Born Harlean Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri, she moved with her mother to Los Angeles as a child after her parents separated. Harlean was an amalgam of her mother’s maiden name, Jean Harlow, which the actress later took as her stage name. At the age of 16, she eloped with Charles McGrew, a young bond broker. Their marriage ended after she decided to pursue an acting career, against the will of her husband.
After working as a film extra, Harlow signed a contract with the producer Hal Roach, under which she briefly but memorably bared her soon-to-be-famous legs in Double Whoopee (1929), a Laurel and Hardy comedy. She made her sound debut in The Saturday Night Kid (1929), starring Clara Bow. Harlow got her big break soon after that, when Howard Hughes cast her in the sound update of his silent World War I era epic Hell’s Angels (1930). In that film, Harlow made an impression on audiences with her glowing white-blond hair and the suggestive line “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?”
Harlow appeared in a string of films in 1931, including The Secret Six, The Public Enemy, Goldie and Platinum Blonde. Her roles in these movies, as in Hell’s Angels, relied less on her acting and more on her alluring appearance. After Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought Harlow’s contract from Hughes in 1932, she made her breakout appearance in Red-Headed Woman (1932), for which screenwriter Anita Loos created a part especially for Harlow. The film was the first to showcase her comedic talent as well as her bombshell looks. Harlow’s popularity with fans and film critics alike continued to grow throughout the next several years, thanks to smash hits like Red Dust (1932)--one of her numerous movies with Clark Gable--Dinner at Eight (1933), Hold Your Man (1933) and Bombshell (1933).
Aside from her meteoric rise to fame in her professional life, Harlow’s private life was marked by grief and tragedy. Her second husband, Paul Bern (an executive at MGM), died by an apparent suicide in 1932. Harlow’s third marriage, to cinematographer Harold Rosson, lasted less than a year. Harlow was engaged to marry the actor William Powell, her co-star in Reckless (1935) and Libeled Lady (1936), when she suddenly became seriously ill in late May 1937. According to her obituary in the New York Times, the actress had suffered from poor health for a year, including “an acute case of sunburn,” a throat infection and influenza. She also contracted scarlet fever and meningitis as a teenager, which permanently weakened her health. After doctors diagnosed uremic poisoning the weekend before, according to the Times, “Miss Harlow soon responded favorably to treatment and was thought well on the road to recovery when she lapsed into a coma last night.” She died the next day, June 7, 1937, at a hospital in Hollywood, California. Powell was at Harlow’s bedside when she died, along with her mother, stepfather and cousin. Harlow’s final film, Saratoga (1937), was released posthumously; another actress served as her stand-in for several scenes so that the movie could be completed.