For years, different rumors persisted as to what suddenly killed Jean Harlow, the incandescent sex goddess of the 1930s. The “Blond Bombshell” died at only 26 years of age on June 7, 1937. Her death was so sudden and unexpected that many theories evolved―it was caused by a botched abortion, a beating at the hands of her polygamist husband Paul Bern, over-dieting, and blood poisoning due to over-use of hair bleach to attain her trend-setting, trademark, platinum hair. Another widely held theory was her mother, a Christian Scientist, had authorities withhold medication and treatment that would have saved her.
Jean was at the right place at the right time. Sound had just come to the movies and her big break came when she was only 18 and she replaced a heavily accented Swedish actress in the movie Hell’s Angels, produced by Howard Hughes. Audiences loved the picture, and Jean’s sex appeal was mesmerizing, so much so that she replaced Clara Bow as the ultimate sex kitten. She was such a sensation that “Platinum Blonde” clubs sprang up across the country and Howard Hughes offered $10,000, significant money during the Great Depression, to any hairdresser who could replicate “Jean Harlow Platinum.”
Louis B. Mayer, with a keen sense for opportunity, bought out Jean’s contract from Howard Hughes, despite the fact that he personally felt her lascivious, risqué screen image was not in line with MGM’s mission: wholesome family entertainment. Mayer preferred the all-American type but Jean was only 21 and there was big money to be made off Harlow mania. Mayer hit pay dirt, and his investment paid off at the box office. Harlow’s movies, despite the Depression, made substantial profits, and many attribute them with keeping MGM profitable as other studios declared bankruptcy.
On May 20, 1937, while filing Saratoga with Clark Gable and Myrna Loy, Harlow became ill. At the time, her symptoms (fatigue, nausea, abdominal pain, and water retention) did not alarm her doctor, who attributed the condition to gall bladder infection and the flu. Her doctor was unaware that the previous year Jean suffered a bad bout of flu, a severe sun burn, and septicemia after dental surgery to extract 2 wisdom teeth. Myrna Loy was the first to notice that Jean’s complexion was turning gray and her face was beginning to bloat and swell. She began to run a continuous fever. While filming on May 29, Jean, with labored breath and a brow covered in sweat, asked Gable to get her to her dressing room as she was feeling awful.
Instead of Jean going directly to the hospital, she was sent home, where her mother, a devout Christian Scientist, and a team of nurses were to care for her. This gave rise to the inaccurate theory that only prayer and not treatment was administered to Harlow. At that time in history, no team of doctors could have saved Harlow from her mysterious condition.
“The Blond Bombshell” died on the morning of June 7, only 8 days after pleading with Gable to return her to her dressing room. Her cause of death was cerebral edema, brought on by renal failure. In the late 1990s, her medical records were unsealed. The records indicated she had contracted scarlet fever in her teens, which possibly led to post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, leading to high blood pressure and compromised kidneys. As her kidneys slowly failed, toxins accumulated in her body, causing symptoms such as fatigue, gray complexion, swelling, and severe sunburn, all indicators of kidney disease. Toxins also began to take their toll on her central nervous system and brain. In the 1930s, dialysis, kidney transplants, and antibiotics were unheard of. Dying of kidney failure was a slow, agonizing, poisoning process that was impossible to reverse.
Louis B. Mayer closed down MGM Studios on June 9 in honor of Jean’s funeral and made sure it was a spectacle. Every star in Hollywood was invited and the ceremony took FDR and the sour economy off the front pages. Mayer made sure Saratoga was completed using 3 Harlow doubles, and it became MGM’s highest grossing picture of 1937. To this day, viewers try to spot Jean’s doubles and signs of her advancing disease.