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The Tragedy of Jean Harlow

I don’t know about you but I am a great fan of Old Hollywood movies. The movies that were tear-jerkers and could really wring lots of emotions out of you. There was also fantastic slapstick and other kinds of comedy. It was the glamour age of Hollywood when all actresses and actors were looked upon with great awe. So it was with great shock and surprise when on June 7, 1937, the news spread that actress Jean Harlow had died of uremic poisoning or acute kidney failure. She was only 26 years old.

Jean Harlow had come into this world as Harlean Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri. While she was still little her mother moved to Los Angeles, California after separating from her husband. She later took her stage name deriving her first name which was a combination of her mother’s first name and came up with Harlow. Her acting life began as a film extra signing up with producer Hal Roach. She played a part in “Double Whoopee” a Laurel and Hardy comedy in 1929. This was followed by a speaking part in “The Saturday Night Kid” starring Clara Bow.

Jean Harlow finally got her big break when Howard Huges gave her a part in his movie “Hell’s Angels” in 1930. She made a great impact on audiences who were mesmerized by her white-blond hair and her beauty. Her career was launched and she appeared in “The Secret Six”, “The Public Enemy”, “Goldie” and “Platinum Blonde”. However, in all of these movies, her alluring appearance was more emphasized than her acting. Finally, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought her contract in 1932. It was at this time that she got to show her comedic talent in “Red-Headed Woman”. It was followed by other great movies such as “Red Dust”, “Dinner at Eight”, “Hold Your Man” and “Bombshell”.

She had arrived and fans adored her. However, making a name for herself was one thing but her private life gave her nothing but sorrow and tragedy. Paul Bern who was Harlow’s second husband and an executive at MGM died of an apparent suicide in 1932 which she was making “Red Dust”. Her third marriage with cinematographer Harold Rosson didn’t even last a year. Then she got engaged to well-known actor William Powell with whom she co-starred in “Reckless” in 1935 and “Libeled Lady” in 1936.

Unfortunately, Jean Harlow became very ill in May of 1937. No one knew for sure what ailed her because she had had a throat infection and influenza during the previous year. Her health had also suffered during her teen years when she had scarlet fever and meningitis. Finally, doctors diagnosed her with uremic poisoning. She had kidney disease and kidney dialysis did not come around till 1945 and the first successful kidney transplant in 1954. There was no magic to be had even in Old Hollywood. Given medication and seemingly starting to recover she suddenly fell into a coma and died the following day in a Hollywood hospital. Powell remained at her side along with her mother, stepfather, and cousin. After Harlow’s death, her last movie was released “Saratoga”. However, in her short life, she had managed to rise to stardom and it was tragic that she died so soon.

The story of what happened next is enough to be the plot of a Hollywood tear-jerker itself. As the news of her death spread an MGM writer noted that, “The day Baby (an endearing nickname) died there wasn’t a sound in the commissary for three hours”. On the day of her funeral on June 9,  1937, MGM Studios was closed. She was laid to rest in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. She was buried in the gown she wore in the movie “Libeled Lady”. In her hands was a white gardenia and a note from Powell reading “Goodnight my dearest darling”.

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