December 3, 1889
Wandsbek, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany (now Hamburg, Germany)
|Died||September 5, 1932
Beverly Hills, California
|Cause of death||Gunshot wound|
|Resting place||Inglewood Park Cemetery|
|Occupation||Screenwriter, director, producer|
|Spouse(s)||Jean Harlow (m. 1932–32)|
Paul Bern (December 3, 1889 – September 5, 1932) was a German-born American film director, screenwriter and producer for MGM, where he became the assistant to Irving Thalberg. He helped to launch the career of Jean Harlow, whom he married in July 1932; two months later, he was found dead of a gunshot wound, leaving what appeared to be a suicide note. Various alternate theories of his death have been proposed. Film producer Samuel Marx believed that he was killed by his ex-common law wife Dorothy Millette, who jumped to her death from a ferry soon afterwards.
Early life and career
Bern was born Paul Levy in Wandsbek, which was then a town in the Prussian province of Schleswig-Holstein (now a district of the city of Hamburg). He was one of six children of Julius and Henriette (née Hirsch) Levy, a Jewish couple. Julius worked as a clerk for a shipping company before opening a candy store. In 1898, Julius decided to move the family to the United States due to the rise of unemployment and anti-Jewish attitudes in Wandsbek. The family eventually settled in New York City. Julius Levy died in 1908. In 1920, Henriette Levy drowned herself, possibly as a threat to keep her beloved son from marrying.
Bern pursued a career in acting on the stage and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He later adopted the stage name "Paul Bern". Bern soon realized he had little aptitude for acting and pursued other aspects of theater production. He worked as a stage manager for a time before moving to Hollywood in the early 1920s. He was initially a film editor before he worked his way up to scenario writing and directing for United Artists and Paramount Pictures. This led to his working full-time as a producer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the major studio of the time. Bern eventually became the production assistant of Irving Thalberg and then a producer on the MGM lot in his own right.
The star-studded film Grand Hotel, released six days after Bern's death, won the Best Picture Academy Award for 1931–32. Bern and Thalberg produced the film, although neither was listed in the film credits (in the early 1930s MGM did not list their films' producers in their credits). However, the award was presented solely to Thalberg, since Bern, being deceased, obviously could not also accept it.
While living in New York City, Bern lived with his common-law wife Dorothy Millette. Bern financially supported Millette who reportedly suffered from mental and emotional problems and ended up in a Connecticut sanatorium. Millette traveled to Los Angeles in September 1932 where she reportedly visited Bern on the night of his death. Her body was found in the Sacramento River two days after Bern's death. It was later determined that she had committed suicide by jumping from the Delta King steamboat.
Bern met actress Jean Harlow shortly before the premiere of Hell's Angels in 1930. Bern was instrumental in helping Harlow's career as he was the only person who took her seriously as an actress. The two struck up a friendship and eventually began dating. They announced their engagement in June 1932 and married on July 2, 1932.
Two months after marrying Jean Harlow, on September 5, Bern was found dead from a gunshot to the head in their home on Easton Drive in Beverly Hills, California. The coroner ruled his death a suicide.
Police discovered a note at the scene that read as follows:
Unfortuately [sic] this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation, I Love [sic] you.
You understand that last night was only a comedy"
Authorities viewed this as a suicide note signed by Bern. To the police, and before a grand jury, Harlow's only statement was that she "knew nothing". Harlow never publicly spoke on the matter. She died in 1937.
Two thousand people attended Bern's funeral held on September 9, 1932 at the Grace Chapel at the Inglewood Park Cemetery. Conrad Nagel delivered the eulogy. Bern was cremated, and his ashes were interred in the Golden West Mausoleum at Inglewood Park Cemetery.
Investigation reopened, 1960
In the November 1960 issue of Playboy, screenwriter Ben Hecht questioned the official verdict of Bern's death, causing renewed interest in the case. Hecht suggested that Bern was murdered by an unnamed woman and that the investigation into Bern's death was a "suicide whitewash". Hecht went on to say that the explanation of Bern's suicide "would be less a black eye for their [MGM's] biggest movie making heroine. It might crimp her [Harlow's] box office allure to have her blazoned as a wife who couldn't hold her husband". The article prompted Los Angeles County District Attorney William B. McKesson to reopen the case, but McKesson later closed it stating, "When I ordered the record check I assumed Hecht was still a responsible reporter. It now appears...that he apparently was peddling a wild and unconfirmed rumor as fact."
In 1990, film producer Samuel Marx, a friend and MGM colleague of both Bern and Irving Thalberg, published a book giving a different version of Bern's death. Marx, at the time MGM's Story Editor (the head of the screenwriting department) said he had gone to Bern's house in the early morning of 5 September 1932, before the police were notified of the body's discovery, and had seen Thalberg tampering with the evidence. The next day, he had been among the studio executives who were told by Louis B. Mayer that the case would have to be ruled "suicide because of impotence" in order to avoid a scandal which would have finished Harlow's film career. Marx, after reviewing the evidence, concluded that Bern was murdered by his abandoned common law wife Dorothy Millette, who then committed suicide by drowning, jumping overboard from the Delta King on the way from San Francisco to Sacramento, California.
- Head over Heels (1922)
- Open All Night (1924)
- Flower of the Night (1925)
- The Woman Racket (uncredited, 1930)
- Anna Christie (1930)
- Greater Than Love (1919)
- The Christian (1923)
- The Marriage Circle (1924)
- Men (1924)
- Prince of Tempters (1926)
- The Beloved Rogue (1927)
- The Dove (1927)
- Grand Hotel (1932)
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- Fleming 2009 p.203
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- "Jean Harlow To Marry: Star and Paul Bern, Film Executive, File Intent on the Coast.". The New York Times. June 21, 1932. p. 19.
- Ghaffari, Michelle (1995). Mystery and Mayhem: Tales of Lust, Murder, Madness, and Disappearance. MetroBooks. ISBN 1-56799-176-9.
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- Marx, Deadly Illusions
- Samuel Marx and Joyce Vanderveen: Deadly Illusions (Random House, New York, 1990), re-published as Murder Hollywood Style - Who Killed Jean Harlow's Husband? (Arrow, 1994, ISBN 0-09-961060-4)