Jean Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter on March 3, 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri. She was the daughter of Mont Clair Carpenter, a dentist and Jean Poe Harlow.
In 1927, at the age of 16, she ran away from home to marry a young businessman named Charles McGrew, who was 23. The couple moved to Los Angeles in 1928, settling into a home in Beverly Hills, where the future Jean Harlow thrived as a wealthy socialite.
One day, Jean Harlow befiended Rosalie Roy, a young aspiring actress. Rosalie aksed Jean to drive her to Fox Studios for an appointment. While Jean was sitting in the car, she was noticed by Fox studio executives. Approached by the executives, Jean stated she was not interested, but was given dictated letters of introduction to Central Casting.
Rosalie Roy made Jean a bet that she did not have the nerve to go back and audition for roles. Unwilling to lose a wager and pressed by her mother, Jean drove to Central Casting and signed in under her mother's maiden name, Jean Harlow.
In 1928, Jean Harlow appeared in her first film, Honor Bound as an uncredited extra. Her salary was $7 a day. Uncredited roles followed in Moran of the Marines (1928), Chasing Husbands (1928), Fugitives (1929), The Unkissed Man (1929), Double Whoopee (1929) and Masquerade (1929).
In 1929, Jean Harlow and her husband Chuck McGrew separated and divorced.
She continued to work as an extra in several movies including The Saturday Night Kid (1929), The Love Parade (1929), Weak But Willing (1929) and New York Nights (1929).
In 1930, Jean Harlow had her big break when she was cast as Helen in Hell's Angels.
The role in Hell's Angels came by chance. During filming of Weak But Willing (1929) she was spotted by James Hall, an actor filming Hell's Angels for Howard Hughes. Hughes was re-shooting the film from silent into sound and needed a new actress because the original actress had a Norwegian accent that proved undesirable for a talkie. Jean Harlow made a test and got the part.
During filming of Hell's Angels, Jean Harlow met her second husband MGM executive Paul Bern.
Hell's Angels made Jean Harlow an international star and a sensation with audiences, but critics were less than enthusiastic about her.
Jean Harlow next appeared in The Secret Six (1931) with Clark Gable. She would make five more pictures with Clark Gable: Red Dust (1932), Hold Your Man (1933), China Seas (1935), Wife vs. Secretary (1936), and Saratoga (1937).
In 1931, Jean Harlow appeared in The Public Enemy opposite James Cagney.
Her next film was Platinum Blonde (1931) with Loretta Young. Howard Hughes convinced the producers of Platinum Blonde to rename it from its original title of Gallagher in order to promote Jean Harlow's image, for whom the tag had just been invented by Hughes's publicity director. Many of Jean Harlow's female fans were dyeing their hair platinum to match hers.
Roles soon followed in Three Wise Girls (1932), Red-Headed Woman (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Bombshell (1933), Riffraff (1936), Suzy (1936), and Libeled Lady (1936).
During the filming of Red Dust, Jean Harlow's second husband, MGM producer Paul Bern, was found dead at their home, creating a scandal. Initially, the Hollywood community whispered that Harlow had killed Bern herself, though this was just rumor, and Bern's death was officially ruled a suicide.
After Paul Bern's death, Jean Harlow began an indiscreet affair with boxer Max Baer (father of Max Baer Jr, Jethro from the Beverly Hillbillies). Although Max Baer was separated from his wife, Dorothy Dunbar, at the time of their affair, Dunbar threatened divorce proceedings, naming Jean Harlow as a correspondent for "alienation of affection", a legal term for adultery.
MGM defused the situation by arranging a marriage between Jean Harlow and cinematographer Harold Rosson. Still feeling the aftershocks of Bern's mysterious death, the studio didn't want another Harlow scandal on its hands. Rosson and Harlow were friends, and Rosson went along with the plan. They quietly divorced seven months later.
In 1935, Jean Harlow was cast opposite William Powell in Reckless. The two clicked on screen and off screen. They fell in love and became engaged.
In the spring of 1937, Harlow began filming Saratoga with Clark Gable. On May 29, 1937, Harlow collapsed on set and the director sent her home to rest.
What happened thereafter is essentially still a mystery. It is widely believed that Jean Harlow spent an entire week of vomiting in bed while her mother, a Christian Scientist, refused to call a doctor. Another account claims that Jean Harlow resisted hospitalization and a surgical procedure. On June 3, 1937, her mother told the press that Jean Harlow was "better".
On June 6, 1937, under orders from Louis B. Mayer and William Powell, a gravely ill Jean Harlow was rushed to Los Angeles' Good Samaritan Hospital. Jean Harlow died the following morning at 11:37 a.m. of uremic poisoning at age 26.
By the mid-1930s, Jean Harlow was one of the biggest stars in America and the foremost female star at MGM. Jean Harlow has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for motion pictures.
On the day Hollywood canine superstar Rin Tin Tin died at age of 16, Jean Harlow, who lived across the street from his master, Lee Duncan, went over to cradle the dog's head in her lap as the famous canine died.
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