Jean Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri, 1911. Being an only child, her parents always referred to her as “baby”. It wasn’t until her fifth birthday she knew of any other first name. Harlow’s initial thought was to become a dentist, like her father, but when her parents got divorced in 1922, she moved with her mother, Jean (which she later became known in films), to Hollywood. It was her mother who had dreams of becoming a star, but at the age of 32, she had missed her opportunity. Attentions then focused on baby Harlean, who was enrolled in the Hollywood School for Girls. Not long after they had moved, mother Jean uprooted the family once again. This time to Michigan, where one of mother Jean’s boyfriends was living. During their time in Michigan, Harlean fell in love and eloped at only 16. The newlyweds quickly moved back to Los Angeles.
For the next ten years, Jean Harlow sustained one of the most influential careers in film. She signed contracts with MGM and Howard Hughes. She became a sensation, known almost exclusively for her undeniable sexuality. Her deeply set eyes and trademark bleached hair, gave her an aura of sensuality that was so strong, it immortalized her. Though her career developed quickly, her personal life deteriorated. After her separation in 1929, she moved back in with her mother, whom she lived with until her death.
Jean Harlow’s whirlwind career was cut tragically short when she abruptly died of kidney failure at 26. There are serious doubts and innumerable theories about her cause of death, even today. Though her star was taken from her far to early, it has never faded. She lives on in the memory of Hollywood and will forever be regarded as the first female sex symbol.
2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Jean Harlow’s birth. To commemorate her life and work, the American Cinemateque, in association with Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, will host a book signing and lecture with Darrell Rooney, author of Harlow in Hollywood. Click HERE for more information.