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Jean Harlow's Studio Contract Forbade Her From Getting Married

MGM executives believed that marrying could ruin her "bombshell" image.

It's hard to believe that early cinema icon Jean Harlow died at only 26, because she lived so much life before her sudden passing. She became one of the biggest movie stars of the '30s, starring in films including Red Dust, Dinner at Eight, Suzy, and Libeled Lady. Harlow was also married three times, including when she was still a teenager.

But, one of the actor's longest-lasting relationships did not result in marriage, and some have concluded that this was because of her contract with the studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Reportedly, Harlow's contract prohibited her from getting married, because it would impact her image. Read on to find out more.

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Harlow was married three times.

Jean Harlow and Harold Rosson circa 1935
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Harlow married her first husband, a wealthy heir named Charles Fremont McGrew III, when she was only 16 and he was a few years older. The two moved to Los Angeles together where Harlow's acting career kicked off. They divorced after two years of marriage in 1929.

Harlow's second marriage was to MGM executive Paul Bern. They were only married for two months in 1932, before Bern died by what was ruled to be suicide.

Harlow's last marriage was to cinematographer Harold Rosson, with whom she had worked on several films. (Rosson was the cinematographer on the iconic films The Wizard of Oz and Singin' in the Rain, among others.) According to the Los Angeles Times, Harlow and Rosson were pressured to get married by MGM, for which they both worked. This was reportedly to avoid the scandal of Bern's death being tied to Harlow. Harlow and Rosson divorced after eight months in 1934.

She was barred from getting married a fourth time.

After her marriage to Rosson, Harlow began a relationship with actor William Powell, her Libeled Lady and Reckless co-star. But, the two never married, and some believe this was because of Harlow's MGM contract.

According to the book Scandals of Classic Hollywood by Anne Helen Petersen (via Vanity Fair), Harlow and Powell couldn't get married because "MGM had written a clause into her contract forbidding her to marry." Despite having been married before, it is said that the studio didn't want her to get married this time, because it would have ruined her "bombshell" persona.

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Studios had a lot of control over actors' lives.

Jean Harlow on the set of "Reckless" circa 1934
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During this period in Hollywood, studios had significant control over actors when it came to their personal lives, as evidenced by both Harlow's arranged marriage and the one that she was forbidden from having. According to Vanity Fair, this control went so far as studios arranging abortions for women—for women who wanted to have abortions themselves and for ones who the studio didn't want to become mothers.

Vanity Fair reports that when Harlow became pregnant by Powell, she called Howard Strickling, the head of publicity at MGM, who arranged for the pregnancy to be terminated. The book The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine by E.J. Fleming explains that Harlow then entered a hospital "to get some rest" but was only seen by her private doctors. She was also said to have been in the same hospital room in which a year later she had an "appendectomy." Of course, it was unconfirmed by Harlow what procedures she really underwent.

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Powell was with Harlow when she died.

William Powell and Jean Harlow circa 1935
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Harlow died in 1937 at age 26 of kidney failure. Powell was with her when she passed.

The Guardian's obituary from the time reads, "Mr. William Powell, the actor, was with Miss Harlow's mother at the bedside. They left the Good Samaritan Hospital together stunned by the sudden end. William Powell had been Miss Harlow's constant companion at social events in recent months, and Hollywood was confident that there would be a marriage."

Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more