Named the first ever “It girl,” Clara Bow, America’s favorite flapper, made a huge impact in the roaring twenties and was known as one of the decade’s leading sex symbols.
Raised as an only child, (her two siblings before her died) Clara’s survival is nothing short of miraculous. The doctors warned Sarah Frances (Gordon) Bow, and Robert Walter Bow, not to have another child after the death of the first two. But Clara was destined for the world and was born one hot July day in 1905. A survivor from birth, Clara would spend the rest of her days fighting for her dreams of a good life and stardom.
Her existence was tough from the get-go as her parents, suffering from poverty, struggled to make ends meet. Her father stayed away from home most of the time, and when he returned, often verbally and physically abused (by some accounts) his wife and Clara. Clara, outcast by the other girls because of her ragged clothes, carrot-colored hair, and tomboy ways much preferred the company of boys.
Often lonely and unhappy, Clara sought to escape from her fractious home life by going to the movies. She said of these forays into the darkened theater, “For the first time in my life I knew there was beauty in the world.”
At sixteen years old, she decided to pursue a career in film. Her father, probably seeing dollar signs in his future, encouraged her, but her mother did not agree with the decision. Against her mother’s wishes and at the urging of her father, Clara entered a nationwide acting contest called “Fame and Fortune” sponsored by a Brewster’s Publications Magazine in 1921.
Showing up in her tomboyish sweater, lackluster skirt, and with absolutely no experience, Clara’s chances of winning were slim. But when she turned on the emotion, she won the judges over. She walked away with a silver trophy and an evening gown. The magazine’s publisher vowed to help her secure roles in film, but nothing happened despite her father’s relentless pressure to pursue the offer. Finally, a female director named Christy Cabanne cast her in a movie called Beyond the Rainbow released in 1922.
After the contest, Clara dropped out of high school to pursue her dreams. Her work in Beyond the Rainbowled to another role in a movie called Down to the Sea in Ships. Clara felt she was on her way, but then tragedy struck. Her mother, suffering from psychosis and epilepsy, brought on by a head injury in her youth, struggled with her mental health. The roles of mother and daughter gradually became reversed and Clara, as a young girl, tried her best to take care of her mother during and after her epileptic fits. Her often absent father offered little help and left Clara alone to deal with her mother’s erratic fits of rage and temper. One night, during one of Sarah’s rages, Clara woke up to her mother holding a knife at her throat, screaming at her. Clara’s father soon had Sarah committed, separating the two. Even though Clara knew this act was in her best interest, it still caused her great distress. In 1923, Sarah died from her epilepsy.
That same year, Clara left her father and New York and headed for Hollywood. She secured several other silent film roles and charmed audiences with her perky personality and her natural, bold sexuality. Her roles were comprised of working-class girls, showgirls, manicurists, etc. who had big ambitions in life. These characters often flew in the face of societal and sexual convention and pursued the life of partygoing, independence, and freedom. She portrayed the perfect, adorable and charming “flapper” and the motion picture world took notice.
In 1926 she signed her first big movie contract with Paramount Pictures, and in1927 she landed the role of poor, shop-girl Betty Lou Spence in the movie It, adapted from the novella written by author Elinor Glyn. The movie was an instant box office success and Clara Bow became Paramount’s most popular star, and America’s first “It girl.”
Clara starred in 46 silent films, and despite her heavy Brooklyn accent and marginal singing voice, transitioned to “talkies” and starred in eleven more motion pictures. Her star burned bright, but at age 26, the actress burned out under the tremendous pressure put on her by the studios and her demanding schedule. She also showed signs of mental instability, much like her mother, no doubt brought on by her stressful career. Due to her status as a sex symbol, Clara was also the subject of many scandals. Women, jealous of the actress’s natural sex appeal often accused her publically of husband stealing. Although she had affairs with many men during her heyday, “husband stealing” was not in her repertoire.
In 1931, Clara retired from acting and married Rex Bell, a rancher from Texas. She dropped out of Hollywood and went to live with him on his ranch to recuperate. After returning to health, she re-entered Hollywood with a bang. Everyone wanted her. She signed a contract with Fox Film Corporation for a two-picture deal. Both films, Savage and Hoop-La were well received. She officially retired from acting two years later and devoted her life to her husband and sons.
But, Clara could not escape her demons. Her gradual slide into mental illness culminated in a suicide attempt in 1944. She checked herself into a psychiatric institute in 1949 where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated with electric shock therapy. When she was released, she did not return to the ranch but instead bought a modest bungalow where she lived out the rest of her days until she succumbed to a heart attack in 1965.
Clara Bow found a way out of her lonely childhood to become one of America’s best-loved film icons and the highest paid actress of her day. She influenced some of the most powerful people in Hollywood, and also the common woman who wanted to personify the loveable flapper with her “Clara Bow heart-shaped lips” and her charming down-to-earth realism and individuality. She will live on in the hearts and minds of many through the multitudes of photographs taken of her and what remains of her silent and “talking” films.