Does the Ghost of Paul Bern Haunt the old Harlow House in Hollywood... and if so, did he provide a premonition of death to Sharon Tate in 1966?

Jean Harlow’s big break in Hollywood came about thanks to Howard Hughes’ fascination with Tinseltown. His film productions were well received in the movie colony and when he discovered Harlow, he already had a movie in the works called HELL’S ANGELS, starring Greta Nissen. Then, overnight, talking pictures became all the rage and HELL’S ANGELS had to be re-made as a talkie.

Paul Bern

Jean Harlow won the lead in the new picture and she quickly sky-rocketed as an overnight sensation. The Hollywood publicity machine went into overdrive for Harlow. She soon became known for her signature look of platinum blond hair and her notable, low-cut necklines. The Los Angeles “Times” had one word for her: “Sexquisite”.

Jean Harlow

The gossip columns filled with news of Jean’s activities and it soon became apparent that despite her many outings on the town, she never went out with other actors. All of her dates were either directors or producers. It was suggested that she was smart enough to realize this was her ticket to the top. One of the men she dated was an assistant to Irving Thalberg at MGM named Paul Bern. He had been the man responsible for getting Jean’s contract purchased from Howard Hughes and for bringing her to MGM. It was apparent that he was attracted to the blond bombshell actress.

It would have been hard to find two people more incompatible that Jean Harlow and Paul Bern. Most of Bern’s contemporaries considered him a genius. He had been born in Germany in 1889 as Paul Levy, making him 22 years older than Jean. His formal education ended at age 14, but he went on to become of the most intellectual men in Hollywood. He had come to the movie capital in 1926 after first working in both New York as a stage actor. He later took a job in Toronto with a fledging film company and then moved west to California when he realized the potential for movies. After landing in Hollywood, he worked as a film cutter and a script editor before directing a few pictures and ending up as a supervisor at MGM. It was here that Thalberg spotted Bern’s ability and made him a general assistant.

While Bern may have been intellectually superior to Harlow, he certainly couldn’t measure up in the looks department. According to a writer of the day, Herbert Cruikshank, Bern was described as “a slight man, insignificant in stature, slender of shoulder, only as tall as a girl.”

 Apparently, not much to look at either. Regardless, he gained a reputation in Hollywood as a sensitive and compassionate person (a rare thing in Hollywood) and he began to be called “Hollywood’s Father Confessor”. Everyone took his troubles to Bern for advice, help and sympathy.

Bern was also never much for the public life. He was something of a mystery man, especially to those who craved the spotlight and the lure of Hollywood’s legendary nightlife. So when he began appearing in local nightspots with Jean Harlow, no one thought much of it. They assumed that it could never last. Of course, that was what made the announcement of their marriage and even bigger surprise!

Apparently, little planning went into the nuptials. In fact, Jean was not even able to purchase a real wedding gown. She simply went into a dress shop that she frequented and bought an off-the-rack white dress and a shawl. They gathered two days after Bern proposed with about 150 friends and relatives at the home of Jean’s mother. They were married on July 2, 1932 but had to postpone their honeymoon because of their shooting schedules. They took one day off and then returned to work. According to Jean’s friends, she looked “radiant” in the weeks that followed and the couple seemed very happy.

The Jean Harlow - Paul Bern Wedding

But soon, that began to change. As the weeks passed, Bern looked less and less happy, becoming pale, distraught and almost haggard. He told no one what was bothering him, but that didn’t stop the rumors from spreading. One of the rumors stated that they were having money problems. One of the arguments, it was whispered, concerned the house that Bern had given to Jean as a wedding present. The house was set in the midst of five acres of ground in Beverly Hills’ Benedict Canyon. The problem was that Jean didn’t like the house and wanted to sell it. Bern refused and argued that he wanted it to be their home together.

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.

(Left) Paul Bern's Body as it was found in the Harlow House

(Right) The Suicide Note.. was it written by Bern?

After finding Bern’s body, the butler went running to fond his wife, the cook for the household. Then, instead of calling the police. he called MGM. The studio officer in charge that day immediately called MGM’s security chief, W.P. “Whitey” Hendry, who was at home in Santa Monica, enjoying the Labor Day Weekend. Hendry immediately called Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, who still did not notify the authorities. Instead, they both went straight to the Harlow House.

Mayer arrived on the scene first, followed closely by Hendry and Thalberg. But it was not until two hours later that the Los Angeles police were notified of the death. Just what happened in those two hours will never be known, but we do know that Mayer took a suicide note that Bern had left on a dressing table in the bedroom. He returned it to the police on the advice of Howard Strickling, the Publicity Chief for the studio. He was a neighbor of Bern’s and insisted that Mayer give the note back to the detectives on the scene.

The note read: “Dearest Dear... Unfortunately, this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and wipe out by abject humility. I love you.... Paul” A postscript had been added at the bottom of the note that said: “You understand that last night was only a comedy.”

The detectives looked over the note but failed to understand the meaning of it. The case appeared to be a suicide and after speaking with the butler and the staff, they went to Jean’s mother’s house to talk with the actress. Her physician told them that she was “too hysterical to undergo questioning at this time”. She later spoke to detectives but was not called as a witness at the inquest, which is unusual to say the least.

A view of the Benedict Canyon House

According to the inquest, the following story was learned about Bern’s final hours. Bern had sent Jean over to stay with her mother, who was alone on Saturday night. On Sunday, Jean returned to the house and had dinner with her husband. However, Bern sent her back to mother’s, telling her that he would be along to pick her up after reading some scripts. When he didn’t show up, Jean assumed that he had fallen asleep while reading and thought nothing more of it. Needless to say, the inquest brought many unanswered questions, such as why did Bern send Jean away again on Sunday night? Was he planning to meet someone later? And what was the motive for the suicide?

The official version of the suicide was that Bern had been suffering from a “physical infirmity” that made it impossible for him to have intercourse with his wife. The “comedy” referred to in the suicide note was Bern’s attempt to overcome his impotence and carry out his marital obligations to Jean with a realistic, phony phallus. But why would a man with such an infirmity marry any woman, least of all a bombshell like Jean Harlow?

Surprisingly, this was not the most shocking information to come out of the inquest. It was learned that Bern had previously lived with another woman for many years. And, the day after Bern died, the other woman also died “under mysterious circumstances!”

The woman’s name was Dorothy Millette and she was a struggling actress when Bern met her in New York. They lived together in both New York and Toronto for many years and she often referred to herself as “Mrs. Paul Bern.” Unfortunately, Dorothy fell victim to mental illness and she was institutionalized. Bern paid for all of her expenses. The love affair ended but Bern continued to provide for Dorothy, even after his marriage to Jean.

After being released from the mental hospital, apparently cured, Dorothy moved into a room at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. She lived quietly, spending most of her time reading and walking in the park. Bern always visited her when he was in New York. His 1920 will, in fact, left everything he owned to Dorothy. However, this was changed in a later will, which bequeathed his estate to Jean.

On March 17, 1932, Paul received a letter from Dorothy stating that she was moving to San Francisco. He suggested to her that she stay at the Plaza Hotel, which offered an “attractive rate” and that if she did decide to stay somewhere else, he would “find some way of supplying you with funds in a manner convenient for you.”

Once this new information became public, Jean’s stepfather, Marino Bello, issued a press statement saying that Jean knew nothing of Dorothy Millette. This was immediately contradicted by Paul’s brother, Henry Bern, who said that Dorothy was common knowledge in Bern’s circle of friends and that Paul had specifically discussed Dorothy with Jean prior to their marriage.

On September 6, the day after Bern died, Dorothy checked out of the Plaza Hotel and boarded a Sacramento River steamer that journeyed back and forth between San Francisco and Sacramento. An officer later found a woman’s coat and shoes beside the ship’s railing. Dorothy Millette was not on board when the shipped docked at Sacramento. Her body was found two weeks later by fishermen. Her death was ruled a suicide.

It was said that Jean Harlow loved Bern so much that when his body was discovered, she too attempted suicide. Even though her attempt was not successful, Harlow’s days were numbered. Five year later, she died from kidney damage at the age of only 26.

But that was not meant to be. A strange series of circumstances would shed new (and mysterious) light on the case a year after the inquest. At that time, a grand jury had been impaneled to investigated District Attorney Buron Fitts, who had handled the original Bern inquest. The jury foreman insisted that they were only interested in Fitts’ expenditures in the case and yet new revelations came to light because of it.

Important revelations came from Davis, the gardener and Miss Harrison, Bern’s secretary. Davis believed that the he “thought it was murder. 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.

There is no record of whether or not the police ever “dusted” the glasses for fingerprints or whether or not they followed up further testimony from Davis the gardener who said that he told detectives of finding a small puddle of blood near Bern’s favorite chair by the swimming pool.

Even after all of this, Bern’s death was still ruled a suicide. It remained that way until 1960 when writer Ben Hecht published an article that stated Bern’s death was actually a murder. “Studio officials decided,” Hecht wrote, “sitting in a conference around his dead body, that it was better to have Paul Bern as a suicide than as a murder victim of another woman.” He wrote that it would be better for Jean Harlow’s career that she not appear as a woman who couldn’t hold a husband.”

The Los Angeles District Attorney got in touch with Hecht, who told him that director Henry Hathaway had told him about the tragedy. But Hathaway, who was living in New York claimed to have no first-hand knowledge of the case. He had no information to say that the suicide note was not real or that it had been planted by the studio heads.

Still, many believed that Bern may have been murdered. But if he was, who killed him? Could it have been Dorothy Millette? There seems to be no reason for it and besides that, she vanished (to be found dead) the day after Bern’s body was discovered. In those days, the fastest transportation between Los Angeles and San Francisco was the Southern Pacific daylight train or the overnight Lark. Either journey took almost ten hours. For Dorothy to have been able to catch the 10:00 pm train, she would have had to have called a cab to pick her up at Bern’s home by at least 8:00. No trace of any such call or taxi driver was ever located.

But if Dorothy did kill Bern, was she the woman who was heard in the house and left a wet swimsuit behind? If so, why did she bother to go all the way back to her San Francisco hotel after a ten hour train ride, pack her things, board the river boat and after all of that effort, commit suicide? If this was a crime of passion, why didn’t she just kill herself there, next to the body of her dead lover?

And if not Dorothy, who did the wet swimming suit belong to? Whose blood was on the tiles near the swimming pool? Who did the second glass belong to? Why was it never dusted for fingerprints?

The Grave of Dorothy Millette

These questions remain unanswered and for many crime buffs, the death of Paul Bern remains unsolved. Could this be why his ghost is still reportedly haunting the Harlow House? Perhaps, but many believe that Bern’s first otherworldly appearance in the house was a actually meant as a warning. It was an advance premonition for another beautiful blond actress that, if she had heeded it, might have saved her life. That woman’s name was Sharon Tate.

In 1969, Sharon would fall victim to one of the most savage slayings in Hollywood history. But three years before she was brutally murdered at the hands of the Charles Manson “family”, she glimpsed a ghostly image of the horrific fate that awaited her. Could the glimpse into the future have been provided by the phantom of Paul Bern?

Sharon was a struggling actress, hoping to make a name for herself, when she met Jay Sebring, who would soon become known as the premier men’s hair stylist in Hollywood. The two dated for three years and even announced their engagement at one point, but Sharon broke it off with him in 1966, when she met her future husband, Roman Polanski. The break-up was not bitter and the two of them stayed very close friends. In fact, it was Jay who was keeping Sharon company at the Cielo Drive house while Roman was away filming. And it was Jay who died trying to protect her from the Manson clan.

Sharon Tate

Jay lived in Benedict Canyon in the former home of Jean Harlow. He loved the house but was always concerned about the fact that it was supposed to be “jinxed”. He knew the stories about Paul Bern’s death but he also learned that two people had drowned in the swimming pool as well. He shrugged off the idea that the house was “cursed” though, but perhaps he shouldn’t have.

One night in 1966, Sharon stayed alone at Jay’s house. Unable to sleep, she lay awake in Jay’s room with all the lights on. She was very uncomfortable, although she couldn’t explain why. She felt “funny”, she later told reporter Dick Kleiner, and was frightened by every little sound that she heard. 

Suddenly, a person that she described as a “creepy little man” came into the bedroom! She was sure that this man was Paul Bern. The man ignored her though and wandered about the room, apparently looking for something. Sharon put on her robe and hurried out of the bedroom.

What happened next would be especially chilling in light of events to come. Sharon started down the stairs but halfway down them, froze in shock. There was a figure tied to the staircase posts at the bottom of the steps. She couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. However, she could clearly see that the figure’s throat had been cut. Then, the apparition vanished.

Shaken, Sharon went into the living room to pour herself a drink but she couldn’t find where Jay kept the alcohol. She felt an inexplicable urge to press on a section of the bookcase and it opened to reveal a hidden bar. Not thinking, she tore away a piece of wallpaper at the base of the bar as she nervously poured herself a drink.

In the morning, Sharon was convinced the whole episode had been a terrible nightmare.... until she saw the wallpaper that had been torn away from the bar. She had indeed seen Paul Bern and at that time, had unknowingly seen a vision of her fate.

Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger (1975)
Haunted Places: The National Directory by Dennis William Hauck (1996)
Hollywood Unsolved Mysteries by John Austin (1970)
Hollywood Haunted by Laurie Jacobson (1994)
Haunted Houses of California by Antoinette May (1990)
The Hollywood Murder Case Book by Michael Munn (1987)

(C) Ghosts of the Prairie Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.