I found this handy, purse-sized Lady Anne hair net in an online auction for under $10 about 15 years ago. The sultry blonde on the envelope is the epitome of 1930s glamour, with her pencil-thin eyebrows, liberally applied blush, eyelashes so heavy with mascara they could cast shadows on her cheeks, and glossy lips drawn horizontally, a departure from the bee-stung look of the previous decade. The woman, with her fashionable makeup and perfectly coiffed blonde tresses, evokes the original Blonde Bombshell: Jean Harlow.
Harlow’s meteoric rise to fame gave her studio, MGM, the idea of producing a film based on her life. They found the bare bones of a similar story when they came across an unproduced play called Bombshell, a sad look at a much-abused, long-suffering actress so exploited by her family that she was ultimately driven to suicide. Victor Fleming, who would direct Bombshell for the screen, brainstormed with producer Hunt Stromberg and writer Lee Mahin to adapt the play as a vehicle for Harlow. They decided to turn it into a comedy satirizing Hollywood fame and fortune.
Photograph by George Hurrell
The story follows movie star Lola Burns, known to her fans as the “Blonde Bombshell,” as she deals with the demands of her studio’s publicity department and a family of world-class parasites. It may have been fiction, but when it opened in October 1933, Bombshell came awfully close to holding a mirror up to Harlow’s own personal and professional life. Her mom, Jean Bello, put the mother in smother, as she hovered over and extorted money from her talented daughter, who had succeeded where she, Mama Jean, had failed as an actress. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship that would arguably play a pivotal role in Harlow’s premature death from uremic poisoning at age 26.
Holding the Lady Anne hair net envelope in my hands, I’m reminded that no matter how tragic her death, it’s Jean Harlow’s skill and style for which she will be remembered. Her platinum-blonde hair was a wonderfully ethereal confection—she appeared to be from another world. Like actor Franchot Tone says in Bombshell, “Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I’d like to run barefoot through it.” Who could blame him?
Joan Renner is an L.A.-based writer, lecturer, and social historian with an expert knowledge of vintage beauty products. She blogs at The Clutch once a week and writes about cosmetics and beauty history at her Web site, Vintage Powder Room.