Sunday, November 4, 2012

Hollywood’s Original ‘It Girl’

It was during the Jazz Age that steamy novelist Elinor Glyn coined the term ‘It’.  She defined ‘It’ as an inner magic, a magnetism that attracts both men and women—in other words, ‘sex appeal’.  When Glyn declared that actress Clara Bow had ‘It’, Paramount cast the 22-year-old in the starring role of their controversial film, ‘It’ (1927).  The movie catapulted Bow to the top of the Hollywood heap, but behind her care-free persona and the Jazz Age flapper she came to symbolize lived a flesh and blood woman haunted by tragedy and surrounded by madness.

“No one wanted me to be born in the first place,’ Bow told reporter Adela Rogers St. John at the height of her career.  She wasn’t looking for sympathy.  She was simply stating a fact.  After losing two babies, doctors warned Mrs. Bow that she most likely wouldn’t survive a third pregnancy nor would her child.  When she found herself expecting again she chose to carry the baby, not due to some heroic motherly instinct, but because she wanted to die.  Her husband, tired of her complaints, left her so she returned to her father’s house where she went into labor in the middle of a summer heat wave.  Convinced that she and her child would die, she refused a doctor, allowing her mentally ill mother to deliver her baby instead.  And so, on July 29, 1905, Clara was born.  Bitterly disappointed that she and her new daughter inexplicably cheated death, Mrs. Bow’s depression deepened.
The following year after Clara’s grandmother was committed to an insane asylum, her grandfather came to live with the now reunited Bows.  To everyone’s surprise, the normally cold-hearted man was smitten with his granddaughter, and Clara clung to the only person who showed her some affection.  He even built a swing for her inside their tenement and spent hours pushing her back and forth.  On January 20, 1909, he pushed Clara one final time and then collapsed dead at her feet.  He was laid out in the house where three-year-old Clara snuck out of bed to sleep on the floor next to him, worried he might be lonely. 
While her mother continued her descent into madness and her father continued drinking, Clara was often caught in the middle.  The little girl learned to care for her mother who suffered from unpredictable seizures and fits.  The child also endured beatings from her father who often took his frustrations out on her.  In all of this mayhem, however, Clara had one good friend—Johnny, a younger boy who lived in their building.  She walked him to school and looked after him like a little brother.  One afternoon, she was home alone when she heard a bloodcurdling scream from downstairs.  Johnny had somehow caught fire.  His hysterical mother did nothing to help him, but Clara had the good sense to roll him up in the carpet while ordering his mother to find help.  Johnny died in her arms calling her name over and over again.  She was only nine years old, but the sound of his cries haunted her for the rest of her life.
It was no wonder Clara found solace in the movies, where she discovered a different side of life.  Idolizing Mary Pickford and Wallace Reid, she realized that there might be kind and loving people outside of her tenement.  From her fascination with the movies came ambition, but it wasn’t fame or fortune that drove her.  She had her heart set on being part of that beautiful world, but her mother didn’t approve.  The unbalanced woman told Clara that she would be better off dead than an actress.  When the girl was 16, her mother even tried to kill her with a butcher knife.  After that, Mr. Bow placed his wife in an insane asylum where she died the following year.
Despite her horrific beginnings, Clara Bow eventually found her way to Hollywood where she worked hard to take care of herself and her pathetic father.  She was recognized as one of the top five box office draws between 1927 and 1930.  The world envied Clara for her beauty, her reckless gaiety and her seemingly endless vitality.  After all, Clara Bow had 'It' and that was something everyone wanted.  They just didn't know that tragedy and madness drove her there.


  1. Great work Debra, this is an excellent read.

  2. Thank you so much, Graham! Glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Wow! What a tragic story - and what a resilient person. Thanks for posting about this fascinating woman.

  4. Thanks for stopping by! Clara's story is amazing. She faced so many difficult things, but never complained and kept moving forward--no matter what. This was only the tip of the iceburg as they say.