The death was ruled a suicide all to quickly by authorities – and as was the norm back then, the studio was called upon the discovery of Bern’s death, instead of the police. So what happened that fateful night?
Dorothy Millette checked out of the Plaza Hotel in San Francisco shortly after she heard on the radio that Jean Harlow’s husband was dead. She paid up her account — she’d been living at the hotel for four months — and booked a $3 stateroom on the Delta King riverboat. Riverboat officials would confirm Millette boarded later that day, Sept. 6, 1932.
She was seen a few times. A waiter remembered her at dinner, a pretty but exhausted woman who barely ate. At 2:30 a.m., a Walnut Creek man went for a restroom break on the top deck. There, he saw Millette, crying and gazing into the inky water. She didn’t seem to notice him.
Two hours later, a night watchman making the rounds found a woman’s coat and shoes on the deck. When the riverboat docked in the morning, Millette didn’t disembark. Delta King staff began searching for her.
In Beverly Hills, police at the home of Jean Harlow were also wondering where they could find Dorothy Millette. Harlow’s husband, MGM studio exec Paul Bern, was dead in the bathroom, a bullet in his head. In short order, police determined there was something strange about Bern’s personal history. It seemed Harlow wasn’t his only spouse.
His first wife, the woman he was still married to, was Dorothy Millette.!!!
So it should be no surprise that Bern was the one who got Harlow’s contract purchased and transferred from the not-as-notable Howard Hughes to the successful MGM studio.
After just months of dating, Bern purposed to Harlow and just two days later the couple wed. So little planning went into the wedding that it’s said that Harlow didn’t even wear a real wedding dress. 150 guests gather at the home of the Harlow’s mother and the couple was married on July 2ed 1932. According to reports, they both took just one day off and then went back to work.
After the nuptials, Harlow was reported looking “radiant” and happy… but the same cannot be said about Bern. He is said to have become a paler, haggard version of himself within weeks of the couples wedding. Rumors began to fly, as they usually do in Hollywood.
Some speculated that the source of the turmoil was the grand home that Bern had purchased in for Harlow in Benedict Canyon. The home is a two-story Bavarian-style mansion situated on a 5-acre lot in the Beverly Hills neighborhood. The home has since been split up into 3 separate homes, with the carriage houses being converted into full homes.
When Bern’s body was discovered by the household staff, the first call was not to the police — it was to MGM. The studio sent over its top fixers, who combed through the scene for two hours before police were summoned.
Of course, this compromised the scene. Two hours later, that’s when the police arrived to conduct their investigation. Studio head Louis B. Mayer told police that he had found a suicide note. It was simple, an apology to Harlow for something horrible that Bern had done.
They also informed Harlow her husband was dead. She spent the night of his suicide at her mother’s house.
Apparently they were told by her physician Harlow was:
QUOTE “too hysterical to undergo questioning at this time.”
It is said that she later did speak to authorities.
According to the Inquest – the night before his death (Saturday), Bern had sent Harlow to spend the evening with her mother who was apparently home alone. Harlow returned on Sunday and was sent away AGAIN by Bern under the guise that he had work to do- specifically scripts to read. When Harlow never heard from Bern, she apparently simply assumed that he had fallen asleep reading the scripts and thought nothing of it. But that is just one account – another states that Jean wanted to be alone that evening because she “had a headache” so she went back to her mother’s house for some space.
They found it through George G. Clarken, Bern’s Los Angeles insurance advisor. Clarken admitted Bern had never divorced Millette; in fact, he’d set up a trust fund for Millette. A lawyer in New York confirmed Bern’s secret marriage. He said he’d drawn up a will for Millette over a decade ago.
“I was always under the impression that Dorothy was his wife. I believe there was some legal marriage ceremony performed,” he told the Associated Press. “I heard somewhere that Mrs. Bern had died in a sanitarium. Bern had not mentioned her for years.”
The truth was Bern was in a common-law marriage with a woman named Dorothy Millette. The two met while they were actors in Toronto, but left when Bern decided to pursue a career in stage management. According to accounts, Millette’s health took a turn in the early 1920s so she went to a sanitarium.
Bern went west without Millette joining him. The two wrote letters. Bern supported her financially. Apparently cured, Milette was released from the hospital and moved into the Algonquin Hotel in New York and Bern made it a point to visit her every time he was in New York. Bern sent her a monthly stipend of $350, over $5,000 in today’s money. They wrote each other often. Letters found in Millette’s handbag at the Plaza Hotel were on MGM stationary. According to reports, she was apparently the sole beneficiary on Bern’s will up until his marriage to Harlow.
As it turns out, on March 17th 1932, just months before Bern wed Harlow, Bern received a letter from Milette stating that she was moving from New York to San Francisco. Bern apparently offered to pay for her life in New York if she continued to live there. She moved into the Plaza Hotel.
Bern, in the months before his wedding to Harlow, recommended Millette hotels in San Francisco where she was planning a trip. He even offered to fund it. He signed it: “My love and best wishes always.”
On Sept. 14, two fishermen near Walnut Grove found a body floating in the Sacramento River. In the week since Millette disappeared from the Delta King, the press had taken to calling her the “ghost wife.” Many speculated she had faked her death. Rumors started that a mystery woman was seen
with Bern the day before his suicide. Perhaps Millette, the spurned woman, had murdered Bern and gone on the run.
The case was widely investigated – as they were at that time –
One account states the recounts of those who worked for Bern:
"Davis (Bern’s Gardener) believed that it was a murder and QUOTE “I thought so from the beginning”, he said. He believed that the butler had lied about what happened. He testified that the butler told the police that Bern and Harlow were always hugging and kissing and that he sometimes overheard Bern talking of suicide. The gardener said that the opposite was actually true. He never thought that the couple got along that well and he had never once heard Mr. Bern talk about killing himself! He also said that he didn’t believe the suicide note was even in his employer’s handwriting.
The most exciting testimony came from Winifred Carmichael, Bern’s cook. She stated that a strange woman had been seen by the household staff
Apparently there are no records of the police dusting the glasses for prints, no bathing suit was taken into custody - but it was confirmed that the bathing suit WAS wet and WAS NOT Harlow’s size” Also, there are claims of blood by the pool. Different member of the staff at Bern’s house share the accounts of blood by the pool, yet they were never confirmed by authorities .
The first theory is that Bern really did kill himself. Feeling the pressures of life with his new wife, his apparent inability to please her, and his looming money problems – Bern felt trapped and that his only way out was suicide. He was apparently known throughout town for being near bankrupt – this was supposedly news to Harlow though – and the couple began fighting over finances. Was the level of financial pressure too much for him?
I feel like this theory is a stretch because the couple had only been married for a few months. If Bern really was that unhappy, why wouldn’t he just leave Harlow? Was it because he couldn’t pay her out in a divorce? Or … was someone blackmailing him. With his secret love and his apparent money problems, Bern would have been the perfect target.
Another theory is that Harlow killed Bern. Whether it was rage or jealously and his undying love for Milette, his lack of performance in their relationships, and his deception to her on the financial side of things - Harlow was fed up with his mediocre performance as a husband and killed him. It is speculated that the note found by the studio execs was not actually a suicide note at all but actually an apology note from a fight the couple had previously. They execs decided that a suicide would look better for the studio (and Harlow) rather than letting the public know that a woman had killed one of their most powerful employees. So, they made up the story to protect the reputations of the studio, Bern and Harlow.
Harlow claimed that she knew nothing of Milette… she kept this up even when close friends and family of Bern came forward saying that Harlow did in fact know Milette and was awared of her presence in Bern’s life. I don’t think that sat well with the Hollywood starlet.
On account states QUOTE “The servants, whose quarters were located outside at the other end of the property, claimed to hear a scream after the gunshot. If Dorothy had killed him, why would she have screamed right after shooting him? Perhaps Jean shot Paul. Dorothy could have been so shaken by it that she screamed and ran for her life out of the house and down to the limo that had been waiting for her as ordered by Paul.
That would make sense as to why she left her bathing suit behind and why she didn’t even stop to pick up the shoe that had fallen off as she was running away. That also explains why she told the limo driver not to stop but to keep driving faster.”
Something I’d like to know – was their gun power on Bern’s head. If it were a suicide, there would have to be gun power, if it was a murder, there might not have been any.
Continuing on the thought that Harlow did in fact know about Milette and was riddled with jealousy – could Harlow have tried to get Milette out of her life on her own?
That same account from earlier states that Harlow had taken a day trip up to see San Francisco (where Milette) lived just months before Bern’s death. It is said that she stayed only an hour before returning to Los Angeles. Did she go up there to confront Milette? Question her on her relationship with Bern? Plot her murder?
Something that is also interesting to note is that according to reports, Bern’s will had originally included Milette and a payment of $1,200 per month in perputity. That was changed just weeks after Bern and Harlow were married. The new will left Bern’s entire state to Harlow.
Another theory is that Milette killed Bern and then killed herself. Distraught over being banished to a mental hospital and Bern starting over with a young Hollywood beauty, Milette sought revenge for the life she felt should have been hers. If that is the case, I wonder what would have happened if Harlow HAD been home that evening… would Bern and Harlow both have ended up dead?
Then there is the theory that Jean’s mother is behind Bern’s death. Stay with me on this one because it’s a doozy. The theory goes like this:
Momma Jean was known to be loud, in your face and had alleged connections to the mob. Apparently she was fed up with her son in law due to the problems in his marriage to her beloved daughter and the scandal of him having a secret first wife.
Jean and her mom were now strangers to the mob world and her mother had a reputation for getting what she wanted. That same account from earlier states this as a fact: QUOTE “Jean had dated a gangster, who was known as The Al Capone of New Jersey, and he had allegedly “taken care of some blackmailers” who had threatened to go public with nude photographs of Jean in 1917.” So this wouldn’t be the first time that Jean’s mother had allowed to mob to step in and clean up a mess for Harlow.
And on top of that – Bern was basically broke and needed Harlow to support himself AND Milette. QUOTE “Paul was secretly broke and it was evident he was spending more than he was taking in. He mortgaged his home on Easton Drive for almost the face value of the home, He then deeded it to his wife, making it look like he gave her a wedding gift even though Jean didn’t like the house.” End quote.
So could Harlow’s mother – her husband – or Jean Harlow herself set the whole thing up? Did they know that Milette was coming to see Bern that weekend? Did they quote un quote “take care of Bern” and Milette witnessed the whole thing, got spooked and ran, only to later be tracked down and pushed overboard of the ship?
As with most of these cases, there are so many theories with so many outcomes. But my gut tells me that it was a murder. What I think happened was Harlow did in fact know about Dorothy Milette and Bern’s ongoing relations with her (he allegedly had relations with his secretary too). I think that she was tired of playing second fiddle in her own marriage and fed up with Bern’s financials.
Let me explain – I do think that she was the one who perused Bern due to his connections at MGM. Bern – knowing if he got her contract purchased by MGM she would owe him – made the transaction happen and then purposed to Harlow to ensure that he would get access to the new cash flow she would have. Harlow agreed and married Bern and after doing so realized his financial situation. After being quote “gifted” the house, having to put up with Bern’s lack of sexual relations to her and the knowledge of his mistress, Harlow had enough. I think that Harlow invited Milette over with the intention of making it look like a murder suicide – playing off of Milette’s reputation of being mentall unstable. Things didn’t go as plan and Harlow was able to kill Bern and Milette got spooked and ran. I think that she was tracked down by someone and killed discreetly in order to finish the job and allow Harlow to keep her reputation.
And what about the suicide note? It is alleged that the note came from a personal diary of Bern’s and was not written as a stand-alone note. Apparently, one of the studio execs who arrived before the police took the diary from Bern’s house and searched it looking for ANYTHING he could use to give to the police as a suicide note in order to avoid the scandal of a murder. Another theory is that the note was faked all together by one of the execs as it was turned in later to the police.
Harlow never spoke publicly about Bern’s death and married for the last time in 1933. A divorce quickly followed.
Although just 26 in 1937, Harlow’s health was starting to fail. She fainted on the set of "Saratoga." It was initially thought she had the flu, but she presented other symptoms: bloating, vision loss, grey skin. A doctor brought in for a second opinion realized what was happening. Harlow was dying of kidney failure. Less than week after the diagnosis, Harlow slipped into a coma and died. MGM, the industrious assembly line of movie studios, closed the day of her funeral.