Hollywood Remains to Be Seen

Paul Bern
1889 - 1932

Inglewood Park Cemetery

Paul Bern (1889 – 1932) was a respected screenwriter, producer, director and assistant to Irving Thalberg at MGM studios, but he is probably best remembered as the husband of actress Jean Harlow who killed himself shortly after their wedding.

Bern was educated at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, and started working in film as an editor, then as a screenwriter and director in 1920. He wrote and directed several films in the early 1920s before joining MGM studios as production assistant and Thalberg’s story consultant. Berg was also instrumental in bringing Harlow to MGM, and helping to advance her career as she moved from small roles as an attractive background character, to starring roles in comedies and dramas. Around the MGM studio, Bern was known as the “father confessor,” the man sought out for advice by people in trouble or looking for sage advice.

But it was a surprise in the summer of 1932, even in Hollywood, when the 42-year-old Bern married the 21-year-old Harlow. She was the “Platinum Blonde,” the smoldering embodiment of screen sexuality. Bern, though talented and successful, was quiet, studious, bookish and almost mousy in appearance, in addition to being twice Harlow’s age. The questions about their marriage were quickly replaced by more serious, tragic questions. Two months after they were married, Bern was found dead in their Beverly Hills home, lying nude on the floor of Harlow’s upstairs bedroom, shot once in the head with a .38-caliber pistol, an apparent suicide. After a butler discovered Bern’s body, the first phone calls he made were to MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer and Thalberg, who arrived at the scene, looking for anything that might be harmful to either the studio or Harlow’s career. Mayer found Bern’s suicide note and stuffed it in his pocket, but he was convinced later to turn it over to the police. The note didn’t provide much information as to why Bern might take his own life: “Dearest Dear, Unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation. I love you, Paul. You understand that last night was only a comedy.”

Initially, the stories surrounding Bern’s suicide pointed to several possible causes for his action -– he was deeply in debt, he and Harlow had argued about her domineering mother, or he was concerned about the discovery of his first wife, who was mentally ill and living in a sanatorium in northern California. But the story that eventually came out was that Bern was impotent, and was unable to consummate their marriage. He had mistakenly hoped that Harlow, the screen sex goddess, could help him, but she could not. Less than five years later, Harlow was also dead.

According to Hollywood legend, the ghosts of Bern and Harlow still haunt the house where he killed himself. Subsequent owners of the property near Benedict Canyon Drive, about three miles north of Sunset Boulevard, have reported hearing the sound of a gunshot and a body falling in the upstairs bedroom, and the voice of a woman crying. In one notable incident, after the house was purchased in 1966 by hairstylist Jay Sebring, actress Sharon Tate was house-sitting when she thought she heard an intruder. She saw the image of a man who looked like Bern in the upstairs bedroom, running around and cursing, while blood spurted from a wound in his head. As Tate ran back downstairs, she saw the image of Sebring tied to the railing of the stairs, his throat slashed.

Three years later, in a house less than a mile away, Tate and Sebring were murdered by the followers of Charles Manson. Sebring and Tate were tied together, and Sebring’s throat was slashed.

Paul Bern was born Paul Levy on Dec. 3, 1889, in Wandsbek, Germany. He died Sept. 5, 1932, in Beverly Hills, CA.

Back to biographies page