December 11th, 2008

carole lombard 04
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Oh, Baby, not another horrid Harlow bio

It would be safe to say that while many people (including most of us) consider Carole Lombard an icon, to others she doesn't quite reach such an exalted status. While we may argue Lombard deserves to be placed on a higher tier, she does benefit in at least one way: she's never been the subject of a really trashy biography.

In contrast, consider one of Carole's contemporaries and good friends, Jean Harlow.

In the mid-1960s, nearly three decades after Harlow's passing, Irving Shulman came out with a biography that was roundly criticized by people who knew her (including William Powell, who rarely made any public statements following his retirement from films) for its inaccurate portrait of the platinum blonde star as a sex-crazed person of little depth. Many Harlow fans still bristle whenever Shulman's name is mentioned.

Well, it looks as if the "Baby" is going to be posthumously put through the mill once again. Coming next April is another Harlow bio, "Jean Harlow: Tarnished Angel":

And this Harlow book is written by none other than David Bret, whose bio of Clark Gable we addressed several months ago (

Bret has written a number of celebrity biographies, and many of them have been criticized for their lack of research, pedestrian writing style and overemphasis on sex, with many lurid (and unsubstantiated) rumors thereof. And since Harlow was the premier sex symbol of her era, you just know that topic is going to come up. Especially since it apparently already has.

Much of the Jean Harlow Yahoo! group is up in arms over Bret's book, even though it won't be out for another four months; such is his reputation. One person wrote of the news, "Well I was excited until I saw who wrote the book. This author writes some really trashy books. I am sure he will drag Jean thru the mud. He is the one that wrote in a book about Joan Crawford that Jean had an affair with her stepfather after Paul Bern killed himself."

The Crawford book was called "Joan Crawford: Hollywood Martyr," and the site for the paperback version lists nine reviews. Six of them gave the book one star -- the lowest rating -- with comments such as:

* "This seems to be purely a chronological history of Joan's alleged sexual partners (& any others the Author might happen to know about), together with a set of film synopses which read like a secondary schooler's book review."

* "I found it interesting that the author commented on the books by Marie Riva (excellent book by the way) and Christina in a very unfavourable way and then proceeds to discuss how Joan's mother was a prostitute and she wasn't much better -- if that is how he shows respect, then look out anyone he doesn't respect."

* "I would not recommend wasting your money on this written for hollywood/ daytime soap book. In particular I found the personal bitchy comments about Christina Crawford below the belt and quite frankly childish, however, the language used throughout the book did appear to be written by an immature and limited mind. For all her supporters and detractors she deserves to be remembered in a manner better than this."

* "You never get to know what made Joan Crawford tick. Too much about who slept with who and no analyses of her as an actress."

The lone five-star review came from Bret himself. He also responded to several of the reviews; this, on the second comment above, typified his tone: "Anyone who supports Christina Crawfish and Maria Rivachefolle as GOOD daughters cannot possibly be the full shilling, so I guess I can forgive you, my dear, for your selfish comments. I guess also that Joan Crawford will be weeping her eyes out in heaven right now because you have stopped watching her films."

(To see all the reviews in their entirety, with links to Bret's replies, go to

Yes, this is what Jean Harlow fans have to look forward to. Perhaps Bret will surprise us and come up with a book that's meticulously researched, well written and focuses on what made Jean Harlow tick instead of providing us with a list of her alleged bedroom trysts. (Yes, Jean enjoyed sex, but she was never solely defined by it. She was a complex woman with a lively, down-to-earth personality that made her as popular as Lombard among studio co-workers.) But given Bret's track record, we're not counting on a 180-degree reversal.

Fortunately for Harlow and her fans, she has been the subject of two accurate, largely sensible biographies -- "Platinum Girl" by Eve Golden, and "Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow" by David Stenn. The mid-seventies paperback "Gable & Lombard & Powell & Harlow" by Joe Morella and Edward Z. Epstein doesn't function on quite so lofty a level, but at least it attempts to treat its subjects as multidimensional people.

Carole's beacon as an icon probably doesn't shine brightly enough for Bret to make her the subject of a bio. And as Lombard fans, that's something we should be thankful for.
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