Whether you’ve been a fan of Jean Harlow’s for a while or you’re just getting acquainted with her work, this is a very exciting time to be a Harlow fan. March 3, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Jean Harlow’s birth and there are lots of exciting things going on to celebrate. First, TCM just released a collection of four of her most memorable movies: Dinner at Eight, Libeled Lady, China Seas and Wife Vs. Secretary. TCM will also be featuring Jean as their star of the month in March, so lots of her movies will be coming up soon on there. But what I’m most excited for is a new book, “Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928-1937” by Darrell Rooney and Mark Viera. I have a big weakness for books chock full of beautiful pictures and “Harlow in Hollywood” boasts tons of previously unpublished pictures of the original blonde bombshell. My pal Carley from The Kitty Packard Pictorial recently sat down with Rooney and Viera to discuss the new book and an upcoming Jean Harlow exhibit in Los Angeles and she has kindly let me re-print some of that interview here:
On how Rooney and Viera teamed up for this project:
KP: How did the two of you come together on this project?
Rooney: [Mark and I] had been slowly building a working relationship based on knowledge and mutual respect. This is ten years ago easily. Mark was already producing books, which were all extraordinary. One day Mark asked if he could come and see my Harlow collection. And I said, ‘How many days have you got?’ So I took him on a tour of my collection of memorabilia and Mark looked at me with these wide eyes and said ‘We should do a book together.’ And I said… ‘Really?’ Do a book together with Mark Vieira, what an extraordinary vote of confidence.
KP: So you had already felt each other out and knew you could work together.
Rooney: Yes. And in our process, well, I have this huge archive on Harlow; I have collected almost everything written about her, plus I had acquired a huge amount of personal, private correspondence about or by her from a private source. So I know this one thing very well. But Mark has a depth of knowledge about the history of Old Hollywood that I don’t have, and he put what I have into perspective–gave it dates, places and resonance. He was able to verify where Harlow was almost on a daily basis and that helped dispel a lot of fictional stories from the press. So this book really tries to be as accurate and definitive as it can be; it gives you: cutting edge information backed up with accuracy and heavy research.
On the difficult process of selecting pictures for the book:
KP: In order to tell a story with images you have to make tough decisions. For someone with a collection like yours, it must have been murder.
Rooney: It was absolutely that. Once we got the book deal we spent six weeks going through the distillation of photographs to tell Harlow’s story visually. I’d come out with 60 photographs for one chapter and Mark, who’s done this a million times, would say ‘Okay. Now we’re going to choose only 12 from those 60.’ So you pull the superfluous ones first. Then you pull the ones you like and absolutely want to keep. Then you start to really edit. Like Mark says, you have to have a reason for every photograph you keep, and you can’t repeat. If you repeat something you bore the audience. We would cull it down to about 20 or so and I’d begin to see the narrative thread. It was quite a learning process. Painful but necessary.
Vieira: The art of telling a story is so much in the editing, distilling down process.
Rooney: For me, it was like Christmas every day– but you had to give half the presents back. That’s how it felt: exciting but crushing at the same time.
KP: How many photos in the book are previously unpublished?
Rooney: I would say 80 to 90 percent.
Rooney: I think the glamour portraits might have printed other places before– like in fan magazines during the 30s, but that George Hurrell image on the cover has never been published in a book before.
KP: Speaking of: one of the key things that sets this book apart from Stenn’s is the fact you call don’t call Jean’s mother “Mama Jean,” you call her by her rightful married name: Jean Bello.
Rooney: Mark is the one responsible for that. He made this proclamation: don’t get into the ‘Mother Jean’ vs ‘Mama Jean’ issue, use her rightful name.
For any unfamiliar with the Jean Harlow/Mother Jean thread of the Harlow story, Jean Harlow was the maiden name of the Mother. A beautiful, intelligent woman whose acting aspirations were thwarted by a forced marriage. Those ambitions were then channeled through her only daughter Harlean who, upon entering the movies took her mother’s name as her own screen name: Jean Harlow. What resulted was psychological symbiosis, leaving the daughter without any true identity of her own.
KP: Stenn’s biography obviously uses the ‘Mother Jean’ phrase to drive home a point, but by calling Jean’s mother by her rightful married name, Jean Bello, it gives Harlean back at least some of her identity.
Rooney: Mark is very definitely, scholarly so he brings the reasoning of a scholar to these things.
Vieira: It’s as simple as this: When you’re around a campfire, telling a story, you don’t want someone to keep interrupting with ‘Jean — Jean who?’ Which one are you talking about? The reader always has to know who you’re talking about.
Rooney: And this really was a tricky thing because, of course, the mother starts out as Jean Harlow. [Once she gets married to Mont Clair Carpenter] she’s Jean Carpenter, and then it’s fine. You don’t have to deal with the whole ‘Mother Jean’ thing at all.
KP: By many accounts she was a rather difficult woman to like.
Rooney: It has much to do with how she was raised. She was raised in a very cold home. Her mother had no power. Her willful father ran her life. She was pushed into a loveless marriage and to rebel, had boyfriends on the side. After her divorce she was on the look out for a rich man to marry. She basically became the gold digger that Harlow subconsciously modeled her screen personae after.
KP: The notes they sent back and forth to each other on Mothers Day… almost frightening in a way.
Rooney: Isn’t it true? I’ve had this conversation with David Stenn many times: the whole thing in that family was ‘I gave you life. You owe me.’ And so Jean Harlow was grateful to the ends of the earth for having been given life by that woman. She was enslaved by this overt gratitude. And she had a terrible time trying to break free of it.
KP: It’s a mother/daughter story that guts me every time.
Rooney: It’s the story of two women who conspire to create a single persona. It’s not the creation of one person, but of two people, both of which could not exist without the other. It’s a fascinating symbiotic relationship. There were a lot of healthy things in it…but a lot of incredibly unhealthy things too.
KP: How did you meet the owners of the car?
Rooney: A mutual friend of mine who is a car collector, said ‘Do you want to meet the people that own the Harlow Packard?’ They turned out to be the nicest people in the world, and the third owners of the car EVER. They got it from the second owners who got it from Jean Bello after she took the car– after she absconded it– from [film producer] Hunt Stromberg. She allegedly gave it to Hunt Stromberg to teach his son to drive, then later took it back. What a hustler, huh.
KP: So the Packard is the centerpiece of the exhibit?
Rooney: Yes, and ‘The Hollywood Museum in the Historic Max Factor Building’ is a fitting place to have this exhibit because Harlow originally ‘opened’ the Blonde Room of the Max Factor building in 1935, so there’s a real sort of circular completion here.
KP: The ‘Blonde Room’?
Vieira: Yes, when the Max Factor Salon opened in November 1935 there were three separate rooms: the Blonde Room, the Brunette Room and the Red-head Room. A movie star of each persuasion officially ‘opened’ each room and was photographed cutting the ribbon alongside Mr. Factor. Claudette Colbert opened the ‘Brunette Room’ and Jean Harlow opened the ‘Blonde Room’ and for the first time showed her real honey blonde hair in public.
Vieira: And something else that doesn’t show up in the text of the new book is the riot that occurred there.
KP: A riot?
Vieira: Yeah, there was a riot at the Opening that night. And a famous western star, I can’t remember which one it was, but the papers talk about a western star who got so drunk at the Max Factor Studio party that he had to be ejected. I guess it could’ve have been Tom Mix.
Rooney: If it had been Tom Mix, Jean would have taken him home! She loved Tom Mix from her childhood.
On why they chose to write this book and what sets it apart from other Jean Harlow biographies:
KP: So tell us: why this book? Why now?
Rooney: It’s a case of awareness. We want to see Harlow embraced by a new generation. We were looking for ‘the angle’ years ago, and I have to hand this to Mark: he’d say, ‘What landmark is coming, you know, some kind of a milestone event?’ Eventually, we realized 2011 was going to be Harlow’s hundredth birthday. Her centenary. That was very significant and we felt this was the milestone that needed to be commemorated; there had to be a book. And with Mark’s experience he knew it couldn’t just be a book, there had to be a series of events tied into it, like a public Exhibition that the press could cover and people could go to.
One thing we wanted to do to make the book unique and different from other bios was to tell Harlow’s story in her own words as much as possible. We used never-before-seen private correspondence and interviews to achieve this. However, it got very tricky concerning the Paul Bern period of her life. There is so much written about it, and so much of it is conjecture. How do you sort it out? Mark kept saying: Whenever you’re confused, ask yourself ‘what is Harlow’s story from her own point of view? Don’t tell events from someone else’s point of view – what was her experience?’ And at times that meant a lot of rewriting. And that’s what’s makes the difference with our book, Harlow In Hollywood. That is one of the key things that sets this book apart: this is Harlow’s story told in her own words and from her own experiences.
Can you imagine being given Jean Harlow’s Packard to practice your driving? To read more, including information about an unusual mural given to Jean by husband Paul Bern, collecting Jean Harlow memorabilia, and Mark Viera on being influenced by legendary photographer George Hurrell, head on over to The Kitty Packard Pictorial and read the full interview. Ever wonder what ever became of that ledger all the stars signed at the premiere of Grand Hotel? They’ve got the answer for you! And while you’re there, why don’t you enter for a chance to win that great new Jean Harlow DVD collection? Click here to find out how!