Jean Harlow (March 3, 1911 – June 7, 1937) was an American film actress and sex symbol of the 1930s. Known as the "Blonde Bombshell" and the "Platinum Blonde" (due to her platinum blonde hair), Harlow was ranked as one of the greatest movie stars of all time by the American Film Institute. Harlow starred in several films, mainly designed to showcase her magnetic sex appeal and strong screen presence, before making the transition to more developed roles and achieving massive fame under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Harlow's enormous popularity and "laughing vamp" image were in distinct contrast to her personal life, which was marred by disappointment, tragedy, and ultimately her sudden death from renal failure at age 26.
Late career and death
Harlow complained about ill health on May 20, 1937 when she was filming Saratoga. Her symptoms – fatigue, nausea, water weight and abdominal pain – did not seem very serious to her doctor, who believed she was suffering from gall bladder infection and flu. However, he was apparently not aware of Harlow’s ill health during the previous year: a severe sunburn, bad flu attack and septicemia after a wisdom tooth extraction. In addition, her friend and co-star Myrna Loy had noticed Harlow’s grey complexion, fatigue and weight gain. On May 29, Harlow was shooting a scene in which the character she was playing had a fever. Harlow was clearly sicker than her character, and when she leaned against her co-star Clark Gable between scenes she said, "I feel terrible. Get me back to my dressing room." Harlow requested that the assistant director phone William Powell, who left his own set to escort Harlow back home.
On May 30, Powell checked on Harlow, and when she did not feel any better, her mother was recalled from a holiday trip and Dr. Fishbaugh visited Harlow at her home. Harlow's illnesses had delayed three previous films (Wife vs. Secretary, Suzy and Libeled Lady), so at first there was no great concern. On June 2, it was announced that Harlow was suffering from the flu. Harlow even felt better on June 3. Co-workers expected her back on the set by Monday, June 7. Press reports were contradictory, with headlines like "Jean Harlow seriously ill" and "Harlow past illness crisis." When Harlow said on June 6 that she could no longer see Powell properly, he called a doctor. As she slipped into a deep slumber and experienced difficulty breathing, the doctor finally realized that she was suffering from something other than gall bladder infection or flu.
That same evening, Harlow was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where she slipped into a coma. 26-year-old Jean Harlow died in the hospital on Monday June 7, 1937 at 11:37 am. In the doctor’s press releases, the reason of death was given as cerebral edema, which is a side effect of renal or kidney failure. Hospital records mention uremia.
For years, rumors circulated about Harlow’s death. It was claimed that her mother had refused to call in a doctor because she was a Christian Scientist, or that Harlow herself had declined hospital treatment or surgery. It was also rumored that Harlow had died because of alcoholism, a botched abortion, over-dieting, sunstroke, poisoning due to platinum hair dye, or various venereal diseases. However, based on medical bulletins, hospital records and testimony of her relatives and friends, it was proven to be a case of kidney disease. From the start, despite resting at home, Harlow was attended by a doctor, two nurses visited her house and various equipment was brought in from a nearby hospital. However, Harlow’s mother prevented some people from seeing her, such as the MGM doctor who later stated that it was because they were Christian Scientists. It has been suggested that she still wanted to control her daughter, but it is untrue that she refused Harlow medical care.
Harlow's kidney failure could not have been cured in the 1930s. Death rate from acute kidney failure has decreased to 25% only after antibiotics, dialysis and kidney transplantation, and Harlow’s grey complexion, recurring illnesses and severe sunburn were signs of the disease. Her kidneys had been slowly failing and toxins started to build up in her body, exposing her to other illnesses and causing symptoms included swelling, fatigue and lack of appetite. Toxins also adversely impacted her brain and central nervous system. It was suggested that Harlow had suffered a post-streptococcal kidney infection, following scarlet fever when she was young, which may have caused high blood pressure and ultimately kidney failure.
News of Harlow’s death spread fast. Spencer Tracy wrote in his diary, "Jean Harlow died today. Grand gal." One of the MGM writers later said: ”The day Baby died there wasn’t one sound in the commissary for three hours.” MGM closed down on the day of Harlow’s funeral on June 9. She was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California in the Great Mausoleum in a private room of multicolored marble which William Powell bought for $25,000. She was buried in the gown she wore in Libeled Lady, and in her hands she held a white gardenia and a note in which Powell had written: ”Goodnight, my dearest darling.” Drawers in the same room were reserved for Harlow’s mother and William Powell. Harlow’s mother was buried there in 1958, but Powell remarried in 1940 and was buried elsewhere when he died in 1984. There is a simple inscription on Harlow’s grave, "Our Baby."
MGM planned to replace Harlow in Saratoga with another actress, but because of public objections the film was finished by using three doubles (one for close-ups, one for long shots and one for dubbing Harlow’s lines) as well as writing her character off some scenes. The film was proclaimed to be her best film. Ever since, viewers watching the film have tried to spot these stand-ins and signs of Harlow’s illness.