Jean Harlow was 1930s Hollywood’s reigning sex symbol—and greatest screwball actress. Why did she die at 26?

The Bombshell Life—and Mysterious Death—of Jean Harlow

The Bombshell Life—and Mysterious Death—of Jean Harlow

The secret history of Hollywood.
Oct. 23 2015 11:17 AM

The Bombshell

Jean Harlow was 1930s Hollywood’s reigning sex symbol—and greatest screwball actress. Why did she die at 26?

Jean Harlow.
Jean Harlow.

Photo courtesy of Wikiwatcher1/Wikimedia Commons

You Must Remember This, the podcast that tells the secret and forgotten history of 20th-century Hollywood, has joined Panoply. And when each episode airs, creator and host Karina Longworth will share some of the research that went into the episode in a transcript excerpt here on Slate. Listen to the complete Episode 6 below, and subscribe to You Must Remember This on iTunes.

“Jean Harlow” was Harlean Carpenter’s mother’s name. The first Jean Harlow had been a great beauty who dreamed of her own movie stardom. In September 1927, Harlean married Chuck McGrew, an orphan and heir to a small fortune, and shortly thereafter he turned 21 and received the first six-figure chunk of his trust fund. With no need to work, Harlean and her husband mostly just drank. They moved into a new house in Beverly Hills, where Harlean began hosting the luncheons and teas typical of her society set. A guest at one of these day parties was a would-be actress named Rosalie Roy. At the end of the afternoon, Rosalie announced she had to head out to an appointment on the Fox lot, and Harlean offered to give Rosalie a ride.

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While her friend was in the meeting, Harlean stood by her car waiting, so that she could give Rosalie a ride home when she was done. Three Fox executives walking across the lot spotted this gorgeous blonde and started talking to her. When Harlean told these men that she wasn’t an actress, and in fact had never really even thought about acting, they thought she was playing hard to get—what gorgeous, glamorous girl hanging out on Hollywood studio lot in 1928 didn’t want to be a movie star? Harlean perhaps was playing hard to get in one sense: She told the people at Fox her name was Jean Harlow. When the phone rang a few days later with an offer for work for a “Miss Harlow,” Harlean first told the caller they had the wrong number—she forgot that “Miss Harlow” was her.

Harlean still had no real ambitions, but when her mother, the original Jean Harlow, got wind of what was going on, she stepped into action to manage “the Baby’s” career, transferring all of her own thwarted ambitions onto this new Jean. Fueled by her mother’s aggression, in just a couple of months Harlean signed a contract with producer Hal Roach, and soon she started appearing in Laurel and Hardy shorts. Within a few months, around her 18th birthday, Harlean asked to be released from her contract, because her husband didn’t want her to be an actress. But just two months later, Harlean left that husband, Chuck McGrew. Both of these things seem to have been done at the insistence of Mother Jean, who believed that you didn’t settle for the first opportunity, personal or professional, that came around. She believed her daughter needed to shake off what she already had in order to get more.

Without a rich husband, Harlean needed movie work in order to support herself. She struggled for months, until she was cast in a small part in the Clara Bow film The Saturday Night Kid. Clara Bow was Paramount’s reigning sex symbol of the 1920s, but she was having trouble transitioning to talkies. She was also getting older, and heavier, and when Harlean arrived on set in a black crochet dress which made it very apparent that she did not believe in underwear, Bow was candid about her insecurities, reportedly saying, “Who’s gonna see me nexta her?”

She was right. By 1932, Harlow was at the peak of her stardom, and she was about to make one of her best films, Bombshell, a satire of a movie star not unlike Harlow although maybe more like Clara Bow. Bombshell is perhaps the quintessential pre-code screwball comedy. It was, arguably, the film that invented the rapid-fire style that would become such a signature of the decade, and it did it out of necessity: In order to ensure that a 160-page script could produce a film of about 90 minutes, Victor Fleming directed scenes to play almost twice as fast as usual. Harlow proved herself not only capable of performing rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue, but she did it without losing a touch of her sex goddess power. Screwball comedies would allow women dressed as sex goddesses to step off their pedestals and compete on the same level as man—the level of banter and one-upmanship, and kooky physicality. And Jean Harlow was the first actress to prove herself to be a genius at it.

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Bombshell grossed twice what it cost to make, and it wasn’t even Harlow’s biggest hit of 1933—Dinner at Eight, in which she had a smaller but indelible part as the floozy wife of a boorish rich guy, had been a mega-blockbuster. Harlow was the biggest female star at MGM, if not in Hollywood on the whole.

But what no one knew—what even some people close to her didn’t fully understand—was that inside, Jean Harlow was slowly falling apart. She fell for a married boxed named Max Baer, and when Baer’s wife threatened to name Harlow in divorce proceedings, MGM encouraged Harlow to hastily marry Hal Rosson, the cameraman on many of her films. Harlow and Rosson were married for about seven months, much of which they spent apart. Three weeks after the wedding, Harlow was rushed to the hospital to have an emergency appendectomy. After two weeks in the hospital, Harlow’s mother insisted that instead of returning to her husband, the Baby should continue her convalescence at her mother’s house.

Harlow never moved back in with Rosson. Mother Jean’s insistence on supervising her daughter’s recovery was in part a ploy to end her marriage, and in part a show of serious concern, although not over Harlow’s surgical recovery so much as her alcoholism. Actually, the drinking may have obscured other health problems, and Mother Jean’s control over her daughter was by no means grounded in a healthy outlook. Jean Harlow Senior was an intermittent Christian Scientist, but above all a capitalist. When Jean gained a little weight, her mother would put her on a diet of a single scoop of cottage cheese, a slice of pineapple, and one shredded carrot per day, which surely could have led to anemia, making the already sickness-prone Harlow even weaker. By 1936, Harlow was starting to look like a casualty of her lifestyle: Her face was puffy and grey, she was always tired, and her belly seemed swollen. And thanks to 10 years of weekly bleaching, if not other health issues, her hair was falling out in clumps.

Depressed, and still drinking, Harlow was in bad shape, and she got worse in March 1937 when she discovered she needed to have all four wisdom teeth removed. Her mother didn’t think she could handle four separate operations, so Mother Jean found a dentist who was willing to extract all four teeth at once. After the third tooth was removed, Harlow’s heart stopped beating briefly. She managed to recover enough to report for work on a new movie, Saratoga, but two months after the surgery she was still draining fluid from her infected mouth. On the set of that film, in late May, she started complaining of abdominal pain. She went home for the weekend to William Powell’s mansion, and spent the weekend in bed with what everyone thought was the flu. On Wednesday, now vomiting and becoming delirious, Jean finally was seen by a doctor, who diagnosed a swollen gallbladder and prescribed dextrose injections. A couple of days later, Clark Gable visited and was shocked to see that Harlow looked to be swollen to twice her usual size, with a rotting smell emanating from her mouth.

A different doctor came over that night, and declared that the first doctor had misdiagnosed Harlow: It was her kidneys that were the problem, not her gallbladder. The fluids that had been prescribed by the previous doctor were now killing her. Today, Jean Harlow would benefit from antibiotics, dialysis, or even a kidney transplant. Then, two days after her correct diagnosis, on June 7, 1937, Jean Harlow died. It all happened so fast, or maybe it had been happening slowly for years. And by the end of it, the Baby had stopped fighting. In her last days, a visitor to her bedside told her that she’d get better. Possibly delirious, Harlean said, “I don’t want to.”

It seemed impossible that someone so beautiful and young, whose screen presence was so full of energy and vitality, could have just died like that. Maybe that’s why rumors persisted that there was something else going on. Rumors had it that Harlow’s internal organs had been damaged in a wedding-night beating at the hands of her second husband, Paul Bern. Others said her sickness was alcohol-related, which it probably wasn’t at its root—although she had mistaken headaches which could have been warning signs for hangovers, thus letting herself go without treatment that could have saved her. But the most Hollywood rumor was the one that held that Jean Harlow had died from long-term exposure to the chemicals she used every Sunday, to get that platinum blonde hair. It’s easy to see why this one would appeal— people who love Hollywood love stories about how the things people do to become stars end up destroying them. In truth, Jean Harlow’s hair bleaching habit destroyed only her hair—and that hair helped to invent a new lineage of Hollywood star, the blonde sex goddess. In 1937, an 11-year-old girl named Norma Jean would identify herself as one of Jean Harlow’s biggest fans. Within 15 years, Norma Jean would have remade herself in Harlow’s image, even visiting Harlow’s own hairdresser, under the name Marilyn Monroe. But that’s a story for another day.

Karina Longworth is the creator and host of You Must Remember This, a podcast about the secret and forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century. She is the author of books about George Lucas, Al Pacino, and Meryl Streep and has contributed to LA Weekly, the Guardian, NPR, Vulture, and other publications.