What Really Killed Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow died unexpectedly at the age of 26

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. There were even stories that she died because her second husband Paul Bern had beaten her. The truth was much more simple but just as tragic. She was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter on March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri. When she was a child her parents divorced and her mother took her to California. At the age of fifteen she attended summer camp where she lost her virginity and came down with a severe case of scarlet fever. Jean married Charles McGrew, a young millionaire, in 1927. 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 quickly landed small parts in the films Double Whoopee and The Saturday Night Kid.

Jean HarlowJean Harlow and Her Dog

Jean Harlow Magazine Cover

The beautiful starlet also posed nude for photographer Edwin Bower Hesser. Her big break came in 1930 when Howard Hughes cast her as a femme fatale in the big budget drama Hell's Angels. The movie was a box-office hit and made nineteen year old Jean 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. She lived with her mother, Mama Jean, who controlled every aspect of her life including her finances. On July 2, 1932 she surprised Hollywood by marrying movie executive Paul Bern. He was twice her age and rumored to be impotent. Just two months after their wedding Paul committed suicide in their home. The 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 or even Jean may have murdered Paul.

Jean Harlow NudeJean Harlow Nude
Jean posed nude when she was young

Jean Harlow

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 starring roles in Dinner At Eight, Bombshell, and Libeled Lady. 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. Jean desperately wanted to marry him but he refused. When she became pregnant in 1936 she decided to have an abortion. By this time she was MGM's biggest female star. She had also developed a serious drinking problem. Unfortunately Jean's hair had become so damaged from the harsh bleaching it began to fall out. Her hairdressers decided it was time for her to become a "brownette". The studio also tried to soften her sex symbol image by casting her as a good girl in Wife Vs. Secretary. During the spring of 1937 she was hospitalized after having her wisdom teeth removed and went out on several dates with publisher Donald Friede.

Jean Harlow's Last PhotoJean Harlow's Final Public Appearance
Jean's final photo and last pubic appearance

Jean Harlow William Powell
With William Powell

She started filming Saratoga with her close friend Clark Gable in May. Jean complained that she wasn't feeling and missed several days of work. On May 29 William Powell took her home after she almost fainted on the set. 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 became very bloated and her breath smelled like urine. Jean was taken to Good Samaritan hospital on June 6 where she slipped into a coma. The next morning, June 7, she died at the young age of twenty-six.  Immediately rumors began about what had really killed her. For many years people falsely believed that her mother refused to get her treatment. Her official cause of death was kidney failure and a cerebral edema. 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. 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".

Jean Harlow's Grave at Forest LawnJean Harlow Forest Lawn
Jean's final resting place at Forest Lawn

Jean Harlow Died

Harlow In Hollywood is a fabulous book featuring rare photos of Jean