poses for a photo with her mother, MGM, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Screenshot from King Kong (1933)RKO Pictures, King Kong (1933)

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.

Jean Harlow in a promotional still from the 1931 film The Secret SixMGM, Wikimedia Commons

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.

James Cagney and Jean Harlow publicity photo - 1931Warner Bros., Wikimedia Commons

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.

Promotional photo of Jean Harlow in the film - The Beast of the City (1932).MGM, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Hedy Lamarr and this elegant ribbon-trimmed black lace fan - 1950Bettmann, Getty Images

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.”

Portrait of Mrs. Herbert Asquith - 1909Philip de László, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Jean Harlow at Lobby card for the film The Beast of the City - 1932MGM, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Publicity still. of Jean Harlow and Chester Morris in Red-Headed Woman - (1932)Vogue, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Lobby card from the film Red Dust with Jean Harlow - 1932MGM, Wikimedia Commons

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).

Publicity still of Jean Harlow - circa 1935MGM, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Jean Harlow portrait - 1934Russell Ball, Wikimedia Commons

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.

B&W image of Jean HarlowLou, Flickr

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.

Jean Harlow, star of the MGM musical comedy 'Reckless' - 1934oneredsf1, Flickr

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.”

Jean Harlow in the American drama film Suzy (1936), Picryl

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.

Promotional Photo of Jean Harlow in Red-Headed (1932)Wikimedia Commons, Picryl

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.

Jean Harlow and Jean Arthur in the American pre-Code romantic comedy film The Saturday Night Kid (1929), Picryl

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.

Screenshot of Jean Harlow - from Hell’s Angels (1930)‎The Caddo Company, Hell’s Angels (1930)

24. Baby Sister

Though almost everyone in Hollywood called her “The Baby,” Clark Gable called her “Sis.”

Grayscale portrait photo of the actor Clark GableMovie studio, Wikimedia Commons

25. Putting the “Bomb” 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.”

Portrait of American actress Jean Harlow - 1932oneredsf1, Flickr

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.

Portrait of Jean Harlow looking at camera.oneredsf1, Flickr

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.”

Marilyn Monroe In A Red DressBaron, Getty Images

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.

Promotional photo of Jean Harlow in the American romantic comedy Platinum Blonde (1931).Wikimedia Commons, Picryl

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.

Portrait of Jean Harlow smiling.Insomnia Cured Here, Flickr

30. Babes in Arms

Harlow got a reputation as a bit of a gangster’s moll: she dated mobster 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 breast like a man totes a gun.” Um, whatever you say Graham.

Portrait of Graham Greene looking at side - 1975Magyar Hírek, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

31. Good Haul This Year

On her 21st birthday, Harlow found out that MGM had in fact signed her to a $30,000 contract.

Portrait of Jean Harlow smiling at camera.Insomnia Cured Here, Flickr

32. Extra Credit

True to form, Mama Jean always claimed that she was mostly responsible for Harlow’s success.

Image of Jean Harlow smiling.oneredsf1, Flickr

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 death 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.

Photograph of newlyweds Paul Bern and Jean Harlow (1932)International Newsreel, Wikimedia Commons

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 from sex kitten to bombshell-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?"

Image of Jean Harlow from Wife vs. Secretary - 1936Wikimedia Commons, Picryl

35. Cover Girl

Harlow was the first actress to appear on the cover of Life magazine.

Jean Harlow at Time Magazine cover, 19 August 1935MGM - Harvey White, Wikimedia Commons

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."

Portrait Jean Harlow - 1932General Photographic Agency, Getty Images

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 away.

Rin Tin Tin (dog) looking up - 1929Warner Brothers, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Paul Bern & Jean Harlow Signing Marriage Papers - 1932Bettmann, Getty Images

39. Infamous Last Words

Just two months after the wedding, police found Bern dead in the couple’s home from a gunshot wound. When authorities first took in the crime scene, many speculated that Harlow had killed her new husband. The truth was actually much darker; In the short suicide 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.”

Portrait of film director Paul Bern - 1925Famous Players Lasky Corp., Wikimedia Commons

40. No Small Matter

Interpretations about what Bern meant when he referred to his “frightful wrong” and the reasons for his suicide are varied, and many of them scandalous. After his death, rumors abounded that he was impotent or embarrassed about the size of his manhood. Other theories claimed that his family history of suicide finally overtook him.

Paul Bern being embaressed - 1925Paramount Pictures, Wikimedia Commons

41. Mr. Fix-It

Film historians have long suspected that MGM studios tampered with the crime scene evidence. Allegedly, they sent notorious fixer Eddie Mannix to alter the scene before the police arrived in order to avoid dragging Harlow’s name through the mud.

Photo of film executive Eddie Mannix - 1935Associated Press, Wikimedia Commons

42. Murder Mystery

There is, however, one final, disturbing possibility. Though police soon cleared Harlow of any involvement in Bern’s death, many still suspect the suicide note was a fake and that someone killed Bern. Indeed, many Hollywood insiders believe that Bern’s ex-lover Dorothy Millette murdered him 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 and killed herself. Nonetheless, Bern’s official cause of death remains a suicide.

Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy in the American film Riffraff - 1936.MGM, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Jean Harlow &William Powell - 1935 Hulton Archive, Getty Images

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.

Image of Jean Harlow wearing hat and looking at side - 1968.Nationaal Archief, Picryl

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.

Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in the American pre-Code romantic drama film Red Dust - 1932.MGM, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Jean Harlow & Myrna Loy in American comedy drama film Wife vs. Secretary - 1936.MGM, Wikimedia Commons

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 dead. She was only 26 years old.

Publicity photo of Jean Harlow for Argentinean Magazine - 1934Hurrell ,CINEGRAF magazine, Wikimedia Commons

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 died...there wasn't one sound in the commissary for three hours.”

Image of Jean Harlow smiling (Ecran) - 1932Revista Ecran, Wikimedia Commons

49. An Epic End

Before her death, 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 was dead within the week.

Image of Jean Harlow looking at mirror.oneredsf1, Flickr

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.”

Photo of Jean Harlow and Clark Gable on the set of the American film Saratoga (1937)Acme Newspictures, Inc., Picryl

Sources: 123456789, 1011

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