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carole lombard 02

When Harlow hailed the chief

Posted by vp19 on 2009.01.20 at 00:13
Current mood: stressedstressed

Today is an historic day, as it is any time a president is inaugurated, Add that Barack Obama is the first black man to be sworn in, and you can understand why record crowds are expected in Washington; some anticipate traffic on Interstate 95 could be backed up to Richmond, and Interstate 66 as far west as Interstate 81 in the Shenandoah Valley.

I wanted to do a classic Hollywood angle to an inaugural, and while Carole Lombard never attended such a ceremony, I'd thought I'd read somewhere that Jean Harlow had. Turns out that while Harlow indeed came to Washington to meet President Roosevelt in January 1937, I was off by several days or so. Here's the story:

Franklin D. Roosevelt's birthday was Jan. 30, ten days after he took the oath of office for his second term. (A constitutional amendment a few years before had moved the inaugural date from March 4 to Jan. 20.) For several years he had sponsored a ball in the nation's capital to raise funds for the Warm Springs site in Georgia that he -- and many others suffering from polio -- visited to recuperate, a charity that eventually evolved into the March of Dimes. A friend of the president's suggested inviting film stars and other celebrities to the event to give it more visibility, and on Jan. 4, 1937, following Roosevelt's re-election, Harlow, Robert Taylor -- her co-star in the upcoming "Personal Property" -- and Ginger Rogers were invited.

Harlow -- a Roosevelt supporter -- was thrilled; MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, a loyal Republican, less so. However, he gave Harlow and Taylor the green light provided filming on "Personal Property" completed in time. It did, and as soon as production ended, Harlow, Taylor and several others in their party boarded an eastbound train. The stars made several whistlestop appearances on their way to the capital.

Once in D.C., Harlow and Taylor visited the sights and also made appearances at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and Mount Vernon and Alexandria, Va. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover even gave Harlow a machine-gun demonstration.

On the night of the 30th, Harlow and Taylor visited all seven Birthday Balls at D.C. hotels and also met Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The first lady, an avid film fan, greeted the one-time platinum blonde:

The whirl of the past few days caught up with Jean the next day, as she developed influenza on the train ride west; Harlow biographer Eve Golden wrote she could barely summon the strength to eat during the transcontinental trip. Once back in Los Angeles, she spent nearly two weeks in bed recuperating, then visited Palm Springs with William Powell.

No one knew it at the time, but Harlow had little more than three months to live.

Did the hectic pace of the Washington trip indirectly lead to Harlow's death? From what we know now, her kidney condition, developed in her youth, was a ticking time bomb, not solvable by 1930s medical knowhow. The trip may have made her a bit weaker, but it certainly wasn't the cause of her premature demise.

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