When one hears the name Jean Harlow, images of a platinum blonde sex goddess draped in slinky white satin and spouting forth come-backs faster than you can say "rain barrel" come to mind. But Jean Harlow, one of Hollywood's most tragic stars who's life was snuffed out decades before her time, was so much more than that. A talented comedic actress unlike any other, yes, but also a woman who wanted to love and be loved, a tomboy, a prankster, hard-working, vulnerable, a altogether likeable girl with no stuffy airs of self-importance. Yet in her short 26 years, she led a life that had enough material for several movies, many of them tragic. This month we will look at who Jean Harlow, the "name in lights," really was as well as look at her few but well beloved films. Our story starts, like all stories, at the beginning.
Harlean Harlow Carpenter was born March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri. The red faced, cotton-white haired baby, weighing 9 pounds, was the first and only child of Mont Clair Carpenter, a dentist, and his wife Jean. If the baby had been a boy, he was going to be named Harlow Carpenter, Harlow being Jean's maiden name. But, as she was a girl, the name Harlean was chosen and Harlow was made the middle name.
Birth announcement; Harlean at 8 months.
In Platinum Girl: The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow by Eve Golden, Harlean's mother is described as not having an "ounce of common sense. As the child of a wealthy, indulgent man, she grew up to be vague, imperious, and self-centered, spoiled by her parents and aunts. But she had the kind of buxom blonde looks popular in the early 1900s and mastered the helpless, kittenish charm of a spoiled darling. This was sufficient to overwhelm the sheltered young Dr. Carpenter; it wasn't until years later that he learned how the fluttery exterior hid a woman determined to have her own way" (14-15).This soon led to marital problems and Dr. Carpenter realized that "he'd not only married Jean, he'd married the entire Harlow clan (15). He began to retreat into his work, leaving Jean to her family.
Mama Jean's (as she will now be called) parents fell in love with Harlean. Of her grandparents, Jean (Harlean) remembers, "My grandparents were about two of the most doting... who ever lived. As a result I became a small, pampered tyrant who, at two years old, was in complete control of the house.
When Harlean was three, Dr. Carpenter had the family moved to a small house to try to get away from his in-laws. It was at this house Harlean got her first pet, an Airdale named Tigalaff. Harlean's life was full of servants, extravagance, and people who spoiled her endlessly (her grandfather gave her an ermine bedspread when she was five).
In 1916, Harlean began attending Miss Barstow's School, an "elite prep school catering to the daughters of the upper middle class" (18).
Harlean aged 4 (left) and 5.
At an early age, Harlean began to display a dislike for fancy clothes, which with her tree-climbing and horseback riding didn't last long. Comfortable clothing was something she would prefer the rest of her life.
When Harlean was eight the family moved again. The new house was red brick, had eighteen rooms, and was situated on five acres. Here, Harlean could have as many pets as she liked. She also had the chauffeur's son teach her how to drive, an episode ending badly for the family car. Harlean also developed a love of writing. When she was ten she wrote a tale titled "An Elf's Adventures." The short story, about a "fun-loving elf named Mischi who runs away from school and is nearly captured by a fat little girl," was published in her school's yearbook (21).
It was also at this time that Harlean's father decided to seek a divorce. As it was unusual for a child to be put in the custody of their father, Harlean was left with her mother. The two, who became extremely close (to the point of obsession on Mama Jean's part), moved to Los Angeles so that Mama Jean could pursue her dream of acting. While she was busy going around the studios, Harlean attended the Hollywood School for Girls, which included male students, among them Joel McCrea and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
During this time, Harlean became movie-crazed and began imitating the silent stars she saw on the big screen, including smoking like Nita Naldi. Her favorite star was cowboy Buck Jones.
Mama Jean, only divorced a year, married Italian Marino Bello, a slick operator who never had any money. The family didn't have much to live on and as Mama Jean's dreams of becoming an actress didn't seem to be materializing, they moved back to Missouri in 1925.
Harlean was enrolled in Ferry Hall and took the school by storm. She won the lead in the schools play "The Winter's Tale." Also during this time, Harlean, always a striking looking girl, began to be noticed by the boys. One in particular, twenty year old Chuck McGrew, was especially anxious to get Harlean's attention. Soon the two were in love and talking about marriage, alarming both sets of parents. Mama Jean, not wanting to lose her "Baby," wanted Harlean to wait until she was eighteen, hoping that by that time the two would have lost interest in each other. Harlean however, had her own ideas and on September 20, 1927, she eloped.
After the unavoidable unpleasantries that followed between Harlean, Chuck, and their parents, and a honeymoon cruise, the newly-weds headed to Los Angeles to start a new life. Mama Jean and her no-good husband followed.
The young couple lived on Chuck's inheritance and all seemed to be going well for the first few months. Harlean began to be restless and spent most of her time going around with friends. It was through one of these that her life changed.
One day Harlean gave her friend Lucille Lee a ride to Fox Studios, where she worked as a film extra. Harlean was spotted by casting director Joe Egli. He gave her his card and urged her to register with the casting organization. After some serious thinking, and the encouragement of her excited mother, Harlean took a big step into her future. Mother and daughter headed to Central casting, where Mama Jean signed her name as Jean Bello and Harlean registered under the name Jean Harlow. The Blonde Bombshell was born.