Harlean Harlow (stage name: Jean Harlow) may’ve been the quintessential sultry, curvaceous, platinum Hollywood blonde bombshell, but she wasn’t the bitchy dame you’d expect her to be. Rumor has it she was a very nice person indeed. A kind lady with a soft heart.
Much too soft, especially when it came to her mother…whose name really was “Jean Harlow.”
This is the story of a smothering mother and her sweet daughter who gave everything she could give to her mother and died at just twenty-six years of age with the words, “I have no desire to live.”
I can’t help wondering: Did Smothering Mothering kill Jean Harlow?
Harlean’s Happy Life
Like so many famous actresses of the Golden Age of Hollywood, acting wasn’t Harlean’s ambition. It was her mother’s. As a little girl, she was called “Baby” exclusively, not learning her true name ’til she was started kindergarten. Wikipedia reports, “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.”
Harlean was just sixteen and married to Husband #1 of 3, who reportedly beat her to a pulp on their wedding night, when she registered with Central Casting, more as a lark than a serious ambition. In fact, she didn’t even use her real name when she registered! She used her mother’s name, Jean Harlow.
But Harlean had one of those faces (not to mention figures!) that jumps from the silver screen. Like the Kardashians, she couldn’t act, she couldn’t sing and she couldn’t dance. Like the Kardashians, people couldn’t take their eyes off celluloid Harlean. Unlike the Kardashians, she was one heck of a nice gal.
Hollywood producers took notice of her box office success, building up her roles. Harlean was in love, successful…and pregnant! Life was good until…
…Momma Jean swept into Hollywood Town in 1927, gangster boytoy-turned-husband Marino Bello in tow.
It was all downhill from there.
Smother Mother Enters Stage Left
Mama Jean had a nose for money. She could smell it a mile off. Meanwhile her gangster husband had holdings in (fictitious!) goldmines that badly needed capital to “make ’em give.” Harlean was more than just a meal ticket to them. She was the goldmine…the only one, in fact.
The first thing to go was her unborn baby. The next was her husband. Having divested Harlean of her own family, support system and any hope of normalcy, they proceeded to sponge off of her to such an extent that Harlean was forced to take substantial loans from MGM, just to finance her mother’s lifestyle, her step-father’s non-existent goldmines and his very existent mistress.
Oh…but it gets worse.
The So-Called Glory Years
Ammonia, Clorox and peroxide. Somehow the whole “Blonde Bombshell” thing loses its glamor when you realize that Harlean submitted to having her hair bleached with ammonia, Clorox and peroxide weekly. It’s even less glamorous when you learn that the chemicals made her go bald.
But I digress…
While subsidizing her step-father, his mistress, his chasing of starlets (including herself!), Harlean embarked on her second marriage to MGM executive, Paul Bern, a manic depressive. Naturally, her smothering mother was delighted that her daughter, like Norma Shearer, was marrying into the MGM dynasty. The money was good.
Two months after the wedding, Paul Bern was dead of “suicide.” To this day, no one knows exactly what happened as MGM hushed everything up, pulling rank above the police, the emergency medical personnel and the justice system. (What else do you expect of a studio that had its own above-the-law brothel…and expected its leading men to use it!?!)
With Husband #2 of 3 speedily out of the picture, there was again no one to protect Harlean from her smothering mother.
But it gets even worse.
New Husband, New Home
A year (+10 days) after Paul Bern’s untimely death, Harlean married Husband #3 of 3, picked out, chosen and selected for her by none other than Louis B. Mayer himself, the King of MGM who either bedded or molested most of his female stars, under-age or of-age, he cared not.
As a wedding present, Mama Jean built a new mansion (with Harlean’s money) and titled it to herself. A bout of appendicitis convinced Harlean to move out of her marital home and move in with Mommy and Step-Daddy…again. As Hollywood writer Anita Loos wrote, “[Her] Mother had an amazing hold over [Harlean].” Her new husband was not welcome.
So he beat her to a pulp. Repeatedly. And she, quite rightly, divorced him.
She coped with the use of alcohol, although she maintained her professionalism and never allowed it to affect her performance for the cameras.
Enter The Thin Man
The year 1934 ushered in a better period for Harlean. For starters, she met the one, the only William Powell. Yes, the star of the still-popular Thin Man series became her lover and almost her fiancé. Better still, he put a little starch in her spine. He gave her a dose of normalcy. Her mother’s demands appalled Bill Powell.
The next year, Mama Jean and her gangsta divorced. And you can guess who paid for it! That’s right. Little Harlean who, again, borrowed the money from MGM. Strapped for cash, she finally sold the mansion in 1936 and “retrenched” at the urging of Bill Powell, who Mama Jean hated with a passion. (Surprise, surprise, surprise.)
Maybe it was all the beatings that caused irreparable damage to her kidneys. Maybe it was the alcohol she used to cope with her pain. Maybe it was all the smothering mothering that robbed her of her will to live. Maybe it was all-of-the-above.
Harlean began suffering uremic poisoning from acute kidney failure.
Thus it was that at 11:38 a.m. on the morning of June 7th, 1937, at the age of just twenty-six, that Harlean told the nurse, “I have no desire to live” and breathed her last while William Powell bawled outside her hospital room.
Yet, even in death, smothering mothering held fast. Harlean’s name does not appear on her crypt. Instead she lies for all time under the inscription “Our Baby,” a monument to a sweet, ever-generous, ever-loving girl who wasn’t allowed to Grow Up in life nor in death. The name “Harlean” appears nowhere. Instead, her crypt bears the name of her mother, Jean Harlow.
But that leaves the question unanswered: Did Smothering Mothering kill Harlean aka Jean Harlow?
I think it had a big part in it.
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