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5th September 1932: The Death of Paul Bern

2nd July 1932: The unlikely union of sex siren Jean Harlow and bookish Paul Bern

Dearest Dear… Unfortunately, this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and wipe out my abject humility. I love you… Paul

…You understand that last night was only a comedy.”

Paul Bern's suicide note

"I’d have liked to have gone to bed with Jean Harlow. She was a beautiful broad. The fellow who married her was impotent and he killed himself. I would have done the same thing."

--Groucho Marx

On the 2nd July 1932, movie sex-siren Jean Harlow and studio executive Paul Bern entered into one of the unlikeliest – and ultimately most tragic – unions Hollywood has ever witnessed. In fact, only in Hollywood’s atmosphere of glamour and delusion could a couple from such disparate worlds not only find each other, but actually believe they had found something together worth building on. Bern was a quiet, unassuming man who had earned the sobriquet of ‘Hollywood’s Father Confessor’ because of his sympathetic nature. Harlow was an early-day wild-child. She never wore underwear, and she posed nude for a series of photographs in Griffith Park for Edward Bower Hesser when she was 17. In New Jersey, gangster friends of Abner ‘Longie’ Zwillman, America’s top bootlegger and Harlow’s long-time lover, were said to carry lockets containing a strand of Harlow’s dyed pubic hair as a sign of his favour. It was Zwillman who bankrolled Harlow before her career took off.

Born Harlean Carpenter to a moderately successful dentist and his wife in Kansas City, Missouri on 3rd March 1911, Harlow first displayed a fondness for older men at the age of 16 when she eloped to Los Angeles with 23-year-old businessman Charles McGrew. Encouraged by ‘Mama’ Jean, Harlow pursued a movie career, earning small parts in a number of movies (including a couple of Laurel and Hardy shorts – Double Whoopee and Bacon Grabbers), before landing her breakthrough role in Howard HughesHell’s Angels. She embarked on a brief affair with the eccentric tycoon before he entered into negotiations with Paul Bern to sell her contract to MGM.

Bern, born Paul Levy in Germany in 1889, was a quiet, studious man, bookish and intellectual and, at 42-years-old, almost twice Harlow’s age. He was short and slight of stature and had rather bland features. Arriving in Hollywood in 1926, Bern’s acting career failed to take off, but he enjoyed success as a script editor and director before Irving Thalberg spotted his potential and took him on as his assistant.

In the early thirties Bern started to be seen at the Hollywood nightclubs he had previously avoided with the beautiful new movie sensation on his arm. Common wisdom decreed it would never last, that he was merely a handy step on the ladder to success for the young actress. The couple, however, proved the cynics wrong when they were married at the bride’s mother’s home only two days after Bern had proposed. So sudden was their wedding, in fact, that they were unable to take time off from their work schedules for a honeymoon.

Rumours of cracks in the marriage were almost immediate. One night, shortly after the wedding, Harlow showed up in distress at her agent’s house claiming Bern had beaten her with a stick. There were also rumours of money problems.

Paul Bern's body

The odd couple’s troubled marriage came to a violent and tragic end on 5th September 1932, barely two months after their wedding day, when Bern’s naked body was discovered lying in front of the full-length mirror in his wife’s bedroom by his butler. Bern had been shot in the head with the .38 calibre revolver that lay beside him. His body was drenched in ‘Mitsouko’, his wife’s favourite perfume.

Instead of calling the police, the butler phoned the MGM studios, who immediately contacted the studio head of security, Whitey Hendry. In turn, Hendry contacted studio head Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg who, without notifying the authorities, sped to the couple’s Benedict Canyon home. Harlow, at this time, was reported to be at her mother’s house, having been sent there by Bern under the pretext that he wished to study some scripts.

It wasn’t until two hours after Mayer, Thalberg and Hendry congregated at the scene of Bern’s death that the police were finally notified. Little is known about what took place during those two hours, and it is now unlikely that any new evidence will be unearthed to shed light on the mystery. One thing, however, is known: a suicide note that Mayer is purported to have taken from the scene was later handed to the police on the advice of Howard Strickling, MGM’s publicity chief.

The note read: “Dearest Dear… Unfortunately, this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and wipe out my abject humility. I love you… Paul” A postscript at the bottom of the note read: “You understand that last night was only a comedy.”

The inquest that followed Bern’s untimely death ruled that Bern had suffered from a ‘physical infirmity’ that made it impossible for him to make love to his wife. The ‘comedy’ to which Bern referred to in the note’s postscript was believed to be a reference to what was to be their final tryst, during which he tried to fool his wife into believing he was making love to her by wearing a ‘realistic’ dildo.

Paul Bern's suicide note

During the inquest, previously unknown information regarding a previous relationship of Bern’s was made public: he had lived with a woman named Dorothy Millette for many years in both New York and Toronto. Although the couple were not married, Millette would often refer to herself as Mrs. Paul Bern, and Bern bequeathed everything to her in a will he drew up in 1920. However, Millette, a struggling actress, was mentally frail, and her institutionalisation in a sanatorium marked the end of Bern’s relationship with her, although he continued to pay for all of her expenses until his death. As late as March 1932, Bern was in contact with Millette, suggesting suitable accommodation for her when she told him she was moving to San Francisco, and assuring her that he would continue to ensure she was financially secure.

The day after Bern’s death, Millette checked out of the Plaza Hotel, in which she had been staying on Bern’s recommendation, and bought a ticket on the Delta King river boat, which shuttled between San Francisco and Sacramento. At some point on the journey, she jumped from the boat. Her body was found by fishermen two weeks later. Harlow, the grieving widow, paid for the funeral of her dead husband’s ex-lover, and MGM boss Louis B. Mayer paid for her marker.

A year after the inquest into Paul Bern’s death, Buron Fitts, the crooked District Attorney who had handled the inquest was the subject of a Grand Jury investigation instigated by superior court judge Fletcher Bowron. Fitts and his sister had sold a worthless orange grove to a real estate developer named John P. Mills at a grossly inflated price, a deal that was suspected of effectively amounting to a bribe. Around about the same time, Mills was charged with statutory rape when he was suspected of paying a prostitution ring to provide him with underage girls on a weekly basis. One of the ring’s leaders had fingered Mills, and a sixteen-year-old victim was willing to testify against him. Fitts dropped the charge, citing lack of evidence. Fitts was also a big friend of Louis B. Mayer, whose studio funded his election campaign.

The grand jury investigation into Fitts, shed new light on Paul Bern’s death. Bern’s gardener, a man named Davis, stated that he believed Bern’s death was murder, and that the butler who discovered Bern’s body had lied about what happened. The butler claimed that he had overheard Bern talking about suicide more than once, and that Bern and Harlow were always extremely affectionate toward one another. The gardener’s testimony directly contradicted the butler’s version. The couple rarely showed affection to each other, claimed Davis, and he had never heard Bern talk about suicide. Davis also claimed to have found a small puddle of blood by the swimming pool, near to Bern’s favourite chair.

The testimony of Irene Harrison, Bern’s secretary concurred with that of the gardener. She claimed Harlow had pursued Bern, and that he had been a somewhat reluctant suitor – and a less than enthusiastic bridegroom.

Bern’s cook, Winifred Carmichael, claimed that staff saw a ‘strange woman’ on the grounds on the night of Bern’s death. Carmichael said she heard an unfamiliar woman’s voice, and a scream and that, later, she found a woman’s wet swimsuit by the swimming pool, near to two empty glasses.

Despite these new revelations, Bern’s death was still ruled to be suicide. Five years after his death, Harlow too was dead, her kidneys finally succumbing to the fatal legacy of a childhood bout of scarlet fever.

Rumours persisted: the true cause of Bern’s death was concealed during those two hours that the studio personnel were alone with the body; Millette killed him; or was it Harlow who murdered her husband, and was then spirited away from the scene by Mayer and Co.? More rumours: the note was a fake, written after Bern’s death to deflect suspicion, hence the delay in handing it over to the police. There was too much about Bern’s death left unexplained for there not to be rumours and speculation.

Then, the whispers were given a voice by veteran journalist and scriptwriter, Ben Hecht in a 1960 article in which he claimed Bern’s death was murder. Hecht, who later claimed to the Los Angeles District Attorney that director Henry Hathaway was the source for his claim, wrote: “Studio officials decided, sitting in a conference around his (Bern’s) dead body, that it was better to have Paul Bern as a suicide than as a murder victim of another woman.” The reason: “it would be better for Jean Harlow’s career that she not appear as a woman who couldn’t hold a husband.”

Hathaway, when questioned by the DA, denied having any first-hand knowledge of the case.

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