Jean Harlow – Archetype Sex Symbol

Day 300 of Colourisation Project – March 3

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Nicknamed the Blonde Bombshell and the Platinum Blonde, Jean Harlow, the archetype sex-symbol of the silver screen, packed a lot into her short life.

Born this day, March 3, 1911, Harlow had a meteoric rise to fame, starring in twenty-two films between 1930 – 1937, including six with Clark Gable and three with Spencer Tracy. Her private life however, like a soap-opera was marred by grief and tragedy.

Jean Harlow

Photographer: George Hurrell – Jean Harlow  1933 ~  Coloured  by Loredana Crupi

As a child she had suffered from meningitis and scarlet fever. Then whilst taking Hollywood by storm, she had pneumonia, two abortions, an appendectomy, several bouts of influenza, and septicemia following a wisdom tooth extraction.

Unlucky in love she was married three times by the age of 26. At 16 she eloped with a wealthy young heir, Charles McGrew, who wasn’t really keen on her having an acting career.  That marriage lasted barely two years.

Her second husband, Paul Bern, an MGM executive died by an apparent suicide in 1932, two months after their marriage. His death remains one of Hollywood’s great unsolved mysteries. He left a suicide note which read,

“Dearest dear,

Unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and wipe out my abject humiliation.

I love you. Paul.

You understand last night was only a comedy.”

Only Harlow could understand that cryptic message but she never spoke to anyone about her marriage to Bern, so it remains a mystery. Physicians later confirmed that Bern had a physical condition which made him “unfit for matrimony”, which was possibly another way of saying he was a hermaphrodite, as had been rumoured.

Another likely scenario that was never able to be proven was that Bern may have been killed by his mentally unstable ex-common law wife, Dorothy Millette. She took her own life by jumping from a ferry the day after Bern’s death and was found two weeks later floating in the Sacramento River.

Harlow’s third marriage the following year, was a studio arranged marriage to cinematographer, Harold Rosson. Harlow and Rosson were good friends and went along with the sham marriage for eight months. It had been organised in order to avert another  scandal after a brief affair with the married but separated boxer, Max Baer, whose wife was threatening to name Harlow as a co-respondent in divorce proceedings.

Romance blossomed next with William Powell, her co-star in Reckless (1935) and Libeled Lady (1936). The two soon became engaged but marriage plans went awry when Harlow suddenly became seriously ill in late May 1937, during the filming of Saratoga.

Jean Harlow died seven weeks later at the age of 26 from uremic poisoning (now better known as acute renal failure).  It is thought that scarlet fever at the age 15, may have contributed to her untimely death.

And it wouldn’t be Hollywood if there weren’t some conspiracies around the cause of her death. Some believed she died of accidental poisoning from the chemicals in her platinum hair dye, whilst others blamed either a botched abortion or her domineering mother, a Scientologist who prevented her daughter from getting proper medical care in the early stage of her illness.

Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM took control of her funeral, making it into a Hollywood event. All of Hollywood turned out to say goodbye. Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy sang one of her favorite songs, Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life to the 250 mourners crammed into the small chapel at Forest Lawn, Glendale. This was followed by a huge banquet with an orchestra playing.

The film, Saratoga was completed using doubles and released on July 23, 1937, less than two months after Harlow’s death. It was an immediate hit with audiences and was MGM’s second-highest grossing picture of 1937.

The American Film Institute ranked Harlow as the 22nd greatest female star in Hollywood history.


“I’ve always hated my hair, not only because it limited me as an actress, but because it limited me as a person. It made me look hard and spectacular.”   Jean Harlow

This entry was posted in Colorization, Colourisation, Film, Hollywood, Photography, USA, Women, Women in Film & TV and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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