The original IT Girl

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“This girl was the real thing. Someone to stir every pulse in the nation”
F Scott Fitzgerald

Clara Bow was Hollywood’s first sex symbol, predating Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe for being unashamedly feminine, flirtatious and brazen in her sexuality. She was the model upon which every coquettish look, every pout and every sultry stare was made. Like Harlow and Monroe she was also damaged, tormented and ultimately destroyed by the Hollywood system. Her story could almost be that of Hollywood cliche yet she was it’s first truly bankable star and the one who made a path for every actress after her.

Clara Bow was born on July 29, 1905 and her start in life was a perilous one as her early years were spent in a tenement slum in Brooklyn living with only her mother, who had a serious mental illness, as her father was absent. The only other person present at her birth was her maternal grandmother who, upon seeing the lifeless Clara, shook her until she took her first breath. Clara was later to say, “I don’t suppose two people ever looked death in the face more clearly than my mother and I the morning I was born. We were both given up but somehow we struggled back to life.”

Clara’s formative years were spent in extreme poverty with little schooling and a responsibility for looking after her siblings and unstable mother. Her father was once again present but showed no capability to provide for his young family, towards the end of her own life Clara said “Even now I can’t trust life. It did too many awful things to me as a kid.”

It’s almost Hollywood folklore that every actress says she spent hours watching movies to escape an abusive childhood yet for Clara this was the truth. The movie industry was in its infancy and showed her “for the first time I knew there was beauty in the world. For the first time I saw distant lands, serene, lovely homes, romance, nobility, glamour”.

By the age of 13 necessity had driven Clara Bow to leave school and find a job in a restaurant by the Coney Island Fair, barely a child herself she had now started to catch the eye of those around her. A lonely and hyper sensitive child she searched for love and recognition and in 1921 she entered Motion Picture Classic Magazine’s Fame & Fortune Contest and, to her astonishment, she won. What is also surprising is the panel of judges reaction to her: “She is very young, only 16 but she is full of confidence, determination and ambition. She has a genuine spark of divine fire.” By the age of 16 Clara had already learned that however shy and sensitive she was her ambition would have to override that.

The week before her 18th birthday saw Clara Bow leave the slums of New York for the vistas of Hollywood and sign her first contract with Preferred Pictures. Upon her arrival the studio head saw little hope and yet once in front of the camera her screen test was a revelation. Sad, lonely and withdrawn before she stepped in front of it yet vivacious and a force of life when it’s eye hit her, within two years she had made 25 pictures. The first time she saw her name above a Broadway movie theatre she said “I can never tell you what happiness I felt. Life had been so terribly hard and it seemed to me now that all my troubles were to be in the past.”

The public fell in love with Clara Bow and as an actress everything she did was instinctive “rehearsals sap my pep, tell me what I have to do and I’ll do it”. The critics affection for her was just as great causing Photoplay magazine to state “when she is on the screen nothing else matters, when she is off the same is true”.

Clara Bow’s sexuality was raw, youthful and playful and she is responsible for the term “sex symbol”. In her movies she is the pursuer rather than the pursued and yet her screen presence still shows a touching vulnerability. She didn’t alienate women in the same way Garbo or Dietrich did and she never had the imperious beauty of Louise Brooks. Clara was “youth running wild” and no one ran wilder than Clara Bow. By 1926 she was a huge star and had all the trappings stardom could bring, she was the epitome of the roaring twenties and her 1927 movie “It” coined the still-used phrase “It Girl”.

When she was asked what “It” was she replied in her perfect Brooklyn accent “I ain’t real sure”. By the advent of the “talkies” Clara was already signed to Paramount pictures, she was also receiving 35,000 fan letters a month, most of which she personally replied to. Her fame was now so great that letters addressed to “The It Girl, California” were delivered to her door. The public loved her and yet the Hollywood elite loathed her.

Clara was not even invited to her own premières, instead she sat at home and played poker with her cook and her maids. Her house became known for it’s wild parties and she gained a reputation for being scandalous and immoral. Clara’s response “they are snobs, frightful snobs. I’m a curiosity in Hollywood. I’m a big freak because I’m myself” and an interview she gave to Photoplay in which she spoke of her traumatic and impoverished childhood did little to endear her to the studio heads. In a town of Hollywood dreams, childhood nightmares were not to be spoken about.

By the time of the Great Depression of the 1930s Clara’s zest for life and what was seen as frivolousness belonged to a bygone age. Because she represented the Roaring Twenties, it was as if she was being held responsible for the hardship of the 1930s. The gossip magazines fed upon her and, without the respect or protection of the Hollywood elite, she was an easy target. A scandal sheet called The Coast Reporter accused her of lesbianism, incest, drug abuse and bestiality and implied she carried venereal disease and suffered from insanity. A high profile court case against her personal assistant led to even more bad publicity and, in 193, she pleaded to be released from her contract with Paramount Pictures. At the age of 25, and following a nervous breakdown, Clara was labelled a “Hollywood Has Been”.

Clara married actor Rex Bell in 1931 and the following year returned to Hollywood as part of a two picture deal worth $150,000. The first picture “Call Her Savage” tells the story of a scandalous Texan heiress who finally succumbs to a nervous breakdown, an irony that was not lost on Clara, it was a huge success and showed that there was still a huge amount of affection for her from the American public. However, now tired and jaded by the Hollywood system her follow up picture “Hoopla” would be the last she ever made.

Clara Bow left Hollywood to become a wife and mother and, for a while, lived quietly on a ranch in Nevada. However, when her husband ran for Governor of that state her fear of returning to public life was so great she attempted suicide. In 1949 she was an in patient at the Institute of Living sanotarium where she was subjected to electric shock therapy and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Clara rejected this diagnosis, checked herself out and did not return to her family. She died of a heart attack on September 27, 1965 at the age of 60.

by Daniel Warner

 

About The Author

Daniel Warner

Writer and journalist

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