Jean Harlow was an American film actress and sex symbol of the 1930s.
Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri. The name is sometimes incorrectly spelled Carpentier, following later studio press releases. Her father, Mont Clair (or Montclair) Carpenter (1877–1974), son of Abraham L. Carpenter and Dianna (née Beal), was a dentist from a working-class background who attended dental school in Kansas City.
Her mother, Jean Poe Carpenter (née Harlow; 1891–1958), was the daughter of a wealthy real estate broker, Skip Harlow, and his wife, Ella Harlow (née Williams). The marriage was arranged by Jean's father for their underage daughter in 1908. Jean was resentful, and became very unhappy in the marriage. The couple lived in Kansas City in a house owned by Jean's father.
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" 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. Harlean's mother was extremely protective and coddling, reportedly instilling a sense that her daughter owed everything she had to her. "She was always all mine", she said of her daughter.
When Harlean was at school, her mother filed for a divorce that was finalized uncontested on September 29, 1922. She was granted sole custody of Harlean, who loved the father who would survive her by thirty-seven years. However, Harlean would rarely see him again.
Mother Jean moved with Harlean to Hollywood in 1923 with hopes of becoming an actress, but was too old at 34 to begin a film career.
Her education, often interrupted, began under a governess and was followed by attendance at private schools, at first in Kansas City. After three years in California, where she attended the Hollywood School for Girls, she was sent to Ferry Hall, a girls' school in Lake Forest, near Chicago, where her mother was then living.
Harlean dropped out of school at age 14 in the spring of 1925.
In 1928, on a chance visit to the Fox Film studios, then located in Hollywood, she was encouraged to register at the film industry's Central Casting Bureau. Under the name of Jean Harlow she soon began to receive calls as an extra and bit player. In the following year her work in several two-reel comedies produced by Hal Roach led to a contract, but it was canceled at the insistence of her grandfather.
Her big opportunity came when she was selected by the movie producer Howard Hughes for a leading role in Hell's Angels. This memorable aviation spectacle had been started as a silent film, but with the advent of talking pictures, Hughes decided to remake all the dramatic sequences in sound. Because his feminine lead, Greta Nissen, had a heavy accent, she had to be replaced.
Jean Harlow entered the cast as an unknown, although she had previously received screen credit in one full-length feature, The Saturday Night Kid, released in November 1929. Hell's Angels (1930) brought her immediate fame. It was generally agreed that her acting was poor, but her figure, her daring clothes, and her hair were regarded as sensational.
The role of the siren in Hell's Angels made Jean Harlow a celebrity, but it also typed her, and she played a succession of gold-diggers and gangsters' "molls" in such films as The Secret Six (1931), Public Enemy (1931), and Beast of the City (1932).
Though she remained in the spotlight as the leading exponent of sex-appeal, with a wide popular following, her acting talent was often derided by critics. Then, in June 1932, came Red-Headed Woman, in which she was "miraculously transformed into something closely resembling an actress" (Los Angeles Times, June 25, 1932). From that time on, under a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract, her flair for comedy was emphasized.
In 1933, with the release of Dinner at Eight, Hold Your Man, and Bombshell, she became one of the top-ranking box-office stars, and she remained so until her death. Relaxed in her acting, frank in her interest in sex, sophisticated yet with an air of innocence, she created a screen character which kept the censors alert, although it actually mirrored a widespread change in moral attitudes.
Some of her later roles, in which heavier demands were made on her as an emotional actress, revealed her limitations, but in films which fitted her screen personality she was an expert. Bombshell, a brisk comedy directed by Victor Fleming, is generally considered her best film.
Her death, at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, was caused by uremic poisoning followed by cerebral edema. Her final film, Saratoga, was released a month after this twenty-six-year-old girl, who had crowded so much living into so few years, had been buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park at Glendale.
She said about religion: "There is a God, even in Hollywood."
"To me, love has always meant friendship."
"I'm not a great actress, and I never thought I was. But I happen to have something the public likes."
"When you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas."
"Men like me because I dont wear a brassiere. Women like me because I dont look like a girl who would steal a husband. At least not for long."
"Underwear makes me uncomfortable and besides my parts have to breathe."
"No one ever expects a great lay to pay all the bills."
"I wasn't born an actress, you know. Events made me one."
"Men like me because I don't wear a brassiere."
"I like to wake up each morning felling a new man."
"Politics? Ha! You couldn't get into politics. You couldn't get in anywhere. You couldn't even get in the men's room at the Astor!"
: Always extremely blond, her silky, radiant hair became the focus of her publicity as the first "platinum blonde." A rage for this fashionable hue soon swept the beauty parlors of America.
Jean Harlow's meteoric career had been marked by marital difficulties and poor health. At the age of seven she had suffered an attack of spinal meningitis, and her screen career was often interrupted by illnesses, which affected her with unusual severity.
Harlow wrote a novel entitled Today is Tonight. In Arthur Landau's introduction to the 1965 paperback edition, Harlow stated her intention to write the book around 1933–1934, but it was not published during her lifetime. After her death, Landau writes, her mother sold the film rights to MGM, though no film was made. The publication rights were passed from Harlow's mother to a family friend and the book was finally published in 1965.
At a school dance she met Charles Fremont McGrew, and on September 21, 1927, they were married at Waukegan; she was then sixteen. The young couple settled in Beverly Hills, Calif.
An early separation from her first husband was followed by a divorce in 1931. In July 1932 she married Paul Bern, a Hollywood producer, who committed suicide two months later. Her third marriage, to Harold Rosson, her cameraman for Bombshell, took place in September 1933 and ended in a divorce after eight months.