Before there was Marilyn Monroe, there was Jean Harlow. On screen, Jean’s shapely figure, luminous beauty, and the way that light bounced off the blond waves of her hair made the starlet from Kansas City, Missouri, stand out. Her look was the first to be called “platinum blonde” — named for the metal that was rare, precious and expensive. “She was young, vivacious, modern and accessible,” Darrell Rooney, co-author of Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, tells Closer magazine in the latest issue, on newsstands now.
Though Jean represented a new generation of young women, she suffered from an age-old problem: Her life was ruled by a stage mother. “Mama Jean” Bello funneled all her own unfulfilled ambitions into her daughter, but wound up preventing young Jean from ever finding happiness during her too-short life. “Jean loved her mother deeply and would do anything for her,” says Rooney. “Ultimately, that is not healthy when you try to be an adult.”
Young Jean put aside her desire to be a writer to bring to life her mother’s Hollywood dreams. In 1930, she starred in Hell’s Angels, a film that would become the highest-grossing of the year and make her the rival of other screen sirens like Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer.
But even as Jean’s fame rose, her private life became complicated. In the span of seven years, the actress married three times. Two of these unions ended in divorce, while her second husband, movie studio exec Paul Bern, committed suicide in 1932. “The one thing that Jean seemed to seek from a mate was protection from her mother,” says Rooney. “It was always a fight between the mother and the husband, and the mother always won.”
In 1934, Jean met actor William Powell, the ex-husband of actress Carole Lombard, and an MGM star best known for his role in the Thin Man series. “He was exactly the kind of man she was attracted to: urbane and worldly,” says Rooney. Although he loved Jean, William held off marrying her. After his failed union with Carole, he hesitated to wed another actress. He also worried about Mama Jean. “He knew that he would have an impossible time separating the mother from the daughter,” says Rooney’s co-author Mark A. Vieira, who adds that William began looking at ways to lessen Mama Jean’s influence. “He had her and her husband investigated for evidence of financial misdeeds,” Vieira says.
If William had a plan, it came too late for his beloved. On the set of Saratoga in 1937, Jean fell ill with nausea, fatigue and abdominal pain. A doctor initially diagnosed her with an inflamed gallbladder, but she was already in the final stages of kidney failure. After a short rebound, Jean died 10 days later. She was only 26 years old.
The grief was nearly unbearable. “Her mother became delusional, dressed in her daughter’s clothes and tried communicating with her through mediums,” says Vieira. William, who was by Jean’s side when she passed, paid for her grand crypt at Glendale’s Forest Lawn cemetery. “He also took care of her mother by strong-arming MGM into giving her a talent scout contract,” says Rooney. “He honored Jean’s memory by looking after her mother.”
For this story and more, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.