Clara Gordon Bow (July 29, 1905 – September 27, 1965)
Inimitable ‘It’ girl, Clara Bow was born in 1905 to an impoverished household in a tough Brooklyn neighbourhood. The youngest of three children, to a sexually abusive father and mentally unstable mother. Her two elder sisters had died in infancy – one of whom was disposed of in a trash can. Her mother had hoped that both she and new born Clara would die, rather than endure the grinding poverty they suffered.
Clara’s childhood was an unhappy and difficult time. She saw her Scottish grandfather drop dead when she was just 5 years old, and when she was 9, her best friend Johnny died in her arms after his clothes had caught fire while playing near a fireplace – despite her valiant efforts to put out the flames.
With an abusive and rarely present father, young Clara had to contend alone with an erratic, unstable mother, sometimes hiding in a cupboard while her mother occasionally prostituted herself. Local girls shunned her because of her ragged appearance; the girls wouldn’t play with her, but the boys would play with the athletic tomboy.
When she was 16 her mother Sarah fell from a second story window suffering serious head injuries, which lead to her later being diagnosed with psychosis as a result of epilepsy. This meant that Clara had to look after her mother and deal with her seizures and psychotic episodes.
Clara dropped out of school and got a job selling hot dogs on Coney Island. She, like many others developed an interest in the movies – probably as a way to escape the trauma of home life.
Despite her difficulties with her parents, she always defended them throughout her life, blaming their behaviour on the challenging circumstances they faced.
In 1921 she borrowed 50 cents from her father to enter a magazine contest for young movie hopefuls. She won the top prize, part of which was a small part in a movie – Beyond the Rainbow. Despite the fact that her scenes were cut from the final print of the movie, she was later hired to play a part in ‘Down to the Sea in Ships’, as a result of her photo from the competition being spotted by a studio executive.
Her mother, disapproving of young Clara’s ambitions, found out about the competition, and one night in 1922 Clara woke to find her mother had a knife pressed to her throat. The ensuing fight ended with Clara locking her mother in a room. She was later committed to a sanatorium. Sarah Bow died in 1923 when Clara was 18.
And so, Clara Bow was on the road to stardom. She made her way to Hollywood and became a star of the silent era with films like Grit (1924), The Plastic Age (1925), Dancing Mothers (1926) she also won acclaim as a co-star in Wings (1927).
But it was after starring in the Elinor Glynn novella adaptation ‘It’ in 1927 that Clara’s place in the movie firmament was assured. The film was a huge box office success, and Clara’s role so popular she inherited the nickname ‘The It girl’. Her look, her exuberance and on screen sexual presence seemed to mirror the ‘flapper’ sensibility of these modern women. She became an influential style icon and along with contemporaries like Louise Brooks, became standard bearer for the ‘flapper’.
During the height of her fame she received sackfuls of mail from her adoring fans.
Clara Bow certainly had ‘It’, her large eyes and her flirtatious movement reaching out and tantalising audiences both male and female. She had what Billy Wilder coined “flesh impact”, a quality that had viewers feeling they could almost ‘touch’ that flesh.
She was well known for her fun loving, affable personality and that distinctive Brooklyn accent, with a slight nervous stammer. A self confessed tom boy as a child, she grew into a ballsy, straight talking character who also expressed a very feminine vulnerability – and inevitably draw the attention of many male (and female) admirers.
During her adult life though she suffered various trials – the lingering pain of her troubled childhood, as well as media scrutiny, and a punishing work schedule imposed on her by Paramount Studios, no doubt contributing to her lifelong problem with insomnia and periodic mental instability.
She was becoming known for her extravagances, and stories of her unconventional behaviour were legend at the time – though no doubt a great deal of exaggeration persisted. However, there were many reports of all night parties, ending in early morning swims that she often hosted. She and been associated with a string of men – her co-star in Wings, Gary Cooper among her lovers. And so her romantic entanglements became much gossiped about, much of it hurtful.
Paramount studio hired an assistant to straighten out the unconventional actress. But in 1930, Clara sued secretary Daisy DeVoe for embezzling $15,000 from her. DeVoe shamelessly retaliated by publishing a pamphlet revealing lurid stories of Clara’s relationships and wild partying. Including parties hosted for the University of California football team (which turned out to be not to be as lurid as one might have assumed).
DeVoe was found guilty and eventually convicted and jailed. The fallout of the case and the publication of sordid accounts of Clara’s lifestyle had the public turn against her, subsequently she was dropped by Paramount. The strain proved too much for the young actress and at the age of 26 she suffered a breakdown and entered a sanatorium to recover.
During this time she met and married actor and future politician Rex Bell in 1931. Clara eventually went back to acting, starring in a couple of films. She struggled to regain any real success and retired in 1933, still only 28 years old.
The couple moved out to a ranch in Nevada, where they had two children. She continued to struggle with her mental health, and attempted suicide in 1944. Her husband was at the time building a career as a politician.
In 1949 with continuing mental health problems, Clara was diagnosed schizophrenia, and underwent terrible shock treatment.
After Rex Bell died in 1962, she moved back to Hollywood to relative seclusion where she died in 1965 of a heart attack while watching television.
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.
There is no doubt Clara Bow was a true trailblazer, and her legacy continues to this day. Clara Bow, we salute you! (we’ve even used your name as our admin – homage indeed!)
Buy our exclusive Clara Bow here (complete with that flaming red hair!)