Jean Harlow

She formed a sizzling movie partnership in 'Reckless' with William Powell. But was Harlow's tragic early death related to their romance?

Jean Harlow started her life in Kansas City as Harlean Carpenter, the daughter of a dentist. At the age of 16, she eloped with a 23-year old businessman, Charles McGrew, moving to Los Angeles to look for work in films.

Having landed only bit parts, walk-ons and extra work, the marriage ended in divorce after only two years, and Harlow adopted her mother's maiden name just before her big break.

Howard Hughes' World War I epic remake, 'Hell's Angels', required her to do little other than look good, but was a big hit. Realising her potential, Hughes based much of the publicity for the film around her, before selling her contract on to MGM for $60,000.

Her next films cemented her image as a sex siren, famously claiming in interviews never to wear underwear and to sleep in the nude. A brief marriage to producer Paul Bern ended with his suicide, but failed to halt her career.

Adding comedy to her looks, films such as 'Red-Headed Woman' and 'Bombshell' improved her critical reputation, as well as establishing her as a major star. Her brassy, lively humour and starlet looks made her a strong box-office success, prompting a brief salary strike in 1934, when her wages failed to keep pace.

The disapproval of the Hayes Office and the adoption of Hollywood's Production Code forced MGM to tone down the saucier (and more predatory) aspects of her on-screen persona, and a brief attempt at musicals was regarded as a mistake. Another short marriage (to cameraman Harold Rosson) came and went but her career continued apace.

In 1937, whilst filming 'Saratoga', Harlow was admitted to hospital suffering from complications arising from a long-standing kidney complaint. Her symptoms consisted of fatigue, nausea, water weight and abdominal pain which did not seem that serious to her doctor - kidney problems were largely unknown in the 1930s.

She was not submitted to hospital until 6 June 1937 when she could no longer see William Powell, an actor she had met after the end of her third marriage. They were reportedly engaged for two years but didn't get married due to the fact she wanted children and he did not.

She had difficulties breathing and slipped into a coma. Despite all efforts she died, aged only 26, of acute uremic poisoning on 7 June 1937. The film was completed, using her body double Mary Dees in long shots, and released to great commercial success.

For years, rumours circulated about her death for years including the claim that her mother had refused to take her daughter to hospital as she was a Christian scientist or that Harlow declined treatment herself. There were also rumours that she really died from a botched abortion, alcoholism, over-dieting, sunstroke or poisoning from platinum hairdye but her doctors confirmed it was due to kidney disease.

Harlow wrote a novel called 'Today is Tonight' but it wasn't published in her lifetime. The publication rights passed from Harlow's mother to a family friend and it was released in 1965.

With her chequered romantic history, strong screen image and early death, Harlow became the archetype of the American screen sex-symbol and the blue-print that many, including Marilyn Monroe, would later try to emulate.

She has been portrayed in four films including two in 1965 both called 'Harlow' starring Caroll Baker and Carol Lynley respectively. In 1978, Lindsay Hughes portrayed the actress in 'Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell'. More recently, Gwen Stefani portrayed Harlow in the 2004 film 'The Aviator'.