The Life and Tragedy of Jean Harlow (Part II)

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Dearest Dear,
Unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done to you and wipe out my abject humiliation. I love you.
You understand last night was only a comedy.

(Catch up, read Part I!)

What’s important to know about Paul Bern is this: He was born to a German-Jewish candy maker and his mentally unstable wife. His mother’s mental illness, couples with a family connection to Sigmund Freud cultivated an interest in psychology. In 1908 his father passed away and Paul was forced to support his family. In 1911 he began his career in show-business and moved to Hollywood in 1920. It was in September of this year that Bern’s mother hurled herself off a cliff and drowned. His interest in psychology intensified after this incident and he became infatuated with the darker aspects of the human mind.

Jean Harlow & Paul Bern in Happy Times On the outside, Paul Bern was a gentleman, but inside raged a pessimistic man capable of outrageous mood swings and obsessed with death.

According to rumor, Bern was also physically deformed. His penis was once described as “the size of [a] pinkie finger.” Despite references to Bern as the “palace eunuch” Jean Harlow was unaware of his condition, even after they were married. Harlow was content with the relationship, however, convinced that Bern respected her enough not to want her only as a sexual prize.

Jean Harlow's Wedding By all accounts, Harlow was happier than she ever had been in the weeks following their wedding.

Harlow wanted to turn the deed to her home over to her mother and stepfather, Marino Bello. She also invested in a Mexican gold mine, at the encouragement of Bello. Bern became upset that he was unable to steer his new wife out of the grips of her domineering mother and her gold-digging stepfather. This caused a rift between the two of them, and began his verbal abuse and intellectual belittling of Harlow. In return, Harlow tormented Bern by making cruel references to their non-existent sex life.

Harlow began her work on Red Dust, most famous for the scene in which she bathes in a rain barrel. Rumor has it that while shooting, Harlow stood up, exposed her breasts and yelled, “Something for the boys in the lab!” Harlow had never been shy about her body. During the shooting, Bern and Harlow remained affectionate and happy.

Sexy Scene in 'Red Dust' between Jean Harlow & Gable

On September 3, 1932, Harlow filmed Red Dust while Bern met with studio executives. The couple was scheduled to attend a birthday party that evening, but filming delayed her and Bern refused to go it alone. He returned home and Harlow spent the night at her old home, now occupied by her mother and stepfather, as it was closer to the studio than the home she shared with Bern. She also decided to spend the following evening at home with her mother, so Bello drove her to pick up her car. While home, she argued with Bern about the Mexican gold mine and the idea of turning her home over to her mother and stepfather. He ordered her to leave the house and she left to spend the night with her mother and Bello.

The following morning, on September 5, 1932, Paul Bern stood naked in front of a mirror and shot himself.

Early in the afternoon on September 5th, Paul Bern’s butler, John Carmichael, found the body. He runs to inform the gardener, Clifton Davis, while Carmichael’s wife, Winifred (the cook) calls Jean’s house at Club View Drive and informs Mother Jean of Bern’s death. Mother Jean then calls Louis B Mayer of MGM. No one tells Jean.

MGM executives all arrived at the Bern house and scour the scene for evidence. They come across an autograph book inscribed with the following message:

Paul Bern's Death Note Dearest Dear,
Unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done to you and wipe out my abject humiliation. I love you.
You understand last night was only a comedy.

They decided to leave it near the body, to ensure the appearance of suicide, lest Jean be accused of murder. Nearly three hours after the discovery of Bern’s body, the police were notified. At 3:15 pm, MGM executive Irving Thalberg returned from the crime scene and informed Harlow of Bern’s death. Harlow became hysterical and had to be sedated. What seems like a clear case of suicide becomes more complicated as stories rolled in.

Gardener Clifton Davis recounted the fight between Harlow and Bern and added that, after Harlow left, a woman arrived. A neighbor reported hearing a car roar down the drive the following morning. Meanwhile, Mother Jean kept detectives from interviewing her distraught daughter. The press and public looked to Jean for answers and, hearing none, began to blame her for her husband’s death. On September 6th, detectives finally interview Harlow where she claimed their marriage was a happy one and she had no clue why he would be driven to take his life. Several physicians come forward to assert that Bern was suffering from depression due to a physical condition and autopsies reveal Bern’s genitals to be “underdeveloped.”

Henry Bern, Paul’s brother, arrived in town and alluded to a woman whom Bern was “morally married” to. He claimed she was alive and that he would reveal more about her at a later time. Rumors began to fly. Harlow, meanwhile, is under the care of a doctor for a “severe nervous collapse.” Red Dust resumes filming without her, unsure of whether or not she will return.

Paul Bern Death Scene Photo Henry Bern later reveals that the identity of Bern’s common law wife is a woman named Dorothy Millette. Like Bern’s mother, Millette was mentally ill. It was after learning of Paul’s relationship with her that his mother killed herself. He blamed himself for her death. Dorothy blamed herself and vowed to join his mother in death. Bern sent Dorothy to live in an asylum. While there, Bern moved to Hollywood. She checked out several months later and lived New York while Bern supported her financially.

Henry Bern attempted to contact Millette after his brother’s death, but could not locate her. It is revealted that she boarded a riverboat in California, where she had lived with her sister for the year previous, and had not been seen since. It is assumed she committed suicide.

Paul Bern’s funeral was held on September 9th, swarming with press. Harlow attended, sobbing loudly throughout. Following the service, Bern was cremated and his ashes interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery, where they remain today.

On September 12th, Harlow quietly returned to work on Red Dust. Two days later, the body of Dorothy Millette was fished out of the Sacramento River. Her funeral was held in the county morgue. Harlow arranged for a proper burial and buys a headstone reading ‘Dorothy Millette Bern.” Bern’s estate is revealed to be deep in debt and Harlow paid it off herself.

In the years following his death, many theories surfaced surrounding the death of Paul Bern. Some surmised that Millette killed him and then herself, others that Bern was a homosexual and shame drove him to kill himself. Most, however, accepted the fact that is was always more a matter of when Paul Bern would attempt suicide, as his preoccupation with the subject was fairly well known.

Six weeks following the suicide of Paul Bern, Red Dust opened and won rave reviews. The public and press who were so eager to blame Harlow for her husbands death only weeks before, absolve her of responsibility and sing her praises.

Jean Harlow & Clark Gable

Harlow, however, would continue on blaming herself for his death for the rest of her life. She began drinking as an escape, finding solace at the bottom of a bottle.

~~ Stay tuned for the third and final installment of he tragic life of Jean Harlow. (And in the meantime, rent Red Dust, or find it on Turner Classic Movies!) ~~

© Gaëlle


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