She was born at Kansas City, Missouri, the daughter of Mont Clair Carpenter, a dentist, and his wife, Jean Harlow Carpenter. Mother Jean, as she was called, divorced Harlean's father and moved to Hollywood with hopes of becoming an actress herself. Shortly afterward she remarried and moved to Chicago, where Jean attended high school. At the age of 16 Jean eloped with a wealthy young business man and the couple moved to Los Angeles, California.
Jean wanted only to be a wife and mother, but to please Mother Jean she looked for work as an extra in films. In the beginning Jean landed bit parts in silent films such as Why is a Plumber? (1927), Moran of the Marines (1928), and The Love Parade (1929). She has a more substantial role in Laurel and Hardy's short Double Whoopee (1929). By 1930, Jean and her husband had divorced, and she got her first major role when producer Howard Hughes cast her in the World War I film Hell's Angels (1930).
In 1931 Harlow began to gain popularity when she appeared in The public Enemy, Goldie, The Secret Six, with Clark Gable, and Platinum Blonde. In 1932 she had bigger roles in Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust, her second film with Clark Gable. Harlow and Gable worked well together, and starred in a total of six films together. It was during the making of Red Dust that Jeans second husband, MGM producer Paul Bern committed suicide.
By 1933 Jean was becoming a superstar. She had a great comedic part in Dinner at Eight, and later that year she starred in Bombshell. She was also married in 1933 for a short time to cinematographer Harold Rosson. Jean then starred in two more films with Clark Gable, China Seas (1935), and Wife vs Secretary (1936).
Following the end of her third marriage she met MGM star William Powell. They were engaged for two years, but before they could marry Jean became ill. While filming Saratoga (1937) with Clark Gable, she was hositalized with uremic poisoning and kidney failure, a result from scarlet fever she suffered from during childhood. She died shortly afterward at the age of 26, and is buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, in Los Angeles, California.