No wonder a portrait of Harlow lying on a bearskin rug was prominently displayed in Harry Anderson's office during the entire run of television's Night Court, some 50 years after her death.
Harlow recognized her sex appeal throughout her brief but flamboyant run as a Hollywood star, frequently telling interviewers of her penchant for wearing no underwear and sleeping in the nude. "Men like me because I don't wear a brassiere," Harlow famously said.
It is thus understandable that as famous as Harlow was as an actress, her enduring fame is also inextricably linked to her relationships to the men in her life.
Harlow was born Harlean Carpenter on March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri, to a dentist and his wife, Jean, who aspired to Hollywood stardom. Jean Carpenter divorced her husband and moved to Hollywood, but never caught on as an actress. She remarried and moved to Chicago with young Harlean in tow.
Young Harlean was a sickly child, contracting meningitis and scarlet fever. In 1927, at age 16, she eloped with 23-year-old Charles McGrew and relocated to Beverly Hills. She soon began her film career, working up from an extra to bit parts. Adopting her mother's maiden name of Jean Harlow, she found work in at least 11 movies before divorcing McGrew in 1930.
Harlow was alleged to have dated mobster Abner "Longy" Zwillman, who reportedly gave Harlow expensive jewelry and a Cadillac and arranged a two-picture deal with Columbia Pictures. Harlow also was the godmother of Millicent Siegel, daughter of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel.
Her first big movie break came in 1930 when Howard Hughes cast her in the lead of Hell's Angels, a film Hughes had first produced as a silent film three years earlier. Hughes loaned her out for a few more films - including Frank Capra's Platinum Blonde in 1931 - before selling her contract to MGM for $60,000.
Harlow - who used to apply an ice cube to her nipples before shooting a sexy scene - forced director Irving Thalberg to make 17 cuts to stem a dispute over morality issues wih the Motion Picture Production Code for her performance in Red-Headed Woman in 1932. The controversy continued despite the cuts and the publicity made the film a huge hit.
Thalberg's right-hand man, Paul Bern, was credited for negotiating the deal that brought Harlow to MGM. The 42-year-old Bern also managed to negotiate another deal with the budding blonde superstar - who was half his age - as the pair wed on July 2, 1932.
Two months later, as Harlow was filming Red Dust with Clark Gable, Bern was found shot to death in the bathroom of the pair's home, a pistol at his side. Though the death was ruled a suicide, rumors swirled that it was murder. Bern's first wife, Dorothy Millette Bern, reportedly had met Harlow for the first time the day before Paul Bern's death. The day after Bern's death, his ex-wife jumped from the Delta King riverboat while traveling from San Francisco to Sacramento and drowned in Georgiana Slough.
Red Dust was a major hit and was followed by two more box-office successes in 1933 - Dinner at Eight and Bombshell, a feature loosely based on Harlow's real life. Lighting cameraman Hal Rosson's work in highlighting Harlow's platinum hair in Bombshell earned him high praise from critics and Harlow herself, who married Rosson on September 1, 1933, a union that lasted just six months.
Harlow, who had refused the lead in King Kong, went on a salary strike from MGM in 1934 and used her time off-screen to write a novel, Today is Tonight, which went unpublished until the 1960s. She also began an affair with popular actor William Powell that eventually led to their engagement.
In 1935, Harlow again found herself co-starring with Clark Gable, in China Seas. The duo would share star billing in two more movies in the next two years - Wife vs. Secretary (1936) and Saratoga (1937). In an only-in-Hollywood scene, Harlow attended the 1936 Academy Awards on the arm of Powell. They were accompanied by Gable and his newest love, Carole Lombard, who was Powell's ex-wife.
During the filming of Saratoga, Gable noticed that his co-star seemed to be gaining weight. His perception was accurate. Harlow was suffering from uremic failure, which caused her limbs to retain water and threatened to halt filming while Harlow was hospitalized for treatment.
But Harlow's kidneys continued to fail and Harlow died on June 7, 1937, at the age of 26. MGM boss Louis B. Mayer arranged a spectacular funeral that included superstar singing due Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald. Harlow was buried in the same gown she wore while co-starring with Powell a year earlier in Libeled Lady.
Powell purchased a private crypt in Glendale's Forest Lawn Cemetery lined with imported marble. Harlow left her entire $1 million estate to her mother.
Harlow, who was the first movie actress to be featured on a Life magazine cover in May 1937, appeared in 36 movies in her brief career. Saratoga - which was finished by using long shots of her double, Mary Dees - was the largest grossing film of 1937. Critic Graham Greene wrote that Harlow's "technique was the gangster's technique - she toted a beast like a man totes a gun."
Harlow's legacy has lasted long after her death. She ranked 22nd in the American Film Institute's "100 years, 100 Legends" list in June 1999 and was voted the 49th greatest movie star by Entertainment Weekly.
Jean Harlow (Harlean Carpenter)
Born: March 3, 1911
Died: July 7, 1937 (age 26)
For a nice, under 3-minute video that encapsulates Harlow's work, check this out: