Marilyn Monroe has been an idol for many decades after her death, but during her lifetime she admired an actress who also had a tragic end.
Jean Harlow, Hollywood’s original blonde bombshell who captivated audiences with her coveted curves, platinum locks, and comedic humor, died when she was just 26 years old in 1937. For years, rumors and conspiracy theories about the sex symbol’s life have overshadowed her whirlwind, seven — year career. Now one author hopes to set the record straight.
More than a century after the actress was born, Harlow expert and collector Darrell Rooney and Hollywood historian Mark Vieria teamed up to update their 2011 book “Harlow in Hollywood.” The new version, which was published on October 18, contains more than 280 rare images.
Rooney has amassed one of the world’s most important collections of Harlow photographs and memorabilia. Images of Harlow can sell for as much as $14,000 and camera negatives for as much as $50,000. He told UKTN News Digital that his original book became so popular among collectors that he struggled to find original copies online.
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“There’s nothing left – I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel through eBay, trying to find copies,” he chuckled. “There is a need, which is very satisfying … We decided that the new version would be updated with new pictures, things that have happened since 2011.”
Rooney noted that with the lingering fascination around Monroe, it’s hard not to get a closer look at her idol.
“Why is Jean Harlow relevant today? First, I want to put her in the timeline of Hollywood history,” he explained. Sound came in 1929. Jean Harlow was the very first blonde bombshell to speak and make sound on screen. She exploded on screen in Howard Hughes’ movie ‘Hell’s Angels’. And the nickname the studio gave her at the time was the ‘ Platinum Blonde’, something that became a worldwide craze at the time. When she went to MGM, they renamed her ‘The Blonde Bombshell’, because she was just this otherworldly blonde, and she was very funny.”
“…Finally Marilyn Monroe came along,” he continued. “Jean Harlow was Marilyn Monroe’s idol. If there hadn’t been Jean Harlow, there would never have been a Marilyn Monroe like that. She’s very important today. She’s important because she had an incredible humanity about her. And what what she wanted to do in movies was to make people feel for her. And the events of her life made her accessible to people.”
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Rooney said Harlow had a “very endearing, childlike quality to her,” which has been compared to the persona Monroe later created.
“The biggest misconception about Jean Harlow is that she was a dumb blonde,” Rooney said. “It’s just the natural thing. If you’re blonde and pretty, and you don’t necessarily wear a bra, then you’re probably a bon vivant and not very smart. That’s not who Jean Harlow was. She grew up alone child She wrote a lot. She planned to be a writer when she grew up. She became a movie star because her mother wanted to be a movie star. She was too old and she wasn’t photogenic. Her daughter was. She became a movie star for her mother. She always felt that it would only last a certain number of years. And she prepared to be a writer when it was over. In 1933, she wrote a novel called ‘Today is tonight’. MGM made sure it never in her lifetime. It was published in 1965, so it exists.”
Rooney said movie magazines described Harlow as a sex symbol who depended so much on “Mother Jean” that she couldn’t get through the day without her. She was nicknamed ‘Baby’.
“The problem was that she was too entangled with her mother and she was never able to separate psychologically from her,” he said. “She tried it when she was in her mid-20s and died before she could ever really get there.”
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Like Monroe, Harlow’s private life seemed to be marked by grief. Her second husband, Paul Bern, an executive at MGM, died of apparent suicide in 1932 at the age of 42. For years, rumors claimed Bern was impotent, and the shame over the condition caused him to take his life. Others suspected that Bern was murdered by his first wife and that movie mogul Louis B. Mayer covered it up to save Harlow’s career. Her marriage to Bern lasted only a few months.
“The unfortunate part of going through a tragedy and scandal like that with your husband’s death is that there were no healthy coping skills in the 1930s,” Rooney explains. “The solution was to shut the door on it. And that leads to things like alcoholism. He was a 42-year-old bachelor and she was a 21-year-old divorcee when they got married. And two months later, he dies of a bullet wound in the head… Then it turns out he had a common law wife Then she dies… Jean Harlow had stayed with her mother the night her husband died so she had an alibi What MGM did was blame everything Paul Bern. They made a so-called suicide note in which he tells of his humiliation. And that this was the only way to forgive his debt.”
“They said, ‘Paul Bern killed himself because he was impotent and couldn’t satisfy his younger, glamorous wife,’” Rooney said. “This is incredibly lecherous in 1932 and this is playing out all over the world… But the interesting thing about Jean Harlow is that she didn’t go along with what MGM said. She said, ‘There was nothing wrong with my marriage.’ “She kept insisting. She defied the studio and stood by her husband. And whatever happened, she would support him. She proved to the world that she had this brave heart.”
Rooney said that Harlow’s great love was William Powell, a co-actor in MGM who, like her, had roots in the Midwest. Despite a much-discussed romance, Powell broke Harlow’s heart for refusing to marry her.
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“She was always interested in older men, men who could protect her and make her feel safe,” Rooney said. “William Powell had been married to Carole Lombard. Their marriage only lasted a year or so, but they remained really good friends for the rest of their lives. But I also think William Powell was very wary of dating another blonde bombshell. He was wary of marrying another woman who had a career similar to, if not greater, his own. I don’t think he could handle that a second time. But Jean just loved him.”
Harlow married cameraman Harold Rosson for the third time in 1933. However, the marriage was short-lived. Harlow died before completing her last film ‘Saratoga’, opposite frequent lead actor Clark Gable. Some suspected Harlow’s death was caused by a broken heart binge drinking. Others claimed it was a botched abortion. Others wondered if her hairdresser’s concoction of Clorox, Lux flakes, and ammonia to reach her shocking blonde hair turned out to be deadly. However, Rooney pointed out that Harlow was already suffering from ill health. Friends were so concerned about her skinny appearance that they urged her to see a doctor.
“The myth has always been that Jean Harlow died because she didn’t get medical help — isn’t it,” Rooney said. “She had a progressive kidney disease… [Author] David Stenn obtained her medical record in 1993. She had scarlet fever in her teens. Her mother did not bring a doctor. If you get scarlet fever, dangerous side infections can develop. She had a post-streptococcal infection going to her kidneys, which was unknown. It took 10 years to manifest. In her day there was no such thing as kidney dialysis or kidney transplantation. There weren’t even antibiotics. She was doomed.”
Rooney hopes his book will introduce Monroe fans to the woman he believes was the prototype for the blonde bombshell.
“She was a beautiful woman with an extraordinary life, an extraordinary adventure,” he said. “And it was taken away too quickly.”