Harlean Carpenter was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 3, 1911, the daughter of Mont Clair Carpenter, a dentist, and Jean Poe Harlow Carpenter, daughter of a wealthy real estate broker. At age five, Harlean began attending Miss Barstow's Finishing School for Girls in Kansas City. The marriage of Harlean's parents had been arranged by her grandfather and was never a happy one, and Jean Carpenter finally obtained a divorce from her husband on September 29, 1922. Jean was granted full custody of Harlean and did all she could to keep her from seeing her father, although Harlean did manage to sneak in a few scattered visits over the years.
Jean Carpenter wanted to be an actress, so in 1923 she moved to Hollywood, where Harlean attended the Hollywood School for Girls. Jean's dream did not come true, however, as she was too old at age 34 to begin a film career. Mother and daughter moved back to Kansas City in 1925, but Harlean was then sent to the Ferry Hall School in Lake Forest, Illinois. Jean Carpenter sent her daughter to Ferry Hall because it was close to Chicago, where her new love, Marino Bello, lived. Jean and Mario were married January 18, 1927, and the new family settled in Chicago.
While at Ferry Hill, Harlean met 21-year-old businessman Charles McGrew. Despite objections from her mother and step-father, the couple eloped on September 21, 1927, after which they moved to Los Angeles, where Harlean hoped to pursue the acting career that had eluded her mother. It was about this time that Harlean Carpenter took her mother's maiden name, Jean Harlow.
Jean's career began the same way most other Hollywood careers of her day did, with numerous appearances as an uncredited extra in shorts and silent movies. In December 1928, she signed a five-year contract with Hal Roach Studios for $100 a week. Although she was starting to get notice as an actress, Jean's career became a liability to her marriage, and in March 1929 she and Hal Roach mutually agreed to end her contract. The break with Roach did not save her marriage, however, and she separated from Charles in June of 1929. The separation was followed by a short string of appearances as an extra, as well as a few small speaking roles. Her big break came when Howard Hughes cast her in his sound remake of Hell's Angels (1930), which became a major hit. The movie made Harlow an international star and a sensation with audiences, but critics were less than impressed. Her appearance in Platinum Blonde (1931), which was specifically titled to call attention to Harlow's platinum blonde hair, made her a sex symbol. On March 3, 1932, Hughes sold Harlow's contract to MGM, and there she was able to show off not only her beauty but actual acting talent. As she began turning critics into fans, MGM began using her name to boost up-and-coming male co-stars.
Just as Harlow's career was beginning to soar, her personal life was hit by tragedy. On September 5, 1932, her husband, MGM executive Paul Bern (whom she had married on July 5, 1932), was found shot to death in his home. The death was ruled a suicide, but no reason for Bern taking his own life was ever confirmed. Harlow survived the tragedy, and became more popular than ever. On September 13, 1933, Harlow married cinematographer Harold Rosson; the couple divorced on March 11, 1934.
By the mid-1930's, Jean Harlow was one of the biggest stars in America. Her movies made huge profits at the box office, even during the Depression, and it was said by some that her popularity was the only thing keeping MGM from bankruptcy. On May 20, 1937, while filming Saratoga, Harlow complained that she was not feeling well. Her symptoms -- fatigue, nausea, water weight and abdominal pain -- did not initially appear serious, but they failed to subside. On May 29th, she was shooting a scene in which the character she was playing had a fever, but by then Harlow was clearly sicker than her character and she was taken home. Harlow had suffered from illnesses during the filming of other movies, so everyone -- MGM, her doctors, fans, and even Harlow herself -- expected her to recover and resume shooting. Harlow did not improve, however, and was admitted to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles on June 3rd. Jean Harlow died in the hospital on June 7, 1937, and it was only then that it was learned she had been suffering from kidney failure. The rest of Harlow's scenes in Saratoga were filmed using a double (Mary Dees) in long angle shots, and the film was a major box office hit.
Honor Bound (1928)
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