Jean Harlow | Image: Celebrities Stars
You Must Remember This is a podcast that features stories about old Hollywood. Each episode is being excerpted on Slate. The following is a portion of their story on the legendary blond bombshell Jean Harlow, whose star burned bright until she died at the young age of 26.
"'Jean Harlow' was Harlean Carpenter’s mother’s name. The first Jean Harlow had been a great beauty who dreamed of her own movie stardom. In September 1927, Harlean married Chuck McGrew, an orphan and heir to a small fortune, and shortly thereafter he turned 21 and received the first six-figure chunk of his trust fund. With no need to work, Harlean and her husband mostly just drank. They moved into a new house in Beverly Hills, where Harlean began hosting the luncheons and teas typical of her society set. A guest at one of these day parties was a would-be actress named Rosalie Roy. At the end of the afternoon, Rosalie announced she had to head out to an appointment on the Fox lot, and Harlean offered to give Rosalie a ride.
While her friend was in the meeting, Harlean stood by her car waiting, so that she could give Rosalie a ride home when she was done. Three Fox executives walking across the lot spotted this gorgeous blonde and started talking to her. When Harlean told these men that she wasn’t an actress, and in fact had never really even thought about acting, they thought she was playing hard to get—what gorgeous, glamorous girl hanging out on Hollywood studio lot in 1928 didn’t want to be a movie star? Harlean perhaps was playing hard to get in one sense: She told the people at Fox her name was Jean Harlow. When the phone rang a few days later with an offer for work for a “Miss Harlow,” Harlean first told the caller they had the wrong number—she forgot that “Miss Harlow” was her.
Harlean still had no real ambitions, but when her mother, the original Jean Harlow, got wind of what was going on, she stepped into action to manage “the Baby’s” career, transferring all of her own thwarted ambitions onto this new Jean. Fueled by her mother’s aggression, in just a couple of months Harlean signed a contract with producer Hal Roach, and soon she started appearing in Laurel and Hardy shorts. Within a few months, around her 18th birthday, Harlean asked to be released from her contract, because her husband didn’t want her to be an actress. But just two months later, Harlean left that husband, Chuck McGrew. Both of these things seem to have been done at the insistence of Mother Jean, who believed that you didn’t settle for the first opportunity, personal or professional, that came around. She believed her daughter needed to shake off what she already had in order to get more.
Without a rich husband, Harlean needed movie work in order to support herself. She struggled for months, until she was cast in a small part in the Clara Bow film The Saturday Night Kid. Clara Bow was Paramount’s reigning sex symbol of the 1920s, but she was having trouble transitioning to talkies. She was also getting older, and heavier, and when Harlean arrived on set in a black crochet dress which made it very apparent that she did not believe in underwear, Bow was candid about her insecurities, reportedly saying, “Who’s gonna see me nexta her?”