Friday, January 22, 2010

77 years ago, Jean Harlow came home to KCK

LEGENDARY SCREEN SIREN JEAN HARLOW posed on her grandmother's front steps with Kansas City, Kansas neighborhood children while visiting her grandmother in 1933. Behind Harlow are (from left) Bernadine Frances Martin, Betty June Lobb and Merle Kelly Arnold. Beside Harlow are Dorothy Rose Martin and (standing) Dorestine Martin. ~Photo courtesy of Merle Arnold.
By Steve Crum

Jean Harlow, MGM’s superstar Blonde Bombshell of the 1930’s, never forgot her Kansas City, Kansas roots. Born in 1911 at 3344 Olive on the Missouri side of Kansas City, Harlow did most of her growing up in KCK. Several Kansas City, Kansas residents remember her well.

Bernadine (Martin) Pretz lived across the street from Harlow’s grandmother, whose house was as 2304 N. 12th St., in KCK. On June 21, 1933, Jean Harlow had just toured the World’s Fair in Chicago, and returned to visit her grandmother. Pretz was a 9 year-old fourth grader who grabbed her two sisters and ran home to get autograph books when “Mom” Harlow, Jean’s grandmother, told them that Jean would sign them after she rested a bit.

“All the kids would string up and down sidewalks to get a glimpse,” said another neighborhood child witness to Harlow’s visit that day, Merle K. Arnold. Merle’s wife, Marguerite, then also a neighbor, describes the house as a “big Victorian house.” She said Jean’s grandfather, S.D. Harlow, made a lucrative living selling real estate. It was a hot June day that Bernadine and Merle would never forget. In fact, they have pictures to refresh their memories. (See one of them at right.) Bernadine’s uncle was Kansas City Star reporter John Martin, and he made sure a cameraman was present when Harlow emerged. It was a pretty grand entrance, captured on film.

“She came out wearing a white chiffon negligee with silver T-strapped high heels, no hose, and red nails,” Pretz said.

Arnold will never forget the silver aura either. “Sit behind me on the step,” Harlow told the boy, as Pretz and her sisters flanked them. Copies of the picture, forever 8x10 glossies, are still displayed in both the Pretz and Arnold homes. The original photo ran in The Kansas City Star. Arnold still remembers getting to ride in Harlow’s car.

While Marguerite Arnold did not get to pose with Harlow, she talks fondly of going into the grandmother’s house every Halloween wherein Mom Harlow would give cookies and things to the kids. Ever present, she said, was the full-sized color portrait propped up in the dining room.

Bernadine, wife of KCK physician Dr. Jim Pretz, points out that “Jean’s first name was originally Harlow, but her parents, the Carpenters, thought it too masculine, so it was changed to Harlean.” Later, she said, her last name was changed to Harlow, a reference to both her original first name and her grandparents’ last name. As for the grandmother, “Mrs. Harlow lived in Bonner Springs, Ks.,” said Pretz, “but when her husband died, she moved to KCK.’

Mabel Van Hooser never met the Harlows, but recalls seeing the houses on both Olive and 12th Street. She also has collected Jean Harlow press clippings from 60+ years ago.

A written remembrance escaped from Bernadine Pretz after she left her lifelong autograph book out for friends to peruse at a gathering years ago. “After everyone left, I noticed that several pages of autographs had been torn out.” Among them was the 1933 Harlow signature. A Jean Harlow autograph fetches over two thousand dollars these days.

Although the Missouri-based Kansas City Star covered Harlow’s 1933 visit to KCK, The local Kansas City Kansan newspaper decided not to do so. According to Pretz’s Uncle John, the Star reporter, “The Kansan newspaper did not want anything to do with Jean Harlow because they didn’t like the image she projected.”

That bad girl image--sexy, sharp tongued and tough--has sustained Jean Harlow’s star status since her 1937 death at 26 of uremic poisoning.
Enjoy this clip of Hollywood's original platinum blonde Jean Harlow, with Clark Gable in 1932's RED DUST:

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