Picks and Pans Review: Deadly Illusions: Jean Harlow and the Murder of Paul Bern
updated 11/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 11/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST
On Labor Day morning, 1932, movie producer Paul Bern was found dead, a single bullet through his brain, in the bedroom of the home he shared with his bride of only two months, Jean Harlow. The blond bombshell, whom Bern had helped groom for stardom, was not at home, having spent the previous evening at her mother's house. It was soon officially decided that Bern had committed suicide, for unknown motives. The unofficial story, put out by Louis B. Mayer at MGM, where both Harlow and Bern worked, was that the German-born producer was impotent and had killed himself because he couldn't fulfill his husbandly duties to a bride half his age. The impotence story, complete with a suicide note ("You understand that last night was only a comedy") and embellishments about his being a sadist or a homosexual, has been repeated as gospel in Harlow biographies.
Now, 58 years after Bern's death, Marx, a longtime movie and TV producer who was MGM's story editor in 1932 and a pal of Bern's, tries to solve the case. With the help of Joyce Vanderveen, a dancer-actress turned sidekick-investigator, he indeed does explain Bern's death—well, kind of.
The authors do not get a confession or find incriminating fingerprints, but they do build a strong case that Bern was murdered. They use dogged detective work (poring over musty coroner's reports and inquest transcripts), follow up on forgotten leads and benefit from an old Hollywood connection. They have to use these secondary methods of crime solving since those directly connected to the case are long dead, including Harlow (in 1937), Mayer, and Bern's mysterious common-law wife.
In playing gumshoe, Marx also passes on a good deal of Hollywood lore. Much of this is interesting, but just as much reads as if Marx is padding the book, since it's obvious early on who is the likely murderer.
Still, this is a minor carp—given the star names, luxe settings, tragic secrets and gunplay to be found here. All that is missing is a knockout final confession scene, without which this is the literary equivalent of a B-plus picture, despite A picture ingredients. (Random House, $19.95)