DEADLY ILLUSIONS: Jean Harlow and the Murder of Paul Bern by Samuel Marx and Joyce Vanderveen (Random House: $19.95; 271 pp.) When Paul Bern, producer and husband of sexpot actress Jean Harlow, was found dead, the story of how he died threatened the movie she then was working on ("Red Dust," in which she played opposite one of MGM's brightest leading men, Clark Gable). And so, according to Marx and Vanderveen's persuasive book, Louis B. Mayer, using henchmen Eddie Mannix (the studio snoop) and Howard Strickling (the PR man), concocted a story that Bern, despondent over his inability to satisfy Harlow sexually, had killed himself.
Marx and Vanderveen make the case that Bern was murdered by Dorothy Millette, a woman he'd married but who had spent at least 10 years wholly possessed by incapacitating mental illness. When she recovered enough to find her husband, and learned he was again married, she shot him, then killed herself. "Deadly Illusions," which 40 years ago could have been a 25,000-word cover story for the Saturday Evening Post or Collier's, paints a dark picture of the corrupt power exerted by studio bosses during Hollywood's so-called golden era.