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 Book Review: Bombshell The Life and Death of Jean Harlow / Written by: David Stenn / Published by: Doubleday, 1993

Jean Harlow Photo 1ABombshell The Life and Death of Jean Harlow, a biography by David Stenn and published by Doubleday in 1993 is a must read for any true fan or history buff when it comes to the early days of the film industry. Stenn who is also the author of the book Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild crafted a masterpiece that is well balanced, insightful and portrays Jean Harlow in a humane way.

David Stenn whose writing credits include Hill Street Blues, 21 Jump Street and Beverly Hills, 90210, conducted interviews with many of the people who knew Jean Harlow personally, including one of her closest friends Barbara Brown, a member of what Jean Harlow referred to as “my gang.” Others included Irene Mayer Selznick, the wife of film producer David O Selznick (Gone With The Wind) and daughter of Louis B. Mayer the MGM movie mogul, countless interviews were conducted with the children and other family members of those close to Jean Harlow, including the family of her ex-husband Paul Bern whose death remains a mystery. The author also spent a copious amount of time exploring legal and medical documents to which he was given unrestricted access.

The prologue sets the scene at Jean Harlow’s deathbed and immediately raises a number of serious questions about how a beautiful 26 year old woman, adored by fans and viewed as sex siren and goddess and loved by friends and co-workers for her down to earth attitude, her gentle, kind spirit and her generosity, could perish so quickly from what had been misdiagnosed and broadcast in the media as a cold or pneumonia or influenza.

Born Harlean Harlow Carpenter the granddaughter of Skip Harlow, a wealthy Kansas City real estate broker, the daughter of Mont Carpenter a dentist and the real Jean Harlow, her mother who dominated and controlled her daughter’s life and it can be argued without a shade of doubt abused and used her daughter for her own personal gain. The early 20 th century was a disturbing time in many ways and particularly in the way that women and girls were treated as mere chattels with no rights. It was into such a world that Harlean was born on March 3, 1911. Combined with her mother’s desire to vicariously live her dreams through her daughter, the shy young Harlean (Jean Harlow), became a pawn in the hands of her mother, her step-father, the film studios, one of her three husbands Paul Bern and her boyfriend William Powell. In the end, only Powell seemed to genuinely regret his actions, but by then it was far too late.

Stenn’s book is entertaining and tragic. At times Jean Harlow’s antics will cause you to laugh, not at her, but with her and at other times if you have any sense of empathy you will be moved to tears. As you watch Harlow progress from a shy, awkward, unsophisticated individual who never desired a career as an actress and she evolves into a confidant woman, not a diva, who stuck up for the film crews when their coffee breaks were eliminated and she refused to work until they were restored, as you witness her become a competent and well-respected actress you will find yourself cheering for her and encouraging her. You will smile as you discover that she was a voracious reader, whose books were important to her and you realize she was an intelligent woman and not the bimbo she was portrayed as early in her all too brief career. Jean Harlow brought joy to and provided a distraction for Americans during the dark days of the Great Depression.

As David Stenn’s excellent book draws to a close, he quotes Jean Harlow’s comments to a New York Times reporter and they shed a great deal of light on how Jean Harlow perceived herself, “I wasn’t born an actress you know. Events made me one. I’m lucky and I know it. I’m not a great actress, and I never thought I was. But I happen to have something the public likes.”

The book ends with this quote by her close friend Barbara Brown, “She would be dumbfounded if she knew people remembered her,” to which author David Stenn adds, “the films of Jean Harlow are hard to forget. And so, in the end, is she.”

The book Bombshell The Life and Death of Jean Harlow is no longer in publication, but if you look hard enough you will find a copy and you should read it.

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This review by Joe Montague  published July 18, 2015  is protected by copyright and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine © All Rights Reserved.  Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures is protected by copyright ©, All Rights Reserved This interview may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine, All Rights Reserved