Hell’s Angel

Jean Harlow
Jean Harlow; drawing by David Levine

Harlean Carpentier, later to become the most popular female film star of her time, was born in 1911 of a conspicuously mismated and middle-class couple. Her father was a Kansas City dentist, her mother a bright-eyed, vapid matron. “It was not until she went to school that she learned her name was Harlean…and not The Baby.”

Mama Jean, as she liked to be called, went off after a peaceful separation and married a sultry Italian con man named Marino Bello, returning with him to Kansas City where Bello fervently began scouting virgin suckers for the Brazilian gold mines and sunken treasure sites he may have believed in. Harlean, the daughter, was raised by her maternal grandfather, a dogmatic old real estate broker. Sam Harlow “took to speaking to her as if she were not in the room” and was the first of several people to totally dominate what remained of her life.

Harlean grew up into a sexy-looking, raucous, not very bright girl who disliked wearing brassieres and liked fondling herself (“I just love them. They’re so beautiful”). Her grandfather, fearing local boys might try with her what was probably on his own mind, deported her to a classy girls’ school in Illinois from which she briefly eloped at sixteen. Marriage annulled, she and Mama Jean and Papa Bello headed, almost by instinct, for that drifters’ and grifters’ Paradise, Los Angeles.

Why and how Harlean “broke into” movies remain obscure. We pick her up in 1927, age sixteen, when her ambition was to commit pratfalls in Laurel and Hardy two-reelers. An agent, Arthur Landau (“he was too good to his clients”), noticed her at a water cooler on the Hal Roach lot at the moment someone was needed to replace the Norwegian actress, Greta Nissen, in Hell’s Angels, stalled in mid-production by the sudden success of “talkies.” The specification was an amiably amoral girl-on-the-town (whore) who puts out for the RAF. “Look at the test again,” begged the agent, “and tell me if she doesn’t look like a good kid.” “But we don’t want a good kid,” said director James Whale. “We want a pig.”

And thus was launched the career of our first real successor to Theda Bara. Toward the end, Harlow had to be forcibly dragged from her bed and into a limousine by a secretary and Mama Jean, slapped and rubbed out of the stupor which had become her only reply to life, and bodily pushed in front of the cameras. The author does not record whether she ever asked to be let alone. It is recorded, however, that she was a “regular guy” on the set.

Jean Harlow became the Elizabeth Taylor of her day, the butt of the national dirty joke at a time when her private life was grisly and joyless. Nobody seemed to understand why Harlow compulsively preferred taxi-drivers and door-to-door salesmen to what was…

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