Jean Harlow: The Tragic Death and Life of Hollywood's Initial "Blond Sensation"

Herbie J Pilato

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She was Marilyn Monroe before Marilyn Monroe was Marilyn Monroe.

It was for her that the term, "Blond Bombshell" was created, long before the blond ambition of Madonna of the 1980s through 1990s.

Even the super sensation of Farrah Fawcett in the 1970s could compare to the soaring popularity of Jean Harlow in the 1930s.

Sadly, Harlow did not live long or fully enough to enjoy her tremendous success.

On June 7, 1937, the actress succumbed to uremic poisoning (now better known as acute renal failure, or acute kidney failure) at the age of 26.

According to History.com, Harlow was born Harlean Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri. She moved with her mother to Los Angeles as a child after her parents separated. Harlean was an amalgam of her mother’s maiden name, Jean Harlow, which the actress later took as her stage name. At the age of 16, she eloped with Charles McGrew, a young bond broker. Their marriage ended after she decided to pursue an acting career, against the will of her husband.

"After working as a film extra, Harlow signed a contract with the producer Hal Roach, under which she briefly but memorably bared her soon-to-be-famous legs in Double Whoopee (1929), a Laurel and Hardy comedy. She made her sound debut in The Saturday Night Kid (1929), starring Clara Bow. Harlow got her big break soon after that when Howard Hughes cast her in the sound update of his silent World War I-era epic Hell’s Angels (1930)."

In that motion picture, Harlow made an impression on theatre-goers with her beaming white-blond hair and the seductive line, “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?”

As further documented on History.com, Harlow appeared in a series of movies from 1931 such as The Secret Six, The Public Enemy, and Platinum Blonde. Her characters in these films, including Hell’s Angels, "relied less on her acting and more on her alluring appearance.

"After Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought Harlow’s contract from Hughes in 1932," History.com goes on to chronicle, "she made her breakout appearance in Red-Headed Woman (1932), for which screenwriter Anita Loos created a part, especially for Harlow. The film was the first to showcase her comedic talent as well as her bombshell looks. Harlow’s popularity with fans and film critics alike continued to grow throughout the next several years, thanks to smash hits like Red Dust (1932)–one of her numerous movies with Clark Gable–Dinner at Eight (1933), Hold Your Man (1933) and Bombshell (1933).

"Aside from her meteoric rise to fame in her professional life, Harlow’s private life was marked by grief and tragedy. Her second husband, Paul Bern, an executive at MGM, died by apparent suicide in 1932, during the making of Red Dust. Harlow’s third marriage, to the cinematographer Harold Rosson, lasted less than a year. Harlow was engaged to marry the actor William Powell, her co-star in Reckless (1935) and Libeled Lady (1936), when she suddenly became seriously ill in late May 1937."

According to her obituary in the New York Times, Harlow had suffered from poor health for a year, including “an acute case of sunburn,” a throat infection, and influenza. She also contracted scarlet fever and meningitis as a teenager, which permanently weakened her health.

After doctors diagnosed uremic poisoning the weekend before, according to the Times, dated June 6, 1937, “Miss Harlow soon responded favorably to treatment and was thought well on the road to recovery when she lapsed into a coma last night.”

Harlow passed away the following day, June 7, 1937, at a hospital in Hollywood. Powell, and Harlow's mother, stepfather, and cousin were at her side when she died.

Harlow’s last movie film, Saratoga (1937), was released posthumously; another actress served as her stand-in for several scenes so that the movie could be completed.

Harlow deserved a better shot at life - and on the screen.

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA
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