Jean Harlow was voted one of the greatest actresses of the 1930s Golden Age by the American Film Institute and was the first movie actress to be on the cover of Life Magazine, even though she was a film actress for only 10 years and appeared in only 41 movies. She died at age 26. Marilyn Monroe admired her and copied her sexually-provocative behavior, and also died at a very young age.
At the time of Harlow’s death, she was about to marry actor William Powell after three failed marriages. When she died on June 7, 1937, wild rumors spread on the possible cause:
• infection from an abortion?
• a venereal disease from her many sexual contacts?
• medical malpractice from an incorrect diagnosis of gall bladder disease?
• being poisoned by bleaching her hair and pubic hair to their trademark platinum color?
• starving herself to death to achieve her svelte figure?
• permanent wounds from being beaten by her former husband, Paul Bern?
• killed by one of her several gangster acquaintances?
• liver failure from alcoholism?
• having medical treatment withheld by her Christian Scientist mother?
All of these rumors were false.
She was born in 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri to Mont Clair Carpenter, a dentist, and Jean Poe Harlow Carpenter, the daughter of a wealthy real estate broker. When she was 11, her mother divorced her father and moved with her to Hollywood. At age 15, she became very sick from scarlet fever, caused by beta strep bacteria. Penicillin, which kills beta strep, had not yet been discovered.
She changed her name to Jean Harlow and started to work in films. She acted opposite the most famous male actors of her time, including Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and William Powell, and became the highest paid actress in Hollywood.
She was the original independent Hollywood talking-film star. She was rumored to sleep naked at night and never to wear underpants duirng the day. She would change clothes for different scenes right on set, instead of wasting time to retreat to her dressing room.
Three Marriages in Ten Years
At age 16 she married 20-year-old Charles “Chuck” McGrew, heir to a large fortune, and they moved into a Beverly Hills mansion. They entertained lavishly and started to drink heavily. She left him a little over a year after their marriage.
At age 21 she married Paul Bern, an MGM executive, who was rumored to be more interested in men than women. Two months after their wedding, Bern’s gun-shot riddled, bloody, nude body was found in the dressing room of their Beverly Hills home. The police were called only after Louis B. Mayer had spent several hours in the house, presumably because he was trying to protect his famous movie star. After Jean Harlow was first accused and then exonerated of killing her husband, the official verdict was that Bern had committed suicide. A book written in 2009 by E. J. Fleming claims that Bern was killed by a former male lover and the crime scene was rearranged by MGM executives to make it appear that Bern had killed himself. They did not want the public to know that MGM’s most-famous female movie star was married to a homosexual.
After Bern’s death, Harlow had an affair with boxer Max Baer, whose wife threatened her with a lawsuit for adultery. Officials at MGM were afraid the public would lose interest in a female movie star who was an adulteress as well as having been married to a homosexual man who was murdered by his lover. They arranged a marriage between Harlow and cinematographer Harold Rosson. Since it wasn’t really a marriage of love, they peacefully divorced eight months later.
Harlow and William Powell
Harlow met actor William Powell in 1935, and wanted to marry him then and there. Powell did not want to marry at that time because it was right after his divorce from comedienne Carole Lombard. Harlow responded to Powell’s refusal to marry her by meeting Clark Gable to see who could drink whom under the table.
In 1936, Powell made her pregnant. She wanted to stop acting, marry him and bring up their child, but Powell did not want children. Her mother forced her to have an abortion, and she never told Powell about it. In 1937, Powell gave her a sapphire ring and they were engaged.
Death at Age 26
She began the filming of Saratoga with her best friend, Clark Gable. She had always been on a diet to control her weight, but now she was gaining weight. She looked and felt sick and her skin turned a greyish color.
One scene required Clark to pick her up and throw her onto a couch. She was breathing so hard and sweating so much that they stopped the scene and the doctor who was called sent her to the hospital to find out what was wrong with her. However, her mother brought Jean home and cared for her herself for a week.
On the eighth day she became delirious and was admitted to Good Samaritan hospital. She was incorrectly diagnosed with an inflamed gall bladder. Clark visited her and noticed that her breath smelled like urine. When he told this to her doctors, they immediately changed her diagnosis from gall bladder disease to the more obvious diagnosis of kidney failure. Her breath smelled of ammonia because her kidneys could not get rid of ammonia as normal kidneys do, so she had to breathe it out through her lungs. Her fatigue, nausea, belly pain, grey skin, fever, shortness of breathe, labored breathing, heavy sweating, and swollen face and legs were all caused by kidney failure. She died eight days after leaving the movie set.
The Medical Report
In 1990, 53 years after her death, her medical records were opened to the public. They showed that at age 15, she suffered from scarlet fever, an infection with a beta strep, group A bacteria that causes the skin to turn red. Beta strep produces a toxin that damages the kidneys to cause glomerulonephritis and the heart to cause rheumatic fever.
Throughout her lifetime, she had recurrent strep infections in her throat, mouth and skin that damaged her kidneys and heart. Nowadays anyone who has beta strep would be immediately put on penicillin, and children who have had rheumatic fever or glomerulonephritis are often kept on penicillin continuously through their youth to prevent beta strep infections.
The weight gain that she worked so hard to control was not caused by excess body fat. It was caused by kidneys that could not get rid of extra fluid to swell her legs and body. The incredible fatigue that she suffered was not caused by emotional problems, it was caused by the toxins that her kidneys failed to clear. Some of her irrational behavior was probably also caused by toxins accumulating in her body. In 1937, doctors had no effective treatment for kidney failure. There were no dialysis machines, kidney transplants or antibiotics such as penicillin that could have saved her life.
March 3, 1911 – June 7, 1937