Real name: Harlean Harlow Carpenter
Birthdate: March 31, 1911
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Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri, the daughter of Mont Clair Carpenter, a dentist, and his wife, Jean Poe Carpenter (née Harlow). Young Harlean's father came from a working-class background while her mother was the daughter of a wealthy real estate broker, Skip Harlow and his wife Ella Harlow (née Williams). The marriage was arranged by Jean Carpenter's father, Skip. Carpenter, an intelligent and strong-willed woman, resented it, and would become very unhappy in the marriage.
Unlike many Hollywood stars, little Harlean's childhood was not marked by poverty and unhappiness. Harlean lived with her parents in a very large house in Kansas City that was her grandfather's second home. The only grandchild in the family, Harlean was nicknamed "The Baby", a moniker that would stick with her for the rest of her life. Without any siblings, Harlean became extremely close to her mother, and Jean Carpenter, unhappy in her marriage, turned all her focus onto her daughter. She was extremely protective and coddling to young Harlean, instilling in her a sense that Harlean owed everything she had to her mother, which in turn, inspired a deep devotion from daughter to mother, another aspect which would carry through to adulthood. So coddled was young Harlean that she did not learn until the age of five, when she began to attend school at Miss Barstow's Finishing School for Girls in Kansas City, that her name was actually Harlean and not "Baby".
It was during the making of Red Dust that Harlow's second husband, MGM producer Paul Bern, was found dead at their home, creating a scandal that reverberates to this day. Initially, the Hollywood community whispered that Harlow had killed Bern herself, though this was just rumor, and MGM officials quickly stepped in to spread the fabricated story of "Suicide Because of Impotence". Harlow kept silent and survived the ordeal, coming through unscathed and more popular with audiences than ever.
By 1933, Harlow was becoming a superstar. She had a great comedic role in Dinner at Eight, and later that year, she starred in Bombshell.
After the box office hits, Hold Your Man and Red Dust, MGM realized the goldmine of the Harlow-Gable vehicle, putting them in two more films: China Seas with Wallace Beery and Rosalind Russell and Wife vs. Secretary with Myrna Loy and James Stewart. Other co-stars included Spencer Tracy, Robert Taylor and William Powell.
In the early part of 1937, Harlow fell ill with influenza. Although she recovered, the attack weakened her body against the onslaught of a more serious illness that was just beginning to take hold: kidney failure. In retrospective analysis, Harlow's kidneys may have been slowly failing during the ten years since she contracted scarlet fever while in her early teens. In the days before kidney dialysis and transplants, this condition was fatal.
While filming Saratoga (1937) with Clark Gable, Harlow collapsed on set and was rushed to the hospital, diagnosed with uremic poisoning. She died just days later, at the age of 26.