A CONVERSATION WITH "BOMBSHELL" AUTHOR DAVID STENN

PART III: JEAN HARLOW & MOTHER JEAN


A DOMINANT INFLUENCE IN JEAN HARLOW'S LIFE: MOTHER JEAN. SHE'S ALSO BEEN REFERRED TO AS MAMA JEAN. WHICH IS CORRECT?
"Mama Jean" seems to have been invented by Irving Shulman. Prior to that, no one ever called her "Mama." She wouldn't have stood for it. I also refer you to surviving letters Jean Harlow wrote her mother, which are always addressed to "Mother" or sometimes "Mommy," but never "Mama." Shulman came up with "Mama Jean," and it stuck. I felt it was hypocritical to slam Shulman, then continue using a name he created.

INTERESTING THAT JEAN HARLOW USED HER MOTHER'S MAIDEN NAME AS A SCREEN NAME...
It's more than interesting, it's metaphorical. There's a reason why my text begins "The real Jean Harlow differed from her daughter..." I mean, Mother Jean was the real Jean Harlow. Literally and figuratively. I suspect the woman that Jean Harlow played on screen was a parody of her mother, a vulgarized version. That pushy, grating... Mother Jean knew how to play the lady, but she was a domineering, driven woman. Today she'd have a career. But her own era stifled her, and the only way to express her own drive was through her daughter. This was not unusal. Ginger Rogers had a "Mother," Mary Pickford had a "Mother," Lillian Gish, Lana Turner, Judy Garland...there were so many. Dominant mothers, absent fathers.

In Jean Harlow's case, there was a further factor: by all accounts including George Hurrell's, Mother Jean was the beauty, not her daughter. So I tried to be sympathetic to that. I mean, imagine what it must have been like for this woman: a great beauty with intelligence and ambition, forced by her father to marry a dentist and play housewife.

DID YOU EVER TALK TO ANYONE WHO HAD SOMETHING NICE TO SAY ABOUT MOTHER JEAN?
Sure. There were people who thought she was a classy, dignified woman -- and, believe it or not, an excellent mother. Think about it: even her worst enemy couldn't say she didn't care about her daughter. Mother Jean may have cared for all the wrong reasons, but you could never call her neglectful. Ironically a little more neglect would've helped.

It's easy to demonize Mother Jean. It's also unfair. I mean, let's face it: without her, you wouldn't be talking to me because there wouldn't be a Jean Harlow to talk about. Mother Jean pushed her daughter into a career, and although she inflicted great personal damage, she also gave the world Jean Harlow. For that alone we should be grateful.

IF YOU HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO TALK TO JEAN HARLOW HERSELF, WHAT WOULD YOU WANT TO ASK?
If she were alive I wouldn't be writing a book about her. I donít believe in doing a biography of a living person, because I don't think the life is complete.

WHAT WOULD SHE THINK ABOUT YOUR BOOK?
Iím sure she wouldn't like it . I'm sure she wouldnít like any book about her. She was a private person. Her verifiable interviews are pretty bland, and even people who claim to have known her well admit she kept her most personal thoughts to herself. That's how I judged a source's truthfulness: I'd ask if Jean Harlow ever discussed Paul Bern, and if someone said, "Absolutely not," I knew they were being honest. Because she didn't. Never, never, never.

Even the animosity she felt towards her mother at the end of her life was expressed indirectly, in drinking binges that she wouldn't remember the morning after. By that time she was literally drowning her sorrows -- and was murderously angry at her mother. I got some letters saying Jean Harlow didn't drink, how dare I intimate she was an alcoholic? I don't know how to respond to this. Should I call Myrna Loy a liar? Rosalind Russell? Her cousin Don Roberson, who worked with her at MGM? These people were there, and they loved Jean Harlow. They aren't Irving Shulman. They're just being honest. And does alcoholism make her any less loveable, less human?

YOU POINT OUT IN YOUR BOOK HOW SHE DIDN'T LIKE TO WEAR UNDERWEAR AND SLEPT IN THE NUDE -- THAT THIS WAS JUST HER WAY. SOME PEOPLE MIGHT FIND IT SHOCKING FOR THAT ERA.
Because they give it a sexual slant, when in truth it was childlike. Maureen O'Sullivan told me -- it's in the book -- this adorable story about Jean Harlow sleeping "in the raw," as Maureen put it, and then bunching up her nightgown so that the maid wouldn't know! It's not brazen or provocative, it's like a little girl: "Don't tell anyone I sneaked and didnít wear my nightie!" People who knew her were charmed; only strangers were shocked. And who calls a sex symbol "The Baby"? Everyone I interviewed stressed that she gave off a childlike quality offscreen.

SHE COMES OFF AS SEEMING SO MUCH OLDER THAN 26 ON FILM.
And 26 when she died! How about when she was 21 in Red Dust? I audition hundreds of actresses every year and I have yet to see one with that kind of poise, that grace. The physicality of Jean Harlow's performances, the comfort she has with her body, you don't see that today because actresses don't learn it. You only see it in someone like Sharon Stone, who's pushing forty and started out as a model.

I think that contributes to Jean Harlow seeming older than her years. There's no physical awkwardness. None.


And the conversation continues...