Jean suffered from scarlet fever at the age 15 in 1926. This may have contributed to her untimely death from kidney disease on June 7, 1937 at the age of 26.
Production for Harlow’s final film Saratoga, co-starring Clark Gable, was scheduled to begin filming in March 1937. However, production was delayed when she developed septicemia after a wisdom tooth extraction and had to be hospitalized. After she recovered, shooting began on April 22. On May 20, 1937, while shooting Saratoga, Harlow began to complain of illness. Her symptoms—fatigue, nausea, water weight and abdominal pain—did not seem very serious to her doctor, who believed she was suffering from cholecystitis and influenza. However he was apparently unaware that Harlow had been ill during the previous year with a severe sunburn and influenza. Her friend and co-star Myrna Loy noticed Harlow’s grey complexion, fatigue and weight gain. On May 29, Harlow was shooting a scene in which the character she was playing had a fever. Harlow was clearly sicker than her character and, when she leaned against co-star Gable between scenes, said; “I feel terrible. Get me back to my dressing room.” Harlow requested that the assistant director telephone William Powell, who left his own set to escort Harlow back home.
On May 30, Powell checked on Harlow, and when he found her condition unimproved, recalled her mother from a holiday trip and summoned her doctor. Harlow’s illnesses had delayed three previous films (Wife vs. Secretary, Suzy, and Libeled Lady), so there was no great concern initially. On June 2, it was announced that Harlow was suffering from influenza. Dr. Ernest Fishbaugh, who had been called to Harlow’s home to treat her, diagnosed her with an inflamed gallbladder. Harlow felt better on June 3 and co-workers expected her back on the set by Monday, June 7. Press reports were contradictory, with headlines like “Jean Harlow seriously ill” and “Harlow past illness crisis.” Clark Gable, who visited her during these days, later said that she was severely bloated and that he smelled urine on her breath when he kissed her—both signs of kidney failure.
Dr. Leland Chapman, a colleague of Fishbaugh’s called in to give a second opinion, recognized that she was not suffering from an inflamed gallbladder but was in the end stages of kidney failure. On June 6, Harlow said that she could not see Powell properly and could not tell how many fingers he was holding up. That evening Harlow was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where she slipped into a coma. The next day at 11:37 a.m. Harlow died in the hospital at the age of 26. In the doctor’s press releases the cause of death was given as cerebral edema, a complication of kidney failure. Hospital records mention uremia.
For years rumors circulated about Harlow’s death. Some claimed that her mother had refused to call a doctor because she was a Christian Scientist or that Harlow herself had declined hospital treatment or surgery. There were also rumors that Harlow had died because of alcoholism, a botched abortion, over-dieting, sunstroke, poisoning due to platinum hair dye or various venereal diseases. However medical bulletins, hospital records and testimony of her relatives and friends prove it was kidney disease. From the onset of her illness, resting at home, Harlow had been attended by a doctor: two nurses visited her house and various equipment was brought from a nearby hospital. However, Harlow’s mother had barred some visitors, such as the MGM doctor, who later stated that she did so because she was a Christian Scientist. It has been suggested that she still wanted to control her daughter but there is no evidence to support the allegation that she refused medical care for Harlow.
Harlow’s kidney failure could not have been cured in the 1930s. The death rate from acute kidney failure has decreased to 25% only after the advent of antibiotics, dialysis, and kidney transplantation. Harlow’s grey complexion, recurring illnesses, and severe sunburn were signs of the disease as her kidneys had been slowly failing and toxins accumulated in her body, exposing her to other illnesses and causing symptoms including swelling, fatigue, and lack of appetite. Toxins also adversely affected her brain and central nervous system. Speculation has suggested that Harlow suffered a post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, following scarlet fever when she was young, which may have caused high blood pressure and ultimately kidney failure.
News of Harlow’s death spread quickly. Spencer Tracy wrote in his diary, “Jean Harlow died today. Grand gal.” One of the MGM writers later said: “The day Baby died there wasn’t one sound in the commissary for three hours.” MGM closed on the day of her funeral on June 9. She was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California in the Great Mausoleum in a private room of multicolored marble which William Powell bought for $25,000. She was buried in the gown she wore in Libeled Lady and in her hands she held a white gardenia and a note that Powell had written: “Goodnight, my dearest darling.” There is a simple inscription on Harlow’s grave; “Our Baby”.
Spaces in the same room were reserved for Harlow’s mother and for William Powell. Harlow’s mother was buried there in 1958, but Powell remarried in 1940 and after his death in 1984 was cremated: his ashes were buried with his son at Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, California.
MGM planned to replace Harlow in Saratoga with either Jean Arthur or Virginia Bruce, but, due to public objections the film was finished by using three doubles (one for close-ups, one for long shots and one for dubbing Harlow’s lines) and re-writing some scenes without her. The film was released on July 23, 1937, less than two months after Harlow’s death, and was a hit with audiences. It became MGM’s second-highest grossing picture of 1937. Since the film’s release, viewers have tried to spot these stand-ins and signs of Harlow’s illness.
- March, 03, 1911
- Kansas City, Missouri
- June, 07, 1937
- Los Angeles, California
Cause of Death
- acute kidney failure
- Forest Lawn Memorial Park
- Glendale, California