5/2/2006 ~ The mural has been relisted for an additional ten days. See it here.
This article is a follow up to a journal entry I made earlier this year.
A detailed examination of who is featured in the mural can be seen here.
Jean Harlow’s Mysterious Medieval Mural Sees The Light Of Day After 74 Years of Private Ownership
By Lisa Burks for The Platinum Page
Whittier, CA (April 21, 2006) -- A 7-foot by 13-foot oil painting once owned by Hollywood’s original blonde bombshell Jean Harlow depicting the star and 16 other classic film industry notables seated at a Medieval-type feast can now be crossed off the “Whatever Happened To…” list of hardcore sought-after Harlow memorabilia.
Photo Courtesy of Marc Wanamaker/Bison Archives
Bill Lewis, whose family has quietly owned the painting since 1932, tells The Platinum Page that he decided to make its whereabouts known to the public at JeanHarlowMural.com in 2003, after the death of his mother who had long-cherished the curiously unique piece of Hollywood artwork. He says that his father, now remarried, is ready to put it up for sale.
The oil-on-canvas mural originally hung in Benedict Canyon home of MGM producer Paul Bern. When Bern married Harlow in July 1932, his wedding gift to the star was the deed to his home, which included the mural. Lewis said that after Bern was found dead from a gunshot wound to his head on Labor Day that same year, his maternal grandfather was hired by the newlywed turned newly-widowed Harlow to paint the interior of the home.
“My grandfather was a house-painter and wallpaper hanger who lived in the Lincoln Heights section of Los Angeles and he frequently did work in Beverly Hills. When Jean Harlow asked him to paint the interior of her house, she specifically asked that the mural be removed and disposed of,” explains Lewis.
According to the stories Lewis heard as a child, his grandfather asked Harlow if he could remove the painting and keep it, and that her response was, “I don’t care what you do with it, just get rid of the thing.”
The mystery and scandal surrounding Bern’s death rocked Hollywood and nearly ruined Harlow’s career. Harlow never publicly commented on his death aside from mandatory court proceedings, and took her intimate side of the story to the grave in 1937 when she died her own tragic death, at age 26, from uremic poisoning and kidney failure.
Bern's death was officially ruled a suicide, but speculation continues to this day of a MGM orchestrated cover-up for murder involving Bern’s secret, mentally unstable common law wife, Dorothy Millette. In any case, according to Lewis family lore, Harlow wanted the mural gone, pronto.
Lewis’ grandfather expertly removed the mural from a two-story wall opposite the main staircase, and installed it as wallpaper on one wall of the dining room of his Lincoln Heights home. “My earliest memories as a child were of having holiday dinner’s in my grandparent’s home with the faces of these famous Hollywood personalities looking down at me,” says Lewis, who is now 51.
In 1969, Lewis' grandfather was struck and killed by a car in a crosswalk near his home. When his widow moved to Whittier, their daughter, Lewis’ mother, saw to it that the mural came with them to their new home. She had it professionally re-mounted on a masonite backed frame and the mural has hung in that location for the past 36 years, a secret from the press and the public.
Photo Courtesy of Bill Lewis & Family
Lewis said that his father remembered that two art experts inspected the mural at the time it was moved to Whittier - the first stated that the method of painting used was "lost" back in the early part of the century and that few people knew how to paint in that manner or with that mixing method for the paint application itself. A second specialist with 40 years experience who helped them hang the painting made a similar comment about the methodology. "He made it sound like it was a lost art and was very interested in the training of someone who could paint like that," said Lewis.
While Jean Harlow is the focal point of the mural, it also features friends who were arguably among MGM’s most famous actors, writers, producers and directors at the time. Seated from left to right at table are Irene Harrison (Bern’s loyal secretary), Gene Markey, Bebe Daniels, Lawrence Tibbett, John Gilbert, Carey Wilson, Irene Selznick, Jean Harlow, Irving Thalberg, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, David Selznick, B.P. Fineman, Edmund Goulding, Ben Lyon, Willis Goldbeck and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Bern commissioned the oil-on-canvas work from Russian artist Alexander Ignatiev (identified in vintage press clippings as V. Ignatieff), a young studio artist who was approximately 18-years-old. A photo of the mural was published in a local newspaper at the time, and described the auspicious group as “disguised in Elizabethan garb,” and shows the mural as it hung in their home. The entire piece was formed on an angle to fit the wall and was cut around a large beam when it was originally installed.
Ignatiev was the son of a czarist general and left Russia with his family during the Revolution. He studied in San Francisco with Gleb Ilyin and later for four years at the Chouinard Art School. His Hollywood career included working for Walt Disney on films such as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and later with the legendary Chuck Jones at Warner Bros., and finally for Hanna-Barbera. He was also a well-known watercolorist based in Laguna Beach, California. He passed away in 1995 never knowing what happened to the mural.
Lewis spoke with the artist’s widow and daughter last year and both women stated that Ignateiv was extremely proud of his creation. Lewis said that Mrs. Ignatiev also revealed that her husband had planned to remove the piece for Harlow himself, but before he could do the work he was wounded by gunfire in an unrelated altercation. The mural was gone by the time he fully recovered from surgery. Mrs. Ignatiev, who spoke with The Platinum Page via telephone earlier this year, said that Alexander would have been astonished and pleased to learn that the mural had survived all these years.
Lewis said that painting has never been touched up, restored, or cleaned and notes that the colors show up vividly and the portraits sharp in images taken with his digital camera using a flash, and that the photos are not retouched or enhanced. “The room the painting hangs in is dimly lit and I never realized how bright the colors really were until I took these pictures,” says Lewis.
“There are places where an occasional paint flake has come off, and the mural could stand to be stretched and re-hung. The new owner would probably benefit by having a professional restore and protect the surface of the piece. The small area on the upper left was added in by my grandfather to compensate for the cutout in the mural where the ceiling beam from Bern’s house was,” he adds.
While researching the mural’s story, Lewis spoke with Harlow biographer David Stenn, author of Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow, who Lewis credits as being a huge help in putting the historical details in place. He said that Stenn suggested Harlow probably never set foot in the residence again after Bern’s death, but rather she sold the house quickly to a woman who may have actually been the one to hire Lewis’ grandfather to remove the painting. Lewis says that he admits this scenario could be a possibility.
To his knowledge, Lewis believes that the mural has not been seen by the public since Bern’s death, and notes that the home it originally hung in has become known in certain circles as the Death House of Benedict Canyon. Commonly referred to by Hollywood tour guides as being haunted, the home was later rented out by Manson Family murder victim Jay Sebring. Sebring's friend and fellow murder victim Sharon Tate was said to have seen the ghost of Paul Bern while staying there, a premonition of her own demise.
Special thanks to Bill Lewis and Family, Mrs. Alex Ignatiev, David Stenn, Darrell Rooney, Marc Wanamaker and Linda Frank for giving of their time, resources and expertise to this article; and author Andre Soares (Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro) for promoting the mural story on his website Alternative Film Guide (AltFG)!