The Mysterious Death of Paul Bern
9820-9860 Easton Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
September 5, 1932
On September 5, 1932, the body of MGM executive, Paul Bern was found in with a bullet hole in his head lying front of a mirror drenched in his wife’s favorite perfume in the master bedroom of their Beverly hills mansion. His wife? None other than the notorious famewhore Jean Harlow. His body was found with a suicide note that read "Dearest Dear, Unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation, I Love you. Paul. You understand that last night was only a comedy."
I’m your host Ansley and welcome to Hollywoodland: Unsolved.
I must warn you that this episode may be frightening to listeners under the age if 13, so listener digression is advised.
The death was ruled a suicide all to quickly by authorities – and as was the norm back then, the studio was called upon the discovery of Bern’s death, instead of the police. So what happened that fateful night?
Paul Bern was born in Germany in 1889 as Paul Levy. He left school at just 14 but has been described as being one of the most brilliant minds in Hollywood. Some even call him a genius. After leaving school, Bern made his way to New York where he worked as a stage actor before transitioning to work for a film company in Toronto, Canada. In 1926 at the age of 37, he moved to Los Angeles where he stayed until his death 6 years later.
Bern worked as a quote “film cutter” and script editor before transitioning to directing. After working on a few pictures, he began his job as a supervisor at MGM.
Bern has been described as being… well, less than attractive. With a small frame and quote “only as tall as a girl,” Bern is not the type one would expect to bag a hot Hollywood starlet. But, he did have a sensitive side that was well loved throughout Hollywood – he was nicknamed “Hollywood’s Father Confessor.”
He married Jean Harlow in July of 1932.
Jean Harlow born Harlean Carpenter to a successful dentist and his wife - was a stunning up and comer from Kansas City, Missouri. She moved to Los Angeles with her then husband Charles McGrew. Harlow struggled to find parts and her marriage to McGrew crumbled. After their split, Harlow won the lead role in the talkie remake of “Hell’s Angels” and became an overnight success. Everyone wanted a piece of this stunning new actress. Her staples were her bleach blonde hair and plunging neckline – and she never left the house without them… so much so that the Los Angeles Times called her “sexquisit.”
Gossip columns recounted her every move and she loved it. She was seen with the top producers and directors in Hollywood and wasted no time using her good looks and charm to help her climb the Hollywood ladder.
So it should be no surprise that Bern was the one who got Harlow’s contract purchased and transferred from the not-as-notable Howard Hughes to the mega successful MGM studio. That’s the kind of boyfriend any Hollywood ladder climber would want if you ask me.
After just months of dating, Bern purposed to Harlow and just two days later the couple wed. So little planning went into the wedding that it’s said that Harlow didn’t even wear a real wedding dress. 150 guests gather at the home of the Harlow’s mother and the couple was married on July 2ed 1932. According to reports, they both took just one day off and then went back to work.
Their marriage was short lived though, just over 4 months after the couple got married – Bern was found with a bullet hole to the head in the home he shared with Harlow.
After the nuptials, Harlow was reported looking “radiant” and happy… but the same cannot be said about Bern. He is said to have become a paler, haggard version of himself within weeks of the couples wedding. Rumors began to fly, as they usually do in Hollywood.
Some speculated that the source of the turmoil was the grand home that Bern had purchased in for Harlow in Benedict Canyon. The home is a two-story Bavarian-style mansion situated on a 5-acre lot in the Beverly Hills neighborhood. The home has since been split up into 3 separate homes, with the carriage houses being converted into full homes.
It is reported that Harlow was not a fan of the home and wanted to sell it while Bern wanted to keep it and build a home there together.
That seems very interesting to me… that a couple would have THAT level of contempt over a house. It’s possible I guess….
QUOTE “On September 5, 1932, just four months after his marriage to Jean Harlow, Paul Bern was found shot to death in the house. Bern’s butler found his body in his wife’s all-white bedroom. He was nude, sprawled in front of a full-length mirror and drenched in Jean’s favorite perfume. He had been shot in the head with a .38 caliber revolver, which was still laying by his side.”
And on top of that Bern had left a cryptic note for Harlow on the side table in the bedroom that read read "Dearest Dear, Unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation, I Love you. Paul. You understand that last night was only a comedy."
Wait…. What?!? Bern’s butler is the one who found him and yep – just like in basically every other mysterious death or murder of that time, the butler called the STUDIO where Bern worked instead of the police. The studio heads came rushing over to Bern’s house. Yet, no one had called the police.
The first to arrive at Bern’s house was MGM co-founder Louis B Mayer, followed by two other studio execs W.P. Hendry who was MGM’s chief of security and Irving Thalberg – the other co-founder of MGM.
What happened next is unknown to anyone than those 3 men because after their arrival on scene they waited a whopping 2 hours to notify the police of Bern’s death.
What did they do during those two hours? What were they trying to cover up?
What we do know is that Mayer took the note left by Bern. It isn’t clear as to what his intentions were, but at the advice of the studio, he turned the note over to the authorities.
What interested me the most about the note is the last section “You understand that last night was only a comedy.” What is he referring to?
The cops examined the note and could make nothing of it. They then went to Harlow’s mother’s home to question her. At that time, it was unclear to the authorities why Ms. Harlow had not spent the night in her home with her husband.
Apparently they were told by her physician Harlow was QUOTE “too hysterical to undergo questioning at this time.” That seems a bit weird… doesn’t it? But then again, grief is a weird thing. It is said that she later did speak to authorities but QUOTE “was not called as a witness at the inquest, which is unusual to say the least.”
According to the Inquest – the night before his death (Saturday), Bern had sent Harlow to spend the evening with her mother who was apparently home alone. Harlow returned on Sunday and was sent away AGAIN by Bern under the guise that he had work to do- specifically scripts to read. When Harlow never heard from Bern, she apparently simply assumed that he had fallen asleep reading the scripts and thought nothing of it. But that is just one account – another states that Jean wanted to be alone that evening because she “had a headache” so she went back to her mother’s house for some space.
I’m sorry… what?! If he didn’t spend the evening with his wife the night before his death what does “you understand LAST NIGHT was only a comedy” mean?! This testimony from Harlow raises a lot of questions that the authorities never answered.
Either way – Harlow has told TWO different stories as to why she wasn’t at their home that night. That seems strange and worth looking into, right?
Apparently not. Instead, they went with the easy route and deemed it a suicide.
Yet the continued to investigate and they allegedly learned that Bern was suffering from QUOTE “physical infirmity” … which apparently made sex with Harlow impossible. So was it embarrassment that made him send Harlow to his mother’s house? And the “comedy” her refers to in the note is his impedance?
For a studio big wig with a hot Hollywood starlet for a new wife, this would be enough to embarrass anyone. But to the point of death? I think that might be a bit extreme.
But the story doesn’t stop there – according to reports, there was another woman in Bern’s life… well, sort of. Her name was Dorothy Millette. She and Bern lived together for many years in both New York and Toronto before Bern made his transition to Los Angeles – some state that she was Bern’s estranged wife, but I have found conflicting reports on this.
Millette was an aspiring actress who was just 20 years old when she met Bern and according to reports, she often referred to herself as “Mrs. Paul Bern” (perhaps because she really was married to him?) She was institutionalized for mental illness but there is no specific diagnosis made for her but guess who paid her medical expenses? Yep, none other than Paul Bern himself… even after he married Harlow.
But the big kicker is Millette mysteriously died the day after Bern’s mysterious death.
Coincidence? I think not. But the story doesn’t stop there….
Apparently cured, Milette was released from the hospital and moved into the Algonquin Hotel in New York and Bern made it a point to visit her every time he was in New York. According to reports, she was apparently the sole beneficiary on Bern’s will up until his marriage to Harlow.
So it seems like these two had a very serious love connection. If Bern loved Milette so much, why did he give her up? Was it for an easier life?
As it turns out, on March 17th 1932, just months before Bern wed Harlow, Bern received a letter from Milette stating that she was moving from New York to San Francisco. Bern apparently offered to pay for her life in New York if she continued to live there. She moved into the Plaza Hotel. So it looks like he didn’t fully give her up after all.
Once this news became public, Harlow’s stepfather issued a statement that Harlow knew nothing of Milette and that she was shocked by the news. This was countered by Bern’s brother who allegedly said that Milette was common knowledge and even discussed with Harlow before they wed.
The day after Bern’s death, Milette was aboard a steamer on the Sacramento River going from San Francisco to Sacramento. An officer found a woman’s coat on the railing and when the ship docked, no one could account for Milette. According to reports, her body was found in the river by fisherman two weeks later.
Was this a planned suicide between star-crossed lovers with a doomed fate? Merely a coincidence? Or is someone behind both the deaths of Bern and Milette?
It seems like a strange coincidence, but then again, Milette was stated to be suffering from mental illness and the person she claimed to be closest to in the world did kill himself.
The case was widely investigated – as they were at that time – but with so much speculation, tampering of evidence and a contaminated crime scene the case stumped the authorities.
Thought it was deemed a suicide. Many of the people close to bern believed it was a murder.
One account states the recounts of those who worked for Bern:
“Davis (Bern’s Gardener) believed that it was a muder and QUOTE “I thought so from the beginning”, he said. He believed that the butler had lied about what happened. He testified that the butler told the police that Bern and Harlow were always hugging and kissing and that he sometimes overheard Bern talking of suicide. The gardener said that the opposite was actually true. He never thought that the couple got along that well and he had never once heard Mr. Bern talk about killing himself! He also said that he didn’t believe the suicide note was even in his employer’s handwriting.
Irene Harrison, Bern’s secretary, confirmed this and she also added that Jean Harlow, not Bern, had been the pursuer in the relationship. She also added that she didn’t think that Bern looked “particularly happy” at the reception after the wedding ceremony.
The most exciting testimony came from Winifred Carmichael, Bern’s cook. She stated that a strange woman had been seen by the household staff on Sunday evening. The cook stated that a woman’s voice, which was unfamiliar to her, was heard. The woman screamed once. She also said that she later found a wet woman’s bathing suit on the edge of the swimming pool and two empty glasses nearby.
So could that strange woman have been Dorothy Milette? If Harlow can be placed at her mother’s house at that time, who did Bern have over?
Apparently there are no records of the police dusting the glasses for prints, no bathing suit was taken into custody - but it was confirmed that the bathing suit WAS wet and WAS NOT Harlow’s size” Also, there are claims of blood by the pool. Different member of the staff at Bern’s house share the accounts of blood by the pool, yet they were never confirmed by authorities .
This poses a very interesting situation and puts quite a twist on a mysterious death that looked more black and white when we started.
So let’s looks what could have happened.
The first theory is that Bern really did kill himself. Feeling the pressures of life with his new wife, his apparent inability to please her, and his looming money problems – Bern felt trapped and that his only way out was suicide. He was apparently known throughout town for being near bankrupt – this was supposedly news to Harlow though – and the couple began fighting over finances. Was the level of financial pressure too much for him?
I feel like this theory is a stretch because the couple had only been married for a few months. If Bern really was that unhappy, why wouldn’t he just leave Harlow? Was it because he couldn’t pay her out in a divorce? Or … was someone blackmailing him. With his secret love and his apparent money problems, Bern would have been the perfect target.
Another theory is that Harlow killed Bern. Whether it was rage or jealously and his undying love for Milette, his lack of performance in their relationships, and his deception to her on the financial side of things - Harlow was fed up with his mediocre performance as a husband and killed him. It is speculated that the note found by the studio execs was not actually a suicide note at all but actually an apology note from a fight the couple had previously. They execs decided that a suicide would look better for the studio (and Harlow) rather than letting the public know that a woman had killed one of their most powerful employees. So, they made up the story to protect the reputations of the studio, Bern and Harlow.
Harlow claimed that she knew nothing of Milette… she kept this up even when close friends and family of Bern came forward saying that Harlow did in fact know Milette and was awared of her presence in Bern’s life. I don’t think that sat well with the Hollywood starlet.
On account states QUOTE “The servants, whose quarters were located outside at the other end of the property, claimed to hear a scream after the gunshot. If Dorothy had killed him, why would she have screamed right after shooting him? Perhaps Jean shot Paul. Dorothy could have been so shaken by it that she screamed and ran for her life out of the house and down to the limo that had been waiting for her as ordered by Paul.
That would make sense as to why she left her bathing suit behind and why she didn’t even stop to pick up the shoe that had fallen off as she was running away. That also explains why she told the limo driver not to stop but to keep driving faster.”
Something I’d like to know – was their gun power on Bern’s head. If it were a suicide, there would have to be gun power, if it was a murder, there might not have been any.
Continuing on the thought that Harlow did in fact know about Milette and was riddled with jealousy – could Harlow have tried to get Milette out of her life on her own?
That same account from earlier states that Harlow had taken a day trip up to see San Francisco (where Milette) lived just months before Bern’s death. It is said that she stayed only an hour before returning to Los Angeles. Did she go up there to confront Milette? Question her on her relationship with Bern? Plot her murder?
Something that is also interesting to note is that according to reports, Bern’s will had originally included Milette and a payment of $1,200 per month in perputity. That was changed just weeks after Bern and Harlow were married. The new will left Bern’s entire state to Harlow. Hmmm… that seems suspicious to me….
Another theory is that Milette killed Bern and then killed herself. Distraught over being banished to a mental hospital and Bern starting over with a young Hollywood beauty, Milette sought revenge for the life she felt should have been hers. If that is the case, I wonder what would have happened if Harlow HAD been home that evening… would Bern and Harlow both have ended up dead?
Then there is the theory that Jean’s mother is behind Bern’s death. Stay with me on this one because it’s a doozy. The theory goes like this:
Momma Jean was known to be loud, in your face and had alleged connections to the mob. Apparently she was fed up with her son in law due to the problems in his marriage to her beloved daughter and the scandal of him having a secret first wife.
Jean and her mom were now strangers to the mob world and her mother had a reputation for getting what she wanted. That same account from earlier states this as a fact: QUOTE “Jean had dated a gangster, who was known as The Al Capone of New Jersey, and he had allegedly “taken care of some blackmailers” who had threatened to go public with nude photographs of Jean in 1917.” Wait… what?! So this wouldn’t be the first time that Jean’s mother had allowed to mob to step in and clean up a mess for Harlow
And on top of that – Bern was basically broke and needed Harlow to support himself AND Milette. QUOTE “Paul was secretly broke and it was evident he was spending more than he was taking in. He mortgaged his home on Easton Drive for almost the face value of the home, He then deeded it to his wife, making it look like he gave her a wedding gift even though Jean didn’t like the house.” End quote.
So could Harlow’s mother – her husband – or Jean Harlow herself set the whole thing up? Did they know that Milette was coming to see Bern that weekend? Did they quote un quote “take care of Bern” and Milette witnessed the whole thing, got spooked and ran, only to later be tracked down and pushed overboard of the ship?
As with most of these cases, there are so many theories with so many outcomes. But my gut tells me that it was a murder. What I think happened was Harlow did in fact know about Dorothy Milette and Bern’s ongoing relations with her (he allegedly had relations with his secretary too). I think that she was tired of playing second fiddle in her own marriage and fed up with Bern’s financials.
Let me explain – I do think that she was the one who perused Bern due to his connections at MGM. Bern – knowing if he got her contract purchased by MGM she would owe him – made the transaction happen and then purposed to Harlow to ensure that he would get access to the new cash flow she would have. Harlow agreed and married Bern and after doing so realized his financial situation. After being quote “gifted” the house, having to put up with Bern’s lack of sexual relations to her and the knowledge of his mistress, Harlow had enough. I think that Harlow invited Milette over with the intention of making it look like a murder suicide – playing off of Milette’s reputation of being mentall unstable. Things didn’t go as plan and Harlow was able to kill Bern and Milette got spooked and ran. I think that she was tracked down by someone and killed discreetly in order to finish the job and allow Harlow to keep her reputation.
And what about the suicide note? It is alleged that the note came from a personal diary of Bern’s and was not written as a stand-alone note. Apparently, one of the studio execs who arrived before the police took the diary from Bern’s house and searched it looking for ANYTHING he could use to give to the police as a suicide note in order to avoid the scandal of a murder. Another theory is that the note was faked all together by one of the execs as it was turned in later to the police
Looks like everyone was playing at their own interested in this case.
The lot where the house was has now been split up into several properties – who owns 5 acres in Beverly Hills nowadays?! For the map this episode, I have shown roughly you what the compound would have looked like that the time that is was owned by Bern and Harlow.
It is said that the home that Bern and Harlow shared together is haunted – located at 9820 Easton Dr. in the 90210 zip code of Beverly Hills, the home has had a number of deaths happen on the lot, with following Bern’s mysterious death, two people drowned in the swimming pool and later, two former tenants of the house (including Jay Sebring) were a victim of the Manson Murders. The current owners say they haven’t had any issues since bying the home in the’70s.
If you want to check it out, as always, maps an addresses are included in the show notes and on the website.
So what are your thoughts? Do you think that Paul was murdered? Or was it really suicide? Tweet me @HollywoodlandPC or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know! I love hearing from you guys!
As per usual, complete list of references is included in the show notes and on the website.
SOURCES: http://bit.ly/2kCCx6v | http://imdb.to/2kWNPWp | http://bit.ly/2ludKFF | http://bit.ly/2l8rrJI | http://bit.ly/2kVc2u1| http://imdb.to/2lWVWUB