Clara Bow was born on July 29, 1905 in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, New York. She was the youngest of three siblings and the only one to survive past childhood. Her father was sexually abusive and left the home for long periods of time while her mother suffered from severe mental disorders, later threatening her adolescent daughter's life.
Bow took to watching movies as an escape from the horrors of home and dropped out of school. At 16, she entered a magazine's beauty contest and won a small part in the film Beyond the Rainbow (1922), though her scenes were initially cut. Even while facing resistance, Bow persevered in continuing to audition at New York studios and eventually received a part in Down to the Sea in Ships (1922). The new actress also contended with the institutionalization and death of her mother.
Bow made her way to Hollywood and signed with Preferred Pictures. She starred in an array of silent films such as Grit (1924), The Plastic Age (1925) and Dancing Mothers (1926); the latter was filmed by Paramount Studios.
In 1927 she starred in 'It', a film adapted from a novella by Elinor Glyn. The project proved to be a tremendous box office success and lent the actress the nickname the "It" Girl, the film propelled her popularity. Bow's imagery and electric, sexy performances spoke to the flapper persona of the times. She was a style icon as well, with her particular look taken on by women across the country. During her period of stardom she was the recipient of mountains of fan mail.
The actress made cinematic history with her 1927 co-starring role in Wings, which went on to receive the first Best Picture Oscar. She later made the transition to talking movies with 1929's The Wild Party. Bow ultimately starred in dozens of films over the course of her career, though rigorous shooting demands and industry exploitation took its toll.
Known for having a fun and affable personality with a winning Brooklyn accent, Bow nonetheless still suffered from celebrity scrutiny and the lingering traumas of her upbringing, as well as an overloaded work shedule - she had made 45 films in six years. Controversy was never far away, she had been associated with a number of men off-screen and her romantic life became the object of much hurtful speculation and gossip, including the subject of a pamphlet put out by an assistant with lurid stories of Bow's relationships. By the early '30s, she was physically and mentally exhausted. In 1931 she had a breakdown and entered a sanitarium.
While recovering, Bow met fellow actor and future politician Rex Bell, and the two married in 1931, going on to have two children. Bow starred in a couple of other films with Fox Studios before retiring from acting in 1933.
Never free of her mental distress, there was a suicide attempt in 1944, followed in 1949 by a stay at a mental institution. After Bell's death in 1962, she moved back to Hollywood, where she died in seclusion of a heart attack at age 60, on September 27, 1965 in Los Angeles, California.
Decades later, her trailblazing role in shaping film and general culture has continued to be explored. A biography was published in 1988, Clara Bow Runnin' Wild by David Stenn, while 1999 saw the release of a documentary, Clara Bow: Discovering the It Girl, directed by Hugh M. Neely and narrated by Courtney Love.