Jean Harlow, with her soft come-hither body, platinum blonde hair, and keen sense of humor, is recognized as one of the most gifted and blatantly sensual stars of the 1930s. Harlow endured much pain during her 26 years. Born Harlean Carpenter in Kansas City, she was the daughter of Jean Harlow Carpenter (whose name the actress appropriated for the marquee), the complex, often oppressive force behind her daughter's sudden rise to fame. When she was only 16, the young Harlow eloped with a businessman and moved to Los Angeles, where she began appearing as an extra in silent films. She was particularly noticed for her appearance in a 1929 Laurel and Hardy short Double Whoopee. That year she also played a small role opposite reigning sex symbol Clara Bow in The Saturday Night Kid. In 1930, Harlow got her first real break from Howard Hughes, who cast her in his World War I drama Hell's Angels after he found the film's original star Greta Nissen's Swedish accent incomprehensibly thick. It was in this film that she uttered the immortal words "Would you be shocked if I changed into something more comfortable?" Harlow's wise-cracking presence in the film soon attracted much attention, and Hughes sent her out on a publicity tour and loaned her to other studios. In 1931 she appeared in six films; while her performances were often panned by critics and audiences were initially shocked by her almost lurid onscreen sexuality, she gradually began to develop a following. She achieved real fame in 1932 when MGM bought her contract and decided to give her more substantial parts. In films such as Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust (both 1932) Harlow demonstrated that she was not only extremely sexy and funny, she was also a first-rate actress; by the year's end she was a bonafide star playing opposite some of the industry's most popular men, including Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. Unfortunately, as her professional career flourished, her personal life began to deteriorate, beginning with the alleged suicide of her second husband Paul Bern. Though there was a subsequent scandal surrounding his demise, it did not impact Harlow's popularity. Later she ended up briefly married to cinematographer Harold Rosson, and then had a long engagement with MGM star William Powell. While filming Saratoga in 1937, Harlow suddenly fell ill; ten days later, on June 7, she died at age 26. During her reign, Harlow had starred in less than twenty films. At the time of her death, no details as to why she died were released, but several years later it was revealed that Harlow had suffered from kidney disease most of her life, and that she died of acute uremic poisoning. Her life has been chronicled in several biographies and two subsequent movies, both named Harlow.
Biography by Sandra Brennan
- Left home at the age of 16 to marry businessman Charles McGrew, who was 23.
- Second husband Paul Bern died mysteriously in 1932 in what was ruled a suicide.
- Married cameraman Harold Rosson under pressure from MGM to deflect publicity about her affair with boxer-actor Max Baer.
- Collapsed on the set of Saratoga (which she was filming with Clark Gable) and died of kidney failure a few days later at age 26.
- Was dating William Powell at the time of her death. He paid for her funeral and crypt, and ensured for years afterward that fresh flowers were sent to her grave.