Actress. Born Harlean Carpenter (she would later change it to Jean Harlow), on March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri. Harlow was the daughter of Mont Clair Carpenter, a successful dentist, and his wife Jean. She attended prep school in Kansas City, but at the young age of 16, married a wealthy young businessman. Directly after their nuptials, the couple moved to Beverly Hills, where Harlow began to pursue a career in acting.
Like so many other Hollywood hopefuls, Harlow struggled at first landing bit parts in silent films, including Moran of the Marines (1928) andThe Love Parade (1929). Her most notable performance was as the sultry blonde in the Laurel and Hardy short Double Whoopee (1929).
Harlow’s brief but captivating performance attracted the attention of millionaire playboy and movie producer Howard Hughes. He cast her in a pivotal role in the World War I epic Hell's Angels (1930). The film was a hit, and Harlow’s sensual performance was acknowledged by the industry.
In 1931, audiences started to take notice of Harlow when she appeared in The Public Enemy; Goldie; The Secret Six, her first film opposite Clark Gable; and Platinum Blonde. Although the films had a lukewarm reception, Harlow was noted for her on-screen sexuality. In 1932, she began to take on more substantial parts in Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust, which marked her second collaboration with Clark Gable (the pair would star in a total of six films together). Harlow and Gable shared a great screen chemistry and played off each other’s performances seemingly without effort.
With her platinum-blonde hair, her slim but sexy body, her casual, slightly vulgar manner, Harlow quickly dominated the movies and the headlines. She showed a flair for comedy in such films as Dinner at Eight (1933), and was able to spoof her own sex-driven image in Bombshell (1933).
It was during 1932-33 that film critics began recognizing Harlow’s talents. Harlow needed a new name to accompany her burgeoning acting career, and in 1935 she legally changed her name to Jean Harlow (a combination of her mother’s maiden name Harlean).
Throughout her career, she made a name for herself by playing the quintessential blonde bombshell. She personified Hollywood glamour with an innate sexuality that enamored audiences. Though an alluring beauty, her comedic talents proved that she was more than just a sex symbol. Her private life, however, was not as lighthearted. Harlow divorced her first husband in 1932, and her second husband, Paul Bern, committed suicide only months after their marriage. Her third marriage in 1933, to cinematographer Harold Rosson, also ended in divorce.
Harlow was the very first film actress to grace the cover of Life magazine in May 1937. A few months later, while filming Saratoga, she fell victim to kidney failure. Shortly afterwards, she died at the age of 26 of cerebral edema. Her relatively short, but turbulent life has been chronicled in several biographies and two films, both titled Harlow.
© 2000 A&E Television Networks. All rights reserved.
BACK TO JEAN HARLOW