Before the days of Madonna and Marilyn Monroe, the “Original Blonde Bombshell” made her mark on Hollywood and the world, leaving behind a new image of the Hollywood sex goddess. Harlean Carpenter, later known as Jean Harlow, was born on March 3, 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri. Although she would sadly only live to age 26, Jean achieved a great deal of success during her lifetime. In an acting career that lasted 10 short years, Jean made 36 movies. Some of her other achievements included being voted No. 22 on the American Film Institute’s list of the “Greatest American Screen Legends” (female), and becoming the first movie actress to appear on the cover of Life magazine.
Jean displayed talent in both her sensual and comedic performances, but she initially captivated fans with her trendsetting platinum blonde hair. As she gained fame, peroxide sales in the United States skyrocketed. Botched attempts to look like Jean forced thousands of women to cut their hair. Hollywood producers of the past had consistently cast dark-haired women to play the parts of vixens, but Jean emerged as the first star to incorporate the platinum blonde look into her acting.
Jean was born the daughter of a successful dentist and his wife. Jean’s mother, known as Mother Jean, had dreams of becoming an actress, which led her to divorce her husband and move to Hollywood with her young daughter. Jean’s mother never allowed her to see her father, however Jean would sneak visits with him throughout her life. Mother Jean soon remarried a man named Marino Bello and the family moved to Chicago, where Jean attended high school.
Poor health afflicted Jean throughout her childhood. At age five, she contracted meningitis and suffered from scarlet fever at age 15. Jean left home at age 16 to marry 23-year-old Charles McGrew. Shortly after the wedding the couple left Chicago and moved to Beverly Hills. Jean’s true aspiration in life was to be a wife and mother, however she sought work as an extra in films to please Mother Jean. Although at first Jean was not interested in making films, she received her first role in Why is a Plumber? in 1927. She and McGrew divorced after two years, but her big career break was about to occur.
In 1930, movie producer and entrepreneur Howard Hughes became interested in Jean and cast her in Hell’s Angels. In Hell’s Angels, she spoke the now famous line, “Would you be shocked if I changed into something more comfortable?” Jean’s appearance in Hell’s Angels solidified her role as America’s new sex symbol. This victory was followed by another hit, Platinum Blonde, and several films with Clark Gable. In total, she and Gable would star in six movies together including Red Dust, The Secret Six, and Wife vs. Secretary. During the filming of Red Dust, Jean’s second husband of only two months, producer Paul Bern, committed suicide.
In 1933’s Dinner at Eight, Jean was at her comedic best. Later that year she starred in Bombshell, a Hollywood parody based loosely on her real-life experiences with her controlling mother and greedy stepfather. Also in 1933, Jean married cinematographer Harold Rosson in a union that would only last eight months. To accompany her escalating career, in 1935 she legally changed her name to Jean Harlow, her mother’s maiden name.
Following the end of her marriage, Jean found the love of her life in actor William Powell. They were together for two years, however before they could wed, Jean’s health declined. While filming Saratoga in 1937, Jean was hospitalized with uremic poisoning and kidney failure, a result of the scarlet fever she had suffered during childhood. In the days before dialysis and kidney transplants, nothing could be done and Jean died on June 7, 1937. The film had to be finished using long angle shots and a double, Mary Dees. Clark Gable was reported to have said that he felt as if he was “in the arms of a ghost.” After a large Hollywood funeral organized by Louis B. Mayer of MGM, Jean was buried in the mausoleum in Forest Lawn Glendale, in Los Angeles.
Jean was labeled a “screen siren” for her sensational dialogue and revealing costumes, but audiences, directors and producers alike appreciated her flair for comedy and drama. Had she lived longer, it is likely that she would have stayed on a successful path in Hollywood for years to come. In an acting career that lasted only 10 years, Jean Harlow forever established herself as one of the most captivating actresses of all time.