S T A R R L I G H T
By Steve Starr
Clara Bow was born July 29, 1905, in Brooklyn, New York during one of the worst heat waves ever experienced there. During birth, her mother Sarah prayed they would both die.
Growing up in dire poverty, the pretty, red-haired, vivacious girl wanted to be a movie star more than anything else in the world.
Little Clara’s clothes were so ragged that other girls would not play with her, but the boys would, and she was quite a tomboy. When she was ten, her best friend Johnny, who was severely burned in a fire, died in her arms.
Some years later, Clara reported she could make herself cry at will in her movies by thinking of Johnny, and singing “Rock-A-Bye Baby.”
She begged her father Robert to pay for the two pictures needed to enter the “Fame and Fortune” contest sponsored by Motion Picture, Motion Picture Classic, and Shadowland magazines.
Mr. Bow relented and took her to a cheap photo studio, and Clara won a role in the movie Beyond The Rainbow (1922), filmed on the East Coast. When her mother Sarah found out, she pulled a butcher knife on her daughter and tried to slit her throat as she slept. Clara awoke to hear her mother proclaim that it was better Clara die than continue her life as a “whore,” then fainted before completing her crime.
Poor Clara understandably suffered from insomnia the rest of her life. After a few more attempts to end Clara’s existence, the epileptic, schizophrenic Sarah, who occasionally prostituted herself while her terrified daughter hid in a cupboard and who was known in the neighborhood for her affairs with the local firemen, was committed to a nearby asylum where her own mother and sisters had died. Clara, then 16, was raped by her father. Her misfortune continued when her scenes were cut from the movie, but years later when she became famous they were restored and the film was re-released.
Bow earned a few minor parts in East Coast films, including the role of a tomboy in Down To The Sea In Ships (1922). At 17, accompanied by her father, Bow was brought to Hollywood for a screen test and signed to a long-term contract with producer B. P. Schulberg. There, she appeared in a dozen dreary, poorly made movies for the independent Preferred Company. Robert Bow, an alcoholic who continually embarrassed his daughter in front of her friends and co-workers, decided to change his name to King Bow. Clara tried in vain to set him up in businesses which always failed, but kept him close, and sometimes let him live with her until his death in the 1950’s.
When Schulberg moved to the classy Paramount Studios in 1925, he took Bow along, and there she began to win fame playing modern flappers in hits like The Plastic Age (1925), Dancing Mothers (1925) and Mantrap (1926).
Her most famous film It (1926), a euphemism for sex appeal, was based on Elinor Glyn’s famous novel, and for the starring role Madame Glyn handpicked Clara, who became forevermore known as the “It” girl. In one month alone, she received 45,000 fan letters, many addressed simply to The It Girl, Hollywood, U.S.A. When asked by a reporter what “It” was, Clara replied, “I ain’t real sure.”
Bow’s movie Wings (1927), starring Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen, and, in a small part, her lover Gary Cooper, won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. The silent film was re-released in 1929 with elaborate sound effects and music.
In 1926, Bow bought her first home at 512 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills and decorated it herself, indulging her every whim and creating a grand, gaudy, bizarre showplace. Bow became the wildest woman Hollywood had ever encountered. Though the people who inhabited the film colony committed their own sins, they made an effort to keep theirs private. Bow never cared to do so.
This bothered her contemporaries, and they often expressed their disdain for Bow, looking down on the girl who did as she pleased and partied relentlessly, chasing and catching the town’s most handsome men and luring them to her red lacquered “Loving Room.”
In 1928 and 1929, Bow was voted the top female box-office star. Her movies Red Hair (1928) and The Wild Party (1929) helped cement her image. On film, Clara had immense magnetism, vitality, and vibrant beauty. She was the personification of “Flaming Youth” and exuded fun and high volume boisterousness. Yet, it was all conveyed in silence.
The advent of sound movies scared Clara, who found it difficult to disguise her thick Brooklyn accent and nervous stammer. Following a series of dubiously successful talking pictures, she embarked on a series of sensational public scandals showcasing her promiscuity.
After an affair with married society doctor William Earl Pearson, who treated her “nervous condition,” Bow was successfully sued by Mrs. Pearson for “alienation of affection.”
In 1930, Bow sued her former secretary, Daisy DeVoe, for embezzling $15,000 from her. In retaliation, DeVoe told the press of party girl Clara’s uninhibited romps, including her being gangbanged by the entire University of California football team which included Marion Morrison who later became famed actor John Wayne.
Furthermore, stated Daisy, Clara rewarded these men, known as the “thundering herd,” with mountains of bootlegged booze, gold cigarette cases, and cufflinks. DeVoe was soon convicted and jailed.
Bow’s fans turned on her, and Paramount Studios dropped her. In 1931, feeling disgraced, she suffered her first nervous breakdown. She was 25 years old. That same year, she married handsome cowboy star Rex Bell, left Hollywood, and lived seemingly happy on their enormous, six hundred thousand acre ranch in Searchlight, Nevada.
However, Bow’s name retained a luster with numerous fans who quickly forgave the scandals. Every studio except Paramount offered Bow a contract, and she returned to Hollywood to Fox Studios which paid her $250,000 to make Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoopla (1933). Bow’s performance in Call Her Savage was hailed by critics, though the film was panned for being lurid, trashy, and tasteless.
It was enormously popular with the public. Hoopla was also successful, and critics felt Bow saved the movie by providing the only good performance. She then permanently retired from films to raise her two boys, Tony and George. Bow, 28, told the press, “I don’t wanna be remembered as somebody who couldn’t do nothin’ but take her clothes off.”
In 1936, Bow succeeded in opening the chic “It” Café in the Hollywood Palace Hotel on Vine Street. Nevertheless, she was plagued by mental illness and hospitalized several times. In the 1940’s, Rex and Clara gave up their ranch to live in Las Vegas. In 1947, Bow made an appearance as Mrs. Hush on NBC Radio’s Truth or Consequences, and soon after had a mental collapse. Her mental problems continued to haunt her, and in 1949 she was diagnosed as schizophrenic.
Bow endured horrid shock treatments, and in 1950 moved alone to California, where she could be near her doctor. Rex Bell was elected Lieutenant Governor of Nevada in 1954 and in 1958. He died from a heart attack July 4, 1962 as he was preparing his campaign to become Governor. Bow, accompanied by a nurse, came out of her seclusion to attend his funeral.
In 1951, Bow commented about her heyday from her room in a sanitarium, “We had individuality. We did as we pleased. I’d whiz down Sunset Boulevard in my open Kissel, with several chow dogs to match my hair. Today, they’re more sensible and end up with better health. But we had more fun.”
Columnist Louella Parsons recalled that Bow in her later years would send her a card at Christmas, asking in her frail penmanship, “Do you still remember me?” Clara Bow died of a heart attack while watching television at her home in Los Angeles, September 27, 1965.
Classics of the Silent Screen by Joe Franklin
Movietime by Gene Brown
The Stars by Richard Schickel
Architectural Digest April, 1994
The Hollywood Star Profiles Edited by Marc Wanamaker
Clara Bow websites
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect-Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications, 1991. A photographer, artist, and designer, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames and artifacts and celebrating its 39th anniversary in 2006. His personal collection of over 950 magnificent frames is filled with images of Hollywood’s most elegant stars.
His column STARRLIGHT, about movie stars of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s, appears in various publications that include Entertainment Magazine Online, the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine, and the Windy City Times.
STARRGAZERS-Radiant Photography by Steve Starr is available for portraits and events. Phone 773-463-8017 for further information. Starr is a Nightlife Photographer for Clubline Magazine.
Starrlight Editor- Maryellen Langhout, Chicago
Photo of Steve Starr at the Whitehall Hotel, Chicago, January 28, 2006, taken by NBC News Director Harold “Sandy” Whiteley. 10/31/06