Most articles about her open with some variation on “Before Marilyn Monroe, there was Jean Harlow.” It’s true. Harlow was Hollywood’s first bombshell, a platinum blonde in skintight satin who steamed the screen in a run of glossy MGM pictures in the 1930s.
Her body made her a sex symbol. Her talent made her a star. Her death made her a legend.
She was born Harlean Carpenter on March 3, 1911 in Kansas City. At 16, she eloped with a wealthy young stockbroker named Charles McGrew and they moved to Los Angeles. In 1928, Harlean’s ripped-from-the-centerfolds figure won her bit parts in movies featuring top stars like Laurel & Hardy and “It” Girl Clara Bow. Within two years, as her career sizzled, her marriage fizzled.
By 1930, she billed herself as “Jean Harlow” (her mother’s maiden name) in producer Howard Hughes’ box-office sensation, Hell’s Angels. From there, Harlow treaded water, playing largely forgettable floozies in gangster pictures like The Secret Six, The Public Enemy (as James Cagney’s mistress) and The Beast of the City.
Jean career took off after she crushed the title role in Frank Capra’s rom-com, PlatinumBlonde (1931). A year later, Harlow hit her stride with breakout performances in Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust – the first of six screen hookups with Clark Gable. Jean’s way with a wisecrack earned rave reviews in Dinner at Eight and Bombshell (1933), China Seas (1935), Wife vs. Secretary and Libeled Lady (1936).
Off-screen, Harlow’s private life was a hot mess. She had three husbands by the time she was 22; one of them snared Jean in scandal after mysteriously killing himself just two months into their marriage. Meanwhile, her mother and stepfather mooched off Harlow, treating her more like a meal ticket than a daughter.
But as 1937 began, it looked like Jean was finally going to get a happily-ever-after ending. She was rich, famous, blissfully in love with Thin Man star William Powell, adored by fans and co-workers alike. But tragedy struck while Harlow collapsed in the arms of her leading man while filming Saratoga. On June 7, Jean slipped into a coma and died, shocking the nation and leaving Powell inconsolable. What happened? Her death certificate lists three causes: acute respiratory infection, acute nephritis and uremia.
She was 26 years old.
One final Only-in-Hollywood coincidence: Marilyn Monroe grew up idolizing Harlow, and in the 1950s, Monroe became the bombshell of her generation. Then, like Jean, Marilyn died after co-starring with the same actor – Clark Gable – in her final film, The Misfits in 1962.