(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Harlean Harlow Carpenter was born March 3, 1911, in Kansas City. A beautiful tow-headed child, Harlean was instantly the center of her coldly controlling mother’s universe. Although wealth and Kansas City society defined Harlean’s surroundings, Mama Jean Harlow Carpenter defined “the Baby’s” world. Mama Jean made it clear that her wishes and desires were synonymous with and indistinguishable from those of her daughter. Finally, Mama Jean divorced and went to Hollywood with big plans to become a movie star. By the age of sixteen the seductive but sweetly compliant Harlean was married but hardly free of her mother’s hold. In response to a wager, Harlean visited Fox Studios Central Casting Bureau. When a call offering work came a few days later, Mama Jean realized that Harlean could become the vehicle by which her own dreams of fame and fortune could be realized.

Thus began the nine-year career of one of Hollywood’s most famous but least understood stars. Exploited by the studios, miscast as a highly sexualized bad girl, her marriages, romances, and friendships destroyed by her mother, Harlean—now officially known as Jean Harlow—nevertheless developed a huge box office following. Her desire to please, along with discipline, hard work, and an MGM contract, finally allowed her talent to develop. Her films grossed millions. Meanwhile behind the scenes, beset by scandals and bilked of financial resources by her mother, she lost her second husband to suicide and drank heavily. Her death of acute nephritis at age twenty-six was the culmination of years of extreme physical and emotional neglect.

David Stenn’s biography reveals an extraordinarily intelligent and sensitive young woman so victimized by her mother and her beauty that she never learned to know and love herself, although she was adored by all who knew her and millions who only saw her movies. The reader cannot help but believe that Jean Harlow’s tragic death was, for her, a welcome release from a life grown too difficult to bear.