This is the first interview given by Jean Harlow since they came to tell her that she was no longer a bride but a widow. Within my fifteen years' experience nothing has ever rocked Hollywood as did the suicide of Paul Bern two months after his marriage to the famous platinum blonde.
A cultured mind with flashes of genius had made him a power in the executive realm of the world of motion pictures. Still, there are many executives and many strange things happen to them. But Paul Bern was the best loved man in Hollywood. Wherever sorrow, scandal, illness, poverty, or death struck in the movie world, there you would find gentle, soft-voiced little Paul Bern with open hand and open heart. They called him the "little father confessor" of Hollywood.
When word flashed forth upon a holiday to the movie folk at play that this man, newly-wed husband of the spectacular and bizarre Jean Harlow, had been found in their honeymoon house with a bullet through his head and his own gun in his hand, Hollywood suffered such a shock of grief, horror, and bewilderment as none of its many sensations has ever equaled.
Beside his small nude body was found a note to his wife Jean Harlow, his last and only word to the world he had chosen to leave:
Dearest Dear — Unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation. I Love you. Paul
You understand that last night was only a comedy — Following within a few hours the fact and manner of Paul's passing, that note was a horror.
The eyes of Hollywood — the eyes of the world — turned upon Jean Harlow.
The eyes of Hollywood, which had looked up to Paul almost with reverence, now looked coldly at his widow. Hard-boiled, frank-spoken, cocky Jean Harlow, with her voluptuous body and her twenty-four-sheet hair that had created a world fashion.
The eyes of the world, familiar with the home-wrecking harlot of Red-Headed Woman and the half-nude seductress of Hell's Angels, looked accusingly at Jean Harlow.
The storm broke.
The newspapers of the world, with all their power and ingenuity, hammered at her door demanding an explanation of that note. Reporters surrounded her mother's home for twenty-four hours a day. Studio officials, torn between their affection for Paul Bern and the loyalty they owed their own star, begged her to speak. The police turned the full force of their department upon finding a motive for the most mysterious suicide of a decade.
Jean Harlow was silent.
"I tell you all, you're bound to fall — for a — red-headed woman!"
Like the mocking song of Pagliacci, the sexy, naughty rhythm of that tune from her latest picture seemed to echo through her silence.
Beyond question, her career as a motion-picture star trembled in the balance. Did she know it?
She is one of the smartest girls in Hollywood.
No one in Hollywood was very happy about the marriage of Paul Bern and Jean Harlow. "Those two are going to be married? Oh, no! Why — I can't believe it!"
Perhaps it was the difference in their ages. Forty-two and twenty-one. Perhaps they did not seem suited, the quiet thinker and the screen siren.
But it was more than that. Some hunch you couldn't explain, which cast a shadow over the select group of celebrities who gathered at their front-page wedding. I remember how that feeling of something wrong clouded even the day of their wedding reception, when all Hollywood gathered to wish them years of happiness. It was a superstitious feeling, not a reasonable one.
As we roamed the lovely gardens, watching Paul, almost beside himself with happiness, and Jean, proud and gay and touched with some of Paul's own gentleness, none of us dreamed that the first act of a tragedy had already been played — upon their wedding night.
Why — why — why?
Why did Paul Bern kill himself?
Did he that night, worn with care, miserable in this pass to which he had brought them, threaten to leave her forever, to leave Hollywood and all its works and spend the rest of his life in some distant hermitage, even in some monastery? He had suggested such a course to a friend not long before. He had just had his passport renewed. Did he believe that was the only way out for him? And then change his mind and decide death was preferable?
Or did his abject humiliation trace in part to the fact that his charities, his pensioners, his extravagances had brought him to the brink of financial disaster and forced him to borrow money from his wife even during their honeymoon? There can be no question that he was worried to death about money and that many people in Hollywood held notes signed by Paul Bern. The house which he deeded to Jean Harlow was mortgaged almost to its face value.
After two months of marriage with the girl he had wooed and worshiped for three years, what made this man put a gun to his head and pull the trigger?
Because the motion-picture people respected him, they sought frantically to know why life had grown insupportable to Paul. It was natural that they should demand the answer from the woman into whose hands he had committed his happiness.
But that answer was not given them.
From her silence was born suspicion. Mystery grew, and bred ugly rumors.
In the first hours, hysteria tore her loose from the very moorings of sanity. The ceaseless pressure of the attempt to uncover a motive must have been like a third degree to her.
Behind that subtle, tantalizing note, Jean Harlow fought a bitter battle — and lost the first round.
Not from her came the explanation of his "abject humiliation." If they wanted to think she was responsible for that humiliation, let them think so. Not from her lips came the poor, pitiful secret of her marriage.
"I don't know what the note means," she said, and stuck to it doggedly.
If was the medical men who revealed the fact that Jean Harlow could have been a wife in name only. It was the autopsy — the coroner's inquest — which dragged forth the fact that Paul Bern could never have consummated their marriage.
I remembered long ago, when Paul Bern wanted to marry Barbara La Marr. I remembered that Barbara said to me. "If I married Paul, he'd kill himself in six months."
You see, I knew long ago all that the doctors told in spite of Jean's furious, hysterical efforts to prevent their speaking.
Barbara La Marr refused to marry Paul Bern. In confidence, which until this day I have never violated, she told me why.
Barbara was a woman of the world, who knew life and men. She saw no possibility of a happy union built upon mental and spiritual companionship only. And Barbara knew when they discussed a possible marriage what Jean Harlow discovered only when she had been three days a bride.
But surely — surely — Jean Harlow too was a woman of the world. Married at sixteen to young Charles Fremont McGrew III of Chicago, and divorced from him three years later. A success in pictures while still in her teens. The girl who could play the red-headed woman as she played it? A girl who had trouped all over the country in theaters on a personal-appearance tour?
I said something like that to a man in Hollywood who has the reputation of much experience with women and who knows Jean well. "Don't kid yourself," he said. "Most of that's bluff. I know a lot of girls in Hollywood that talk awful wise and if you put a hand on them they'd jump out of a taxi. Who was the sweetest guy ever lived in this town? Louis Wolheim. Who is the saddest man you know? Charlie Chaplin. Who's the girl you'd be most afraid to trust with your husband? I won't mention any name, but she plays sweet young things. You ought to know better than to take surface stuff like that. Harlow's straight as they come — and, like a lot of folks that play tough, she's an impassioned idealist underneath. I'm giving you straight dope." So "the frightful injustice I have done you "had been explained.
Some of Jean Harlow's ecstatic defenders went the limit and began to say that Paul Bern had left an innocent woman crucified upon the cross of his suicide. But there were others who still thought of that fatal postscript: "You understand that last night was only a comedy." Surely that must refer to some one thing, to some one act that had sent Paul Bern over the great divide!
Only Jean Harlow could explain that.
I was thinking of that line as I drove to her house to talk with her. She had sent me word that she would be glad to have me come for dinner. No one else, except her family and her legal advisers, had talked with her.
As my car drove along Sunset Boulevard I found that I was thinking of Dorothy Millette. The great white gates of the Los Angeles Country Club swept by as we swung into Grand View Drive. In a moment I would be talking to Jean Harlow — and still I was thinking of Dorothy Millette.
The unknown woman who had crept out of Paul Bern's past when he was dead. The woman he had introduced as "my wife Dorothy" and in whose favor he had once made a will and to whom he had sent large checks regularly for ten years. Everything about her was vague and inscrutable to me. The Algonquin Hotel in New York. A sanitarium for mental cases. Red hair — red hair going gray. Gray dresses. San Francisco — a trunk — a suitcase — a night boat to Sacramento.
She had borne the man's name — legally or illegally — and she had gone to join him in death. Silent to the end as Jean Harlow herself. Two women joined in silence above the grave of the man who had called them wife. Dorothy Millette would never speak now. The cold waters of the river had silenced her forever.
But Jean Harlow could still speak if she would.
The house which belongs to Jean's mother and step-father, that house from which she had gone forth a bride, was set upon a small hill, its peaked roof reaching toward a darkening sky. As I walked up flight after flight of stone steps, I thought of my friend Paul Bern and of the times he must have run up those steps with happiness ahead.
Paul had been my friend a good many years. How often I had crossed his trail as he went about his missions of charity and consolation!
Yet there were deep, dark tides in Paul Bern's soul.
Strange little man. He told me once that he was twelve years old before he knew what it was to have enough to eat and that his childhood was haunted by his little brothers and sisters crying for food.
How much of the suffering he attempted to console had he absorbed? For all his charity and his brilliance, he was cursed with a morbid curiosity about death and suffering. He insisted on wearing every crown of thorns that he saw. Hypersensitive, introspective, his masculine vanity must have been an open wound. He knew his own tragedy. Was that why he sought out and was seen with exotic women famous for their sex appeal? Barbara La Marr — Joan Crawford — Estelle Taylor — Nita Naldi — Jetta Goudal — Mabel Normand — Jean Harlow.
He loved Barbara.
Beyond all question, he loved Jean.
But I wondered, as the doorbell sent a peal through the still house, if the others had been as much a secret gratification of his man-pride as either platonic friendships or sentimental affairs.
A colored man opened the door. I found myself in a charming, simple home. There was a fire in the grate and bowls of roses from the garden.
Jean's mother, Mrs. Bello, came to meet me. Easy to see where Jean gets her beauty and her famous platinum hair. Then came Jean's stepfather, Marino Bello, whom the mother married in New York a few years ago after her divorce from the Kansas City dentist who was Jean's father.
He has figured much in this case. It was difficult, almost impossible to impose silence upon him. A handsome Italian with iron-gray hair, speaking still with a decided accent. Just a little bit of a dandy. Exuberant, emotional. "Had I known of this other woman — this Dorothy Millette — Jean would have married Paul Bern over my dead body." He loves Jean, he wants to defend her, and it is hard for him to understand the gag which Jean's stern little hand has placed in his mouth.
"The baby will be down in just a moment," said Mrs. Bello.
Marino Bello went to the foot of the stairs and called, "Baby!"
Then Jean Harlow came down the wide, carpeted stairs.
She wore creamy-white pyjamas and a soft, woolly white sweater up around her throat. Her hair shone in the soft light. We sat down and began to speak, and it seemed quite easy and natural, as though I had merely come to dine with these charming people.
It seemed like that until, for the first time, I looked into Jean's eyes.
Then I remembered what Victor Fleming, who is directing Jean's present picture, Red Dust, told me.
"She came back," he said, "to carry on. She knew darn' well that Paul's — absence had left the studio in an awful hole. She knew how Irving Thalberg had depended upon Paul. So she came back — sort of to make up as much as she could for all the — trouble."
The first day he thought she was all right. He gave her some comedy scenes to do. He thought — dear Vic, who pretends to be a tough guy and is a sentimental baby — that comedy might be easier than big dramatic stuff. So Jean Harlow came back to play comedy scenes, half naked, in a barrel.
"Being a trouper," Vic said, "she went through with it. Said she didn't want to inconvenience the rest of us!"
Vic thought the scenes were great. Then they looked at the rushes. From the screen stared out at them the stark darkness of real suffering in the eyes of Jean Harlow.
"She could control everything but her eyes," Vic said.
"She couldn't keep that under — any more than she could have counterfeited it."
So they had to reshoot those scenes; Jean had to play them over and over again, until that stark grief was hidden by the laughter of an actress.
Then they gave her dramatic scenes to do with Clark Gable.
"More guts than most men," Clark told me. "Went on working — trying not to hold us up — and then all of a sudden crumpled down on the floor in a dead faint. Scared me to death. Went down like a prize fighter that's been hit right on the button."
There is no question but that Jean Harlow won the complete respect and sympathy of her own lot — which had also been Paul's — by her dignity, and her sincerity in those first days. The sentiment had been a little hostile at first. Now they'd fight you at the drop of a hat if you suggested anything against her.
We sat down to dinner. We talked as people talk at dinner tables. Of restaurants in New York and San Francisco. Of the days when Jean and her mother and stepfather were on the road, while Jean made personal appearance. "You know, they try out all their new engineers on those short jumps," Jean said, and smiled.
Mr. Bello and I exchanged recipes. He is, his wife and daughter told me, a famous cook. "If it had not been so, I should many times have go hungry," said Marino with his flashing smile.
Jean's mother told me that, the day before. Jean's dressing-room door banged open and Marie Dressler came in and took the girl in her arms and said, "Keep your chin up. It's in times like these that you show what you're made of. I wouldn't have expected so much courage of such a kid. I'm with you, dear."
It all seemed natural. Then I noticed that when Jean was speaking she sat too still, only her hands smoothing the tablecloth, moving a glass back and forth. It was hard, after that, to eat and talk naturally.
After dinner Jean said simply, "Would you care to come upstairs?"
We went alone together to the lovely room. The long windows were covered with rose satin. Across the bed was thrown a cover of ivory velours. There were shaded lamps and pretty things of silver and enamel. A room for "the baby" made with loving hands.
The room where they brought her the news that shattered her new-found happiness and where for a brief hour she screamed and begged to join him. As she sat there, both of us on low stools, I seemed to hear that frantic moan: "Is he gone? Is he gone? Is he really gone?"
The pretty room where she and her bridegroom used to come to pay a visit to mother. The room where she put on her bridal veil and, two months later, the widow's weeds that hid her from the mobs at Paul's funeral.
Plainly, she funked speaking of her trouble. But she went at it directly, with a sort of bulldog courage.
"It is only fair," she said, "that I should talk to you and through you to many others. I have asked the public to accept me. They have a right to hear what I have to say."
She was very grave, incredibly young. In a firm little voice she said, "Paul's death came to me like a bolt out of a serene heaven. If Marino were to walk up those stairs this moment and tell me my mother had shot her self, I couldn't be more — oh, surprised is so inadequate a word! I had no warning, no reason to think of such a thing.
"We were so happy."
That first night, when he tucked her in bed and kissed her tenderly and left her.
That second night, after their wedding reception, when he was so gentle and kind and said, "You have had a hard day. Dream sweetly."
And that third night when she knew at last that she could never be a wife to the man she had pledged herself to for life.
I spoke of the note. Of the frightful wrong he had done her and the abject humiliation which only death could wipe out.
"I have never seen that note," she said. "I know its contents, of course, but it has not been given to me."
Suddenly her mouth was hard and bitter. She held herself rigidly. Perhaps she was seeing those intimate last words, that were like a cry from his tormented spirit to her for understanding and forgiveness, blazoned upon the front page.
"Paul knew that didn't make any difference," she said very slowly. "He knew I loved him. I made him know it didn't matter."
There came back to me the words she had said to his own doctor when the truth first lay before her: "Make Paul understand that it doesn't matter. I love him for his brilliance and his kindness and his dear companionship. I will be loyal and faithful to him as long as I live."
I wonder if any man can be made to understand that a woman is big enough to love like that? Certainly Paul Bern was not made to.
So we came to that mysterious final sentence in which must lie the key to this Hollywood tragedy: "You understand that last night was only a comedy."
"I do not understand — I do not know what he meant by that," she said.
Slim, white, haggard, the youthful beauty of her face marred by great black circles beneath her brilliant eyes, she faced me as she had faced the rest of the world.
Does not understand?
Of course she understands.
Does not know?
Of course she knows.
I believed then and I believe now that Jean Harlow was lying — that she was telling the magnificent, splendid lie of a loving woman. I believe that Jean Harlow will go to her grave with that lie.
The gallant attempt of Hollywood's screen bad woman to hide behind her skirts the reputation of "the best man in Hollywood "had already failed in part.
The impersonal forces of the law, the exact, cold science of medical men, had dragged the secret of that shame which had driven her husband to death from behind the screen of her own silence. Paul Bern by the illegal act of suicide had placed himself beyond her power of concealment, had betrayed what she would have paid any price to keep secret.
Her suffering under that revelation, under the horrid exposure of the man she loved, was what any woman's must have been.
And now? She sat silent, staring at me, through me, beyond me. Was she seeing that "comedy" which she says she does not know about? What had happened to them to tear down so suddenly their temple of love?
Did he feel, in some sweet, romantic moment, an impulse to make her his wife — "and they twain shall be one flesh"? Did he fail again and taste once more the shame of that "frightful wrong" he had done her?
Was he driven by some inner self-torture, some twisted mental imagining, to threaten her very life, or, in a moment of insanity such as comes to a man like that, to attempt to hurt the woman he could not possess? And did she, shocked from her idealistic dream by the first sight of this pitiful madness, run from him in fear, that dreadful fear that comes when you see someone you love change before your very eyes?
Where was Paul Bern on the Saturday night before he killed himself? Was that, rather than Sunday, what he meant by "last night"?
He dined in a bungalow at the Ambassador. Is it possible, as Jean's mother believes, that Dorothy Millette was there with him? Is it possible that she was really Mrs. Paul Bern and that her poor brain, already in the grip of dementia précox, evolved some threat which menaced the happiness of Paul's new wife, and that Paul believed his death would render that threat ineffectual? Or is it possible that the "comedy" was some meeting between Jean Harlow and Dorothy Millette?
"Did you ever meet Dorothy Millette?" I asked.
Publication Date: November 26, 1932