Clara Bow was the original ‘flapper, the ‘It Girl’, the ‘Brooklyn Bonfire’. She enjoyed her sexuality. She exhibited it, she exploited it and she lived it. Yet, for all her voracious appetite for living life in the ultra-fast lane, underneath she carried dark secrets from her childhood that prevented her from ever really being happy or contented. Her millions of fans around the globe were completely unaware of her miserable childhood and adolescence. They knew of her humble beginnings, of course. The studios loved to tell fans that any one of them could realize ‘the dream’ regardless of their origins, so Clara’s early years spent in abject poverty in a Brooklyn tenement were common knowledge. What was not common knowledge was the history of physical abuse she endured from her unhappy father, nor the mental illness suffered by her mother.
With her father, Robert Bow
As a child little Clara saw her grandfather die from a heart attack as he pushed her on a swing. She also witnessed one of her few childhood friends burn to death in a house fire. Her mother accidentally fell from a second-storey window and suffered brain damage when Clara was just 6 years old, and the poor woman was never mentally the same again. She especially did not want her little girl to go into the movies. One night Clara awoke to find her mother pressing a kitchen knife against her throat, threatening to kill 16 year-old Clara unless she gave up any thought of leaving for Hollywood. Clara wrestled the blade from her hand and arranged for her to be institutionalised. Little wonder Clara suffered from chronic insomnia all her life. Little wonder, too, that she sought an escape from her miserable existence by living vicariously through her heroines; silver screen actresses such as Mary Pickford.
Producer B.P. Schulberg
In 1921 the world suddenly opened up for Clara when she unexpectedly won the ‘Fame and Fortune Contest’ in New York City. It was sponsored by three motion picture magazines and ultimately led to a small part in a feature film in Hollywood! It was 1922 and the film was Beyond the Rainbow. Her performance wound up on the cutting room floor, but a producer named B. P. Schulberg had seen enough to take an active interest in the pretty 16 year-old and to sign her to a contract with his studio, Preferred Pictures. It is generally conceded that he probably traded opportunity for sex, and that Clara played along. She had no intention of ever returning to Brooklyn. Anything was better than that. Once she became established in Hollywood she sent for her father to come live with her. Her mother had passed away in 1923.
Clara in Wings (1927)
In 1927, after several so-so films, Clara landed the lead in the first ever Best Picture Oscar-winner, the ground-breaking Wings, and she became a star overnight. That same year Schulberg put her into It and Clara Bow was suddenly famous beyond her wildest expectations. Men adored her sexy, open vivacity and the twinkle in her eye that promised so much. Women turned her into a fashion icon. She was immediately dubbed ‘The It Girl’, and it stuck. When a reporter asked her what it actually meant, she replied, ‘I ain’t real sure’. Fame went to her head, however, and she often voiced her opinions without thinking. Her candour was refreshing in an industry that built itself on subterfuge and baloney, but it rubbed a lot of people, particularly those in high places, the wrong way. While she was making these people millions she was safe, but she was still a ‘nobody’ from the wrong side of the tracks.
Clara the fashion icon in the
days when swastikas were a
symbol of good luck
Riding high, she delighted in openly discussing her affairs, she called them ‘engagements’, and the tabloids lapped up her stories and comments. Director Victor Fleming bedded her. So did actors Bela Lugosi, Gilbert Roland, Tom Mix, Fredric March, John Gilbert and even the young, unknown John Wayne. Her lengthy romance with heartthrob Gary Cooper was widely reported and discussed, especially after she happily glowed over his ‘enormous libido’ – and equally enormous manhood. She enjoyed telling dirty jokes and describing her lovers’ ‘size’ with less worldly starlets. Yet for all her fame and success she was still the frightened little Brooklyn kid underneath, full of self-doubt, afraid that it could all be taken away from her. She was particularly afraid of the coming of ‘sound’, aware that her ‘Brooklynese’ would almost certainly not survive it. When a fire broke out on the lot one day she was seen running from the building, screaming, ‘Christ! I hope it was the sound stages.’
Gilbert Roland – Clara’s
Gary Cooper and Clara in
Children of Divorce (1927)
Clara’s wild lifestyle had to eventually catch up with her. Had to. Her enemies began circulating stories (probably untrue) that she was often checking into the VD clinic and that she had had several abortions. A particularly vile report claimed she had participated in an orgy with the Thundering Herd football team and had serviced all of them. It has since been proven untrue, but it severely damaged her reputation at the time. Fuel was added to the fire when her close friend and former private secretary, Daisy DeVoe, tried to blackmail her. Clara was visibly shaken that someone she thought was her pal could do such a thing. When Daisy persisted Clara made the mistake of her life. She fought back and sued the woman for embezzlement. Daisy knew details of all of Clara’s private life. She knew where all the bodies were buried. And she divulged everything– details of her former boss’s affairs, her gambling problem, boozing, even her evasion of income tax. The revelations wrecked Clara’s career and her image once and for all.
Daisy DeVoe (L) with Clara and her dog Duke
Mr. & Mrs. Rex Bell
Clara in 1950
As movie offers dried up Clara chose to exit the Hollywood scene altogether by marrying cowboy star Rex Bell and moving away to raise their two sons. Rex was elected as Lt. Governor of Nevada in 1954. By then Clara was drinking and eating to excess. She also began to suffer bouts of mental illness. In 1962 Rex died from a heart attack, leaving Clara alone with her memories and looking forward to occasional visits from her two grown sons. Each December she would send gossip columnist Hedda Hopper a Christmas card on which she would pitifully write, ‘Do you remember me?’ One evening in 1965, while she sat up watching a late night episode of The Virginian, the lady who was once Hollywood’s first ever sex symbol slipped away from heart disease. She was 60 and had defied her critics until the end. They anticipated she would either die in a mental institution or take her own life. But Clara Bow was made of sterner stuff.