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Interview: January 28, 2016

Anne Girard is the pen name of bestselling author Diane Haeger, which was adopted to distinguish her more recent historical fiction from her earlier works. Her latest book, PLATINUM DOLL, is about Harlean Carpenter McGrew, better known as silver screen legend and “the original platinum blonde bombshell” Jean Harlow, as she and her domineering mother take Hollywood by storm. In this interview with’s Alexis Burling, Girard talks about what inspired her to write Harlow’s story and how she researches each of her books (including a trip to the city in which it’s set!). She also shares some fascinating details about the starlet’s life, including bits about her troubled marriage, her unquenchable free spirit, and her untimely death at only 26 years old. PLATINUM DOLL is about Hollywood golden girl Harlean Carpenter McGrew, aka Jean Harlow. What made you choose Jean Harlow over another starlet of her time?

Anne Girard: Harlow was the first of her kind --- the original platinum blonde bombshell --- idolized and copied by Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Gwen Stefani and Lady Gaga, to name but a few. Knowing that, my goal was to make her a full person, not just a one-dimensional blonde “doll” --- or a cliché star-struck girl drawn to the bright lights. And indeed she was much more. Even though Harlow was extremely young when her career began (17), she was well-educated, smart, determined…and newly married. The complications that her fragile young marriage and her over-bearing “stage mother” brought to the story of making it in early Hollywood made her the most fascinating starlet of her time, in my opinion.

BRC: What research did you do to prepare for writing this novel? Did you read biographies of Jean Harlow? Interview people who knew her?

AG: I always read every biography I can get my hands on regarding a person I plan to write about. That is the essential first step to giving myself a framework for the novel and writing an initial outline. As I write, I refer to the biographies constantly, as well as books on costumes of the period, current events of the period, manner of speech at the time --- really anything to help me bring the story more vividly to life. I also always travel to whatever city and country in which the story is set. I do meet with experts and professors, and hopefully --- if all the stars align properly, and it’s not too far back in history --- I interview someone who actually knew the character, or had a personal tie-in.

BRC: PLATINUM DOLL is Jean Harlow’s story, but in novel form. How did you decide which aspects of her real life to keep in and which ones to leave out?

AG: In this case, the publisher, MIRA Books, saw this as “a star is born”-themed novel. Rather than following her entire life (which tragically ended when she was 26), they wanted to see her from her arrival in Hollywood up through her established fame. Therefore, the later years of her life were left out. As to the aspects that were included during the period of time I wrote about, I included anything and everything that was confirmed by her most noted biographers, whenever their research findings concurred with one another.

BRC: Throughout the book, Jean is a voracious reader and fantasizes about becoming an author. She even starts writing a novel. What happened to the book the real Jean Harlow was working on? Did it ever get published?

AG: Indeed it did. It is called TODAY IS TONIGHT, and it was posthumously published.

BRC: The scenes where Jean first tries out as an extra are filled with thrilling details. So are the later scenes when she’s surrounded by big-name directors and actors like Clark Gable. What were some of the tricks you used for making the excitement of those scenes jump off the page?

AG: I worked in Hollywood briefly as a young college graduate, so I have a fairly good idea what it feels like to be around a busy and exciting movie set. That experience was very helpful in terms of visualizing it. I also knew an older character actress, like the one in the book called Lula Hanford, and I know an actress similar to Rosalie. Having those relationships, I think, made it easier to channel some of their dialogue and the feel of the movie business, and share it in a believable way.

BRC: Did the real Jean Harlow have an aversion to wearing undergarments?

AG: Absolutely, particularly bras. Her mother raised her to be very much a free spirit, and in many ways she was. Her husband was very threatened by that, among other things, and he was very opposed to her posing for the photographer Edwin Bower Hesser. The movie scene mix-up with Laurel and Hardy --- and the teddy --- actually happened.

BRC: At the beginning of PLATINUM DOLL, Jean and her friend Rosalie are both happily married. In one scene, they discuss the idea of starting a family, and Rosalie says to Jean: “I want a career first. Otherwise, what’s the point of me being me at all?” The book is about Jean’s path to stardom but also about her struggle to have a career while also being a good wife and role model for women. How did the first wave of feminism/the women’s fight for equal rights influence the way you shaped this novel?

AG: I am a child of the ‘60s, so first of all feminism is a part of my psyche, and that can’t help but be represented in various ways --- some unconscious --- in my work. I think there are some elements of women’s struggle for equality in all of my novels. I related to Jean’s internal battle to be a devoted wife to a young man she loved, yet eventually having to acknowledge the growing desire for something more. I hope that came across in the story.

BRC: Throughout most of the book, Chuck is a bit of a lout. He is overly controlling and has quite a fondness for booze, not to mention a fiery temper. Did you have any sympathy for Chuck when crafting the scenes while he and Jean were married? How about at the end of the novel?

AG: Perhaps it’s the psychology background, but I actually had immense empathy for Chuck --- quite a bit more than her (male) biographers did. I saw Chuck as more complex than a controlling lout. To me, he was a young man (only 20) who had lost both of his parents in a tragic accident, a man who, perhaps subconsciously, sought to hold on to his wife with a kind of desperation that blinded him, in an attempt not to lose anyone else he loved. He was also documented to have been very threatened by Mother Jean’s domineering presence --- probably rightly so. I found the end of the novel bittersweet to write with all of that in mind.  

BRC: After she turns 18, Jean agrees to a photo shoot with Edwin Hesser, the famous photographer who took photographs of Hollywood starlets wearing barely any clothing. Was it just expected that actresses do this sort of thing if they wanted to become famous? Would it have meant the end of Jean’s career if she declined Hesser’s invitation?

AG: It wasn’t so much expected, at least not posing for photographers, but Hesser was definitely sought out by young actresses hoping to increase their visibility at a very competitive time in early Hollywood. His mainly artistic photographs were widely known to have helped the careers of several of them. I don’t think it would have changed her career at all if she hadn’t posed. I think her star had already slowly begun to rise, and she was always eventually going to meet Howard Hughes. It was Hughes who changed her career, not Hesser.

BRC: Jean’s pregnancy and subsequent “miscarriage” was quite a delicate matter. From the way you wrote the scene, it seemed as though she was forced by her mother to have the abortion. You also imply that she eventually came around to feeling it was the right decision, but nonetheless regretted it: “From this day forward, the knowledge that she had not lost this life inside of her, but that she had allowed it to be taken, would be a thing she could never escape.” What were your motivations for crafting this scene as you did?

AG: Harlow’s two preeminent biographers refer to the loss of that child as an abortion, not a miscarriage, although “miscarriage” was certainly the euphemism of the day. I can’t speak from personal experience on the subject; however, addressing it from a purely female perspective, I can imagine there would be a measure of guilt and/or regret to deal with for the rest of one’s life. I have also heard that confirmed by women who have experienced the situation. We also know that Mother Jean believed Chuck McGrew stood in the way of her daughter’s success at the very time of the loss of her baby, so Mother Jean’s role in the scene was fairly straightforward to tap into. Harlow is quoted later in her life as saying that she wished she’d had her child and that, if she had, she believed her life would have been very different.

BRC: Right before the premiere for Jean’s big break, Hell’s Angels, Chuck reappears and the two share an intimate moment. Though their marriage and divorce proceedings were truly volatile, it seems that Jean and Chuck worked toward reconciling later in life. Is this an accurate reading?

AG: They did speak at various times during the lengthy process of divorce. He did phone her and did try to see her. The scene where Mother Jean has the lawyer brought into their home, and the violent tirade that ensues, is based in fact. That is the last confirmed time Chuck and Harlean saw one another. A daughter from a later marriage confirmed that he loved Harlean for the rest of his life. A Harlow family member recounted her, several years later, weeping over the loss of her marriage to Chuck. With those known facts, I felt comfortable weaving the story as I did.

BRC: Toward the second half of the book, I must admit that my alliances shifted a bit. Chuck seemed like the reasonable one, while Jean’s mother became almost like a PR ogre! What was Jean’s true relationship with her mother like? Can you talk a little about how you shaped their mother-daughter relationship throughout the novel?

AG: Knowing from the beginning of my writing that, throughout Harlow’s life, she and her mother referred to one another as “Mommie” and “The Baby” (Harlow was eventually called that even by co-workers and friends) certainly established a framework for me in terms of representing their relationship. Mother Jean was meddlesome, domineering, and had what I see as nearly full control over her only child. I think it stemmed from the bond they established the first time the two of them were in Hollywood. Harlean was an impressionable child at that time, her mother was trying to become an actress, and there was very much an us-versus-them feel to their relationship. In many ways, I don’t think that ever went away. It most definitely is one of the things that contributed to the demise of her first marriage, as well as the demise of her third marriage. Even though some readers have expressed frustration at Harlow’s lack of backbone with her mother, I felt I had to present the relationship as it was, not as we would have liked it to be.

BRC: Jean Harlow was a true Hollywood sex symbol. But you also do an excellent job in showing that she was not just a gorgeous and glamorous actress, but also a quiet, thoughtful and sensitive human being. Why the choice to portray her in a softer light?

AG: Thank you. I think the answer is, very simply, because that was how she truly was. That tender-hearted side was at least a very large element of who she was, and it is always important to me when I’m writing about a real character from history to bring as much of who they really were to the novel. I come to love my characters, and very much respect all of them, so representing them accurately is important to me.

BRC: You write in the Author’s Note that Jean Harlow died at the young age of 26. For readers who aren’t aware, what were the circumstances of her death?

AG: She died of kidney failure in an era, very sadly, when there was no dialysis.

BRC: PLATINUM DOLL takes place during the Roaring Twenties. What a glorious time period for a novel --- such glitz and glamour! Over the course of your career, you have also written novels set in the 1500s, the 1800s, even the 1980s. If you could pick a time period in which to live, when would it be and why?

AG: Ah, great question! I would have to say 1911 Paris, the time period of my last novel, MADAME PICASSO. I would have found it fascinating, and inspiring, to be a part of those great literary and artistic Paris salons, where characters like Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, earlier Oscar Wilde and later Ernest Hemingway discussed and argued freely about anything and everything. That, I think, would have been fabulous.

BRC: You’ve now written 15 novels, each set in a fascinating far-flung place, from Manhattan to Rome to Scotland. I’ve read that you often travel to each city or country in order to research your characters and their stories. Do you have a favorite place you’ve visited for research?

AG: I always try to travel to the place where I will be setting a novel. It’s no secret to those who know me that I adore France, and I now have several dear friends there. I love something about every single place I have set a book, but I would have to give the edge to Provence, where I set a portion of MADAME PICASSO. It is a beautiful place with wonderful, hospitable people.

BRC: You write under the name Anne Girard but have also published other books using your real name, Diane Haeger. Why the choice to adopt a pen name for this novel and MADAME PICASSO?

AG: It was thought to be a prudent shift based on the fact that my first 13 novels were a bit more detailed, and deeply historical, and with MADAME PICASSO we were leaping fairly far forward in time from my previous novel, which was set in Tudor England at the Court of Henry VIII. Sometimes when authors do that, readers object to the shift. I’m happy to say that I have the most lovely, loyal following, and many of them found Anne Girard anyway.

BRC: In addition to holding a bachelor’s degree in English, you have a master’s in Clinical Psychology. How does your background in psychology play into your work?

AG: I feel as if I use it every day when I am writing. I like to believe it helps me to flesh out a little more fully the motivations and complex emotions characters have that led to their actions. The character of Chuck McGrew would be a perfect example of that.

BRC: What’s next for you?

AG: For the moment, it’s top secret, but I am fully committed --- and gloriously knee-deep --- in the life of another real character from history. I am in love with the story and can’t wait to be able to share it.