Why Was Harlow in Monte Carlo?
I was on a just-over-five-hour train ride from Paris to Cannes. Window seat. I was one week into my month-long excursion to Europe.
So far I had toured Auvers-sur-Oise, the town in which Vincent van Gogh painted the hauntingly beautiful The Church at Auvers not long before he shot himself in a nearby wheat field. He died from the wound more than a day later. Prior to Auvers-sur-Oise I was at the famed painter’s Paris apartment which he shared with Theo in Montmartre—Moulin Rogue and all that. Later on, also in France, I would be dazzled by the dead weight wreathing Van Gogh's room in the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Like drifts of gossamer, the albatross of his tortured soul never fizzled out.
And then I flitted off to the UK, to Agatha Christie’s Greenway House, where everything was brightly painted. My jaunt ended in the Scottish Highlands, on a local tour coach, as the rolling landscape of boulders shrouded in lush green grass whizzed by, fields and blue lochs a blur of motion.
And that was three years ago. My trip across Europe winded up the first in a series of jaunts I took as a 19-year-old. The common bond between these trips? I embarked on them for no reason. To this day I’m still nonplussed about what had motivated my traveling around the globe throughout that one-year span of time. There hadn’t been any sudden loss of a loved one, nor had there been any bad breakup. I simply fell off the map of my routine life and circumnavigated the world for a year.
Basking in the warm sun, the train ride from Paris to Cannes was making me drowsy. I put on my headphones and turned on my iPod. The song "I've Never Been to Me" blasted into my headphones. My mom must have downloaded it before she gave that iPod to me as a gift. I knew it was my mom because she had played that song my whole life. I had a lot of really strong childhood memories of driving around in my mom's car while she played "I've Never Been to Me." My sister who was two years younger than me hated it. But there was something about the song "I've Never Been to Me"—the Charlene Motown Classic that only picked fame after its 1982 re-release—that always held my attention rapt.
I shielded my eyes from the glare of the sun. We had come very close to Cannes. When the glare waned, I lifted my gaze to spot the same sunshine now glinting off the surface of the lustrous blue oceans. It was the kind of blue you would never forget. I gazed out at the passing seascape. That’s when I heard those lyrics playing through my headphones:
…Oh I've been to Nice and the isle of Greece
While I sipped champagne on a yacht
I moved like Harlow in Monte Carlo and showed 'em what I've got
I was bemused: Who is Harlow? Why was she in Monte Carlo?
It didn’t take me too long to find out that the “Harlow” in the song was Jean Harlow, famed Hollywood actress and sex symbol of the 1930s right after the silent era had ended. But perhaps what caught my attention the most was that Jean Harlow had starred alongside Clark Gable—Gone with the Wind was one of the reason I chose filmmaking—in six movies, all of which were box-office success. It also didn’t take me long to find out she was only 26 when she died of kidney failure.
The next object of my rapt attention was the singer who brought up Harlow in the only hit song of her career. Charlene Oliver, a one-hit-wonder who, after "I've Never Been to Me" hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in America in 1982, never had another single that followed the same success. Perhaps more flabbergasting about her career was that the song wasn’t even a hit with its original release in 1977, and the failure had caused Charlene to forsake her singing career. She moved to a town in England following her marriage to an Englishman in 1981.
It wasn’t until 1982 when Scott Shannon, a Tampa-based radio DJ, began putting "I've Never Been to Me" on the radio all over again, this time to a huge response, that Charlene’s dwindling sining career was back on track. Scott Shannon called Jay Lasker, then president of Motown Records, and told him that they should release the single. They released a thousand copies in Florida and it sold out instantly. People kept calling the radio station to ask where they could get it and it caused a frenzy. Now given a second chance, Charlene was promoted as Motown’s golden girl throughout 1982.
The song was being played everywhere and she was riding on the crest of her fame, with champagne flowing and music coming on everywhere she went, performing with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross. She was also attending tons of TV and radio shows back to back in LA and New York.
Charlene became famous overnight. And if not that she later found out she had been cross-collateralized by Motown, it was really safe to say that she had found her fame. Her contract with Motown ended up earning the label a lot of money but crippling her financially. Her career stalled. She got back to Britain with her husband, and that’s when she experienced a mental breakdown. "I've Never Been to Me" went on to become one of the biggest hit in Billboard chart history. Charlene, on the other hand, never had another comeback. She now lives a quiet life in LA.
Simply put, "I've Never Been to Me" had brought the singer fame but not wealth. And as I jolted awake in curiosity on that sun-drenched train heading to Cannes, I realized the life of the woman depicted in the song paralleled that of Charlene herself. I’ll never forget my one-year strings of travels without a rhyme or reason like the free-spirited Harlow in Monte Carlo. Even though I have every reason to believe that Jean Harlow had never been to Monte Carlo, that 50 years apart Charlene had never been to her, and that another 40 years later, I’ve also never been to me.
To all the women out there, seeking liberation from any kind of convention, this is for you.