Beautiful Dead Blondes

Posted by on October 14th

From Jean Harlow to Jean Seberg every generation seems to have a dead blonde, Kennedy Wilson untangles the myth

Back in the 1930s Jean Harlow – the first sex goddess – was the insolent, fast-talking, gum-chewing dame who could outsmart any man.” Her co-stars included Jimmy Cagney and Clark Gable who said of her, “she didn’t want to be famous; she just wanted to be happy.” Jean Harlow’s trademark was the slinky bias-cut satin gowns she wore, which clung to her in “all the right places” – so much so that rumour had it she was a stranger to underwear.

In black-and-white movies her platinum blonde hair shone like an ethereal halo. The expression ’no good will come of her’ could have been coined for Harlow (or Hollywood’s image of Harlow). When she kept stressing the t in the actress Margot Asquith’s first name, the latter finally snapped: “The t is silent, like the t in Harlow.”

Jean’s demise was a pathetic one. She died of carelessly undiagnosed kidney disease. 

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were the king and queen of Hollywood. Lombard was in a succession of screwball comedies like Mr and Mrs Smith (1941). She and Gable were an item, the ’it couple’ of the day. But one night Gable received a phone call. The aeroplane Carole was in crashed and she was killed aged only 24. It was said Gable was never quite the same again. 

Ennio Guarnieri, Nico and Federico Fellini on the set of La Dolce Vita, 1960

The mysterious death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962 was altogether different. Marilyn’s career and looks were slipping away. She was a gifted actor, singer and dancer but plagued by assorted insecurities. She became an icon of America in the 1950s and famously sang the Happy Birthday song to President Kennedy with whom she was rumoured to be having an affair. And then… she was gone. But of course she never truly went away. In 1962 Andy Warhol produced a whole series of Marilyn screen prints, he would of course constantly return to the themes of death and celebrity and found his own dead blonde in Edie Sedgwick, his muse, who died at the age of 28 when she OD’d on barbiturates. 

In 1973 the American novelist Norman Mailer’s coffee table biography brought Marilyn Monroe back to life for a new generation. An entire industry grew up feeding fans of the star with merchandise, documentaries, books and biopics. It seemed impossible that such a talented radiant creature as Marilyn could have been unhappy enough to end her own life – that she had no one to turn to. 

Fans seemed to say: “I could have saved her. I would have done anything…” Marilyn and Princess Diana (another dead blonde) share a theme tune in Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s maudlin ditty Candle in the Wind.

Nico was a German fashion model whose beauty in turn proved to be her curse. Her cameo in Fellini’s ground- breaking art film La Dolce Vita (1960) in which, brilliantly, the director gave her a role as herself, stands out. 

Dead blondes have become the ultimate mythical victim of pop culture, their strength and talent being totally eclipsed by their early deaths

Compared with everyone else in the film she appears to have stepped from another planet – her long straight hair, her pellucid eyes, her deep sexy voice (once described as the sound of a body falling through a window). She, in her turn, went on to become the singer with Andy Warhol’s house band the Velvet Underground before going solo and discovering heroin to which she became addicted. She later lost her looks, dying her natural blonde hair dark and ringing her eyes with heavy kohl. She is recorded as saying, “I wasn’t happy when I was beautiful.” 

She is also the subject of this year’s Manchester International Festival’s The Nico Project starring Maxine Peake who has said of the piece that she wanted to help rescue Nico’s story from being “colonised by men for so long.” After a chequered singing career Nico died in 1988 on holiday in Ibiza. She was on her way to buy drugs on a bicycle and had a stroke. She had just turned 50. 

Quentin Tarantino’s summer blockbuster Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood resurrects another dead star: Sharon Tate played by Margot Robbie. The 26-year-old Tate was horribly murdered 50 years ago and was a pivotal character in the Manson murders of 1969.

In the era of #MeToo Tarantino’s opus has been criticised for making the Tate character peripheral by giving Robbie so few lines of dialogue. The film’s highlighting of a woman famous for being a victim seems a particular misstep. It is horribly true, however, that beautiful dead blondes have become the ultimate mythical victim of pop culture, their strength and talent being totally eclipsed by their early deaths.

A forthcoming movie bucks the trend and sees Kristin Stewart play the lead in Seberg a political thriller that focuses on how the American actress Jean Seberg was targeted by the FBI for her political views – she was active in black civil rights. Some say Seberg was hounded to her death at the age of 40 thanks to the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Programme. 

Cointelpro set out to hunt out subversives by fair means or foul. This meant stalking, surveillance, intimidation and general harassment. The story of Seberg is a shameful episode. Ended with the death of this intelligent and Francophile actress at the age of 40. It also perfectly illustrates the post-post-feminist concerns of today.

Twitter @kenwilson84

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