• Graveyard Shift

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: 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.  

  • 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.

  • One Of Her Husbands Was Found Dead In Their Home

    In 1932, Harlow wed Paul Bern, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive. A few months into their marriage, Bern was found fatally shot inside their home. Rumors swirled that Harlow had killed her new husband, while others thought Bern's spurned ex-common-law wife was the one responsible. Further, some say that Bern was a polygamist, and others claim he wasn't interested in women. 

    Regardless, Louis B. Mayer later said he found a suicide note in the home. As was the custom in the day, Bern's butler didn't call police when he found Bern's body. Instead, he called the studio, which came and "cleaned up." Harlow never spoke about Bern's death. 

    The tragedy, and subsequent scandal, led MGM to ask actress Tallulah Bankhead to replace Harlow in a film. Bankhead refused, saying, “To damn the radiant Jean for the misfortune of another would be one of the shabbiest acts of all time. I told Mr. Mayer as much." 

  • Photo: Movie Classic / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Harlow Was A Magnet For Bad Publicity

    As if it weren't enough that Harlow's second husband was found naked and dead of a gunshot wound, she had plenty of other bad publicity at the time. Right after Bern died, Harlow had an affair with boxer Max Baer - unfortunately, he was still married.

    Harlow also sidled up to mobsters when they came to Hollywood - namely, Bugsy Siegel. Harlow ended up becoming close enough to Siegel that she was an unofficial godmother to his daughter Millicent.