One hundred and eleven years ago, Clara Bow was born into violent poverty in Brooklyn, New York. She would go on to become America’s most loved — and most controversial — sex symbol of the silent film era. Here’s what the troubled young star taught us about slut-shaming, sex ,and public failure:
Clara Bow is standing in the front of Paramount studios, reading about how she has sex with dogs. With Mexican croupiers. With married men, with whores, with chauffeurs and with servants. It is 1931 and she has in her hands The Coast Reporter, a lurid “yellow journalism”-style tabloid that is publishing a three-week series of hyped-up hysterical attacks on the world-famous actress. It is the first of its kind, ever, and its consequent trial will send its publisher to jail for eights years of hard labor. But Clara isn’t aware of this yet. The petite 26-year-old is reading the line so familiar to women with a voice, women in control of their sexuality, women in the public eye. “You know, Clara, you'd be better off killing yourself.”
The originator of the phrase “It Girl” after starring in the 1927 monster hit It, Clara Bow rose to prominence in the 1920s as the premier flapper star. Over the course of a decade in Hollywood, Clara made 57 films, 11 of them “talkies." At the height of her fame after signing to Paramount in 1926, her popularity was entirely unprecedented. In 1929, she was sent 45,000 fan letters, more than double received by any other star in movie history. At a time when Americans flocked to the cinema in record numbers, Clara was more popular than Greta Garbo, and comparatively more famous than even Marilyn Monroe. Extremely flirtatious, strikingly vibrant, and utterly authentic, Clara Bow was a lightning rod for fervent celebration and outraged criticism. Her journey set a template for so many public women to come as it posited the question: Was Clara Bow a hero or a victim?
Born in the tenement slums of Brooklyn, New York on July 29, 1905, the big-eyed, baby-faced performer won a Fame & Fortune content in Motion Picture magazine in 1921. The prize set into motion a series of events that saw her traveling to Los Angeles, the burgeoning new film capital of America. Here, the teenaged Clara signed a three-month contract for $50 a week (roughly $675 today). It was a starting salary standard for an inexperienced young actress. In 1926, only a year away from being the Jennifer Lawrence of her day and certainly just as popular, she was only earning $750 a week (just over $10,000 today), a Machiavellian move from scheming producer B.P. Schulberg. Clara would always have trouble stating her own worth.
In many ways, we can read Clara as empowered; the most modern of modern women. Clara was a working woman who owned her own home and made her name on her name. She openly discussed sex and was engaged to five men in as many years (including Gary Cooper), flying in the face of public opinion. Clara was sexy, in a time where the word itself was only just starting to appear in print. The 1920s saw women enjoying incredible sexual, political and social freedoms: women were voting, smoking, drinking, dancing, being kissed and doing the kissing, all without a corset. Clara’s rags-to-riches story gave everyone hope as the nation was discovering the pleasures of the movies, movies stars and fan magazines for the very first time.
The Brooklynite bought to the screen the first instance of natural American sexuality. Her predecessors (such the vampy Theda Bara or the flamboyant Alla Nazimova) were either foreigners or fictional characters invented by the studios. Clara had a palatable knowledge of sex and it showed. In the words of her biographer, David Stenn, “there was an energy, a vitality, a restlessness within her that turned rival actresses into zombies.” The Times raved she “radiates an elfin sensuousness”. F. Scott Fitzgerald weighed in with his powerful pen: “Clara Bow is the quintessence of what the term ‘flapper’ signifies as a definite description: pretty, impudent, superbly assured, as worldly-wise, briefly-clad and ‘hard-berled’ as possible.” Even today, her films read as notably contemporary due her carefree comfort in her own skin. But not everyone loved Clara Bow.
Clara was rejected by the image-conscious Hollywood elite. The “Pickfair” set, run by squeaky-clean married movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, despised her because of her frank sexuality and hardscrabble background. Like many other stars, Clara was working class, but importantly, she was unwilling to hide it. “I’m a curiosity in Hollywood,” she said. “I’m a big freak because I’m myself.” She was the most famous woman in Hollywood in the late 20s, and the only premieres she was invited to were her own films.
Later in life during some admittedly questionable therapy, Clara recalled being raped by her father as a child. If true, then like Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, and many other famous women who made their name on their erotic appeal, Clara was another sex symbol who was a survivor of sexual assault. Whether she was a hero or a victim relies on an interpretation of the star’s parameters of choice. Was her sexuality something she enjoyed and felt in control of, or was it the only way she felt valued, paid attention to, or loved? Audiences were obsessed with Clara’s playful sexuality, but she was consistently cast as low-stakes characters (waitresses, soda jerks) who ended up naked or in their underwear. The studio knew audiences came to see Clara no matter what she was in, so they never “wasted” good scripts or talented co-stars on her. Arguably, she even came to objectify herself: Clara hated being in outfits she didn’t think were sexy enough, even as she argued for better, more dramatic roles. Whether all this makes her empowered or tragic is entirely up for debate.
Clara Bow was not a happy person. As she started to unravel, she gave increasingly frank interviews stating as such. The studio worked her to the bone, treating her more like a factory worker than a talented performer. In the infant days of the film industry, stars signed for time periods, not movies, and so the money-hungry Paramount worked Clara tirelessly, despite her repeated desires for rest. She was unsupported, surrounded by men, friends, and servants who exploited her generosity and naiveté. (Her personal assistant and “best friend” stole extensively from her, ending in a dramatic court battle). Producer Shulberg and Paramount failed to prepare their biggest star for the traumatic transition to sound, a complete overhaul from the exaggerated performance style known to silent stars. The studio gave her two weeks to learn a feature-length script and prepare for a talking picture. Greta Garbo, her main rival in terms of popularity, was given two years to prepare, with a voice coach and lessons.
Eventually, Clara had a series of nervous breakdowns brought on by exhaustion, stress and a bitter press that turned against her, the worst of which was the infamous Coast Reporter series. After bidding goodbye to Hollywood, she moved to Nevada with her husband, the actor Rex Bell, and had two sons. She attempted suicide when the boys were young, and after divorcing her husband, battled psychiatric illness, shunning the spotlight, before she died alone at age 60.
Clara’s story was new for the times, but is no longer new today. Women who carve their own sexual path are still targets of slut-shaming and abuse. When we celebrate the great talent that was Clara Bow, we must strengthen our resolve to support women and their choices over their sexuality, whatever they may be.
“My life in Hollywood contained plenty of uproar. I'm sorry for a lot of it but not awfully sorry. I never did anything to hurt anyone else. I made a place for myself on the screen and you can't do that by being Mrs. Alcott's idea of a Little Woman.”
— Clara Bow
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Georgia Clark is the author of The Regulars. See more at georgiaclark.com.