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Jean Harlow (March 3, 1911 – June 7, 1937) was an American film actress and sex symbol of the 1930s. Known as the "Platinum Blonde" and the "Blonde Bombshell" due to her platinum blonde hair, Harlow was ranked as one of the greatest movie stars of all time by the American Film Institute. Harlow starred in several films, mainly designed to showcase her magnetic sex appeal and strong screen presence, before making the transition to more developed roles and achieving massive fame under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Harlow's enormous popularity and "laughing vamp" image were in distinct contrast to her personal life, which was marred by disappointment, tragedy, and ultimately, her sudden death from renal failure at age 26.

Early life

Born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missourimarker, she was the daughter of Mont Clair Carpenter (1877-1974), a dentist, and his wife, Jean Poe Carpenter (née Harlow). The name is sometimes incorrectly written as Carpentier, which came from later studio press releases in an effort to sound more aristocratic, and the inaccuracy has been constantly repeated.

Mont Clair Carpenter came from a working-class background and had gone to Kansas City to attend dental college, while her mother was the only child and daughter of a wealthy real estate broker, Skip Harlow, and his wife Ella Harlow (née Williams). The marriage was arranged by Skip Harlow in 1908. Jean Carpenter, an intelligent and strong-willed woman, resented it, and became very unhappy in the marriage. The couple lived in Kansas City in a house owned by Skip Harlow.

The only grandchild in the family, Harlean was nicknamed "The Baby", a moniker that would stick with her for the rest of her life. So coddled was Harlean that not until the age of five, when she began to attend Miss Barstow's Finishing School for Girlsmarker in Kansas City, did she learn that her name was actually Harlean and not "Baby". With no siblings, Harlean became extremely close to her mother, and Jean Carpenter turned all her attention to her daughter as a chance to fulfill her empty existence and unhappy marriage. "She was always all mine," she said of her daughter. She was extremely protective and coddling, instilling a sense that Harlean owed everything she had to her mother. This inspired in the girl a deep devotion to her mother that would carry through to adulthood.

With her daughter at school, mother Jean became increasingly frustrated and filed for divorce, which was finalized, uncontested, September 29, 1922. She was granted sole custody of Harlean, who loved her father but would rarely see him for the rest of her life.

In 1923, with hopes of becoming an actress, Mama Jean, as she became known when Harlean became a film star, moved with Harlean to Hollywood. Harlean attended the Hollywood School for Girls and met some of Hollywood's future figures, including Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Joel McCrea and Irene Mayer Selznick. Mama Jean's dream of stardom did not come true; she was too old at age 34 to begin a film career in an era when leading ladies were mostly teenage girls. Facing dwindling finances, they returned to Kansas City within two years after Skip Harlow had issued an ultimatum: either they returned or he would disinherit her. Harlean dropped out of her school in Hollywood in the spring of 1925. In the summer of 1925, Skip Harlow sent her to a summer camp called Camp Cha-Ton-Ka in Michigammemarker, Michiganmarker. It was during that time that Harlean caught scarlet fever. Mama Jean traveled to Michigan to care for Harlean, rowing herself across the lake to the camp when she was told she could not get to her daughter. From there, Harlean attended the Ferry Hall School in Lake Forestmarker, Illinoismarker. Mama Jean had ulterior motives for Harlean's attendance at the school, as it was close to Chicagomarker where Mama Jean's beau, Marino Bello, was living. Freshmen were paired with a "big sister" from the senior class, and fifteen-year-old Harlean was paired with a girl who introduced her to nineteen-year-old Charles "Chuck" McGrew, heir to a large fortune, in the fall of 1926. The two started dating. On January 18, 1927 Mama Jean married Bello, although Harlean was not present.

Harlean and McGrew fell in love and eloped on September 21, 1927. McGrew was 20 and Harlean was 16 years old. Two months after the marriage, McGrew turned 21 and received part of his large inheritance. The couple moved to Los Angeles in 1928, settling into a home in Beverly Hills, where Harlean thrived as a wealthy socialite. McGrew hoped to distance Harlean from her mother with the move. Neither of them were working, and both, especially McGrew, were thought to drink heavily.

In Los Angeles, Harlean befriended Rosalie Roy, a young aspiring actress. Lacking a car, Roy asked Harlean to drive her to Fox Studios for an appointment. It was there, sitting in the car waiting for her friend, that Harlean was noticed by Fox executives. Approached by the executives, Harlean stated she was not interested, but was given dictated letters of introduction to Central Casting. Recounting this story a few days later, Rosalie Roy made a wager with Harlean that she did not have the nerve to go back and audition for roles. Unwilling to lose a wager and pressed by her enthused mother, Harlean drove to Central Casting and signed in under her mother's maiden name, Jean Harlow.

Career beginnings

After several calls from Central Casting, who had called for "Miss Harlow", and a number of rejected job offers, Harlean was pressured by her mother, now relocated to Los Angeles, into accepting work. Harlow then appeared in her first film, Honor Bound, as an unbilled extra, for $7 a day. This led to bit parts in silent films such as Moran of the Marines (1928), Chasing Husbands, Why Is a Plumber? (1927) and Unkissed Man. In December 1928 she signed a five-year contract with Hal Roach Studios for a $100 a week. She had more substantial roles in Laurel and Hardy's short Double Whoopee, and appeared in two other films alongside double act. In March 1929, however, she broke her contract with Hal Roach, who tore up her contract after Harlow told him, "It's breaking up my marriage; what can I do?" In June 1929 Harlow separated from Chuck McGrew, who blamed her mother for it, and moved in with her mother and Bello.

After her separation from McGrew, Harlow worked as extra in several movies, and was cast as an extra in The Love Parade (1929), folloed by a small role in The Saturday Night Kid (1929), a Clara Bow movie. Her next extra work was in Weak But Willing (1929). During filming of Weak But Willing in 1929, she was spotted by James Hall, an actor filming a Howard Hughes film called Hell's Angels. Hughes, re-shooting the film from silent into sound, needed a new actress because the original actress, Greta Nissen, had a Norwegian accent that proved undesirable for a talkie. Harlow made a test and got the part.

Hughes signed her to a five-year, $100 per week contract on October 24, 1929. Hell's Angels premiered in Hollywood on May 27, 1930 at Grauman's Chinese Theatermarker. During the shooting, Harlow met MGM executive Paul Bern, who escorted her, dressed all in white, to the premiere. The movie made Harlow an international star and a sensation with audiences, but critics were less than enthusiastic. Variety was a bit more charitable in remarking, "It doesn't matter what degree of talent she possesses ... nobody ever starved possessing what she's got." The New Yorker called Harlow "plain awful".

With no projects planned for Harlow, Hughes sent her to New York, Seattle and Kansas City for Hell's Angels premieres. In 1931, loaned out by Hughes' Caddo Company to other studios, Harlow began to gain more attention when she appeared in The Secret Six with Wallace Beery and Clark Gable, Iron Man with Lew Ayres and Robert Armstrong, and The Public Enemy with James Cagney. Though the films ranged from moderate to smash hits, Harlow's acting ability was damned by critics as awful and was mocked. Concerned, Hughes sent her on a brief publicity tour, which was not a success, as Harlow dreaded such personal appearances.

Harlow was next cast in Platinum Blonde (1931) with Loretta Young. Hughes convinced the producers of Platinum Blonde to rename it from its original title of Gallagher in order to promote Harlow's image, for whom the tag had just been invented by Hughes's publicity director. Many of Harlow's female fans were dyeing their hair platinum to match hers. To capitalize on this craze, Hughes' team organized a series of "Platinum Blonde" clubs across the nation, with a prize of $10,000 to any beautician who could match Harlow's shade. For some reason, Harlow denied her hair was dyed.

Harlow next filmed Three Wise Girls (1932), after which, Paul Bern arranged to borrow her for The Beast of the City (1932). When the shooting wrapped, Bello booked a ten-week personal appearance tour in the East Coast. To the surprise of many, especially Harlow herself, she packed every theatre she appeared in, often appearing multiple nights in one venue. Despite critical disparagement and poor roles, Harlow's popularity and following was large and growing, and in February 1932 the tour was extended for additional six weeks.

Apprised of this, Paul Bern, by now romantically involved with Harlow, spoke to Louis B. Mayer about buying out Harlow's contract from Hughes and signing her to MGM. Mayer would have none of it. MGM's leading ladies were presented in that way, and Harlow's silver screen image was that of a floozy, which was abhorrent to Mayer. Bern then began urging good friend Irving Thalberg, production head of MGM, to sign Harlow, noting Harlow's pre-existing popularity and established image. After initial reluctance, Thalberg agreed, and on March 3, 1932, Harlow's twenty-first birthday, Bern called with the news that MGM had bought Harlow's contract from Hughes for $30,000. Harlow would afterwards report to MGM and officially joined the studio on April 20, 1932. Her first task at MGM would a screen test for Red-Headed Woman.

According to Fay Wray, who played Ann Darrow in the classic King Kong (1933), Harlow had been the original choice to play the screaming blond heroine. Because MGM put Harlow under exclusive contract during the pre-production phase of the film, she became unavailable for Kong, and the part went to the brunette Wray, wearing a blond wig.


MGM was where Harlow would become a superstar. She was given superior movie roles to show off not only her beauty, but what turned out to be a genuine talent for comedy. In 1931, she had the starring role in Red-Headed Woman, for which she received a salary of $1,250 per week, and Red Dust, her second film with Clark Gable. These films showed her to be much more at ease in front of the camera and highlighted her skill as a comedienne. Harlow and Gable worked well together and co-starred in a total of six films. She was also paired multiple times with Spencer Tracy and William Powell. As her star ascended, sometimes the power of Harlow's name was used to boost up-and-coming male co-stars, such as Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone.

At this point MGM began creating a distance between Harlow and her screen characters, changing her childhood surname from common "Carpenter" to chic "Carpentier", claiming that writer Edgar Allan Poe was one of her ancestors and published photographs of Harlow doing charity work. MGM tried to change her image from a brassy, exotic platinum blonde to the more mainstream, all-American type preferred by studio boss Mayer. Her early image proved difficult to change and once Harlow was heard muttering, "My God, must I always wear a low-cut dress to be important?" The screen Harlow at the end of her life was quite different from that of 1930, when audiences first took notice of her. One constant was that Harlow always seemed to have a sense of humor.

It was during the making of Red Dust that Harlow's second husband, MGM producer Paul Bern, was found dead at their home, creating a scandal that reverberates to this day. Initially, the Hollywood community whispered that Harlow had killed Bern herself, though this was just rumor, and Bern's death was officially ruled a suicide. Harlow kept silent and survived the ordeal, and became more popular than ever.

After Bern's death, Harlow began an indiscreet affair with boxer Max Baer. Although Baer was separated from his wife, Dorothy Dunbar, at the time of their affair, Dunbar threatened divorce proceedings, naming Harlow as a correspondent for "alienation of affection", a legal term for adultery. MGM defused the situation by arranging a marriage between Harlow and cinematographer Harold Rosson. Still feeling the aftershocks of Bern's mysterious death, the studio didn't want another Harlow scandal on its hands. Rosson and Harlow were friends, and Rosson went along with the plan. They quietly divorced seven months later.

After the box office hits Hold Your Man and Red Dust, MGM realized it had a goldmine in the Harlow-Gable teaming and paired them in two more films: China Seas with Wallace Beery and Rosalind Russell and Wife vs. Secretary with Myrna Loy and young James Stewart. Other co-stars included Spencer Tracy, Robert Taylor and William Powell.

By the mid-1930s, Harlow was one of the biggest stars in America and the foremost female star at MGM. She was still a young woman with her star continuously on the ascendant, while the popularity of other female stars at MGM, such as Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, was waning. Her movies continued to make huge profits at the box office, even during the middle of the Depression. Some credit Harlow's films with keeping MGM profitable while other studios fell into bankruptcy.

Following the end of her third marriage, Harlow met another MGM star William Powell and quickly fell in love. Reportedly, the couple were engaged for two years, but differences kept them from marrying swiftly (she wanted children; he did not). Harlow also said that Louis B. Mayer would never allow them to wed.

Later career and death

In the spring of 1937, Harlow began filming Saratoga with Clark Gable. On May 29, 1937, Harlow collapsed on set and the director sent her home to rest.

What happened thereafter is essentially still a mystery. It is widely believed that Harlow spent an entire week of vomiting in bed while her mother, a Christian Scientist, refused to call a doctor. Another account claims that Harlow resisted hospitalization and a surgical procedure. On June 3, her mother told the press that Harlow was "better".

On June 6, under orders from Louis B. Mayer and William Powell, a gravely ill Harlow was rushed to Los Angelesmarker' Good Samaritan Hospital. Jean Harlow died the following morning at 11:37 a.m. of uremic poisoning at age 26.

Harlow is entombed at the Forest Lawn Memorial Parkmarker, in Glendale, Californiamarker in a private room in the Great Mausoleum. Her crypt bears the simple inscription "Our Baby". Her funeral took place in the Wee Kirk O' The Heather Chapel at Forest Lawn Cemetery.

She was buried in the negligee that she had worn just weeks before while filming a scene for Saratoga. It was reported that a single white gardenia with an unsigned note attached that read "Good night, my dearest darling" was placed in her hands. It is assumed both were from William Powell, who also paid for her final resting place, the $25,000, 9×10-foot private room lined with multicolored imported marble located in the "Sanctuary of Benediction".

MGM was able to finish filming Saratoga by using two body doubles for Harlow, one for close-up shots, and a voice double, and writing her character off some scenes. The film was released in 1937.


Prior to her death, Harlow wrote a novel entitled Today is Tonight. According to Arthur Landau in his introduction to the 1965 paperback edition, Harlow stated her intention to write the book around 1933-1934, but it was not published during her lifetime. After her death, Landau writes, her mother sold the film rights to MGM, but no film was made. The publication rights to the novel were passed from Harlow's mother to a family friend, and the book was finally published in 1965.

Film portrayals

In 1965, two films about Jean Harlow were released, both called Harlow. One starred Carroll Baker and the other, Carol Lynley. Both were poorly received and did not perform well at the box office. In 1978, Lindsay Bloom portrayed her in Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell. More recently, Gwen Stefani briefly appeared as Harlow in Martin Scorsese's 2004 Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator.


Year Film Role Notes
1928 Honor Bound Uncredited unconfirmed
Moran of the Marines Uncredited
1929 New York Nights Party Guest Uncredited
This Thing Called Love Uncredited
Fugitives Uncredited
Why Be Good? Uncredited
Close Harmony Uncredited
The Saturday Night Kid Hazel Uncredited
The Love Parade Lady-in-Waiting Uncredited
Weak But Willing Uncredited
1930 Hell's Angels Helen as Jean Harlowe
1931 City Lights Extra in restaurant scene Uncredited
The Secret Six Anne Courtland
The Public Enemy Gwen Allen
Iron Man Rose Mason
Goldie Goldie
Platinum Blonde Anne Schuyler
Beau Hunks Jeanie-Weenie (in photo) Uncredited
1932 Three Wise Girls Cassie Barnes
The Beast of the City Daisy Stevens, aka Mildred Beaumont
Red-Headed Woman Lillian 'Lil'/'Red' Andrews Legendre
Red Dust Vantine
1933 Hold Your Man Ruby Adams
Dinner at Eight Kitty Packard
Bombshell Lola Burns
1934 The Girl from Missouri Eadie
1935 Reckless Mona Leslie
China Seas Dolly 'China Doll' Portland
1936 Riffraff Hattie
Wife vs. Secretary Whitey
Suzy Suzy
Libeled Lady Gladys
1937 Personal Property Crystal Wetherby
Saratoga Carol Clayton
Short subjects
Year Title Role Notes
1928 Chasing Husbands Bathing beauty Uncredited
1929 Liberty Woman in cab as Harlean Carpenter
Why Is a Plumber?
The Unkissed Man Uncredited
Double Whoopee Swanky blonde
Thundering Toupees
Bacon Grabbers Mrs. Kennedy
Weak But Willing
1932 Screen Snapshots Herself
1933 Hollywood on Parade No. A-12 Herself
Hollywood on Parade No. B-1 Herself
1934 Hollywood on Parade No. B-6 Herself
1937 The Candid Camera Story (Very Candid)
of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures 1937 Convention
Herself Uncredited


  1. "Harlean" was a feminization of the name "Harlow", which her parents had planned to name the baby if it were a boy (source: Parish, p. 192).
  2. Eve Golden: Platinum Girl: The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow, p. 13. Abbeville Press, 1991.
  3. Stenn, p. 7-9
  4. Stenn, pp. 12-13
  5. Stenn, p. 9, 12-13
  6. Stenn, p. 14
  7. Stenn, p. 14-15
  8. Stenn, p. 17
  9. Stenn, p. 18
  10. Stenn, pp. 20-21
  11. Stenn, pp. 22-24
  12. Stenn, p. 25
  13. Stenn, pp. 25-26
  14. Stenn, pp. 27-28
  15. Stenn, pp. 28-29
  16. Stenn, p. 29-30
  17. Stenn, pp.30-33
  18. Stenn, pp.34-38
  19. Stenn, pp. 42, 46-47
  20. Stenn, pp. 50-51
  21. Stenn, pp. 54-57
  22. Stenn, p. 59
  23. Stenn, pp. 65-66
  24. Stenn, pp. 67-71
  25. Stenn, pp. 73-74
  26. Parish, p. 203
  27. Stenn, pp. 146-147
  28. Parish, pp. 232-233
  29. Jean Harlow: The Blonde Bombshell. TCM documentary, 1995
  30. Eve Golden:Platinum Girl: The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow. Abbeville Press, 1991.
  31. Parish, p. 238


  • Golden, Eve: Platinum Girl: The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow. Abbeville Press, 1991.
  • Stenn, David. Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow. Bentam Doubleday Dell Publishing, New York, 1993.

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