Certain women have an indefinable charismatic presence, a magnetic quality that draws riveting attention effortlessly. Such women are rare, and their ethereal allure defies expression in words alone. The image, the idea of Her, often transcends the physical woman herself, and it is through visuals these female gems are best understood. In the Roaring Twenties a medium came to prominence that captured this je ne sais quoi. And a word was co-opted to fit this elusive quality of universal appeal. The word was “It”.
There have been many women in history who fit this diaphanous mold (the "exotic" entertainer Lola Montez, 19th century US First Lady Dolley Madison, the hapless Marie Antoinette, the surprisingly gawpish Cleopatra). Physical beauty by societal standards does not always define what these women have. It is a certain robust presence, combined with a tremendous joie de vivre. In the 1920s in the American film industry the first major female silent screen star epitomized “It”: her name was Clara Bow.
This baby of the Brooklyn slums grew into the hottest silent screen actress of her day, the quintessential Flapper, the silver screen's very first über female sex symbol. However, it wasn’t merely her screen activities that so captivated the public. Clara was just as adventurous and feisty in her personal doings as well, a wild girl out for a wild time.
As with any Hollywood legend, separating myth from reality is not always easily done. In Clara’s case it is doubly difficult. The tabloids and gossip columnists of the day indulged in libelous levels of hearsay and fabrications in the press about Clara, mostly centering on her sexual exploits. Although she was generally considered a “straight shooter” by Hollywood standards (even considered profane and vulgar by Hollywood’s elite) Clara Bow was not above embellishing her own background to suit her purposes. This “embellishment” usually manifested as omissions of certain facts, but overall Clara was brutally honest about herself, her background, and her private life.
She was born July 29, 1905, in a Brooklyn slum at about 4:45 PM. Clara’s arrival in the world was not without drama; New York City was suffering the oppression of a major heat wave. During the month of Clara’s birth temperatures in New York peaked at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This excess resulted in a ridiculously high infant mortality rate of 80%. On the day of her birth this intense heat almost caused both baby and mother to die.
Clara’s mother, Sarah Gordon Bow (1880–1923), was fragile both physically and mentally. She had conceived and lost two other children (both baby girls) in 1903 and again in 1904 (one lived for two hours, the other for only two days). Sarah had been advised by a doctor in the wake of these infant deaths not to get pregnant again. As will happen Clara was conceived in the fall of 1904. Clara later reported she was unwanted; her mother was terrified of losing yet another child.
Sarah Bow was a strange woman in her own right. She was from a relatively stable background. Her mother was French and her father Scottish. They lived on a farm a few hours’ away from New York City. According to Clara, Sarah married the ne’er-do-well Robert Bow (1874–1959), who lived on an adjoining farm, at the request of her dying mother. Clara later claimed her mother never really loved her father. The dysfunction in the Bow household would bear this out.
Sarah Bow was a psychically damaged woman. Her behaviors correlate with those of a schizophrenic. At the very least she suffered from chronic depression. When she was sixteen Sarah had fallen from a second-story window. She received a severe head injury in the fall. In the primitive terminology of the times her condition was later diagnosed as “psychosis due to epilepsy”. There is nothing to support Sarah’s having epilepsy, however. She was, though, given to extended fits of melancholy, fugues, rages, fainting spells, and bizarre behaviors. Sarah’s episodic psychosis created constant drama in the little tenement. Clara learned to care for her mother during her “spells” while very young. She handled Sarah’s hostility and mood swings with a shrug: “When she was mean to me - and she often was, though I know she didn't mean to be and that it was because she couldn't help it - it broke my heart.” Clara felt some of her childhood was lost in dealing with her mother’s mental illness.
Robert Bow usually worked as a casual laborer or as a carpenter or electrician. He seldom held a job for long and the family income fluctuated wildly. Between 1905 and 1923, the Bows lived at 14 different addresses. Robert was often absent, leaving his family without means to survive. Robert was of no psychological help to the little family, and he seemed incapable of handling his mentally ill wife with any degree of care. His solution in general was to leave their shabby two-room apartment for days or weeks at a time, leaving Sarah and the baby Clara to fend for themselves. In those lean times when Robert abandoned the family Sarah Bow engaged in prostitution on an “as needed” basis [This was actually a common practice among the poor. Wives often prostituted to either help pay the rent, or in Sarah’s case, simply to put food in her mouth]. Sarah’s activities in the neighborhood were well known but not condemned – the local firemen apparently were ready johns when she needed money, and it seems as if she generally restricted her activities to this group of men.
Clara, in her own words (while dodging the word “prostitute”), related a particular instance of Sarah’s prostituting out of need: “It was snowing. My mother and I were cold and hungry. We had been cold and hungry for days. We lay in each others arms and cried and tried to keep warm. It grew worse and worse. So that night my mother – but I can't tell you about it. Only when I remember it, it seems to me I can't live.”
When she was five, her maternal grandfather (whom Clara adored) died of a heart attack while pushing young Clara on a swing he’d improvised from the living room’s ceiling. [He lived with the Bows after his own wife died and he lost his farm home. He had built the swing so Clara could play on something on the coldest days when she couldn’t go outside]. Clara’s mother, in a deep depression, was in the kitchen, washing a tablecloth and crying to herself. Clara screamed and her mother rushed in. That night, as was the custom, her grandfather lay in state in their dining area. Clara said she went from her bed and lay on the floor near his casket where she slept the night through.
Clara had one more trauma to report from her early childhood. A neighbor boy in the apartment was ablaze after playing too near the fire. Clara heard the screams (she was about 8 years old) and ran downstairs to find the boy in flames. His mother stood nearby, frozen in shock. Clara rolled him in a carpet to snuff out the fire but he’d sustained too many burns and died there.
She went to school, but as she developed into a young woman her relationship with her male mates ran sour. They started treating her differently, and she was no longer “just one of the guys”. She didn’t have female friends, either, so she was very much alone. She spent much of her early teen years in movie theaters, watching films over and again, and then she’d go home and act out what she’d seen for her mother (if Sarah was not in a “state”) and father (if he were actually home). This fantasy world became what she lived for although she did the regular things teen girls did, too. She got a job briefly at Coney Island, working a hot dog stand owned by Nathan Handwerker (who later founded the famous “Nathan’s” franks).
“The Fame and Fortune Contest of 1921” was Clara’s big break. The sixteen year-old cadged a dollar from her father (one the family could ill afford). She took this dollar, got two “glamour” photographs made of herself (in her shabby best), and she completed an application for the contest. The contest was more of a talent showcase than strictly focused on beauty, but Clara got a first-pass call-back because of her personality. She reported, probably truthfully, that the competition for this spot (which meant a part in a movie) brought out many beautifully dressed hopefuls, all of whom turned up their noses at the wretched street-urchin Clara Bow.
There were multiple call-backs as the contestants were winnowed. Although Robert Bow knew of Clara’s contest entry, Sarah did not. She felt the acting profession was all wrong for her daughter and was dead set against it. Clara had been hiding her activities from her mother. She was ditching school. A teacher came to the Bow home and advised Sarah of Clara’s chronic absenteeism. Sarah was livid. When she confronted Clara about missing school, Clara confessed. Sarah fainted (as Clara put it) “dead away”. Clara tried to revive the woman, even throwing water on her, but she stayed in the faint, finally rousing on her own. When Sarah came to, she cried wretchedly, and when able to speak, told Clara, “You are going straight to hell. I would rather see you dead.”
Elimination call-backs for “Fame and Fortune” required the contestants to act. Acting at this time did not involve dialog in the traditional sense as films were silent. A performer had to project largely and convincingly solely with body language and facial expressions. Clara was almost last in the audition order, so she had a chance to see what the other girls did. When it was her turn, she was able to do a respectable job, even crying on cue (a talent at which everyone who later worked with her – directors and fellow actors – would marvel). She was raw and untrained, but she had a certain something, and the contest’s promoters selected her as the winner.
The contest judges in a press release about the contest and its winner raved: “She is very young, only 16. But she is full of confidence, determination, and ambition. She is endowed with a mentality far beyond her years. She has a genuine spark of divine fire. The five different screen tests she had showed this very plainly, her emotional range of expression provoking a fine enthusiasm from every contest judge who saw the tests. She screens perfectly. Her personal appearance is almost enough to carry her to success without the aid of the brains she indubitably possesses.”
Clara dropped out of high school in October 1921 after winning the contest. But her prize part in a movie was slow in coming. The promoters finally came through as promised. She got a five-card part (this is equal to a moderate “speaking part" in one of today’s films) in a movie filming in New York City.
Clara had to supply her own wardrobe for the film. As she had nothing but one “good” dress she hiked across town to where a wealthy maternal aunt lived. Clara had never been to this aunt's home let alone ever ask her for anything, but she felt desperate. She reported the aunt basically threw her out. As she was leaving, an older cousin, who had overheard the row, gave her $80. With this money Clara bought four dresses from second-hand shops for filming.
Clara did her parts well, even crying on cue, but her scenes were cut from the final print of Beyond the Rainbow (1922). According to Clara she was not told of this, and she invited as many people as she knew from her high school to come see the movie’s premiere on February 19, 1922. They sat through the movie, and jeered Clara when it was over, calling her a liar.
Sarah had been dead set against Clara’s interest in acting from the start, and she was not sympathetic to Clara’s letdown about being cut from Beyond the Rainbow. Her mental illness worsened and she seemed obsessed with venting her wrath upon Clara. One day soon after her Beyond the Rainbow disappointment, Clara was washing some clothing on the back porch. Sarah found her and stated, “I think I'll kill you. You would be much better off dead. This is a terrible world. Motion pictures are terrible. I think it is my duty to kill you.”
Robert Bow, however, prodded Clara to seek other acting jobs, and the two kept the secret from Sarah. She haunted the New York studios and agencies in her spare time looking for parts. Clara was frustrated early: “But there was always something. I was too young, or too little, or too fat. Usually I was too fat.”
In late February 1922 (after the opening of Beyond the Rainbow) her persistence (or pestering) finally paid off. A director, Elmer Clifton, shooting a low-budget film called Down to the Sea in Ships had seen Clara’s picture in the magazine Motion Picture Classic. This was the rag that had sponsored the "Fame and Fortune" contest. The crew was on location in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and a tomboy character was needed for the movie. Clara almost didn’t get the part. Tired of always hearing how “young” she looked when she auditioned, she wore a dress she’d “borrowed” from her mother, put up her hair in a more adult ’do, made up her face to the best of her limited ability and budget, and showed up looking all wrong for the part. Clifton said she was too old and didn’t believe she was the same girl from the magazine. Clara managed to convince him she really was that tomboy, and he gave her the part. He offered her $50 a week.
That February night Clara went home elated about her big break, although she did not tell Sarah her good news (she wanted to wait until Robert was home to share). Sarah was relatively normal and looked better than her usual wan self. Robert was out working, and Clara and Sarah had a quiet dinner together. Clara went to bed, and in the middle of the night woke to find her mother hovering over her bed in her nightgown. Sarah clutched a butcher knife in her hand, and when Clara addressed her, Sarah just came closer to the bed. Sarah pinned Clara, telling her she was going to kill her: “It will be better.” Sarah catatonically held the knife to Clara’s throat, then finally relaxed enough for Clara to wriggle away. She locked Sarah in the room.
Sarah feebly tried the door a few times but with no sincere effort. The room was quiet, and Clara went downstairs. She asked their landlady if she could stay with her for a bit. At five in the morning Robert Bow returned. Clara heard him come home, and she ran to meet him. The two went upstairs and found Sarah on Clara’s bed, curled up, asleep. When she woke she knew nothing of what had transpired.
At that moment Clara did not feel badly about leaving for the movie shoot in New Bedford, and she told both Sarah and Robert about her new film job. Clara set out for her first real shoot. She spent thirteen weeks on location, and carried the shock of her mother’s almost slitting her throat in her sleep with her. She was a bundle of nerves and cried a lot. She got through the movie, though (with flying colors as it would turn out). The movie premiered in New Bedford, on September 25.
Sarah was home when Clara returned from filming in New Bedford. Clara learned, however, that while she’d been away Robert had committed Sarah briefly to a sanitarium. Her condition was not much better than when she went in, but now she was diagnosed as not insane but having “nervous disease”. Robert simply bought her home and left her to her own devices. Sarah carped on Clara’s acting career and it became a true bone of contention between the two. She seemed to feel as if she were losing her daughter to the movies. Sarah complained to Clara once, “You don't take me to the studio with you. You're ashamed of me. You think I'm crazy.”
To placate Sarah, Clara found an office job answering the phones in a doctor’s office. She was unhappy with the low pay and the commute but the work itself was not difficult. In late December 1922 Sarah Bow had a complete break with reality. She was almost catatonic, lying on the sofa without really knowing who either Clara or Robert was. Clara, meanwhile, had gotten an uncredited part in a movie, Enemies of Women (released in 1923). She danced half-nude on a table for the film. It was during the filming of her table-dancing scene on January 5, 1923, that Clara received a visit from her father on the set. He had come to tell Clara that Sarah Bow had died.
On the day of Sarah’s funeral Clara and her father rode the Staten Island ferry to the service. Graveside, Clara was asked to throw in the first handful of dirt. In a fit of histrionics, she wailed and attempted to throw herself into the open grave [this is probably apocryphal, a detail Clara added to her mythos over the years].
Down to the Sea in Ships, meanwhile, opened nationally on March 4, 1923. Clara had low billing in the movie, but she impressed the critics of the day as they raved about her on-screen presenceCredit: Down to the Sea in Ships, 1922 (even as a tomboy) and how engaging she was. One critic went so far as to gush that Clara “stole the picture.”
She apparently did have “It” at an early age. She had no acting training other than her home play-acting, and yet she came off as a natural to the film’s reviewers (who knew nothing about her). She had charisma. In the silent era, movies were oftentimes critiqued on each scene (roughly akin to reviewing a book’s individual chapters and not the unit as a whole). The captioned scene cards were the landmark points (Clara had several “cards” in this movie, equal to today’s actors speaking of how many lines of dialog their parts have). If an actor’s “scenes” were not good that did not mean the movie was bad, just that actor was bad (and they could be reviewed solely on a scene). In this case, though, Clara’s presence on-screen, by consensus, carried the movie.
In the spring of that year she got a part in The Daring Years where she made a female friend, fellow actress Mary Carr. Ms. Carr taught Clara how to properly apply her make-up (there were no make-up artists; the actors and actresses did this themselves or helped each other).
Her exposure in these two movies created enough buzz in New York to get her another “tomboy” role, this time in a film called Grit (1924). The story was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it featured juvenile delinquency as its plot backdrop. On the set she met her first boyfriend, a cameraman named Arthur Jacobson. She was directed by Frank Tuttle (under whom she would make five more movies). Tuttle recalled later, “Her emotions were close to the surface. She could cry on demand, opening the floodgate of tears almost as soon as I asked her to weep. She was dynamite, full of nervous energy and vitality and pitifully eager to please everyone.” It was while filming Grit Clara drew the attention of an A&R man from an independent Hollywood studio, Preferred Pictures. He wanted to put her on a probationary contract (for three months) at $50 a week salary. Clara was reticent about leaving New York, but her father convinced her it was probably for the best. [When Grit finally dropped almost a year later in January 1924 Clara’s reviews were fantastic].
In July 1923 the gossip columnist Louella Parsons interviewed Clara for The New York Morning Telegraph. [Later in life when Clara’s character was slandered viciously in Hollywood, Louella Parsons would become one of her staunchest defenders. It is interesting that Clara Bow was able to win Louella Parsons' loyalty. Parsons was particularly vicious; if she felt slighted in any way she could make life a living misery for any actor with routine assaults in her gossip column. In those days gossip columnists, like Parsons and her rival Hedda Hopper, had the power to ruin careers. It is a real testament to Clara’s natural charm that she could earn the devotion of one such as Louella Parsons]. In addition to the trivial tidbit that Clara Bow loved Chinese cuisine, the interview also revealed Clara was already cast in a new movie, Maytime.
The Brooklyn Bonfire blazed her way to Hollywood.
Part 2 - Clara Bow: The "It" Girl
Part 3 - Clara Bow: The Later Legend