The truth about the tragic death of Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow died unexpectedly at the age of 26 and rumors immediately began about what killed the blonde superstar

In her short life, Jean had starred in more than forty movies, married three husbands, and created hundreds of outrageous headlines. After her death, wild rumors began to spread about what had really killed her. Some people claimed that the bleaching of her blonde hair 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 simpler but just as tragic. She was born as Harlean Harlow Carpenter on March 3, 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri. When she was a child her parents divorced her and her mother took her to California. At the age of fifteen she attended a summer camp where she lost her virginity and she contracted a severe case of scarlet fever. Jean married Charles McGrew, a young millionaire, in 1937. Although she wanted to have a baby, she miscarried when she became pregnant in 1939. Her marriage ended shortly thereafter. She never wanted to be an actress but she started working as an extra to earn money.

jean harlow and her dog

Cover of Jean Harlow magazine

Jean quickly landed small roles in the films Double Whoopee and The Saturday Night Kid. The gorgeous star also posed nude for photographer Edwin Bower Hesser. Her big break came in 1930 when Howard Hughes cast her as the femme fatale in the big-budget drama Hell’s Angels. The film was a box office success 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 across the country began copying her platinum blonde hairstyle. She was offered a lucrative contact at MGM and she began dating gangster Longie Zwillman. On July 2, 1932, she surprised Hollywood by marrying film executive Paul Bern. She was twice her age and it was rumored that she was impotent. Only two months after her wedding, Paul committed suicide in his house. It was then revealed that Paul had a secret common-law wife named Dorothy Millette. Rumors spread that Dorothy or even Jean might have murdered him. Although she was devastated by the death of her husband, she immediately went back to work to begin filming her next film, Red Dust.

Jean Harlow NudeJean Harlow Nude

Jean posed nude when she was young

jean harlow

His success continued with starring roles in Dinner At Eight, Bombshell, and Libeled Lady. She shocked people at the studio by not wearing underwear and icing her breasts before filming a scene. Despite her sexy image of her, everyone called her The Baby. Jean lived with her mother, Mama Jean, who controlled all aspects of her life, including her finances. In 1933 she began an affair with the 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. She then fell madly in love with actor William Powell, the ex-husband of carola lombardo. She desperately wanted to marry him, but he refused. When she became pregnant in 1936 she decided to have an abortion. By this time she had developed a serious drinking problem. Unfortunately, Jean’s hair had been so damaged by the heavy bleaching that it began to fall out. MGM hairdressers decided it was time for her to become a “brunette”. The studio also tried to soften her sex symbol image by casting her as a nice girl in Wife Vs. Secretary. During the spring of 1937 she was hospitalized after having her wisdom teeth extracted and she had several appointments with the publisher Donald Friede.

He began filming Saratoga with his close friend Clark Gable in May. Jean complained that she was not feeling and missed several days of work. On May 29, William Powell took her to her house after she nearly passed out on set. Although she Mama Jean claimed to be a Christian Scientist, several doctors were called in to examine her. At first they thought she had a gallbladder infection, but it soon became clear that her kidneys were failing. She swelled up a lot 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. Rumors immediately began as to what had really killed her. For many years, people falsely believed that her mother was refusing treatment. The official cause of death for her was renal failure and cerebral edema. She had never fully recovered from the scarlet fever she had at fifteen and she had been slowly dying for over 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 his grave reads simply “Our baby.”

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