Jean Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City Missouri on March 3, 1911, to Mont Clair Carpenter, a dentist, and Jean Harlow Carpenter.
When she was 16, Harlean ran off to marry Charles McGrew. They moved to Beverly Hills where she sought work as an extra in films. Harlean’s desire was to be a wife and mother, but her own mother, who had always dreamed of being an actress, pushed Harlean into films. The marriage lasted only two years, but because of the move to Los Angeles, Harlean was in a position to catch the eye of famous entrepreneur Howard Hughes.
Harlean had uncredited bit parts in over twelve films before her big break in 1930 when Hughes cast her as Helen in the movie Hell’s Angels. She adopted her mother’s maiden name and became Jean Harlow. Her mother was very involved in Harlow’s life so to reduce any confusion they became Mother Jean and Baby Jean, a nickname that would continue for the rest of Harlow’s life along with “The Blonde Bombshell”.
Harlow had bleached her hair platinum blonde for the movie Platinum Blonde after Hughes sold her contract to MGM for $60,000. When the movie was released, women all over the country wanted to imitate her hair color and sales of peroxide went through the roof. She had also married Paul Bern, an Oscar-winning producer who committed suicide only two months after they were married.
In 1933 Harlow married Harold “Hal” Rosson, a cinematographer who worked on movies such as The Wizard of Oz, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and The Asphalt Jungle. The marriage was a studio publicity stunt to distract her fans from Bern’s suicide and lasted only eight months.
Harlow continued to focus on her career after the marriage broke up and starred with Clark Gable in six movies, including Red Dust, The Secret Six, and Wife vs. Secretary as well as several movies with Spencer Tracy including Libeled Lady, Riffraff, Goldie and Hollywood Party.
In 1934 Harlow appeared with Lionel Barrymore in The Girl from Missouri followed by China Seas with Wallace Beery and Rosalind Russell, and Wife vs. Secretary teamed again with Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, and Myrna Loy.
At this time, Harlow was Hollywood’s biggest star and was given top billing over such iconic actors as Spencer Tracy and William Powell.
She became engaged to William Powell during the filming of the musical Reckless but delayed the marriage for over two years because she believed studio executive Louis B. Mayer would not allow it to take place.
In 1937 Harlow completed her final movie, Personal Property with Robert Taylor.
When Harlow was fifteen, she had suffered a bout of scarlet fever and had health problems throughout her life. She suffered from influenza multiple times, and while filming Saratoga with Clark Gable in 1937, she complained of fever and fatigue. Her co-star, Myrna Loy noticed her pale skin and water weight gain and expressed her concern. Harlow asked that Powell be called and he rushed to the studio to take her home. When a week had passed with no sign of improvement Powell called Harlow’s doctor who diagnosed her with gallbladder problems. A second doctor, summoned for a second opinion, discovered that Harlow was in the final stage of kidney failure.
On the evening of June 6, Powell took Harlow to the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. That night she fell into a coma and died the next morning at the age of twenty-six from a cerebral edema caused by kidney failure.
Harlow was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale in the Great Mausoleum. Powell had purchased a crypt and had it covered in whirled marble with three spaces. One for Harlow, one for her mother who was interred in 1958 and one for himself. When Powell passed away in 1984, however, he chose to be interred next to his son who had been buried in another Los Angeles cemetery.
Saratoga was not yet finished when Harlow died, and stand-ins and rewrites were necessary to complete the film. When it was released in July of 1937, it became the second highest money maker of the year.