Saturday, August 3, 2013

SCANDAL! One Night at Jean Harlow's: Was it Murder or Suicide?

Welcome to 2013 - a year of scandals at A Person in the Dark. Yes, I love movies, but I confess I am a sucker for those juicy Hollywood scandals of old.
August's scandal: The Death of Paul Bern

When 21 year old blonde bombshell Jean Harlow wed 42 year old MGM producer Paul Bern in 1932, eyebrows were raised and tongues wagged. What could the young, vibrant and ultra sexy starlet see in mousy Paul Bern other than a meal ticket to the top?
Harlow and Bern on their wedding day, flanked by Harlow's
shady step father, Marino Bello, and Best Man John Gilbert
Paul Bern might have looked like a milquetoast, but he, like any red-blooded Hollywood producer, loved beautiful women. Before he landed Harlow, he courted Barbara LaMarr, Joan Crawford, Mabel Normand and countless other beauties. He shared bachelor quarters with pals John Gilbert and writer Carey Wilson and was known to have liked a good time.

Harlow, who always went for an older man with a mustache (all who resembled her father), had benefited greatly from her association with Bern. Once he took her under his wing she went from playing cheap tramps in dramas to witty tramps in comedies. Bern had cast her in "Red Headed Woman," and her career was transformed. Still friends of both parties has reservations about the marriage.

On September 4, 1932, a little over 2 months after the marriage, Paul Bern was found dead in  his wife's bedroom, drenched in her favorite perfume.
The death of Paul Bern
The cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head. Officially, the death was ruled a suicide. But why? Why would a successful producer who had just married the sexiest girl in town off himself?
9280 Easton Drive, Beverly Hills -
the home of Paul Bern and Jean Harlow
What really happened that night? To this day, nobody knows. What is known is that, while Bern died sometime on Sunday evening, the death was not reported until Monday afternoon. Presumably, the power of the MGM clean up crew was in full swing. Bern's butler found the body and knew immediately that the first place was to call was MGM, not the police. The story cooked up by the studio was that Jean was at her mother's house for the evening. While she was out, Paul penned a cryptic suicide note and shot himself because he was impotent. The note said: 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.

A grieving Harlow is supported by step father Marino Bello
and studio chief Irving Thalberg at Paul Bern's funeral
Harlow refused to comment and was overcome with grief at Bern's funeral. Rumors swirled. Those who knew Bern knew that the impotence story was a fantasy. And those who really knew Paul Bern knew he was a man who had a secret.

The Mystery Wife

While Paul Bern lived in New York, he had a long term live-in relationship with an actress by the name of Dorothy Millette. Although it was a common-law marriage and Dorothy went by the name of Dorothy Bern, it was not a legal union. Before Bern located to Hollywood, Dorothy developed mental problems and Bern arranged for her to be placed in a Connecticut sanitarium. Bern continued to pay for her support after he headed for the west coast. He continued to visit with her whenever he was in New York. While it was stated that Harlow knew nothing of Dorothy, those who knew better didn't believe it.

Dorothy, at the time of Bern's marriage to Harlow, had recovered and relocated to San Francisco. She and Paul communicated regularly, and Bern sent her $350 a month for expenses. While it is suspected that Dorothy may have been at the house the night Bern was killed, the only real fact that is known is that she turned up dead shortly after Bern's death. Several days after the shooting, she booked a passage on a Sacramento river boat to San Francisco. She never made it home. Several weeks later, fishermen discovered her body. Did she jump or was she pushed? Her death was ruled a suicide.

Did Bern actually kill himself? Did Dorothy Millette shoot him? Did Jean Harlow kill him (there had been reports of an argument earlier in the day and the couple had money troubles). Did Mama Jean have Harlow's gangster ex-boyfriend Abner "Longie" Zwillman get rid of an inconvenient husband? These are only a few of the many theories that try to explain the mysterious death of Paul Bern, but, unfortunately, all those involved are long gone and they sure weren't talking while they were here.
Harlow and Clark Gable in "Red Dust"
Remarkably, Harlow survived the scandal and went on to greater fame and misfortune. Her next film, "Red Dust," was a smashing success, but she was never to find fulfillment in her personal life. A series of romantic disappointments, including a failed marriage to cinematographer Harold Rosson and a frustrating relationship with actor William Powell, followed her tragic union with Bern, ending with her early death at age 26 n 1937.

sexy and beautiful and talented, but never truly happy



Apparently, I have heard only half of the story. The part of the other wife is totally new to me. As you said, this case is a mystery we, unfortunately, can't solve. :(

The Lady Eve said...

Damn! I was hoping you'd finally and completely solved this twisted Hollywood tale, FlickChick. The list of mysterious and unsolved deaths of Hollywood folk is unsettling when you think about it.

Laura said...

...Fascinating. I had never heard this before. What a movie THIS would make!

Excellently written, too.

ClassicBecky said...

Chick, coming back to your blog is like coming home! I'm like Le -- I never even heard of the mystery wife and all the other scenarios! Wow, what a frustrating story. Bern was drenched in her perfume? Doesn't that sound like the furious act of a woman put aside for another woman? Just a thought.

Do you believe Bern's man called the studio BEFORE the police? What a power they were ...

FlickChick said...

Le - poor Dorothy Millette - I really do feel sorry for her. A lesson to be learned, girls: get that ring!!!

FlickChick said...

Lady Eve - if only! The more you read, the more confusing it gets.

FlickChick said...

Laura - you're not kidding - it would make a fabulous movie (hopefully better than the trash they have put out about Harlow in the past).

FlickChick said...

Becky is in the room! I am feeling the love - now all is right with the world. As far as the perfume - maybe he was dressed in Jean's clothes before the studio boys arrived? Just a thought...

Patti said...

First of all, thank you for your condolences on the loss of my sweet Nikki dog. Although she was old (15) and we had known since December that she was in congestive heart failure, saying goodbye has been monumentally difficult. The thoughts, prayers, and well wishes of friends has been a comfort.

What an exciting mystery you have shared with us! All I knew of Jean Harlow was her tragic, early death and that William Powell was completely devastated by it. I didn't know of her marriage to Mr. Bern or the circumstances of his death. (Never even heard of him).

Oh, if only those walls could talk!? What a tale they would tell!

Jay Jasinski said...

This is very fascinating! I'm newish to the movie-blog world and would like to connect with my fellow bloggers and cinephiles. My blog is:

please check it out. I'm open to guest bloggers!

Anonymous said...

Wow, just when I thought I knew everything there was to know about Bern's death...! Jean went out with "Longie" Zwillman??? I never knew that. Thanks for such an interesting post!

FlickChick said...

Patti: I know just how you feel and sympathize deeply.

As for Paul Bern - who knows what went on in that house?

FlickChick said...

Jay - thanks for stopping by - love your blog!!

FlickChick said...

Hi Martin: a juicy story, no?

Silver Screenings said...

I'd never heard of this scandal before and it's as juicy as it gets!

Poor Jean Harlow, though. Such a talent with terrific comedic timing. If life had only been a little kinder to her...!

Inge Gregusch said...

Terrific post, as always. I'm sharing it.