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Harlean's mother was extremely protective and coddling, reportedly instilling a sense that her daughter owed everything she had to her.
"She was always all mine", she said of her daughter.
She did not learn that her name was actually "Harlean" until the age of five, when she began to attend Miss Barstow's Finishing School for Girls in Kansas City.
Harlean and "Mother Jean", as she became known when Harlean became a film star, remained very close.
When Harlean was at school, her mother filed for a divorce that was finalized uncontested on September 29, 1922.
She was granted sole custody of Harlean, who loved the father who would survive her by thirty-seven years. Finances dwindling, she and her mother moved back to Kansas City after Skip Harlow issued an ultimatum that he would disinherit Jean if she did not return.
Carpenter and Dianna (née Beal), was a dentist from a working-class background who attended dental school in Kansas City.
Her mother, Jean Poe Carpenter (née Harlow; 1891–1958), was the daughter of a wealthy real estate broker, Skip Harlow, and his wife, Ella Harlow (née Williams).
Harlow became a leading lady for MGM, starring in a string of hit films including Red Dust (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Reckless (1935), and Suzy (1936).Several weeks later, Skip sent his granddaughter to a summer camp, Camp Cha-Ton-Ka, in Michigamme, Michigan, where she became ill with scarlet fever.Her mother traveled to Michigan to care for her, rowing herself across the lake to the camp, but was told she could not see her daughter.Reputedly, Harlean was noticed and approached by Fox executives while waiting for her friend, but stated that she was not interested.Nevertheless, she was given dictated letters of introduction to Central Casting.
After several calls from Central Casting and a number of rejected job offers, Harlean was pressed into accepting work by her mother.