Origin of the Phrase “Blonde Bombshell”

Today I found out the origin of the phrase “blonde bombshell”.

“Blonde bombshell” is often used to describe an exciting, dynamic, sexy woman with blonde hair, particularly blonde celebrity sex symbols.  The expression seems to have come from, or at least was popularized by, a movie and originally referred to a specific blonde bombshell.

In 1933, the platinum blonde Jean Harlow was one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood.  That year, Harlow starred in a movie called Bombshell (at the time “bombshell” in American slang was already being used to refer to incredibly attractive, flamboyant women, with the first documented case of this in 1860).

One of the advertising lines for the film was “Lovely, luscious, exotic Jean Harlow as the Blonde Bombshell of filmdom.”

When the film was released in England, they even renamed it “Blonde Bombshell” as it was thought in England that the original title sounded like a war film, which the movie is decidedly not. (It’s actually about an actress who gets fed up with being a sex symbol and just wants to lead a normal life).

While it seems probable that this wasn’t the first time someone out there uttered the words “blonde bombshell” (those two words fitting together so nicely), this does appear to be the first documented instance of it with, of course, the first actress to be labeled such being the lovely Jean Harlow, who incidentally died at the tender age of 26 (more in the Bonus Facts below).

Within a decade, “blonde bombshell” was being bandied about referring to several different famous women and, of course, today has spread to mean any particularly attractive blonde woman (and in a few instances, such as Charles Borck, men).

If you liked this article and the Bonus Facts below, you might also like:

Bonus Jean Harlow Facts:

  • Both beautiful blonde bombshells Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe did their last movies with Clark Gable as a co-star (Saratoga for Harlow and The Misfits for Monroe).
  • Harlow was not just partially responsible for the “Blonde Bombshell” moniker, but also propelled the platinum blonde craze that swept the nation.  Howard Hughes even set up Platinum Blonde Clubs and at one point offered $10,000 ($123K today) to anyone who could come up with a hair dye that exactly matched Harlow’s supposedly natural “platinum blonde” hair color.
  • Jean Harlow’s real name was Harlean Carpenter.  “Jean Harlow” was actually her mother’s name (Jean Poe Harlow), which she decided to use as her stage name.  (To avoid confusion, I will refer to Harlean Carpenter as Jean Harlow in this article and her mother simply as “Harlow’s mother”.)
  • Harlow’s mother and father did not get along, the marriage having been arranged despite the objections of the bride.  The couple finally divorced in 1922 and Harlow’s mother attempted to become an actress, but was considered too old at 34 and was forced to move back to Kansas in order for Harlow’s wealthy grandfather to continue to support them.  This was a major event in Jean Harlow’s life as when she returned to Kansas with her mother, her grandfather sent her to Camp Cha-Ton-Ka where she contracted scarlet fever.  Obviously she didn’t die of this, so why is this such a momentous occasion in her life? Because many speculate that it was her bout with scarlet fever that ultimately caused the problem that would result in her death at 26.
  • Harlow got married at the age of 16 to 20 year old Charles McGrew, who received a large inheritance when he turned 21.  This allowed the couple to move to Beverly Hills, where seemingly boredom (neither of the couple worked) and Harlow’s friend, aspiring actress Rosalie Roy, helped inspire her to get into acting, first taking roles as an extra, and progressively landing larger roles until her big break when she stared in Howard Hughe’s Hell’s Angels, which debuted about a year after Harlow divorced her husband in 1929.
  • Jean Harlow’s tragic death at the age of 26 (June 7, 1937) was probably due to kidney failure, resulting in “uremic poisoning” (the buildup of various toxins in the blood causing a variety of complications).  She also gained significant water weight during this time as you might expect from kidney failure.  The official cause of death recorded at the time was “cerebral edema” (basically, excess water in the brain).
  • For about a month Harlow’s illness was misdiagnosed as the flu then a gall bladder infection, even though she’d been showing signs of the real problem for over a year.  It wasn’t until on June 6, the day before her death, that she checked back into the hospital after having vision problems that the doctor realized that her illness was something more severe.
  • Harlow’s mother was a Christian Scientist (who most members of don’t believe in receiving medical care, but rather relying on healing via highly structured prayer from “practitioners” and an individual believing what is wrong with them is simply an illusion of “mortal mind”). Because of this, after Harlow’s death a myth rose up that Harlow only died because her mother refused to allow her to be treated by doctors.  This isn’t the case at all.  Her mother only refused one doctor access to Harlow, MGM’s doctor who later claimed that Harlow’s mother refused to allow doctors to see her due to her religious beliefs.  Other doctors were allowed to treat the ailing Harlow.
  • Unfortunately for Harlow, medical science had not yet advanced enough to be able to do anything about her condition at the time, even had she been correctly diagnosed.  The first successful kidney transplant didn’t occur until 1954, and even then the lack of a good method to suppress a patient’s immune system so that their body wouldn’t reject the transplanted organ was extremely problematic. Initial efforts towards this end included bombarding patients with large amounts of X-ray radiation, which was partially successful, but also tended to have the side effect of killing the patient.  It wasn’t until around another decade that tissue typing and immunosuppressent drugs started to be developed and used so that successful transplants started to become somewhat common.  Even then, it wasn’t until around the 1980s when the kidney transplant success rate started to be extremely high (about an 85% success rate in the 1980s).
  • Harlow’s second husband, Paul Bern, killed himself by shooting himself in the head just two months after marrying Harlow.  At the time, there was significant speculation that Harlow had actually murdered him, but an apparent suicide note in Bern’s handwriting was found stating: “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.”
  • It was also speculated that Bern may have been murdered by his estranged and supposedly mentally ill common law wife, Dorothy Millette (who he had supported through her mental illness before she was released a couple years before Bern’s death and pronounced mentally fit).  He continued to support her after her release and visited her on occasion apparently remaining on friendly terms.  Millette was also found dead just a couple days after Bern, apparently from suicide (found drowned after taking a trip on the Delta King steam boat and supposedly jumping off, but there were no witnesses.)  Depending on which conspiracy theorist is talking, this either proves that she killed Bern (killing herself out of guilt) or proves that Harlow did it or had it done (perhaps using her connections with her former lover and notorious mobster Abner Zwillman).  Or, you know, Bern might have really just killed himself as all the evidence points to and the somewhat already mentally unstable Millette may have fallen into a deep depression upon hearing about Bern’s death and killed herself over it.
  • Jean Harlow was the godmother of mobster Benjamin Bugsy Siegel’s daughter, Millicent Siegel.
  • Harlow’s third marriage was arranged by MGM in order to avoid a scandal.  Shortly after Bern’s death, Harlow began having an affair with famed boxer Max Baer, who was married at the time, though already separated from his wife.  When Baer’s wife finally officially filed for divorce, she listed Harlow as one of the reasons (because of the affair).  MGM hoped that by having Harlow marry Harold Rosson, this would help quell the scandal occurring so soon after the previous scandal of Bern’s suicide.  It worked and once the media storm died down about a half a year later, Rosson and Harlow ended their arranged marriage.
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  • Respectfully, I don’t think this tells us the origin of bombshell. How is a woman celebrity described by an exploding weapon?

    Is this the same Eddie Deezen who did the voice of Snipes in RockADoodle? That was a great movie, all of the voices were good !

  • “In 1933, the platinum blonde Jean Harlow was one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood. That year, Harlow starred in a movie called Bombshell (at the time “bombshell” in American slang was already being used to refer to incredibly attractive, flamboyant women, with the first documented case of this in 1860).”

    Do you have any 1860-1933 quotation or reference for this meaning? The Online Etymology Dictionary says 1860 is a more general (but still figurative) sense:

    “The figurative sense of “shattering or devastating thing or event” attested from 1860″