“There is a God, even in Hollywood.” –Jean Harlow
Jean Harlow’s life was short but fascinating. She was the first of Hollywood’s blonde bombshells to carry the title, with her iconic platinum blonde hair being imitated by film fans and other stars. In addition to striking beauty, she could perform in both comedies and dramas with ease, capturing the hearts of moviegoers around the world.
Harlean Harlow Carpenter was born on March 3, 1911, to Jean and Mont Clair Carpenter in the family home at 3344 Olive St. in Kansas City, Missouri. Her father was a dentist and her mother was the daughter of real estate broker Skip Harlow. The family nicknamed their newborn daughter, “The Baby,” which would be a nickname associated with Harlean for the rest of her life.
Harlean attended Miss Barstow’s Finishing School for Girls and remained particularly close to her mother. When Jean filed for divorce, she was given custody of Harlean. In 1932, Jean and Harlean moved to Hollywood, in hopes that Jean would become an actress. Unfortunately, Jean–or “Mama Jean,” as she is referred to by many Harlow fans–was told that she was too old to start working in the film industry.
In the meantime, Harlean continued her education at the Hollywood School for Girls, though she would drop out at age 14. To make matters more complicated, Jean was struggling with her finances. Jean’s father, Skip, threatened to disinherit Jean altogether if they did not move back to Kansas City. As a result, Jean and Harlean returned to Missouri.
She then attended supper camp in Michigan but became gravely ill with scarlet fever. Ever protective of her daughter, Jean arrived in Michigan to try and tend to her.
When Harlean recovered, she was enrolled at the Ferry Hall School in Lake Forest, Illinois. There, she exhibited her own sense of style, to the point of the principal writing to a doctor about whether or not Harlean could wear the uniform oxford shoes, as opposed to her preferred high heels. Harlean refused to wear the oxford shoes, saying they were against her doctor’s orders.
While Ferry Hall was filled with many strict regulations to which Harlean had to adapt, she found joy in participating in the school’s drama productions. She appeared in A Winter’s Tale during her time at the school. Around the same time, she was introduced to the wealthy heir, Chuck McGrew, through a classmate and the two began dating. Harlean and Chuck married in 1927.
Jean, in the meantime, had strategically relocated her daughter at Ferry Hall because it was closer to the home of her boyfriend, Marino Bello. The couple also married in 1927, though Harlean did not attend the ceremony.
Harlean and Chuck moved to Beverly Hills, California, in 1928. Shortly, they moved to Los Angeles and enjoyed life as socialites. When Harlean drove a friend of hers to Fox Studios, she was approached by executives from Fox to attend auditions. Though Harlean initially did not express interest in the opportunity, her friend bet against her having the nerve to go through with the audition. As a result, Harlean kept the appointment, introducing herself as Jean Harlow.
Harlow made her film debut in Honor Bound (1928) as an uncredited extra. After many more extra appearances, she signed a contract with Hal Roach Studios. There, she exercised her comedic abilities and appeared in three Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy shorts.
Harlow’s marriage with McGrew became strained over time. The couple divorced and Harlow moved in with her mother and stepfather.
By 1929, she made her talkie feature film debut as part of The Saturday Night Kid (1929), which starred Clara Bow. In the same year, she caught the eye of actor James Hall, who was appearing in Hell’s Angels (1930). Howard Hughes was in the process of reshooting the film from a silent to a talkie. One of his stars had a thick accent and needed to be replaced. As a result, Harlow tested for the role and became part of the cast. The film’s eight-minute color sequence would be the only color footage of Harlow to exist to this day. Hell’s Angels would go on to become a major success, catapulting its cast members into international stardom.
After appearing in more extra roles, Harlow was loaned to other studios and continued to be popular amount audiences. She worked with other popular male stars such as Wallace Beery, James Cagney, and Clark Gable, in addition to appearing in the aptly-named Platinum Blonde (1931). Harlow vehemently denied that her hair was altered in any way, but in reality, the platinum waves were achieved with a combination of ammonia, bleach, and soap flakes. Soon enough, Harlow took on another nickname–“the platinum blonde.”
Harlow’s name proved to be profitable to studios, as crowds continued to enjoy her films. Due to her now exclusive MGM contract, she was unable to appear in King Kong, leaving Fay to be assigned the role in a blonde wig. Outside of the movies, many female moviegoers modeled their hair after Harlow’s memorable screen visage.
As the years went on, Harlow developed a relationship with MGM executive Paul Bern, who was influential in MGM buying out her contract with Hughes on her 21st birthday. There, Harlow enjoyed stronger film roles that placed her in the spotlight as a beauty in addition to a major talent. Harlow starred in successes such as Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Red Dust (1932).
Tragedy struck during the production of Red Dust, however. Harlow and Bern had married but after two months, Bern was found dead in their home. His death was ruled a suicide. Though Harlow was horrified, she found herself more popular than ever after the scandal. Harlow would marry once more to cinematographer Harold Rosson, divorcing after eight months.
Professionally, MGM found success in pairing Harlow with Gable, partnering them in Hold Your Man (1933). She and Gable worked together in six films. Harlow would also appear in the ensemble drama Dinner at Eight (1933), in addition to many more successful roles in films like China Seas (1935), Wife vs. Secretary (1936), and Reckless (1935). As the Depression years continued, Harlow remained wildly popular.
Harlow held on to two superstitions throughout her career. She wore an ankle bracelet she deemed lucky and also had a lucky mirror in her dressing room. She would always look into the mirror before leaving the room.
After the end of her third marriage, Harlow became romantically involved with MGM star William Powell. They fell in love and were rumored to be engaged for two years, though several issues and uncertainties needing to be addressed prevented them from marriage. Nonetheless, he gave her a 152-carat sapphire ring.
Harlow went on to work in films like Riffraff (1936) and Libeled Lady (1936). Her final completed film appearance would be in Personal Property (1937).
When Harlow was working on Saratoga (1937) with Gable, the production was delayed. She developed sepsis after wisdom tooth extraction and needed to be hospitalized. After her recovery, shooting resumed, but Harlow remained ill. While her fatigue, nausea, and other symptoms did not appear to be serious to her doctor, her fellow cast members noticed her gray complexion and bloated appearance. During a scene with Gable, she informed her co-star that she was not feeling well. Upon her request, Powell was called and left his film set to bring Harlow home.
LIBELED LADY, from left, William Powell, Jean Harlow, 1936
Tragically, Harlow’s condition worsened. The doctor determined that her gallbladder was the cause of her symptoms. Another doctor arrived to give a second opinion and recognized that she was suffering from kidney failure. After one week, her vision was seriously impacted and she fell into a coma. She died on June 7, 1937, from kidney failure. Harlow was 26 years old.
Hollywood mourned in response. MGM closed on June 9th, the day of her funeral, as she was interred in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park-Glendale. Other studios observed a minute of silence at 9 a.m. as a tribute to Harlow, while various movie theaters paused screenings for one minute.
As a final gift to Harlow, Powell purchased the multicolored marble private room in the Great Mausoleum for $25,000. There are conflicting reports as to the gown she wore, but most sources point to the gown from Libeled Lady. In her hands was a white gardenia from Powell in addition to a note from him, reading, “Goodnight, my dearest darling.” The sapphire ring he gave her was rumored to be on her finger. While Powell initially purchased three spaces in the mausoleum for Harlow, her mother, and himself, he would be buried elsewhere.
In the meantime, MGM faced the issue of completing Saratoga, for which Harlow had completed several since but had not finished all of her scenes. Initially, the studio planned to replace her with another blonde bombshell but audiences opposed this solution. Instead, studio talents rewrote scenes to remove her character or used doubles, usually with their backs towards the camera or with faces obscured by large hats or props, in order to hide the fact that Harlow was not in the scene. Despite these challenges and the major tragedy of losing Harlow, Saratoga was a hit.
Today, there are many places to visit that were of relevance to Harlow.
Her birthplace at 3344 Olive St. in Kansas City, Missouri, no longer stands. Her grandmother’s home at 2304 N. 12th St in Kansas City has also been razed, though Jean once posed on the steps of that home on a return visit to her grandmother in 1933.
The family home in 1920 was at 1312 E. 79th St. in Kansas City, which does remain today.
At age 4, Harlow and her family lived at 4409 Gillham Rd. in Kansas City. Here is the location of the home today:
Miss Barstow’s Finishing School for Girls is now the Barstow School, located in a new building at 11511 State Line Rd, Kansas City.
Harlow briefly lived at 516 Knickerbocker Place in Kansas City before moving to boarding school at Ferry Hall School.
Though Hollywood showcased her superior education at Ferry Hall, she never graduated from the school. The building was demolished in 1986. Today, the sign that once stood in front of the building is now on the grounds of Lake Forest Academy. The school is located at 1500 Kennedy Rd. in Lake Forest, Illinois.
By 1927, she and McGrew rented a bungalow at 618 N Linden Dr. in Beverly Hills, California. The original home no longer stands. Here is the location today:
After divorcing McGrew, Harlow rented a home at 300 N. Maple Dr. in Beverly Hills. It has since been razed.
In 1931, she relocated to an apartment at 152 Peck Dr. in Beverly Hills, followed by another residence at 1353 Club View Dr. in Los Angeles.
Harlow and Bern shared a home at 9820 Easton Dr. in Beverly Hills. It exists today as a private residence.
She would also reside at 214 S. Beverly Glen Blvd. in Beverly Hills. The home remains today on a private drive.
Her final residence was at 512 N. Palm Drive in Beverly Hills. This home also stands, in addition to the bar that Powell had installed within.
Another location to visit in Hollywood is The Hollywood Museum, where visitors may see the famous “Farewell to Earth” painting of Jean Harlow. The painting had been presumed missing for decades until it resurfaced one day and was purchased by a buyer who allowed for it to be on display at the museum. The painting is on display along with a major collection of Harlow-related items, including a costume and a mural that was displayed in her home.
Dearly Departed Tours in Los Angeles also celebrates Harlow’s legacy with a special tour focused on her, dedicated to her memory.
Harlow’s handprints remain at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre forecourt, though her prints had complications. Harlow’s first cement slab of prints dried too quickly and was destroyed. The first of Harlow’s ceremonies was Sid Grauman’s attempt to have it in front of a live and paying audience. While the slab was being moved, one half of it fell to the floor and broke apart in front of the audience. She was honored four days later, offering a sentiment, handprints, footprints, and three black pennies embedded in the cement for good luck. The second ceremony occurred in the forecourt in front of a crowd attending free-of-charge. The pennies have since been picked out.
Her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 6910 Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Today, Harlow remains a beloved icon from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Her legacy continues to be honored in many locations, in addition to her fine filmography.
Dr. Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is an avid scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
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Dr. Annette, thank you for fascinating history on the life of Jean Harlow.Jean was such a brilliant actress.So sad that her life was ended so quickly .