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
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
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.