The Death Of This Sex Symbol’s Husband Triggered One Of Hollywood’s Most Sordid Mysteries

It’s September 5, 1932, and a gardener stumbles across Paul Bern’s lifeless body in his Beverly Hills home. Two months earlier, the Hollywood producer married the screen siren Jean Harlow, earning the envy of men across the globe. But now, he appears to have taken his own life, in a mystery that continues to haunt Hollywood to this day.

Born in March of 1911, in Missouri’s Kansas City, Harlean Harlow Carpenter was the daughter of Mont Clair, a dentist, and Jean, a young woman from a wealthy family. And as a child, she earned herself the sobriquet “The Baby” – a nickname that would follow her into adulthood. Meanwhile, when she was just 11 years old, her parents divorced.

Although the little girl was reportedly close to her father, Jean gained full custody of her after the divorce. And with her young daughter in tow, she relocated to Hollywood in California. There, she hoped to realize her dreams of becoming an actor. At 34 years of age, however, the mom was deemed too old to launch a career.

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With Jean’s dream in tatters, she and her daughter eventually returned to Kansas City. And soon, the 15-year-old was dispatched to summer camp by her grandfather, where she contracted scarlet fever – a sickness that some believe contributed to her untimely death. At the time, however, she recovered and began attending the Ferry Hall School in Illinois’ Lake Forest area.

Through a school acquaintance, Harlean then met and fell in love with Charles McGrew, the 19-year-old heir to a substantial fortune. The pair soon married, and within months McGrew came into his inheritance. This allowed the newlyweds to live the high life in Los Angeles. And there, while enjoying the life of a socialite, the teenager befriended a young actor named Rosalie Roy.

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According to reports, Harlean was first spotted by movie executives while waiting for Roy after an audition. However, she initially declined their offers. It’s rumored, in fact, that she only eventually attended a casting in order to win a wager with her friend. But with her mother’s encouragement, she soon fell under Hollywood’s spell.

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Now going by the name Jean Harlow, after her mother, the aspiring actor took a number of bit parts. Then, she landed a role in Double Whoopee, a short movie starring the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. But just as her career was taking off, her marriage was hitting the rocks. In fact, the producer Hal Roach reportedly tore up an early contract when Harlow complained of the adverse effect that acting was having on her relationship with McGrew.

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Sadly, the marriage wasn’t to be, and in 1929 Harlow and McGrew separated and eventually divorced. With her husband out of the way, the actor restarted her career. Indeed, that same year she appeared alongside Clara Bow in The Saturday Night Kid – a talking role that would bring her to the brink of success.

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However, it was Harlow’s role in the Howard Hughes movie Hell’s Angels that would really make her a star. And although critics panned her performance, audiences around the world soon fell for the actor’s charms. “It doesn’t matter what degree of talent she possesses… Nobody ever starved possessing what she’s got,” claimed Variety magazine.

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While making Hell’s Angels, Harlow met Paul Bern, the MGM producer who would later become her second husband. Born in December of 1889, he spent his childhood in Germany before relocating with his family to New York City. And in the beginning, he had dreams of becoming an actor himself.

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Around this time, Bern became romantically involved with a woman named Dorothy Millette. According to some reports, the pair were married, while others claim that they merely lived together as common-law man and wife. Sadly, Millette fell ill while the couple were in New York and eventually became a resident of a sanitarium.

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While Millette was unwell, Bern made the decision to relocate to California alone. However, he continued to provide his estranged partner with financial support. And when she eventually left the sanitarium, he financed her living arrangements at New York’s Algonquin Hotel. In fact, it’s believed that he sent her an allowance of $350 a month – equating to some $5,000 today.

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But while Bern continued to communicate with the woman he’d left behind in New York, his life was beginning to go in an entirely different direction. Having long abandoned his acting dreams, he began to forge a career behind the scenes of the movie industry, instead. And by the time he met Harlow, he was working for MGM – the biggest studio at the time.

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In 1931, Harlow appeared in the movie Platinum Blonde, a Columbia Pictures comedy the studio renamed to capitalize on its star’s distinctive good looks. By that time, the actors’ appearance had become a key part of her appeal. And in order to promote his picture, Hughes organized hairdressing competitions across the United States.

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During Hughes’ competitions, hairdressers were challenged to recreate Harlow’s iconic blonde locks. However, no one ever got their hands on the $10,000 cash prize. The actor, meanwhile, continued to claim that her famous hair was natural – although rumors attributed its platinum shade to a dangerous combination of Lux soap flakes, bleach and ammonia.

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Although the public adored Harlow, her personal life was often tumultuous. And at one point, she was even romantically involved with Abner Zwillman – an infamous mobster who would later be dubbed the “Al Capone of New Jersey.” But while he showered the star with gifts, he’s also said to have spoken badly of her behind closed doors.

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In 1932, Harlow worked with Bern for the first time on the gangster movie The Beast of the City. And in order to promote its star, the producer arranged for her to appear at a series of events along the East Coast. And despite the disparaging remarks of movie critics, she was an undeniable hit.

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Soon, Harlow and Bern had become a couple – despite his continued correspondence with Millette in New York. He had faith, apparently, that the young actor could become a real star, rather than just a pretty face. And eventually, the producer managed to persuade his bosses at MGM to take charge of her career.

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While working for MGM, the star landed roles that made the most of her natural comedic talent, such as the lead in 1932 movie Red-Headed Woman. And she appeared alongside Clark Gable in the romantic drama Red Dust later that year. Around the same time, though, the studio began circulating false rumors that the sex siren was hiding a refined past.

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Among the lies peddled by MGM was the claim that Harlow’s birth name was really “Carpentier,” and that she was, in fact, a descendant of the famous writer Edgar Allan Poe. Meanwhile, the actor tied the knot with Bern in July of 1932. Before the studio could transform her image for good, however, tragedy struck.

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On the morning of September 5, 1932, Bern’s gardener discovered his employer’s lifeless body at the home that he and Harlow shared. Apparently, he had been shot in the head, and a weapon was discovered in his hand. Suspicion, however, initially fell on the star. Indeed, she’d spent the night before her husband’s death at the home of her mother.

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However, police later claimed to have discovered what appeared to be a suicide note at the scene. Soon after, the authorities ruled that Bern had taken his own life. Harlow, meanwhile, remained silent, reportedly informing investigators that she “knew nothing” about why her husband might have killed himself.

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On September 9, some 2,000 mourners attended Bern’s memorial at Inglewood Park Cemetery’s Grace Chapel in California. And not long after her husband’s death, Harlow was made executor of his estate by a local judge. However, staff at MGM soon began to fear that the scandal could adversely affect her popularity.

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In fact, MGM even tried to recast Harlow’s role in Red Dust, offering the part to the actor Tallulah Bankhead instead. She, however, swiftly rejected the offer. “To damn the radiant [Harlow] for the misfortune of another would be one of the shabbiest acts of all time. I told Mr. Mayer as much,” Bankhead wrote in her 2004 autobiography.

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At this point, some bizarre details about Bern’s life were beginning to emerge. After his death, police tracked down an insurance advisor in L.A. who had an interesting claim. He said he’d established a fiduciary trust for Millette on behalf of the producer. And to make matters worse, he also alleged that the pair were still married at the time of his wedding to Harlow.

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Furthermore, police spoke to a New York lawyer who also claimed that Bern and Millette were still married. In addition, the attorney said that the producer’s will reflected that relationship. But if these rumors were true, what had happened to the dead man’s wife? As investigators took a closer look, it emerged that tragedy had befallen her as well.

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It turns out that on September 6, just one day after Bern’s death, Millette checked out of San Francisco’s Plaza Hotel, where she’d spent the last four months as a resident. Then, she booked a trip to the Californian city of Sacramento on the riverboat Delta King. But despite boarding later that same day, she would never arrive at her destination.

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According to witnesses, Millette was spotted on a couple of occasions during the voyage. Apparently, one man reported seeing her at a dining table, looking exhausted and barely touching her food. And at around 2.30 a.m., another passenger allegedly spotted her in tears on the vessel’s top deck.

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Then, in the early hours of September 7, a watchman on the Delta King made a tragic discovery. He found a pair of shoes and a woman’s coat abandoned on one of the decks. And when the vessel arrived at its destination, Millette was nowhere to be seen. As authorities searched for the missing woman, the press picked up on the story, referring to the her as Bern’s “ghost wife.”

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Investigators, meanwhile, had discovered Millette’s handbag at the Plaza Hotel. In it, they found letters that Bern had exchanged with the missing woman, written on stationery branded with the MGM logo. Interestingly, one of the notes mentions her plans to visit California – and was dated just months before the producer’s wedding to Harlow.

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In the letter, Bern recommended a couple of establishments – including the hotel where police found Millette’s belongings. He had even offered to finance the trip. “If you do go, I hope that it will be a happy change,” the producer wrote, before signing off, “My love and best wishes always.”

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Eventually, on September 14, authorities recovered Millette’s body from the Sacramento River. That, however, did little to stop rumors circulating about her relationship with Bern. And according to some, she’d staged her own death in order to murder her ex-lover – no doubt driven to madness by his new, famous wife.

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But while the malicious rumors continued to spread, MGM stepped in to protect their valuable star. According to the studio’s official story, Bern suffered from impotence and had taken his own life out of shame. But as the years passed, many came forward to cast doubt on this version of events.

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Indeed, in 1960, Ben Hecht, a Hollywood screenwriter, penned an article for Playboy magazine. In the piece, he claimed that the suicide story was a lie. He instead alleged that Bern had been murdered by another woman and that MGM had covered up the truth. “It might crimp [Harlow’s] box office allure to have her blazoned as a wife who couldn’t hold her husband,” he wrote.

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Although investigators initially reopened the case due to Hecht’s claims, they soon realized there was little evidence to support them. However, 30 years after the article’s publication, the producer Samuel Marx – who had been a friend of Bern’s – came forward with his own version of events. Apparently, he had visited the deceased’s home on the morning the producer’s body was discovered.

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According to Marx, he discovered MGM representatives already at Bern’s home, tampering with the scene before the police got there. And in 1990, he co-authored a book claiming that his friend had indeed been murdered by Millette. Moreover, he added that the grief-stricken woman had ended her own life by jumping from the Delta King.

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But did MGM officials really transform a murder into a suicide to save the reputation of one of their biggest stars? Despite claims of a cover-up, there remains a far more prosaic explanation for the mystery. According to Bern’s friends, the producer suffered from depression. In addition, he was also struggling with the publicity that his relationship with Harlow brought.

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And what of the spurned lover who disappeared from the Delta King? According to some, Millette’s death can be just as easily explained as the producer’s. Dependent on financial support from Bern, she faced losing everything after his death. This caused a desperate situation which could have inspired her to commit suicide.

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Despite the studio’s fears, the scandal did little to derail Harlow’s career. And within a few years, she had become one of MGM’s biggest stars. However, in 1937 her health took a turn for the worse. And although she was initially diagnosed with influenza, doctors eventually realized that the actor was suffering from kidney failure. On June 7, 1937, she passed away at just 26 years old.

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After Harlow’s death, she was interred in an elaborate private vault, paid for by her actor boyfriend William Powell. However, her story was far from over. And even today, she stands as one of the greatest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Meanwhile, journalists continue to speculate over what really happened to her late husband – and whether or not her fame obscured the tragic truth.

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