The Original Blonde Bombshell Dyed Her Hair With Actual Bleach, And It Likely Ended Up Killing Her
Jean Harlow was the original blonde bombshell. She made a name for herself during the Great Depression in Hollywood after getting a big break with Howard Hughes's Hell's Angels. And despite dying at the young age of 26 on June 7, 1937, she left behind a long film reel and an even longer list of scandals, relationships, and drama.
Harlow quickly became one of the biggest names in Hollywood, surpassing even Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. MGM bought out her contract from Hughes, and she proved a lucrative acquisition for the studio. Her brazen sex appeal, coupled with her ability to hang with the boys, made her an undeniable star.
But that hair of hers was problematic. Harlow's platinum blonde color, which she claimed was natural, of course, wasn't. Her hairdresser later said that he dyed it weekly with Clorox, ammonia, and Lux soap flakes. While Harlow's death can be attributed to plenty of unfortunate events in her life, repeatedly inhaling the toxic fumes created by bleach and ammonia couldn't have been good for the young starlet. That dangerous beauty hack is just another piece of the puzzle regarding what happened to Jean Harlow.
- Photo: Riffraff Trailer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Harlow's Hair Bleaching Process Was Very Toxic
Bleaching your hair the way Harlow did – with actual bleach and ammonia – produces a bunch of chemicals that are toxic to humans. Combining the two, whether via cleaning products or accidentally, produces the following dangerous chemical byproducts:
Hydrochloric acid, chlorine, chlorine gas, chloramine, and hydrazine, along with more ammonia and bleach. Toxicity aside, the process is also physically painful.
- Photo: Studio / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Clark Gable Said Kissing Harlow Was 'Like Kissing A Rotting Corpse'
Harlow worked almost until her death in 1937. While bedridden shortly before she died, Harlow's former co-star Clark Gable came to wish her well. Gable later said of the interaction, "It was like kissing a dead person, a rotting person." Since Harlow had kidney failure, she could not urinate, and her body was ridding itself of waste in any way it could.
She likely looked different, too; she had already been wearing wigs thanks to her thinning hair, and water weight had caused her to increase in size dramatically.
- Photo: MGM Studios / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Harlow Officially Died Of Kidney Failure
When Harlow fell ill on May 20, 1937, no one thought that the 26-year-old was on her deathbed. She passed away shortly afterward, however, on June 7. Her symptoms began as fatigue, nausea, abdominal pain, water retention, and graying skin. She also had trouble breathing on set and started wearing wigs since her iconic locks were falling out.
Though kidney failure in the modern world isn't a death sentence, it was in 1937. There were no kidney transplants or dialysis machines, and there weren't even antibiotics available for Harlow's condition.
- Photo: Elmer Russell Ball / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Rumors Swirled About Harlow's Death
Rumors spread almost immediately after Harlow fell ill and passed away. Did she die of an abortion gone wrong? Was her binge drinking out of control? Were her mother's Christian Scientist beliefs somehow to blame?
Some thought she'd had sunstroke, while another rumor claimed that Paul Bern, her second husband, had beaten her.
- Photo: Columbia Pictures / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Harlow Had Several Medical Conditions Before She Began Bleaching Her Hair
Though the chemical byproducts created by Harlow's bleach and ammonia mixture weren't great for her, she'd experienced a litany of health problems going back years. She'd experienced the flu, a bad reaction to having wisdom teeth removed, and a severe sunburn (which we now know is one of the signs of kidney failure).
She also suffered from scarlet fever, polio, and meningitis, and had two abortions and an appendectomy during her rather short life.
- Photo: MGM / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Harlow Had A Rough History With Her Mother, Who Some Blame For Her Death
Harlow's relationship with her mother was reportedly difficult. Mama Jean, as she was known, was a failed actor who seemingly put all her ambition and lost dreams on her daughter. In fact, Baby Jean, as everyone called Harlow, only ended up in Hollywood after her parents divorced and her mother brought her there to become a star. But it wasn't meant to be – Baby Jean took center stage, and Mama Jean stayed extremely involved in her daughter's life and career.
Some claim Mama Jean was at least somewhat responsible for her daughter's death. Mama Jean was a Christian Scientist, and some reports say she took her sick daughter home and refused medical treatment for her. Writing for The Guardian, Christian Scientist Tony Lobl explained that doctors did, in fact, see Harlow. He added that, while Christian Scientists do believe in natural healing, that doesn't mean neglecting Western medicine when it's needed. Regardless of the truth, there was nothing that Western medicine could have done to save Harlow's life.