Friday, July 31, 2015

Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow

Author:  David Stenn
Genre:  Biography

ISBN: 9780385421577
370 Pages
Price Varies
September 1, 1993
Five Stars

Her name epitomizes an era, a decade of Depression in which harsh reality created a demand for lush film fantasy - and no Hollywood star was as luscious or fantastic as Jean Harlow.  She was MGM's most bankable asset, a blonde bombshell whose bleached hair, voluptuous body, and bawdy humor inspired a fervent cult following that remains to this day.

Despite Harlow's blinding fame, the events of her life have been obscured by a fifty-year haze of secrets, lies and silence.  Until now.  Finally, after years of research, critically acclaimed biographer David Stenn has unearthed the truth behind the improbable rise of this tow-headed tomboy from Kansas City, her huge success, and her tragic fall.

Harlow's life was a host of contradictions.  She was both "the Platinum Blonde," a woman who iced her nipples and bleached her pubic hair, and "the Baby," a shy, sweet woman-child who liked to hem-stitch on film sites.  A bizarre cast of characters surrounded her, including Howard Hughes, Bugsy Siegel, George Cukor, and David O. Selznick, as well as Harlow's obsessive mother, her gigolo stepfather, and her second husband, Paul Bern, the mystery of whose grisly death is solved in Bombshell.

Controversy surrounds her death.  How could a twenty-six-year-old star with no history of serious illness leave work with 'a cold' and die ten days later?  Why, if her condition was critical, had she been confined to her home?  Now, after fifty-six years, David Stenn has persuaded Harlow's family, friends, colleagues and employers to break their silence and provide previously sealed legal, financial, and medical records, which solve the mystery of her death.  His account is confirmed by scores of exclusive interviews with eyewitness sources, including Harlow's nurses during the last days of her life.

Exhaustively researched and compulsively readable, Bombshell will stand as the definitive Harlow biography.


Loving classic movies the way I do, I am always anxious to get my hands on biographies of stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Sometimes I find them to be very good, other times they can be real stinkers that, shall we say, stretch the truth slightly; and others that are filled with downright lies about stars and their lives.  You will get the ones that are biased either in favor of or against the person they are writing about.  A recent one I read was so filled with lies and distortion that I regretted the fact I'd even bought it, wishing I could return it to the store.  I already know enough about most of the true stars of Hollywood that if there is an exaggeration or lie in a book I'll spot it right off.

That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by Mr. Stenn's book.  He obviously has a fondness for Jean Harlow and who she was; or should I say who she wasn't.  Because, you see, she wasn't really anyone.  Let me clarify that statement.

Jean Harlow was born into a wealthy family as Harlean Carpenter.  Her mother, Jean Harlow Carpenter, was a grasping, miserly, greedy, selfish and controlling woman.  Almost like a female Scrooge - except there was no redeeming this woman.  She wanted to be an actress, and when that didn't pan out, she had Harlean, and decided to groom her for stardom.  So an actress Harlean became, taking her mother's name.

She married three times - Charles McGrew II, Paul Bern, and Hal Rosson.  None of the marriages lasted very long, and all for the same reason - her mother broke them up.  She had a tremendous hold on Jean, and was afraid of losing control of "her Baby," which is the name Jean would be called throughout her short life.  She would have married a fourth time - to the actor William Powell, but he refused to marry her, not wanting to marry another actress because he was divorced from Carole Lombard, and hated being known as "Mrs. Carole Lombard."  Perhaps if he'd had his great success as an actor earlier in his career instead of later, things might have changed his mind and married her, but they hadn't, and he didn't.  I have often wondered if he felt he'd made a mistake after Jean's death.

Jean was loved by everyone who knew her, and she was always considerate of others' feelings, both on and off the set.  She was natural in herself, yet had very little self-confidence and was always looking for others' approval.

For years she played the tramp, fallen woman, mantrap, etc.  She hated the roles and wanted something better, but it wasn't until Red-Headed Woman (a favorite of mine) that she was given the opportunity to shine, and her best role was in Bombshell, where she truly showed her acting chops.

But none of it made any difference.  Her mother (and stepfather Marino Bello) lived off her earnings and told her what to wear, what to eat, etc.  Mother Jean had such control over young Jean that unlike Jean herself, Mother Jean was universally detested.

When Jean died of kidney failure at the age of 26, the entire world was shocked.  Hollywood mourned.  Her mother insisted almost to the end that she merely had influenza, and by the time she called for real help, it was too late to save her daughter.

Her life was a sad one.  Wife, widow, actress, daughter - but never a mother, and that is what Jean Harlow wanted most.  A husband and family, but somehow that happiness managed to elude her.  I would guess that a large part of that was because of her mercenary mother.  How different her life would have been if Baby could have escaped her mother's clutches.  But her short life was not wasted.  In her films, we are able to glimpse her life, how beautiful she was, and her winning smile is magical.

This is a heartfelt biography, and highly recommended for all fans (or future fans) of Jean Harlow and her mystique.

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