Harlean Harlow Carpenter was born on March 3 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri. She moved with her mother, Jean Harlow, to Los Angeles after her parents separated, and was educated at Ferry Hall School in Highland Park, Illinois and the Hollywood School for Girls.’
Harlow endured bouts with polio, meningitis and scarlet fever as a child. She eloped with a young bond broker named Charles McGrew at age 16, though their marriage ended when she decided to pursue an acting career.
Adopting her mother’s maiden name for her films, Harlow captured the public’s attention when she flashed her legs in the 1929 Laurel and Hardy comedy ‘Double Whoopee’. She also made her sound debut that year in ‘The Saturday Night Kid’, but her breakout performance came the following year in Howard Hughes’s update of ‘Hell’s Angels’, where she delivered her famously suggestive line, “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?”
Harlow appeared in six films in 1931, including ‘The Public Enemy’ and ‘Platinum Blonde’. Hollywood’s original blonde bombshell, her rise was fueled by her sexual allure, but she soon proved an actress of substance. Harlow’s role in the 1932 film ‘Red-Headed Woman’ put her comedic abilities on display and established her as a bona fide star. She was also featured that year in Red Dust, one of several acclaimed pairings with Clark Gable, and in the following year’s hits ‘Dinner at Eight’, ‘Hold Your Man’ and ‘Bombshell’.
Despite her perceived charmed life as a leading lady, Harlow’s personal life was anything but glamorous. Her second husband, an MGM executive named Paul Bern, died in an apparent suicide at their home in 1932, and a third marriage, to cinematographer Harold Rosson, lasted less than a year.
Harlow got engaged to fellow MGM actor William Powell, her co-star in ‘Reckless’ (1935) and ‘Libeled Lady’ (1936), but her still-ascendant career was complicated by declining health. After years of undergoing weekly treatment with toxic chemicals to maintain her famous platinum-blonde locks, she wore a wig to mask her hair loss in the 1935 film ‘China Seas’. The following year, she was stricken with a throat infection and influenza.
While on the set of ‘Saratoga’ in 1937, Harlow was bedridden with fatigue, nausea and abdominal pain. Believed to be on the path to recovery, she instead lapsed into a coma and died in a Hollywood hospital on June 7 1937, from kidney failure. The film was completed with other actresses standing in as doubles for the recently deceased starlet.
Despite her brief career, Harlow is remembered as one of the biggest stars of the early sound era in Hollywood. A biopic on her life, ‘Harlow’, was released in 1965, starring Carroll Baker. Decades later, singer Gwen Stefani briefly portrayed Harlow in the 2004 Martin Scorsese film ‘The Aviator’, and a few years later Mischa Barton was tapped to play the sex symbol for the production of another biopic, ‘By Love Reclaimed’, slated for a 2016 release.