This is the last post for Flapper Month. It’s been a great series, and I’m sad to see it end (maybe it’s no coincidence that today’s Good Friday!). Perhaps a Flapper Month 2 is in order one of these days. Until then, enjoy this look at one of history’s most famous and beloved flapper actresses!
“Clara Bow is the quintessence of what the term ‘flapper’ signifies…Pretty, impudent, superbly assured, as world wise, briefly clad and ‘hard-berled’ as possible. There were hundreds of them–her prototypes. Now, completing the circle, there are thousands more–patterning themselves after her.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1927.
In the 1920s, the influential Elinor Glyn–highly successful writer of “racy” novels such as Three Weeks, and matronly authority on simply all things fashionable–coined a new definition of the word “It” (which she always capitalized). “It,” she declared, was a rare magnetic quality, an innate self-confidence and ability to fascinate others. Sex appeal was part of it, sure, but it wasn’t the only part. Very few people had “It,” according to Glyn…and in 1927, she loftily declared that one actress, and one actress alone, not only had “It,” but was worthy of the title “The ‘It’ Girl.” And that actress was Clara Bow.
It was a long way to come for a young woman who had grown up in the shabby tenements of New York City, unwanted and unloved, often neglected by her father and living in fear of a mentally unstable mother.
In 1905 Clara’s mother Sarah Bow was pregnant and living in her brother’s small Brooklyn apartment, her husband Robert having abandoned her not long before. This was her third pregnancy; the first two infants (both girls) had been born premature and quickly passed away. Doctors had warned Sarah that a third pregnancy could be fatal to her, but much to her chagrin it had happened anyway. On a sweltering July day when the temperature inside the crowded tenements had soared to a stifling 115 degrees F., Sarah gave birth to another daughter–Clara.
The tiny, weak infant wasn’t expected to live, but against all odds she did. As a result, Robert returned to Sarah and Clara was brought up, none too lovingly, in a series of Brooklyn tenements.
Robert Bow was a shiftless man who sometimes left his wife and child alone as he worked a series of odd jobs. Sarah struggled with mental illness, and in time also started having seizures. Clara later recalled: “Often they would happen two or three times a day…Usually I was alone with her, and I would run to her and massage her throat to try to make her breathing easier.”
Clara’s happier memories involved her grandfather, who had doted on her until his sudden death when she was young. She also recalled being the neighborhood tomboy who preferred playing baseball with the local boys (“I never had any use for girls and their games”). She was proud of how boys treated her like an equal: “I was mighty glad they didn’t think I was a sissy. I’d do any darn thing to prove I wasn’t. We used to hop rides on trucks and get lost and do all sorts of crazy stunts.”
Once Clara was a teenager Sarah decided to give her a pretty new dress and style her hair in a more flattering way. “Right away there was a change in the boys’ attitude toward me. Oh, I was heart-broken…I didn’t want to be treated like a girl.” She felt increasingly lonely, no longer being just “one of the boys” and having no friends among the neighborhood girls, who made fun of her.
But there was one refuge Clara had, a place to go to forget the misery of her home life–the movies. They left an impression on her like no other: “For the first time in my life I knew there was beauty in the world. For the first time I saw distant lands, serene, lovely homes, romance, nobility, glamour. My whole heart was afire, and my love was the motion picture.”
She began to dream of being a movie actress herself–a dream that seemed impossible, to say the least. She came across an announcement of a Fame and Fortune contest which was looking for girls with acting talent. She and her father conspired to have a couple cheap portraits taken in a little studio in Coney Island, and she did a series of screen tests while wearing the only threadbare outfit she owned. The gamble paid off–against all odds, Clara Bow was announced the winner of the 1921 Fame and Fortune Contest.
She had to badger her way into actually getting a movie role, with her father’s encouragement–Sarah angrily disapproved of her daughter being an actress. But she was finally cast in a small part in Beyond the Rainbow (1922), and then as a tomboy in Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) (both were filmed on the East coast). By this point, Sarah’s mental illness was so out of control that she threatened Clara with a butcher knife. Robert arranged to have her committed to an asylum, but then she died suddenly of heart disease, likely in connection with epilepsy. The death left her daughter brokenhearted.
Other small parts started coming Clara’s way, and in 1924 WAMPAS declared her one of its “Baby Stars” (actresses predicted to make it big). Directors were impressed by her expressive face and ability to cry on cue. In 1923, the independent studio Preferred Pictures offered her a three-month trial period of $50 a week–in Hollywood. And so, like many other actresses and would-be actresses before her, Clara made the long cross-country train trip to sunny California.
That trial period soon turned into a full-fledged career, and soon the charismatic actress was cast in the kind of part that would define her–as a “flapper” in Black Oxen (1923). It was more of an “impetuous teen” type of flapper and she only had five lines, but she still stood out to critics at the time. She was hired as Colleen Moore’s support in Painted People (1924), but withdrew, feeling that Colleen wasn’t allowing her enough closeups. She would appear in eight films in 1924, her first lead being Poisoned Paradise.
She then appeared in a staggering 15 features in 1925, sometimes working on two features at once. While not acting from dawn to dusk, she would struggle with insomnia, likely caused by the time Sarah Bow threatened her with a knife.
The Plastic Age (1925), a “college film” about the fast lives of partying students, was the turning point in her career and associated her with the “sexy flapper” image for once and for all–one who was never afraid to give a lecherous man a slap in the face. This was followed by hits like Dancing Mothers (1926) and Mantrap (1926). Clara Bow, Brooklyn-accented girl of the tenements, was now a glamorous Hollywood star with trademark red curls and stylish clothes (she preferred bright colors). She was hailed as “sensational” “vivacious” and “the whole show.”
In 1927, her studio thought up a bit of publicity that still resounds to this day. At time, Elinor Glyn’s novel It was all the rage. They reasoned: Why not dub Clara the “‘It’ Girl”? Glyn originally agreed to the endorsement for a substantial sum, but upon meeting Clara in person there was no doubt in her mind that the charismatic young actress really did embody “It.” The label has stuck ever since.
Outgoing, friendly, and eager to please in real life, Clara was a hit on every set she worked on. She loved hobnobbing with the crew, considering herself “one of the boys.” Billy Kaplan, a member of the Preferred Pictures crew, remembered: “Clara was always a good guy on the set. Very professional, always on time. And if anything was wrong, she came to us and said, ‘Can we do something else for about an hour?’ And because she was special to us, we always found something else to do.”
Despite this warm informality on the sets, to the more genteel members of Hollywood’s elite she was an outsider. She had a cheery lack of decorum, not understanding why it was inappropriate to attend a fancy luncheon in a bathing suit, or being surprised that a formal dinner wasn’t the right place to crack a dirty joke. She was also beginning to be known as unstable. Unabashedly bohemian in her lifestyle, she flitted from boyfriend to boyfriend, which lead to divorce courts and scores of headlines. She accidentally ran up huge gambling debts at a casino, which lead to a brush with extortion. Her studio began to dub her “Crisis-a-Day-Clara.”
The crises only worsened once talkies came in. Clara had bad cases of “mike fright,” which can be glimpsed in some pictures to this day. Her fear of talking onscreen grew so bad that on the set of Kick In (1931) she became hysterical and fled the set.
If all this weren’t tumultuous enough, Clara then had to endure one of the ugliest, unwarranted cases of public humiliation any major star had ever faced. A weekly tabloid called the Coast Reporter published a libelous, fabricated “exposé” of Clara’s personal life, claiming that she was wildly promiscuous, diseased, incestuous, and even resorted to bestiality. When Clara glimpsed a copy of the Reporter, she vomited.
It was all too much. She wrote a letter to the head of Paramount, hoping to be released from her contract:
The truth of the whole matter is that I am a very sick girl. My physician tells me there is only one cure and that is a complete rest regardless of anything else. If my career must be sacrificed, I can’t help it…I have been through so much the past year including the last vicious attack by Girnau, that my system can stand it no longer. I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown and I don’t intend to have one if I can help it.
Paramount talked her into staying, but attempts to work triggered the breakdown she had feared. Her boyfriend Rex Bell, a strong and dependable man, whisked her away to his ranch in the Mojave desert for a much-needed rest. On December 3, 1931, they were married. (That same day, Frederick Girnau, the publisher of the Coast Reporter, was sentenced to eight years in jail for his “verbal garbage unfit to be fed even to swine.”)
In 1932, feeling much improved, Clara returned to Hollywood and made a couple more pictures–Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoopla (1933). While she was as sparkling on the screen as ever, she decided: “I don’t want to be remembered as somebody who couldn’t do anything but take her clothes off. I want something real now.” She retired from the screen for good, going back to the ranch with Rex. In time, they would have two sons, Tony and George.
Despite the comparative peace of her life at home, Clara’s mental instability began to plague her more and more. By the 1940s she was seeing psychiatric specialists, who diagnosed her with schizophrenia. In 1950 she had to live separately from her family. Her final years in Culver City were spend in the care of a nurse, until her death from a heart attack in 1965.
Clara Bow is known today as a legend, an extraordinary achievement for someone with such a tumultuous past. Life was by turns both cruel and merciful to her–cruel in regards to her childhood, the never-ending scrutiny by the press, and her own troubled mind, but merciful in terms of her wild success and her luck in marrying a man who was able to provide the care she needed. Past decades haven’t always afforded her that same mercy, sadly, judging by the many shameless books that spread wild rumors about her private life, and reduced this warm and lively actress to an amoral caricature.
But of the many, many silent actresses that existed, Clara is today one of the best-known–and best-loved. Perhaps this is her ultimate achievement–that when you watch her films, any memories of those ugly rumors and libel peel away and what’s left is that talent, the shining proof that she is eternally the “It” Girl.
Stenn, David. Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000.
Reid, Margaret. “Has the Flapper Changed?” Motion Picture Magazine, July 1927.
Bow, Clara. “My Life Story.” Photoplay, February, March and April 1928.