Hollywood Remains to Be Seen

Jean Harlow
1911 - 1937

Forest Lawn Glendale

Though her life and her career were both tragically short, Jean Harlow will always be remembered as the first "Blonde Bombshell."

Harlow was the daughter of a successful dentist in Kansas City, MO. At the age of 16, she eloped with a businessman and moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as an extra, making her film debut in "Why is a Plumber?" (1927). Harlow appeared in small roles in several films over the next few years, including three Laurel and Hardy comedies in 1929 -- "Liberty," "Double Whoopee" and "Bacon Grabbers." Harlow's photograph was used in two more films starring the comedy team, once in the role of their mother in "Brats" (1930), and again as Oliver Hardy's girlfriend, Jeanie-Weenie, in "Beau Hunks" (1931). Harlow also had a small role in Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights" (1931).

Harlow's big break came when Howard Hughes cast her in his World War I aviation epic, "Hell's Angels" (1930). Hughes began the film in 1927 as a silent film, with a Swedish actress starring as the women who comes between two brothers. But, with sound films becoming more popular, "Hell's Angels" became a talkie, and Hughes had to find a English-speaking actress to play the role. With her sultry and steamy performance, Harlow became a star. Harlow next appeared in "Platinum Blonde" (1931), and co-starred with James Cagney in "The Public Enemy" (1931), with Spencer Tracy in "Goldie" (1931) and with Clark Gable in "Red Dust" (1932).

Harlow brought a sense of sexual energy to the screen that was magnified when film magazines and publicists began to report some of the more interesting and racy details of her personal life -- she posed for nude photographs shot in Griffith Park, she never wore underwear, she always slept in the nude, she rubbed ice on her breasts before shooting a scene, she bleached her pubic hair, and she wrote a novel that was so sexually explicit that MGM studio executives destroyed every copy before it could be published.

Harlow was also in the headlines in 1932, when she married Paul Bern, a screenwriter, producer, director and assistant to Irving Thalberg at MGM studios. Two months after the 42-year-old, bookish Bern married the 21-year-old Harlow, he was found dead in their Beverly Hills home. After a lengthy investigation, Bern's death was ruled a suicide. A year after Bern's death, Harlow married cinematographer Harold Rosson, who was 16 years her senior. They were divorced two years later, when Harlow accused Rosson of "mental cruelty" for reading in bed, and depriving her of sleep.

Harlow may have reached her on-screen sexual pinnacle in "The Red-Headed Woman" (1932), as a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who uses her physical charms to get what she wants from her married boss, a millionaire businessman and just about any other man she encounters. When the film was banned in England, it only served to make Harlow more popular. But in the early 1930s, with the newly instituted Motion Picture Production Code enforcing strict rules of conduct and behavior in films, Harlow had to tone down her act. She switched to more elegant and sophisticated dramas, and also displayed her impressive comedic talents in films such as "Dinner at Eight" (1933), "Bombshell" (1933), "China Seas" (1935), "Wife vs. Secretary" (1936), "Libeled Lady" (1936) and "Riffraff" (1936).

While making "Saratoga" (1937), her sixth film with Gable, Harlow collapsed on the set and was sent home to rest. Harlow, however, was suffering from several severe medical problems, including an inflamed gall bladder, failing kidneys and a bladder infection. Her kidney problems may have been the result of scarlet fever she contracted as a teen-ager. She died on June 7, 1937, at age 26, of cerebral edema and uremic poisoning, which is caused by a build-up of waste products in the blood.

After Harlow's sudden death in the prime of her career, rumors began to spread about the cause. Some of the most often-repeated stories were that Harlow's mother's religious beliefs kept her from calling a doctor, Harlow was poisoned from toxic chemicals in her hair dye, or that she was injured during a botched abortion.

Harlow's funeral, held two days after her death in the Wee Kirk O' The Heather chapel at Forest Lawn, was the biggest, most spectacular funeral service Hollywood had ever seen. Those who couldn't attend or were not invited overwhelmed local florists and went out of their way to send flowers. More than 250 invited guests crowded into the small chapel, including Gable, Tracy, Carole Lombard, Norma Shearer, William Powell, Lionel Barrymore and the Marx brothers. An estimated $15,000 worth of floral tributes surrounded Harlow's coffin, and MGM studio security guards assisted cemetery staff, Glendale police and state police in keeping fans outside the cemetery gates. The brief funeral services started with Jeanette MacDonald singing "Indian Love Call," one of Harlow's favorite songs, and ended with Nelson Eddy singing "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life."

At the time of her death, Harlow was engaged to Powell, who was at her bedside when she died. Powell purchased the alcove where Harlow's body is buried for a reported $30,000, with three available burial spaces. The alcove also contains the body of Harlow's mother, Jean Harlow Carpenter Bello (1889 - 1958), in an unmarked crypt. The third space is unoccupied.

Like many celebrities who die young, Harlow has remained frozen in time, and enduring in popularity. Her life story has been told in several films, including two made in 1965, both titled "Harlow," one starring Carol Lynley and the other starring Carol Baker. Lindsay Bloom, a former Miss USA, played Harlow in "Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell" (1977). Marilyn Monroe was considering the lead in "The Jean Harlow Story" when she died in 1962. And Harlow was also reportedly the model for the character of Catwoman in the Batman comic books.

Harlow's crypt is inscribed with the words, "Our Baby."

Harlow was born Harlean Carpenter on March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, MO. She died on June 7, 1937, in Los Angeles, CA.

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