Truthfully, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read this book. Bombshell: The Life & Death of Jean Harlow by David Stenn is a short, punchy, unflinching look at the life and tragically premature death of one of classic Hollywood’s brightest stars.
If you were to ask me why I keep coming back to this book and re-reading it, I guess I’d say it’s because this book, weirdly, brings me comfort. I’ve always admired Jean Harlow and been intrigued by her life. A great number of her films are amongst my all-time favourites and watching her onscreen is an absolute joy.
True, she wasn’t the world’s best actress – and even she knew and admitted to that – but no one can deny how much punch and pizazz she brought to her film roles. The characters she played onscreen had a hard-nosed edge to them and she certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly. She ate men alive then spat them out and came back for seconds. In the early 1930s, she was known primarily for playing whores. By the mid 1930s, she had graduated to playing loyal, steadfast (virgin) gals with class.
Biographer David Stenn doesn’t hold back or sugarcoat anything he writes about in Bombshell: The Life & Death of Jean Harlow. In a concise 252 pages (excluding notes and appendices), Stenn runs through Harlow’s entire (incredibly short) 26-year-long life and settles every question the public may have about her. Absolutely nothing is glossed over and that’s something I truly love about this book. Stenn cuts to the chase and settles every argument, every conjecture, every bit of gossip that’s made its rounds through Hollywood and beyond during the last eighty years.
I’ve read a lot of classic film biographies and memoirs and there have been some that have been frustratingly long-winded and over-embellished, that surely could have done with stronger editing. Stenn’s biography of Jean Harlow is one of the very first biographies I’d ever come across that didn’t hold back. Through thorough research and an incredibly long list of one-on-one interviews with Harlow’s family members, colleagues, peers, and friends Stenn paints a very succinct portrait of Harlow.
The sad truth of the matter is is that Jean Harlow never wanted to become a film star. If she had had her way, she would have become a wife and mother instead and been completely happy. Instead, Harlow’s overbearing and possessive mother pressured her to become rich and famous. Living off the spoils of her daughter’s career and leeching every bit of happiness and strength out of Harlow, her mother ultimately caused her own “Baby’s” demise.
As if Jean Harlow’s death of kidney failure at the tender age of 26 wasn’t heart-breaking enough, the fact that she was never allowed or encouraged to lead the life she truly wanted by her own mother was even more tragic. Jean Harlow died with hardly any fight left in her at all and the way David Stenn describes it in the final chapters of his book is absolutely gut-wrenching. If what he wrote is true – and I have no reason to believe it isn’t, especially since it’s based on first-hand accounts – Harlow left this world a destroyed shell of a human being who never truly got the opportunity to live her life the way she wanted.
Did I like it?
Let’s face it, no book you read about Jean Harlow is ever going to be a happy one filled with rainbows and unicorns. This one, though, is probably the most accurate and least fluffy account you’ll come across. There is very little room for confusion here because Stenn does an excellent job of piecing together Harlow’s history by using first-hand accounts related to him personally by Harlow’s closest allies and peers.
Like I said at the beginning of this review, I keep coming back to this book over and over again because it’s truthful, it’s plain and it’s trustworthy. It brings me comfort reading about one of my favourite film stars but, at the same time, it breaks my heart knowing what she went through to achieve a devil’s dream instead of her own.
Rating = 4/5 stars
I read and reviewed this book for Raquel Stetcher’s #ClassicFilmReading challenge.