Jean Harlow was an American film actress and sex symbol of the 1930s. Known as the “Platinum Blonde” and the “Blonde Bombshell” 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. 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.
Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri. Her father, Mont Clair Carpenter, worked as a dentist, and married to Jean Poe Carpenter. The name is sometimes incorrectly spelled Carpentier, which came from later studio press releases in an attempt to sound more aristocratic, and the inaccuracy has been constantly repeated. Mont Clair Carpenter came from a working-class background and had gone to Kansas City to attend dental college. Jean Poe Carpenter was the daughter of a wealthy real estate broker, Skip Harlow, and his wife Ella Harlow. The marriage was arranged by Skip Harlow in 1908. Jean Carpenter, an intelligent and strong-willed woman, resented it, and became very unhappy in the marriage. The couple lived in Kansas City in a house owned by Skip Harlow.
Harlean was nicknamed “The Baby”, which would stick with her for the rest of her life. She was spoiled to the point that she did not learn that her name was actually Harlean and not “Baby” until the age of five, when she began to attend Miss Barstow’s Finishing School for Girls in Kansas City. Harlean and her mother were both only children who remained very close to each other; the relationship fulfilled Mother Jean’s empty existence and unhappy marriage. “She was always all mine,” she said of her daughter. Her mother was extremely protective and coddling, instilling a sense that her daughter owed everything she had to her mother.
With her daughter at school, Mother Jean became increasingly frustrated and filed for divorce, which was finalized, uncontested, September 29, 1922. She was granted sole custody of Harlean, who loved her father but would rarely see him for the rest of her life.