When I attended the American Library Association (ALA) conferences in Washington, D.C., in July of 2019, the first book to really catch my eye among the myriad of publishers represented was The Jean Harlow Bombshell. With Harlow being one of my favorite stars, I was delighted to see her name represented among the recent publications and was happy to see that the author, Mollie Cox Bryan, was signing her latest novel.
Bryan is actually a distant relative of Harlow’s through her grandfather’s side and was inspired to portray her film star relative in a fictitious tale taking place during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Though her characters are inspired by a multitude of personalities from her own life, her depiction of Harlow with a mysterious aura about her is fascinating.
Thanks to meeting the author at ALA, I was able to interview her about the work. Our discussion about her novel and connection to Harlow is published below.
Annette: What inspired you to tell this story?
Mollie: I was selected to be on a German game show where people tried to guess who your famous relative was. I didn’t know much about her, except that we were related, so I started reading everything I could get my hands on because I didn’t want to make a fool of myself in Germany.
Annette: How did you become interested in this particular time in Hollywood?
Mollie: I think it’s a fascinating time. On one level, it seems so glamorous. But there were a lot of shady things going on beneath the surface.
Annette: Are there certain individuals who inspired your creation and depiction of the characters in your story? No more so than any of my characters in any of my other books.
Mollie: I think of them as a combination of all the people I’ve met, along with myself.
Annette: Overall, what do you think is the key message of your novel?
Mollie: Truth and justice are worth fighting for.
Annette: One of the characters in your story is a Jean Harlow lookalike. Why did you choose that this character reiterate an image of Harlow?
Mollie: I think it’s sad and creepy and I like that. I’ve always been fascinated by people who are huge super fans of people. But I also wanted a modern take on Harlow and I think this character is one of the elements that helps do that.
Annette: You have an interesting connection to Harlow through your family history. Can you tell me a bit more about that? Did you learn any stories about Harlow that have been passed on through your family?
Mollie: No. She was my grandfather’s cousin. And I’ve been told there was a photo of the two of them tighter—but I’ve never been able to find it. My grandmother was not a fan of Jean because she didn’t wear any underwear—and my gram was a woman who believed in layers of undergarments!
Annette: Did you conduct research in order to effectively portray this time period? If so, was there anything you learned that shocked or surprised you?
Mollie: I did a lot of research of Harlow. One of the things I continually marvel at is how deeply powerful the studio system was. All sorts of covers ups and strangely spun stories…
Annette: Why did you go about including Jean Harlow’s name in the title of your novel?
Mollie: My daughter came up with the name and I think it’s quite clever. Usually titles go through many changes, but this one didn’t not. The publisher liked it as much as I did. I think it suits because the character is working on a biography of her.
Annette: Since Harlow is mentioned throughout the novel, I wonder, do you think it is important for people to know about Harlow? Why or why not?
Mollie: If you are a person who loves film, you probably already know about her and her comedy genius and incredible charisma. But as I’ve said, I wanted a sort of look at this sex symbol through the eyes of a modern woman. What did it mean to be a woman then? What kind of obstacles did she have in order to become a success? What did she have to give up? She was incredibly misunderstood and so many untruths have been published about her—and her mother. For example, people have reported that her mother didn’t seek medical attention for Jean when she was dying because she was a Christian Scientist. And it wasn’t true. There were several doctors attending her. And while Jean was very comfortable in her skin, and seemed like a siren, all records indicate that she was a hard-working, kind of tomboy, who liked to read. Her goal in life was a husband and children. So I guess I want people to take a second look at her and women like her.
Annette: How can this story connect with today’s audiences?
Mollie: Ultimately, this story is about greed and the lengths people will go to for money or things. We are surrounded by people like that, aren’t we? It’s great to live vicariously through a character like Charlotte, who stands up to the bad guys.
The Jean Harlow Bombshell was made available for purchase on May 8, 2019.