Jean "The Baby" Harlow, 1911-1937
There are a good amount of people out there who criticize the academic world, and with good cause. They say that we “reach,” that the things that we discuss have nothing to do with each other, and to put two such different items within the same paper/blog post/etc., is pretentious and an abuse of academic power.
I agree with that. To some degree. There are people out there who argue things to sound important or smart or exciting. And if that’s what they wanna do, cool for them. But if you can’t back it up, you’re gonna be stuck like the Goonies were, trying to figure out the notes on that damn skeleton piano. The bottom line for me is: can you read the music???
That said, what I am about to do, is definitely going to seem like reaching. But it is based upon my own interpretations and in that manner I think it works. I make no apologies, nor do I say that this is anything but a purely personal piece that is based upon a very passionate love of two things in my life: Jean Harlow, the actress, and the Magnetic Fields, the band.
This is my first blog for the Jean Harlow blogathon, which is being done to celebrate what would have been her 100th birthday (March 3rd). In a way, I felt compelled to write for this because Harlean Harlow Carpenter née Jean Harlow was only 26 years old when she died. She deserves a little more recognition. We all know about Marilyn, but without the original Platinum Blonde, Ms. Monroe wouldn’t’ve had a high heel to stand on…
Today I went to pay rent. As I was riding my bike around, I put on one of my favorite albums as I felt it would help me brainstorm a little. What I didn’t know was that it would provide me fodder for my entire piece. From the beginning to the end of The Magnetic Fields’ album Get Lost, it is almost as though they were writing it about and for Ms. Jean Harlow.
Jean Harlow was born as Harlean Harlow Carpenter on March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri. Her mother, known as “Mother Jean,” was not only overbearing but she went beyond what one would consider the epitome of the stereotypical “stagemother.” Eventually, they got out of Kansas City, but as David Stenn notes, it wasn’t all for the “sake of the child.” In 1923, after divorcing Harlean’s father, Mother Jean took Jean to Hollywood, hellbent on a new life, one that they certainly were not going to get anywhere in Missouri. However, Mother Jean was a little off-base. She was of the mind-set that she might be able to procure a position within the burgeoning film industry, not necessarily her daughter. The pure, unadulterated fact was…she was just a little bit too old. Stenn writes,
In an era when leading ladies were teenage girls, thirty-four-year-old Mother Jean was hardly star material…At this point a stereotypical “stage mother” would have transferred the dream to her daughter, who was becoming a beauty herself. Mother Jean, however, was different: too fixated on her own aspirations to focus on anyone else, she continued to see herself, not her child, as the center of her existence. (1)
Jean and Mother Jean, in the "later" years...
When Harlean first arrived in Hollywood, acting was her last interest. And it was a rocky road to her first beginnings in any film work, including several different schools, a move to Chicago (engineered by Mother Jean so as to be closer to her own somewhat-questionable boyfriend at the time, Marino Bello), and a marriage to a man named Chuck McGrew which resulted in Harlean’s return to Hollywood.
The first song on The Magnetic Fields’ album Get Lost seems to refer to this period of Jean Harlow’s life, and from my standpoint, it has a double referent: not only can one see Harlean in the song (the chorus uses the word “Baby” repeatedly, a nickname given to Harlean early in her life) but one can also see Mother Jean. The idea of being able to be famous just as long as you get out of “this town” may be related to rock’n’roll within the context of this particular song, but it is so easily analogous to the early part of Jean Harlow’s life and career, that it would be almost ridiculous not to pay attention to it. Her own “marble face” was marveled upon as she grew up, and as she got to Hollywood, the beginnings of her career (tragically) were based upon “giving up control,” generally to her mother, but certainly, at times, to the Hollywood Machine. Regardless of her own Hollywood dreams, Mother Jean was aware that her daughter could “sell the world a new look and sound” and made damn sure that happened, almost without regard for what Jean, herself, may have wanted.
As Harlean’s travels through Hollywood continued, she was able to score some bit parts in films through a friend, fate, and Central Casting. In a nutshell, McGrew had attempted to pry Harlean from Mother Jean’s tight-fisted grasp by taking her back to the west coast. While there, she met a lovely young lady named Rosalie Roy. One day, Rosalie needed a ride to Fox Studios, and Harlean offered to give her a lift. While there, some of the executives noticed her and pounced. After that, it was just a matter of time. However, this was about the point where “Harlean” became “Jean Harlow.” While applying for one of the Central Casting positions, she put her name down as Jean Harlow, and not Harlean Carpenter or McGrew.
Between Spring and December, Harlow went from Central Casting extra to signing a contract with Hal Roach. Not bad for a girl from Kansas City. Even so, it was not her own doing that was pushing her career, first and foremost. Although Chuck McGrew had attempted to get her away from Mama, Mother Jean was fixated on Jean’s life going on to something grand and big. In fact, when there was interest in Jean, she had up and moved from the Windy City, sleazy boyfriend and all, and come back to Hollywood to make sure that things were done right. But…it was all for The Baby, right?
Rock music is a funny thing. Clearly Get Lost was not written about Jean Harlow’s life. And any musician knows that the key to a good song, no matter what genre it is, is its ability to get the audience to relate to it. What I find unique about this album is that the next song on this album, “The Desperate Things You Made Me Do,” works as what Harlean would’ve said to Mother Jean if she could’ve. I realize that the actual intent of the song is not a maternal one: it clearly has more sexual connotations, and there are time-stamps contained within the song that date it. However, the intentions and lyrics (in my mind) work as part of the Jean Harlow story.
The next section in Harlean/Jean’s life involved an abortion that Mother Jean forced her to get and then a divorce from McGrew. The abortion destroyed Jean, but what Mama wanted, Mama got. Thus when Stephin Merritt sings the chorus of this song (“I dedicate this song to you/for the desperate things you made me do/I’d like to beat you black and blue/for all the agony you have put me through”), one could easily imagine a helpless teenage Harlean wanting to say the same things to Mother Jean, but not being able to. Not only that, but the idea that, within the song, the person being sung about/to is essentially sacrificing the singer and not caring about it, is a big deal. That seemed to be a big part of Mother Jean’s misplaced persona. Stephin Merritt sings “Time provides the rope/ but love will tie the slipknot/ And I will be the chair you kick away/You don’t even like anything you like or the people you know” and describes Harlean’s mother perfectly. Sadly, it also describes how Harlean came to die at such an early age. Mother Jean was so obsessed with the creation and upkeep of Jean Harlow that Harlean became lost in the shuffle, and died, painfully, far too young. Thanks, Mom.
Before the ultimate tragic event just mentioned, the Baby got famous. Hired by Howard Hughes and then signed to a contract by him, her career began to take off. While she was criticized harshly for what many saw as a lack of acting chops, the viewing public seemed to ignore that and the image that was carefully cultivated for her by Hughes became a full-blown success.
A publicity blitz began. Although its plot had nothing to do with her hair, Hughes convinced Harry Cohn to change the name of Harlow’s new film from Gallagher to Platinum Blonde, and in conjunction with its release, Caddo [Hughes’ company] organized over three hundred “Platinum Blonde” clubs across America, offering $10,000 to any beautician who could chemically match Harlow’s mane. None won, but the craze boosted peroxide sales by 35 percent despite the Depression…(2)
While the lyrics to the next song on the album don’t follow the story exactly, the title does. Song number three on Get Lost is called “Smoke and Mirrors” and that is, essentially, how Jean Harlow was sold to the public and how her romantic life was dealt with. While the song does hit on some aspects within her on-screen image (“a little fear, a little sex”), the way that her “handlers” made her popular was through cold calculated manipulation and lies. But that’s Hollywood- all smoke and mirrors anyway! Jean Harlow was not Harlean Carpenter. Directly after Jean Harlow was established as the Platinum Blonde, she was borrowed by Paul Bern for a film called Beast of the City. Her public image was growing, despite the fact that the young girl from Missouri was now pretty much type-cast as somewhat of a wanton woman. On her 21st birthday, due to Paul Bern’s persistence (it also didn’t hurt that he had asked his pal Irving Thalberg for a bit of help), Hughes agreed to sell her contract to M-G-M. From that point forward, her career soared, even if her private life didn’t.
Jean Harlow and Paul Bern
Jean married Paul Bern in 1932. The marriage only lasted 2 months. He was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound the night of September 5, that same year. There were many conspiracy theories surrounding the “why,” so the first thing that M-G-M had to do was damage control, and they did. Unfortunately, this was not the last fire that they had to put out in a short span of time. Jean began an affair with married boxer Max Baer, and had to be quickly married off to cinematographer Harold Rosson in order to prevent any more massive controversy for the starlet. After Rosson (and a quick “quiet” divorce), Harlow became involved with William Powell, and, while they never married (she wanted children, he didn’t) that relationship seemed to be her most functional romance. All the public relations that M-G-M put into making these various relationships look palatable to the public definitely used more smoke and mirrors than any magician at the time used!
While her romances were scandalous and fraught with difficulty, her career prospered. But if her career was prospering, Mother Jean’s fist was just as tight as ever. By Mother Jean had married Marino Bello, and the two of them seemed to get greedier and more involved in direct proportion to the Baby’s stardom.
Jean made 12 films in the next 5 years before her untimely death. Within that time, however, she also was subject to several health issues that delayed the production of at least three of the films (Wife vs. Secretary, Suzy, and Libeled Lady). If she had not been so fragile, who knows? The fact that Mother Jean was a heavy factor in how hard Jean worked and how much she wore herself out didn’t help and neither did the fact that she had Jean on a tight leash during her whole career. Her methods of “career management” mixed with “mothering” directly effected Jean Harlow’s early death.
Jean Harlow in Saratoga (1937), the last film she did. The film had to be finished using stand-ins and doubles, and dubbing in lines. The public affection for Harlow would not let them replace her with another actress, as was the first impulse.
While rumors abound about Harlow’s death, it is not due to Mother Jean’s Christian Scientist affiliations. Due to Harlow’s case of scarlet fever as a young teen, she had contracted something called glomerulonephritis, which essentially caused her kidneys to slowly degenerate over the years. If this had been caught and diagnosed earlier, who knows? It might have been able to be fixed. But Jean had doctors by her bedside, even if she was not at the hospital. By the time she left the set of Saratoga, the Baby was in excruciating pain, and disintegrated into delirium and was deemed too weak to be moved. Her internal organs were past the point of no return, and it was too late. In this day and age, we have the technology to fix that. But not so in 1937.
Writes David Stenn, “‘There wasn’t anything I could do to save her,’ sighed Dr. Chapman, and though he meant it medically- in the days before antibiotics, dialysis, or transplants…he also sensed Harlow’s emotional surrender. ‘She didn’t want to be saved,’ Dr. Chapman continued. ‘She had no will to live whatsoever.’ Never a fighter, Harlow faced death with the same passivity that characterized her life. Considering its circumstances, her attitude was understandable: after forty-two movies, three marriages, two abortions, scandal, alcoholism, gonorrhea, and heartbreak, Harlow had lived too hard for a twenty-six-year-old.” (3)
The Magnetic Fields album continues with several songs about love, pain and loss, which, aside from being controlled by a greedy, overbearing mother seem to fit Harlean/Jean’s life to a tee. Harlean was a natural young girl, just looking to be happy. Jean Harlow was a created product who never wanted to be “created.” She was what her mother wanted her to be, not what she wanted. On set, she was known to be one of the more down-to-earth and likable actresses; someone who didn’t put on any airs. You can see that in her comedy. But she was never allowed to have her own life. She wanted to have a child, a happy marriage, good friends…in fact, if it wasn’t for Mother Jean, she might have had a perfectly good life in Kansas City.
What Mother Jean did cannot be undone, but the gift that was left for us was the incomparable work of one Jean Harlow née Harlean Harlow Carpenter, and for that we can forever be grateful. Her vivaciousness and her unforgettable smile will forever go unmatched. many actresses have tried but so far not a single one has had the same presence or natural on-screen comfortability that Jean Harlow possessed. Her physicality corresponded perfectly with her well-timed facial expressions, making her all at once awkward yet sexy.
The final song of Get Lost is called “The Dreaming Moon,” and sounds a bit like a lullaby. As I was listening to the album today, hearing the various songs and their relative associative properties with the Jean Harlow story, I had to smile to myself when I realized what the last lyrics of this song were. I’ve always loved this album and I’ve always loved this song (although I think that “All the Umbrellas in London” is my favorite track), but this time it had a different meaning. Happy 100th birthday, Harlean. Thanks for the cinematic gifts you have given us. They are forever treasures, and while you only lived a short time, your work will live on forever.
The Dreaming Moon-lyrics: Stephin Merritt, Magnetic Fields
With an ivory pipe
And a cummerbund
In the dead of night
On the autobahn
With the long ago
On the radio
And the dreaming moon…
We were young and in love
In a burning town
But the fire went out
I’m alone again now
And I finally know
How cool to be cold
With the dreaming moon
I’ll begin again
With another new name
And a whole new life
Full of fortune and fame
But in the 100th year
I’ll be right back here
With the dreaming moon
(1) Stenn, David. Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
(2) Stenn, ibid.
(3) Stenn, ibid.