What Really Killed Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow died unexpectedly at the age of 26 and immediately rumors started about what killed the blonde superstar
In her short life Jean had starred in more than forty films, married three husbands, and created hundreds of scandalous headlines. After she died wild rumors started spreading about what had really killed her. Some people claimed her blonde hair bleach had poisoned her or that she died from a botched abortion. The truth was much more simple but just as tragic. She was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter on March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri. Her father, Mont Claire Carpenter, was a successful dentist. When she was a child her parents divorced and her mother, who was known as Mama Jean, took her to Los Angeles, California. Mama Jean dreamed of becoming an actress but couldn't get any acting jobs. Jean as enrolled the Hollywood School For Girls. At the age of fifteen she attended summer camp where she lost her virginity and came down with a severe case of scarlet fever. Soon after she and her mother moved to Chicago, Illinois. In 1927 she married Charles McGrew, the heir to a large fortune. The newlyweds moved to Beverly Hills and bought a large house. Although she wanted to have a baby she had an abortion when she got pregnant in 1929. Their marriage ended soon after. She never wanted to be an actress but she started working as an extra to earn money. Jean was offered a contract at Hal Roach for $100 a week. The beautiful blonde was given small parts in the Laurel and Hardy films Double Whoopee and Bacon Grabbers.

Jean HarlowJean Harlow

Jean Harlow & Mama Jean
With her mother "Mama Jean"

Her big break came in 1930 when Howard Hughes cast her as a femme fatale in his big budget drama Hell's Angels. The movie was a box-office hit and made the nineteen year old a superstar. Critics complained that she couldn't act but audiences fell in love with the sexy bombshell. Women all over the country began to copy her platinum blonde hairstyle. She was offered a lucrative contact at MGM and began dating gangster Longie Zwillman. Jean shocked people at the studio by not wearing underwear and putting ice on her breasts before shooting a scene. Despite her sexy image everyone called her "The Baby" and her mother was her best friend. Mama Jean controlled every aspect of her life including her finances. She wore a red wig to play a gold digger in 1932 comedy Red-Headed Woman. Her performance won rave reviews. On July 2, 1932 she surprised everyone in Hollywood by marrying movie executive Paul Bern. He was twice her age and was rumored to be gay and impotent. Just two months after their wedding Paul tragically committed suicide. The scandalous story was front page news all over the country. Reporters soon discovered that he had a secret common-law wife named Dorothy Millette. Rumors swirled that Dorothy may have murdered Paul and that MGM covered it up. 

Jean HarlowJean Harlow Magazine Cover

Jean Harlow William Powell
With William Powell

Although she was devastated by her husband's death she returned to work immediately to start shooting her next film Red Dust. Her success continued with the hit films Dinner At Eight, Bombshell, and China Seas. In 1933 she started an affair with married boxer Max Baer. Worried about a scandal she broke up with him and impulsively married Harold Rosson, a cameraman. They divorced seven months later. Then she fell madly in love with actor William Powell, the ex-husband of Carole Lombard. The couple costarred in the films Reckless and Libeled Lady. By 1935 she had become MGM's biggest female star and was earning $3000 a week. Unfortunately her hair had become so damaged from the harsh bleaching it began to fall out. Her hairdresser solved the problem by changing her platinum blonde hair to a light brown. The studio also tried to soften her sex symbol image by casting her as a good girl in Wife Vs. Secretary. Jean desperately wanted to marry William Powell but he refused. When she got pregnant in 1936 he convinced her to have an abortion. As their relationship started to fall apart she began drinking. During the spring of 1937 she contracted influenza and was hospitalized after having her wisdom teeth removed. She also went out on several dates with publisher Donald Friede. In May of 1937 she started filming with her close friend Clark Gable.

Jean Harlow and Her DogJean Harlow died unexpectedly at the age of 26

Jean complained that she had pain in her abdomen and missed several days of work. On May 29 she almost fainted on the set and William Powell took her home. Although Mama Jean claimed to be a Christian Scientist several doctors were called to examine her. At first they thought she had a gallbladder infection but it was soon clear that her kidneys were failing. She had become very bloated and her breath smelled like urine. Jean was taken to Good Samaritan hospital on June 6 where she slipped into a coma. Tragically the next morning, June 7, she died at the young age of twenty-six. Her official cause of death was kidney failure and a cerebral edema. Immediately rumors began about what had really killed her. For years people falsely believed that her mother refused to get her medical treatment. There were even stories that she died because her second husband Paul Bern had beaten her. The truth was she had never fully recovered from the scarlet fever she got at fifteen and had been slowly dying for more than a decade. There was nothing anyone could have done to save her. William Powell, who was heartbroken by her death, paid $25,000 for a large crypt at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. The inscription on her grave reads simply "Our Baby". MGM used Jean's body double Mary DeesMary Dees to finish her scenes in Saratoga. It was released two months after her death and became her biggest hit.

Jean Harlow May 29, 1937
Jean's final photo on May 29, 1937

Jean Harlow Died

Recommended Reading