Film Star Jean Harlow’s Husband Is an Apparent Suicide Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Film star Jean Harlow was married to studio executive Paul Bern, a reportedly volatile personality who also was financially supporting a woman with whom he had an earlier affair. He died under mysterious circumstances, ruled a suicide by the Los Angeles County coroner. Rumor and speculation followed the scandal for years after Bern’s death, and the case was reopened in 1960, but no new evidence was found.

Summary of Event

Jean Harlow achieved stardom as a tough-talking, sexually alluring young woman, paired with leading men such as Clark Gable and James Cagney. Women dyed their hair platinum blond in imitation of Harlow. Although she created a sensation after appearing in the Howard Hughes, Howard Hughes production of Hell’s Angels (1930), her rise to superstardom coincided with her romantic involvement with film-studio executive Paul Bern, who convinced Irving Thalberg, head of production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), to buy out her contract with Hughes. Harlow, Jean Bern, Paul Marriage;Jean Harlow[Harlow] [kw]FIlm Star Jean Harlow’s Husband Is an Apparent Suicide (Sept. 4, 1932) [kw]Harlow’s Husband Is an Apparent Suicide, Film Star Jean (Sept. 4, 1932) [kw]Suicide, Film Star Jean Harlow’s Husband Is an Apparent (Sept. 4, 1932) Harlow, Jean Bern, Paul Marriage;Jean Harlow[Harlow] [g]United States;Sept. 4, 1932: Film Star Jean Harlow’s Husband Is an Apparent Suicide[00530] [c]Murder and suicide;Sept. 4, 1932: Film Star Jean Harlow’s Husband Is an Apparent Suicide[00530] [c]Publishing and journalism;Sept. 4, 1932: Film Star Jean Harlow’s Husband Is an Apparent Suicide[00530] [c]Hollywood;Sept. 4, 1932: Film Star Jean Harlow’s Husband Is an Apparent Suicide[00530] Millette, Dorothy

Jean Harlow and Paul Bern in Beverly Hills in April, 1932, following the couple’s marriage.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Bern became Harlow’s second husband on July 2, 1932, but their marriage was brought to a sudden, shocking end at their home in Beverly Hills, California, with his sudden death on September 4. About 11:30 a.m., John Carmichael, Bern’s butler, found Bern’s body lying in a pool of blood and with a pistol by his side. By 12:45 p.m., studio executives arrived; at least an hour transpired before the police were called. What happened during that one-hour period “remains unknown,” according to Harlow biographer David Stenn. Rumors circulated that the studio tampered with the death scene.

Rumors also spread that Harlow had murdered her husband. Her studio, seeking to protect her and divert public attention, put out the story that Bern had shot himself in the head because of impotence. He had left an enigmatic note, which read, “Dearest Dear, unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation. I love you. Paul. You understand that last night was only a comedy.” The household staff gave conflicting testimony about the state of the marriage. One staff member said it was “blissful” but another mentioned a fight between Bern and Harlow the night before his body was found. Studio head Louis B. Mayer told reporters that Bern was behaving strangely during the last days of his life. A rumor also spread that an autopsy revealed that Bern was a hermaphrodite.

Harlow is rumored to have told police that she had a wonderful marriage and that she loved her husband dearly. She did not understand what the suicide note meant. It was a mystery to her. Because a distraught Harlow issued no other statement, and because Bern’s note was so suggestive, the ensuing scandal was magnified by gossip, public interest, and press coverage. During the investigation, Harlow told a grand jury that she knew nothing that could explain Bern’s death. A coroner’s jury heard testimony from studio executives, who described Bern’s mood swings. Other witnesses reported that Bern often spoke about suicide. The jury concluded Bern’s death was a suicide. Harlow never commented on the case.

Precisely because there was no convincing account of why Bern took his life other than the studio’s transparent effort to make his suicide look like the desperate act of a man who could not please his wife sexually reporters and later biographers tried to construct a chronology of Bern’s last days that might, through circumstantial evidence, provide a reason for his death. However, the gaps in the evidence and contradictory testimony could not resolve the mystery of what actually happened.

Bern’s brother, Henry, could offer no explanation for his sibling’s suicide, other than to say his brother had been living “under tension always.” Henry insisted the Bern-Harlow marriage was a happy one and that his brother suffered from no malady, physical abnormality, or concern that would have harmed his relationship with Harlow. The later release of grand jury testimony from the medical examiner confirmed Henry’s contention that his brother had normally developed sexual organs.

A curious public kept showing up at the Harlow residence, hoping to take or purchase photographs of the “suicide house.” Harlow remained inside, protected by guards. A mob attempted to attend the Bern funeral and broke through police lines to see Harlow and ask her for autographs.

The scandal took on new life when the press discovered that Bern had supported a woman who went under the name of Mrs. Paul Bern. According to Henry, Mrs. Paul Bern was Dorothy Millette, a woman who suffered from a religious mania, and though his brother had been involved with her, he was no longer so when he married Harlow. Furthermore, Bern had told Harlow about this previous liaison. Bern had generously continued to support Millette, although he was not married to her. Tabloid newspapers reported that Harlow traveled to San Francisco for a secret meeting with Millette. A Sacramento judge issued a warrant to search Millette’s belongings.

Shortly after Bern’s funeral service, Millette disappeared. Speculation circulated that she was avoiding police questioning about the Bern case. A woman matching Millette’s description was reported to have thrown herself from a ferryboat. Her body could not be found. This sensational event, and Henry’s decision not to speak with the press, provoked yet another round of speculation in the press, especially after the police reported but did not disclose the contents of letters Millette had written to Bern. Then, Millette’s badly decomposed body was recovered along the California coast.

Initially, Bern’s death seemed a blow to Harlow’s career. The Los Angeles County district attorney briefly considered her a suspect in Bern’s death. However, when expert testimony established that Bern’s head wound was consistent with a self-inflicted gunshot, Harlow no longer was under suspicion. Now, the prolongation of the Bern mystery worked in Harlow’s favor; that is, the public began to sympathize with her as a woman in the public eye who had to live with the constant prying of the press and the search for new revelations about her husband’s death. In spite of her anguish, Harlow managed to return to her film career.

Impact

Even after Harlow’s death in 1937, the mysterious circumstances of Bern’s death continued to be the subject of newspaper articles and magazine features. Screenwriter Ben Hecht suggested that Millette might have murdered Bern. In 1960, the Los Angeles district attorney reopened the Bern case and interviewed members of Harlow’s household staff, but no new evidence was discovered and the suicide verdict remained in effect.

In 1990, Samuel Marx, a story editor at MGM who knew both Harlow and Bern, cowrote a book with Joyce Vanderveen that drew on his memories of visiting the Harlow-Bern home shortly after Bern’s death and before the police arrived. To Marx, the death certainly looked like a suicide, although it did seem that Thalberg and other studio executives had tampered with the crime scene. After accessing grand jury files and interviewing those who knew Bern, Marx and Vanderveen concluded that Bern was indeed murdered by Millette, who then committed suicide, and that MGM went to considerable lengths to ensure a grand jury verdict that would minimize the scandal.

Biographer Stenn accepted the suicide verdict but suggested that the mystery of Bern’s death was the result of the studio’s tampering with evidence and its effort to cover up its embarrassment over the self-inflicted death of one of its own executives. If the police had been called promptly to the Bern-Harlow home, Stenn concluded, there would have been no mystery. Stenn rejected the story that Bern was impotent, preferring instead to rely on considerable testimony that Bern was perhaps gay, and that living as a so-called sexual imposter drove him to suicide. To Stenn, Marx’s circumstantial case that Millette murdered Bern was not conclusive.

Biographer Eve Golden, on the contrary, cited evidence that Bern was heterosexual and concluded that Millette, who seemed to have shown up on the night of Bern’s suicide, “pushed the already neurotic man over the edge.” Thus the suicide note, Golden surmised, was intended for Millette, whom Bern had abandoned. Harlow, Jean Bern, Paul Marriage;Jean Harlow[Harlow]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Golden, Eve. The Live and Legends of Jean Harlow. New York: Abbeville Press, 1991. An astute interpretation of the Bern case, carefully analyzing previous accounts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marx, Samuel, and Joyce Vanderveen. Deadly Illusions: Jean Harlow and the Murder of Paul Bern. New York: Random House, 1990. Speculative but told by a Hollywood insider who was present at the Bern-Harlow residence shortly after Bern’s death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parish, James Robert. The Hollywood Book of Scandals: The Shocking, Often Disgraceful Deeds and Affairs of More than One Hundred American Movie and TV Idols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004. Collection of articles that examine the scandals involving Hollywood film and television celebrities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shulman, Irving. Harlow: An Intimate Biography. New York: Bernard Geis, 1964. Not as reliable as Golden’s or Stenn’s work but still valuable for a detailed account of the publicity surrounding Bern’s death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stenn, David. Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow. New York: Dell, 1963. A detailed account of the Bern case that differs in its conclusions from Golden and Marx.

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