Reel and Retro

Presenting the Past

Jean Harlow

March's Idol of the Month Jean Harlow

The Birth of the Original Blonde Bombshell

Jean Harlow was the original Blonde Bombshell. The childlike seductress was also popular for her “laughing vamp” movie persona and became one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Yet, her working career on the silver screen only spanned nine years, 1928 – 1937. Known for not only her sex appeal but great comedic abilities, she appeared in many Laurel and Hardy films, as well as 6 films with Clark Gable.  

The Little Cocoon

First, a little background: Mont Clair Carpenter, (1877-1974) born to Abraham and Dianna Carpenter, was a dental student and came from a working-class background. 

Jean Poe Carpenter (Nee Harlow 1891-1958) was the daughter of wealthy real estate broker Skip Harlow and Ella Harlow (Nee Williams). 

In 1908, Jean’s father, Skip, arranged a marriage for their daughter Jean to Mont Clair Carpenter. From that marriage, Harlean Harlow Carpenter was born March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri. 

Being an only child, she was referred to as “the baby”. (Harlean didn’t even realize that wasn’t her name until she was 5 years old and in school however, the nickname stayed with her for the rest of her life.) Her parents were never especially fond of their arranged union, but both adored their child. In 1922, Harlean’s mother, Jean, filed for a divorce. Once the divorce finalized on Sept. 29, 1922, giving Jean custody of young Harlean, she decided to pursue her dreams of becoming a movie star. So, in 1923 a 34-year-old Jean moved with her daughter Harlean to Hollywood, California, only to be told that she was too old to begin a film career. With finances dwindling and her dreams crushed, Jean’s father, Skip (You remember, the bossy, wealthy real estate broker) gave her the ultimatum to move back home with Harlean or be disinherited.

After the move back home, Harlean’s grandfather sent the young 14-year-old girl to summer camp at Camp Cha-Ton-Ka in Michigamme, Michigan where she became ill with scarlet fever.

From Cocoon to Flutterby

In 1926, Harlean and her mother were now living in Lake Forest, Illinois, close to Chicago where Jean’s boyfriend Marino Bello lived. During that time, 15-year-old Harlean started getting serious with 19-year-old Charles “Chuck” Fremont McGrew, an heir to a large fortune. In 1927, Harlean and Chuck ran off and eloped. (That same year her mother, Jean, also married the soon to be found out Italian con-man, Marino Bello.)

In 1928, two months after the marriage, Chuck turned 21, collected a portion of his inheritance, and moved with his bride to Beverly Hills, California. Neither of them worked but they were both known as heavy drinkers and thrived as wealthy socialites.

You Need a Dark Sky to See a Shining Star

Harlean’s friend Rosalie Roy, an aspiring actress, needed a ride to an audition at Fox Studios. Harlean obliged and waited for her friend in the waiting room where she was approached by executives. She politely told them she wasn’t interested. Regardless, they gave her letters of introduction to central casting. Later with insistent encouragement from her mother (who always dreamed of being a movie star herself) and friend Rosalie, Harlean auditioned and chose to use the name, Jean Harlow, after her mother.

Harlean appeared in her first film, Honor Bound (1928), as an unbilled extra for $7 a day and a box lunch, common pay at that time for such work. This led to a wage increase of $10 per day and small parts in feature films. However, as quickly as she was becoming successful working as an actress, her marriage was falling apart. Her marriage to Charles McGrew lasted almost 3 years. With the divorce, Harlean (now known as Jean) focused more on her career and started getting bigger roles.  

What are the Dues

Howard Hughes saw a quality in Jean and signed her to a five-year, $100-per-week contract on October 24, 1929. The first film Jean was featured in was the World War 1 epic film Hell’s Angels (1930) produced and directed by Hughes. This film launched her career and created the image of a sex symbol.

“Harlow was next cast in Platinum Blonde (1931), for Columbia Pictures, with Loretta Young. The film, originally titled Gallagher, was renamed by Hughes to promote Harlow, capitalizing on her hair color, called “platinum” by Hughes’s publicists.[37] Though Harlow denied her hair was dyed,[38] the platinum blonde color was reportedly achieved by bleaching with a weekly application of ammonia, Clorox bleach, and Lux soap flakes. This process weakened and damaged Harlow’s naturally ash-blonde hair.[39] Many female fans began dyeing their hair to match hers. Howard Hughes’ team organized a series of “Platinum Blonde” clubs across the nation and offered a prize of $10,000 to any beautician who could match Harlow’s shade.[37]No one could, and the prize went unclaimed. However, Hughes’ publicity scheme worked and the “Platinum Blonde” nickname stuck with Harlow.”


Howard Hughes then sold her contract to MGM for $60,000. After the purchase, MGM quickly made the starlet a leading lady who became known as one of the greatest movie stars in history.

She met and fell in love with MGM executive Paul Bern, they married July 2, 1932, while she was filming Red Dust (The 1st of 6 films she starred in with Clark Gable). Paul was found dead in their home on Sept. 5, 1932, only 2 months after they married. There was a lot of speculation and controversy at the time because he was shot in the back of the head. The studio “fixers” were called before the police to “take care of it”. Paul’s death was ruled as suicide. Ironically, within a couple of days, his ex-wife Dorothy Millette jumped from a steamboat into the Sacramento river and drowned. It has been believed that Dorothy killed Paul in a jealous rage but this has never been legally acknowledged. 

The Little Working Widow

Jean’s career was hitting superstardom and she worked very hard to do her best. In 1933 Jean married cinematographer, Harold Rosson. Unfortunately, that marriage would only last eight months. Around this same time, Jean became ill and had to have an emergency appendectomy. Three marriages, two ending in divorce, and one in death by the time she was 22. She kissed her share of frogs before meeting her Prince Charming and true love, William Powell. They were together for the last two years of Jean’s life and planned to marry.

Fleeting Finale

 Although Jean was known by photographers and such to have a beautiful body, a sexy siren with a slender frame that didn’t wear a bra, her close friend Rosalind Russell said: “without make-up, she looked like a young child, about 11 or 12.” It’s understandable when you take into consideration Jean was only 5’ 1” tall.

Trademarks associated with creating the Jean Harlow image were:

  1. Her platinum blonde hair
  2. Shaved and penciled-in high arched eyebrows
  3. Long white silky gowns
  4. White furs
  5. Red cupid bow lips

But, what couldn’t be seen on the outside was that she was sick often since her bout with scarlet fever as a teenager. Being a heavy drinker for years also created some health issues. Throw in some heartbreak and stress here and there and well, you have a young woman with kidney problems. 

Her signature platinum locks began to fall out in clumps as the weekly bleachings finally took their toll. Then, during an operation to remove all four of her wisdom teeth, Jean’s heart momentarily stopped beating. Two months later, while working on another movie with Clark Gable called Saratoga, her mouth was still infected from the surgery. She was stricken with a throat infection and influenza. Stomach pain and vomiting kept Jean home in bed and was later misdiagnosed as having a swollen gallbladder.

Finally, another doctor correctly diagnosed her with having kidney disease, which was linked to her scarlet fever as a child and had likely been a long time coming. Sadly, at the time, there wasn’t much that could be done. Jean lapsed into a coma and died in a Hollywood hospital on June 7, 1937, from kidney failure, only two days after being diagnosed. 

She was 26.

The film Saratoga was completed with other actresses standing in as doubles for the recently deceased idol. Saratoga was released on July 23, 1937. 

Interesting facts

Jean Harlow’s mother would die 21 years later, to the day, in the same hospital.

Everyone on the MGM lot called her “The Baby” except for Clark Gable. Being a very close friend, he always called her “Sis”.

MGM writer Harry Ruskin recalled: “The day ‘the baby’ died there wasn’t one sound in the commissary for three hours… not one goddamn sound.”

She was the very first motion picture actress to be on the cover of Life magazine in May 1937

She was voted the 49th greatest movie star of all time by Entertainment Weekly

Quotes by Jean Harlow

Underwear makes me uncomfortable and besides my parts have to breathe.

When you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.

I like to wake up each morning feeling a new man.

No one ever expects a great lay to pay all the bills.

Women like me because I don’t look like a girl who would steal a husband. At least not for long.

Jean Harlow’s Salary: 

Honor Bound (1928)                      $7 / day

Hell’s Angels (1930)                       $1,500

Red-Headed Woman (1932)          $1,250 /week

The Girl from Missouri (1934)         $3,000 /week

Saratoga (1937)                              $4,000 /week

Stay tuned to Keep it Reel, for recommended movies by March’s Immortal Idol Jean Harlow

I thought you might like these pictures of Jean and here 1932 Packard:


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