When housekeepers discovered movie executive Paul Bern in his bathroom dead from a gunshot wound, they called MGM Studios first. His wife, film star Jean Harlow, was notified next. Two hours later, the police were summoned. Hollywood always speculated about the romance between the 22-year-old platinum-blonde beauty and the film executive nearly twice her age, but the gossip went into overdrive after Paul’s death. “There was a worry over what would happen,” says Mark A. Vieira, author of Forbidden Hollywood. “Would it be declared a murder or a suicide?”

Signed with movie mogul Howard Hughes, Jean struggled to be noticed in small, thankless roles before she met Paul on the set of 1930’s Hell’s Angels. “People said, ‘Oh, she can’t act. She’s just kind of a sexy thing,’” says Vieira, who notes that instead of seeing her as a sex pot, Paul recognized Jean’s potential for comedy. “She’s funny. She’s very clever. She’s witty. So he thought, Why not build up the comedy aspect?”

After moving to MGM Studios, Jean became Paul’s pet project, leading to her starring role in Red-Headed Woman, a comedy about an ambitious social climber. “Instead of making her a wicked, horrible person, they played it for laughs,” explains Vieira. The film made Jean a star.

Jean Harlow and Paul Bern Had an Unusual Marriage

Jean looked to Paul as a mentor, protector and father figure. “She married him because he treated her with great courtesy, where most men at the studios grabbed her, pinched her or made suggestive remarks,” explains Vieira. “To have a man treat her with respect was something she responded to.”

Paul, meanwhile, looked to Jean as his greatest creation. “He really appeared to love her, but he was also a Svengali,” says Vieira, who adds that it wasn’t a normal union. “He had not been able to consummate the marriage with Jean.” The relationship soured when Jean grew tired of playing student to Paul’s teacher. “She was working in the daytime, supervised by Paul, and schooling at nighttime, supervised by him,” says Vieira. But the more Jean pulled away, the more Paul became jealous, possessive and abusive.

Paul also had secrets. He was still supporting his first wife, an actress named Dorothy Millette, who had spent time in an institution. “I heard somewhere that Mrs. Bern had died in a sanitarium,” George G. Clarken, Paul’s insurance adviser, told the Associated Press. But Dorothy, whom newspapers christened Paul’s “ghost wife,” was alive at the time of his death. She had also recently visited Paul.

Remembering Jean Harlow's Life Filled With Love, Lies and Tragedy
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The night before his body was found, he and Jean fought. “At the first sign of trouble, she’d go home to her mother,” explains Vieira. “Not long after, Paul shot himself.” He left behind a note to Jean apologizing for “the frightful wrong I have done you.”

Less than two weeks later, Dorothy’s body was discovered floating in the Sacramento River by two fishermen. After hearing of Paul’s passing, she’d booked a room on the Delta King riverboat and leapt into the water late at night. “There are some who created this whole thing that Dorothy killed Paul,” says Vieira, who adds that it’s very unlikely that Dorothy would have shot the man who paid her bills. “She was unstable to begin with, and once her money was cut off, how would she survive?” he says. “So she committed suicide.”

At Paul’s funeral, 2,000 mourners turned out to support Jean. For the rest of her life, she refused to talk about the tragedy, and her fans seemed to respect that. “This is the first time there was a Hollywood scandal where a new star emerged not only unscathed,” says Vieira, “but Jean also got the public’s sympathy.”

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