As anyone who knows me is well aware, I am a big fan of genealogy and have taken it upon myself to be my family’s family historian. While tracing some branches this evening I came across a fun little tidbit; I am very distantly related to Harlean Harlow Carpenter, more commonly known by her stage name, Jean Harlow.
Harlean and I are both descendants of Michael Korns Sr. (1793-1877), my Great x6 Grandfather; this makes her my 4th cousin, 3 times removed – pretty close, right? Anyway, while this counts for basically nothing, I still got to looking into this tragic figure’s brief life story and thought I’d do a mini tribute to a very distant cousin who died far too soon.
Harlean Harlow Carpenter was born in Kansas City, Missouri on March 3, 1911 to the successful dentist, Mont Clair Carpenter (1877-1974) and his wife, Jean Poe Harlow. “Mother Jean” was extremely overbearing and protective, and instilled in “Baby” the idea that she owed her mother everything; “she was always all mine”, the woman is quoted as saying.
In typical “stage mom” fashion, Mother Jean moved to Hollywood with Baby in 1923, hoping to start a film career. When she realized that, at 34, she was too old, she began to push her daughter to pursue the spotlight instead. Baby attended the Hollywood School for Girls and met a host of wealthy friends including Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and the man who was to become her first husband, Chuck McGrew.
In 1927, at age 16, Jean Harlow married Chuck McGrew, an heir to a large fortune that he received when he turned 21, just 2 months after they wed. The young couple had plenty of money and plenty of time as neither of them worked. Rumours spread that they both drank heavily, and in 1929 they divorced. This would be the first of many heartaches in the young starlet’s life.
After getting a series of small film roles, Harlow was spotted by actor James Hall, who was working on a Howard Hughes feature, Hell’s Angels. The film needed an actress to replace Greta Nissen, whose Norwegian accent was undesirable. Hall recommended Harlow for a test and she got the part.
Hughes signed Harlow to a five-year, $100-per-week contract on October 24, 1929, and when Hell’s Angels premiered in 1930 it made Harlow an international star. While critics were unimpressed with her talent, Variety Magazine summed it up best when they wrote, “It doesn’t matter what degree of talent she possesses … nobody ever starved possessing what she’s got.” Around this time, Harlow met the man who would become her second husband, MGM Executive Paul Bern.
The young star was rising fast, gaining larger and larger roles and becoming an increasingly popular icon. Hughes’ publicists capitalized on her hair colour, coining the term “platinum blonde”, and young women across the country scrambled to mimic the starlet’s signature look. By this point Harlow and Bern were romantically involved, and the MGM exec managed to convince his studio to buy her contract from Hughes. In 1932, just after Harlow’s 21st birthday, she was signed to MGM studios; she and Bern were married soon after.
With MGM Jean Harlow got superior roles and was given the chance to show off her humour, rather than just her good looks. Sadly, in 1932, while shooting the feature Red Dust, her husband of only 2 months was found shot to death in their home. Rumours swirled that Bern had been murdered, possibly by Harlow herself, but the death was eventually ruled a suicide. In recent years stories have emerged that suggest Bern was in fact murdered, but by a former lover.
Following the untimely death of her husband, Harlow began an indiscreet affair with boxer Max Baer, who, while separated from his wife Dorothy Dunbar, was still married. Wanting to avoid further scandal, studio execs arranged a marriage between Harlow and her friend, cinematographer Harold Rosson. The pair quietly divorced 8 months later.
It was in 1934 that Harlow met the “love of her life”, fellow actor William Powell. The pair were reportedly engaged for nearly 2 years, but never had the chance to wed.
Over the course of several months in 1937, Harlow’s health was in obvious decline. The scarlet fever she contracted at age 15 may have played a part in her eventual death from kidney failure. As they had during her life, rumours plagued Harlow’s death, with stories claiming that she had died from anything from alcoholism to a botched abortion, and that her mother, a Christian Scientist, had refused to allow her daughter the proper medical care. Harlow was buried in a private room of a mausoleum in Glendale, made of multi-coloured marble and purchased by William Powell for $25 000. She was buried in the gown she wore in Libeled Lady with a white gardenia in her hand and a note from William Powell which read, “Goodnight, my dearest darling”.
While I’ve been reading about Harlow tonight, I can’t help but fixate on the fact that I am now the same age she was when she died. In her 26 years on earth, Jean Harlow earned more than 40 film credits (appearing in 6 films with Clark Gable), was the first actress to grace the cover of Life magazine, became the original “blonde bombshell” (inspiration for Marilyn Monroe), was married 3 times, endured the violent and untimely death of her husband and finally slipped away in a slow and painful death. Harlean lived more of a life in her 26 years than I think most people do in 80.
Was she happy? Who knows. She had fortune and fame, and as far as the world knows she had finally found love with William Powell, though who’s to say whether that would’ve lasted had she not died so young. Harlow is a tragic example of what has now essentially become a modern day archetype; the young star who lives fast, plays hard and dies young. We tend to glamourize this idea with the concept of “die young and leave a beautiful corpse”, which is really sick when you think of it. How many people had done half what she did at 26? If I died tomorrow, my obit wouldn’t be anywhere near as entertaining. So who knows what she could have done if she’d lived twice that long? Three times that? The world of entertainment can be brutal and exhausting and you can easily find yourself living your life only for others. The problem with that is, in the end, it’s your life, not theirs, and if you die with things left unsaid or undone, there’s no one who can change that for you.
So a bit of a positive end for once, some words of encouragement. Go out there and do what you want to do. Tell people you love them. Take a risk, try something new. Live the life you want because you may not have any choice over how long you’re here, but you do get to choose what you do with the time you’ve got.