Jean “Baby” Harlow. Dead at 26.

mitzi w jean harlow blue watermark
My grandmother, Mitzi Cummings, in Jean Harlow’s study, 1934. Sadly, the young actress would be dead three years later at just 26 from renal failure.

“It doesn’t matter what degree of talent she possesses … nobody ever starved possessing what she’s got.” Variety Magazine‘s review of Jean Harlow in the 1930’s Howard Hughes’ film Hell’s Angels.

This is a tough one because the more I stared at this photo and then researched it, the more convinced I became that it captured a perfect moment in time. Though the photo is B&W, both women emanate beauty and success. But I know what happens next, and it’s terribly sad.

After my research, staring at this photo became like watching a movie where “The End” rolls up onscreen after an enthralling first act – just when I’ve fallen in love with the main character and must see her triumph.

This photo would have been a publicity shot to accompany my grandmother Mitzi Cumming’s Photoplay article on her next subject, “blonde bombshell” Jean Harlow, one of MGM’s biggest stars in the 1930s. I love that the two women are arm-in-arm and my dark-haired grandmother, with her black arching eyebrows and flashing gypsy eyes, is an utter contrast to Harlow’s shimmering white glow.

No wonder this glamorous and chummy scene is described in the hand-written caption as a “A Study in Black and White”.

Sadly, this also describes Jean Harlow’s short but jam-packed life, which in just 26 years included spikes of extreme highs and lows – despair then triumph, misguided love affairs then true love, stunning success then tragedy. Three years after these two posed in her lovely bedroom, Harlow was dead.

But in this photo I am drawn to the smallest details of the moment, just like one would when remembering a shocking experience and mulling over the minutiae. I see Harlow’s beautiful white silk blouse and pencil skirt. Her trademark platinum blonde hair like a halo framing her strong face with high cheekbones and a cleft chin. I wonder if this chin helped give her the swagger that made her one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols?

While she was still in her early 20’s, women wanted to be her and men just wanted her. Men were a complex subject in her life. She loved her father but

rarely got to see him after her starstruck mother left him to pursue her dream of becoming a star in Hollywood and dragged her teenage daughter with her. Harlow’s first major relationship was with a 21 year old heir to a large fortune. She was 16 and they eloped. Harlow’s next marriage was to MGM exec Paul Bern who was found shot dead in their home. Despite some concern that Harlow had killed him, she was cleared of Bern’s death and became more popular than ever. Then she found true love – her last love – William Powell, a huge MGM star who I feature in the blog post “Hot-desking with Louis B Mayer”.

Just three years into this whirlwind romance, the stuff of dreams for their fans, Harlow became ill in the midst of filming three movies. By June 6, 1937 she told Powell she couldn’t see him and he rushed her to the hospital. But Harlow slipped into a coma and died of kidney failure the next day. It seems incredibly fitting that she was buried in a dress from one of the films she was making.

Perhaps it’s the narcissism that most of us have about our birthdays, but when I discovered that Jean Harlow died on my birthday, June 7th, 75 years ago, her short life touched an even deeper chord. Finally, as I began writing this post, it seemed prophetic that Harlow was known throughout her short life by her nickname “Baby”, dying just as the world was falling in love with her.

Jean Harlow biography:
Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928-1937

Copyright Alicia Mayer 2012.


6 thoughts on “Jean “Baby” Harlow. Dead at 26.

  1. that’s very moving, I never heard any of that before. What kind of movie expert do I think I am?

  2. I don’t know these details either until I research the photo. Then they blow me away and I can’t stop because these true stories are themselves some of the best dramas that came out of Hollywood.

  3. Alicia, thanks for this amazing article. Jean Harlow was the epitome of a sex goddess and she was so much more as your grandmother knew. I watched the Harlow marathon on TCM and it was delightful watching Jean Harlow grow as an actress.

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