Jean Harlow died young, bedridden, and losing her hair.
Jean Harlow was wowing moviegoers with her sultry sexuality and shocking blonde hair when the girl who would become Marylin Monroe was still in kindergarten. Born Harlean Carpenter in 1911, Harlow was the first to carry the now nearly hackneyed title of "blonde bombshell." When she mysteriously fell ill and passed away tragically at the age of 26, there were many theories for why she died. Some said it was a botched abortion, others said it was binge drinking from a broken heart. But maybe the answer is as close as her own head.
Before Harlow, there wasn't such a thing as "platinum blonde." Although people using hair lighteners like hydrogen peroxide was nothing new, there was no dye on the market that could make one's hair as blonde as Jean's. Infamous neurotic Howard Hughes wanted to create a moniker for Harlow, as Mary Pickford had been "America's Sweetheart" and Clara Bow had been "The "It" Girl." After ditching such brainstorm gems as "Blonde Landslide" and "Darling Cyclone," Hughes' publicity director came up with "Platinum Blonde," which is now of course synonymous with the shocking locks of Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. At the time, Hughes had the genius idea (before he became famous for wearing Kleenex boxes on his feet) of awarding $10,000 to the stylist that could match Harlow's mane. Even in the depression-era 1930's, when money was in short supply, no one could.
Harlow, towheaded as a child, insisted she was a natural blonde, but her stylist knew differently. "I used to bleach her hair and make it 'platinum blonde,'" Alfred Pagano, hairdresser to the stars, once said. "We used peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and Lux flakes! Can you believe that?" ...Ammonia and Clorox bleach? Actually, no -- it's very hard to believe someone would deliberately put a concoction on someone's head that mixed ammonia and Clorox bleach. I spoke with a representative at Clorox and confirmed that the main ingredients in Clorox bleach in the 1930's are the same ingredients in Clorox bleach today -- something that, when mixed with ammonia, produces noxious gas, hydrochloric acid, and apparently, a star-worthy shade of blonde. This harsh and painful process, her stylist said, she'd have done weekly (Clorox asked kindly that I remind you NOT to mix Clorox and ammonia, especially not on your head).
As her death date crept nearer, Harlow's hair began to fall out. Harlow was known to have worn wigs, and wore one for the entirety of filming China Seas. After this she changed her hair color, out of either choice or necessity. In two years, she was dead.
It would be reductive to say Harlow's hair dye was entirely responsible for her death. Her medical history paired next to her filmography reads like a Greek tragedy. She reportedly contracted polio, meningitis, and scarlet fever before the age of 16. She then had pneumonia, two abortions, an appendectomy, multiple bouts of influenza, and a bad reaction to wisdom teeth extraction, all while carrying the crown of the hottest starlet in Hollywood. She remained on set working up to weeks before her death. When she was bedridden, Clark Gable went to visit her and noticed when he bent over to greet her, "It was like kissing a dead person, a rotting person." This was because she was no longer able to urinate and was now excreting waste through her breath. By then water weight had caused her body to double in size.
On June 3,1937, Harlow reportedly felt better and was expected to return to set. On June 6, she fell into a coma and the next day was pronounced dead. The doctors had shaved her head of the hair that once defined her as an icon, possibly in preparation for surgery that never came.
Officially, Harlow died of kidney failure, or "nephritis." The basic gist of nephritis is a buildup of toxins over time because the body can't process waste. This can happen over the course of years without much indication, since kidneys can still do their job with only 10 percent functionality.
Biographies and first-hand accounts usually say that Harlow's kidney failure was due to a complication of her scarlet fever as a child. Her binge drinking later in life lowered her autoimmune response, making her already failing kidneys work harder. But chlorine gas inhalation has also been reported to cause kidney damage (among other things) in lab rats. Combined with the scarlet fever and alcohol, Harlow's exposure to this much ammonia and bleach every week could very well have played a role in her death.
Harlow once commented that if it weren't for her hair, "Hollywood wouldn't know I'm alive." What made Hollywood acknowledge her existence may have helped put her out of it.