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Jean Harlow (born Harlean Harlow Carpenter; March 3, 1911 – June 7, 1937) was an American film actress and sex symbol of the 1930s. Known as the "blonde Bombshell" and the "Platinum Blonde" (owing to her platinum blonde hair), Harlow was ranked as one of the greatest movie stars of all time by the American Film Institute. Harlow starred in several films, mainly designed to showcase her magnetic sex appeal and strong screen presence, before making the transition to more developed roles and achieving massive fame under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Harlow's enormous popularity and "laughing vamp" image were in distinct contrast to her personal life, which was marred by disappointment, tragedy, and ultimately her sudden death from renal failure at the age of 26.
Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri. The name is sometimes incorrectly spelled Carpentier, which came from later studio press releases in an attempt to sound more aristocratic, and the inaccuracy has been frequently repeated. Her father, Mont Clair Carpenter (1877–1974), was a dentist who came from a working-class background and attended dental college in Kansas City. Her mother, Jean Poe Carpenter (née Harlow), was the daughter of a wealthy real estate broker, Skip Harlow, and his wife Ella Harlow (née Williams). The marriage was arranged by Skip Harlow in 1908 and Jean, an intelligent and strong-willed woman, was resentful and became very unhappy in the marriage. The couple lived in Kansas City in a house owned by Skip Harlow.
Harlean was nicknamed "The Baby", a name that would stick with her for the rest of her life. She did not learn that her name was actually "Harlean" and not "Baby" until the age of five, when she began to attend Miss Barstow's Finishing School for Girls in Kansas City. Harlean and Mother Jean, as she became known when Harlean became a film star, remained very close as the relationship eased Mother Jean's empty existence and unhappy marriage. "She was always all mine," she said of her daughter. Harlean's mother was extremely protective and coddling, instilling a sense that her daughter owed everything she had to her.
With her daughter at school, Mother Jean became increasingly frustrated and filed for divorce, which was finalized, uncontested, on September 29, 1922. She was granted sole custody of Harlean, who loved her father but would rarely see him for the rest of her life.
Mother Jean moved with Harlean to Hollywood in 1923 with hopes of becoming an actress. Harlean attended the Hollywood School for Girls and met some of Hollywood's future figures, including Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Joel McCrea and Irene Mayer Selznick. Mother Jean's dream of stardom did not come true as she was too old, at age 34, to begin a film career in an era when major roles were usually assigned to teenage girls.Facing dwindling finances, the pair returned to Kansas City within two years after Skip Harlow issued the ultimatum that they return or he would disinherit her. Harlean dropped out of school in Hollywood in the spring of 1925. Several weeks later, Skip Harlow sent her to a summer camp called Camp Cha-Ton-Ka in Michigamme, Michigan, where Harlean became ill with scarlet fever. Mother Jean traveled to Michigan to care for Harlean, rowing herself across the lake to the camp when she was told that she could not see her daughter.
Harlow complained about ill health on May 20, 1937, when she was filming Saratoga. Her symptoms – fatigue, nausea, water weight and abdominal pain – did not seem very serious to her doctor, who believed she was suffering from gall bladder infection and flu. However, he was apparently unaware of Harlow’s ill health during the previous year: a severe sunburn, bad flu attack and septicemia after a wisdom tooth extraction. In addition, her friend and co-star Myrna Loy noticed Harlow’s grey complexion, fatigue and weight gain. On May 29, Harlow was shooting a scene in which the character she was playing had a fever. Harlow was clearly sicker than her character, and when she leaned against her co-star Clark Gable between scenes she said, "I feel terrible. Get me back to my dressing room." Harlow requested that the assistant director phone William Powell, who left his own set to escort Harlow back home.
On May 30, Powell checked on Harlow, and recalled her mother from a holiday trip when he found her condition had not improved and summoned her doctor to her home. Harlow's illnesses had delayed three previous films (Wife vs. Secretary, Suzy and Libeled Lady), so there was no great concern initially. On June 2, it was announced that Harlow was suffering from the flu. Harlow felt better on June 3 and co-workers expected her back on the set by Monday, June 7. Press reports were contradictory, with headlines like "Jean Harlow seriously ill" and "Harlow past illness crisis."When Harlow said on June 6 that she could not see Powell properly, he again called a doctor. As she slipped into a deep slumber and experienced difficulty breathing, the doctor finally realized that she was suffering from something other than gall bladder infection or flu.
That same evening, Harlow was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where she slipped into a coma. Harlow died in the hospital at the age of 26 on Monday June 7, 1937, at 11:37 a.m. In the doctor’s press releases, the cause of death was given as cerebral edema, a complication of renal or kidney failure. Hospital records mention uremia.
For years, rumors circulated about Harlow’s death. Some claimed that her mother refused to call a doctor because she was a Christian Scientist, or that Harlow herself declined hospital treatment or surgery. There were also rumors that Harlow had died because of alcoholism, a botched abortion, over-dieting, sunstroke, poisoning due to platinum hair dye, or various venereal diseases. However, based on medical bulletins, hospital records and testimony of her relatives and friends, it was proven to be a case of kidney disease. From the onset of her illness, despite resting at home, Harlow was attended by a doctor, two nurses visited her house and various equipment was brought from a nearby hospital. However, Harlow’s mother barred some visitors, such as the MGM doctor, who later stated that it was because they were Christian Scientists. It has been suggested that she still wanted to control her daughter, but there is no truth to the allegation that she refused medical care for Harlow.
Harlow's kidney failure could not have been cured in the 1930s. The death rate from acute kidney failure has decreased to 25% only after the advent of antibiotics, dialysis, and kidney transplantation. Harlow’s grey complexion, recurring illnesses, and severe sunburn were signs of the disease as her kidneys had been slowly failing and toxins accumulated in her body, exposing her to other illnesses and causing symptoms including swelling, fatigue, and lack of appetite. Toxins also adversely impacted her brain and central nervous system. Speculation has suggested that Harlow suffered a post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, following scarlet fever when she was young, which may have caused high blood pressure and ultimately kidney failure.
News of Harlow’s death spread quickly. Spencer Tracy wrote in his diary, "Jean Harlow died today. Grand gal." One of the MGM writers later said: ”The day Baby died there wasn’t one sound in the commissary for three hours.” MGM closed down on the day of Harlow’s funeral on June 9. She was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California in the Great Mausoleum in a private room of multicolored marble which William Powell bought for $25,000. She was buried in the gown she wore in Libeled Lady, and in her hands she held a white gardenia and a note in which Powell had written: ”Goodnight, my dearest darling.” Spaces in the same room were reserved for Harlow’s mother and William Powell. Harlow’s mother was buried there in 1958, but Powell remarried in 1940 and after his death in 1984, he was cremated and his ashes were scattered over the Palm Springs Desert area. There is a simple inscription on Harlow’s grave, "Our Baby."
MGM planned to replace Harlow in Saratoga with another actress, but because of public objections the film was finished by using three doubles (one for close-ups, one for long shots and one for dubbing Harlow’s lines) as well as writing her character out of some scenes. True to their star until the end, fans came out in droves to see Harlow's last movie. The film was MGM's highest grossing picture of 1937 and proclaimed to be her best film. Ever since the film's release, viewers have tried to spot these stand-ins and signs of Harlow’s illness.