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» » Deadly Illusions
Deadly Illusions


Samuel Marx


Deadly Illusions


Biographies & Memoris

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Dell (September 1, 1991)




True Crime

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Deadly Illusions: Jean Harlow and the Murder of Paul Bern

Samuel Marx was a story editor in Hollywood and knew many of the people mentioned in this book. Joyce Vanderveen was a leading ballerina in Europe and an actress in Hollywood. On a September Monday in 1932 Marx received a phone call about the death of Paul Bern, who had married Jean Harlow in July. Chapter 2 tells how the Hollywood studios switched to talking films. The ‘Saturday Evening Post’ provided serials and short stories that provided sources for Hollywood films. Its “Red Headed Woman” was adopted to a film and made Jean Harlow a star (Chapter 3). The next chapter tells how Bern’s death was reported as a suicide, and the effect on MGM. In Chapter 5 we learn about Bern’s “Phantom Wife”, who had been placed in a sanatorium. The next week the body of Dorothy Millette was found in the Sacramento River; she had been Bern’s common law wife.

In Chapter 6 Marx explains how “Gone With The Wind” was rejected by MGM; David Selznick, Mayer’s son in law, bought the film rights. Jean Harlow died at 26, Marx says her life could have been saved by sulfa drugs (p.72). Chapter 7 tells of Marx’s later career in films and with Desilu Productions. “The Thin Man” TV show was in the 1950s when Peter Lawford’s brother in law was a Senator from Massachusetts (p.78). Irving Shulman’s “Harlow” falsified many incidents. New interest in Bern’s death resulted in a TV interview (Chapter 8). Joyce Vanderveen questioned the story of a coma (p.88). Chapter 9 has the early life of Paul Bern and Harlean Carpenter (Jean Harlow was her mother’s maiden name). Baby Jean had been married to Charles McGrew from 1927 to 1930. Would Paul Bern have taken out life insurance just before his death if suicide would have invalidated it (p.110)?

Marx and Vanderveen began investigating the probate records (Chapter 10). Quotations from the inquest are in Chapter 12. Can you believe Charles Higham’s story (p.154)? How many scandals were covered up (pp.163 164)? Chapter 15 has different opinions as to Paul Bern’s character. The censorship of Hollywood is discussed in Chapter 16. [Was the real reason not with morals but with any political criticisms?] Did the “talkies” have more influence on people than silent films? Chapter 19 tells of the long hidden documents of the events after the body was found (pp.212 214). Who was the mystery woman seen that night (p.216)? After Dorothy Millette was found in the Sacramento River an inquest was held into her death (Chapter 21). The ‘Epilogue’ contains the final clue (pp.256 257).

This is a very interesting book about life in 1930s Hollywood, where fantasies were concocted into reality so people could pay for this entertainment. Show business is the tranquilizer of humanity, for those whose mundane life needs a break from reality. This book reads like a detective mystery, but has no surprising ending. The details of life in those days reminds me of the novels of Raymond Chandler or Erle Stanley Gardner (whose novels were set in Los Angeles).
This is an outstanding book, well investigated and beautifully written about the death of producer Paul Bern, the husband of actress Jean Harlow. This is a gripping story that engages the readers as the author unfolds the scandals behind it. The author Sam Marx is a MGM insider and its story editor for many years and also a producer who knew Paul Bern and Jean Harlow personally and he was one of the first to arrive at the Bern-Harlow estate on Easton Drive of Benedict Canyon on Labor Day of 1932. By this time police were not yet called but Louis B. Mayer, the MGM boss had already come and gone. Los Angels Times reported that Bern's death is mystifying and stated that there were variances in servants accounts. The crime scene investigation revealed that there was a suicide note, but the author concludes that it was an apology written by Bern to Harlow few days ago for a minor domestic altercation. The crime scene details also casts doubt on the theory that he shot himself since the position, blood splatter, and the position of gun found at the scene does not support this theory. But Paul's death added an extra dimension to the constant and frenzied wheeling and dealing of picture making at MGM. Studio bosses were at the Bern estate for six or seven hours before cops rolled in. They knew something others did not, and they were covering up something before it became a big scandal and blow in the face of the studio. The studio executives concluded that Bern's death is a suicide and the suicide note would support this theory. The studio also obtained a medical certificate from studio physician that Bern had medical problems related to impotence and he no longer could satisfy his beautiful wife, so he committed suicide. It was felt that this story is least likely to hurt the studio. This theory is countered by several other studio managers who argued with executives that Bern had been with many women and some of them could testify about his virility. In addition Bern was married to Dorothy Millette and had been cohabitating for several years. On the night of Bern's death, Dorothy Millette who had been in coma for several years in NY recovered and had been in San Francisco and she was visiting Bern in his house in LA, in spite of the fact he didn't want to see her and she knew he is married to Harlow. Harlow was unaware of his first marriage and hence to avoid embarrassment, he shot himself. This was the first theory of the author based on his understnding of the case, but he changes that to murder by Dorothy Mellette who was scorned by Bern. It is also her mental condition that may have contributed her sudden murderous rage. Two days after Bern's death Millette committed suicide by jumping from a ferryboat traveling from San Francisco to Sacramento. Paul Bern apparently used his secretary in the studio's to send Millette the bank checks for years to support her. And he also visited her when he went to NY.

Marino Bello, the husband of mother Harlow may be another suspect. Apparently he was an opportunist who was using Harlow's connection with MGM to make him big in movie industry, but the executives strongly disliked him. Before she became a star, he even persuaded her to date mafia in NY. He had connections with bad guys. The author recalls that Bello was jealous about a much older Paul Bern marrying his beautiful step-daughter, but this theory doesn't have strong support.

There is also plenty of history written in the book about the rise of Jean Harlow to stardom and the difficulties she faced with reluctant MGM studio bosses Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer to cast her for first successful movie, Red Headed Woman. The author also recalls the struggles in movie making business, the politics and briefly touches upon the work life of other MGM stars like; Buster Keaton, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Norma Shearer, Clark Gable, and Joan Crawford.

1. Paul Bern: The Life and Famous Death of the MGM Director and Husband of Harlow
2. By Love Reclaimed: Jean Harlow Returns to Clear Her Husband's Name
Samuel Marx was hired at MGM by producer Paul Bern and became a close friend. He ultimately rose to the position of chief story editor during the busiest period of the industry. When Bern, who married MGM's blonde screen bombshell Jean Harlow, died of what was ruled a suicide, a skeptical Marx began sleuthing, unwilling to believe the conclusion that had been reached.
"Deadly Illusions" represents Marx's effort to solve what has become a longstanding mystery in Hollywood, with many unconvinced, as was the MGM story editor, that Bern had died of a self-administered gunshot wound. Marx concludes that MGM executive Eddie Mannix, operating as studio boss L.B. Mayer's troubleshooter, rigged the suicide attempt to cover up a dark secret about Bern's past, which resulted in his being murdered. To reveal more would be to give away the suspense which should be the reader's discovery.
This is a book that depicts Hollywood during a glorious period of productivity. Marx was a busy on the scene participant and makes you as a reader feel that you were an intimate part of it as well.

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