Hollywood’s First ‘IT’ Girl & Sex Symbol
“She was a very sweet girl…but a very lonely sweet girl.”
Movie buffs, Hollywood enthusiasts, “flapper/Gatsby” fans and fashionistas may or may not have heard of the “IT” girl Clara Bow. In the 1920’s, Bow notoriously breathed life into author Elinor Glyn’s ideology of the “IT” factor. Also known as sex appeal, the attraction that apparently drew both sexes to an individual. A charismatic, magnetic draw, the sense of presence that only the subject who harbored it was/is blissfully unaware of. Most who do know of her may claim that Clara was an unintelligent girl from Brooklyn who stumbled through Hollywood. Hopping from one bed to the other, bedded her own dogs, and taking on the entire USC University football team—
Except that she did none of these things. Neither was her career halted by the onset of “Talkies.” In fact, despite the anxiety filming talkies gave her, Clara’s voice recorded beautifully. That’s just what this article is for: burying the falsehoods that have clung to Clara Bow’s name.
She Dyed Her Hair
While It’s true that Clara rinsed her remarkable auburn tresses with hyena to “deepen” and “brighten” her hair color; it’s the same way you might put in a few low-lights or highlights in order to add depth and dimension to your natural color. Much like a natural blonde “touching up” to brighten their already bright locks, Clara Bow’s rinsing her hair with hyena does not change the fact that she was indeed, a natural redhead.
She Was Unintelligent
It’s true that Clara Bow dropped out of high school to help her poverty-stricken family. But this was not too uncommon at the time. Several stars and other prominent figures never even made it to high school. While Bow may have had moments of nativity about the movie business in her early years, she was well-equipped with an abundance of street smarts. She continued her education later as an adult, scoring a high IQ that surprised everyone, including herself. Clara Bow also became an avid reader and painter in later years.
She Was a Sensational “Hussy”
Thanks to publications beginning with the shady The Coast Reporter, 1975’s Hollywood Babylon, a blind public, and down to modern sites such as Datalounge; Clara Bow’s imaginary sex life is believed to be as factual as Marie Antoinette’s fabled quote, “Let them eat cake!” Although Clara had a promiscuous streak, (having one to three boyfriends at one time) she was not doing anything out of the ordinary in Hollywood. She just wasn’t hiding it!
Being a notorious tomboy since childhood, this carried over into her adult life. Making these rumors easier for others to believe since she tended to get along with men much easier than women. In 1975, Hollywood Babylon published an entire “expose” on the “IT” girl. Taking all the fables on Clara Bow’s love life and labeling them as facts. Including the infamous rumor that she took on the entire University of Southern California football team. After becoming an avid football fan when her publicist took her to a game for the first time, Bow befriended the team. She invited them to her home for parties that newspapers turned into “orgies.” The truth was, the football team was far too shy, and star struck, not to mention polite; to make it with Hollywood’s biggest actress.
Neither did she sleep with Paramount executive B.P. Schulberg, co-stars Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen, or Eddie Cantor. During shooting for Wings, Richard Arlen started seeing the other female star on the lot, Jobyna Ralston, who he ended up marrying. According to Tui Lorraine, one of Clara’s early confidants that would later become her step-mother; Clara “wasn’t fooling around. Flirting, maybe, but we all did that!” (David Stenn, Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild)
I couldn’t agree more, as flirting and sex are not the same thing.
Later, her hairdresser and best friend-turned-secretary, Daisy DeVoe, would harshly betray her. In short, DeVoe and Bow’s future husband, actor Rex Bell, had a long battle of tug-of-war over the actress. Ending with Bow choosing her new man over a friend that she became convinced had been stealing money from her. Pissed off, DeVoe made the extreme decision to grab a few of Bow’s belongings and papers, on a mission to destroy her former employer. The whole escapade ended up in a zoo-house trial where DeVoe “leaked the truth” about Bow’s supposed behavior. (More on that later.)
The rumors nailed to her reputation during the DeVoe scandal and printed by the grossly false paper, The Coast Reporter, claimed she slept with stuntman Jimmy Dundee, film tech John Rinehardt, publicly made love to her former boyfriend Harry Richman, seduced both her own cousin and her chauffeur, former friend-turned-step mother Tui Lorraine, a Mexican croupier who killed his wife and then himself while Clara (according to the rumor) showed little to no remorse. Even her dog, Duke, was not safe from her fabled carnal desires.
All these claims, of course, were entirely false. Those who knew Clara Bow when the Reporter began its stoning, knew better. The public, however, was blind enough to believe that a paper would not dare print something as such unless it were true. Their beloved, flirty ‘IT’ girl was a just a common hussy. When Clara Bow read the “news,” she ran to her dressing room and vomited. No star in history had been so disgustingly, falsely berated at that time. (David Stenn, Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild)
She Was Cheap
Because of her rough Brooklyn accent and upbringing, coupled with her insistence to be honest and outspoken about her actions as well as her past, the Hollywood elite of the time (consisting of William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, Mary Pickford, Colleen Moore, to name a few) rejected her from their circle. They labeled her as immoral, trashy, cheap, and ill-mannered. Clara Bow was doing nothing better or worse in her private life than America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford or as we all know, Marion Davies and Charlie Chaplin. Bow was simply upfront about it her private life.
Let’s face it, people don’t like really like honesty. To the elite, Bow was a walking, talking reminder of their delusional position in Hollywood. A position that could fall and bring them all right back to their poverty-stricken roots. Bow drove it home for them by being public and truthful about her past, more importantly, her mother’s mental illness. To Hollywood snobs, Clara’s honesty and insistence that they were all on shaky ground, was ludicrous:
“Ya gotta be regular, even when you’re up. I remember when I was scratchin’ for a job. Pola Negri used ta ride by me in her limousine like I was part of the roadbed. But I ain’t gotta high-hat nobody. First, cuz I know how it feels. Second cuz this is a funny game. You’re here today, gone tomorrow.” —Clara Bow
Nervous Breakdown of 1927
When Bow collapsed while on the set in 1927, doctors advised she take a long rest for a few weeks. B.P. Schulberg claimed she had a “nervous breakdown,” and later it was rumored she had an abortion. Clara collapsed from exhaustion due to B.P. Schulberg working her to death—and underpaying her for it—for her entire career. Despite that her films pulled in more money than any other female star.
Her Career Failed Because of Talkies
Even today, this rumor can be found plastered onto Clara Bow’s bio on Amazon Prime. In fact, Clara made several talkies before quitting films altogether for a “regular” life. Though the microphone and remembering lines gave her intense unease, Clara’s voice passed the test and did not ruin her career. In True to The Navy, she even sang! Tabloids raved about Clara Bow having a “voice.”
The truth of the matter was the result of a court battle with her former best friend and personal secretary, Daisy DeVoe, who threatened to black mail her. The case was the biggest trial sensation since the “Fatty” Arbuckle- Rappe case just a decade before.
Daisy lied about Bow’s “drunken rages,” and Clara’s threatening to black mail her own father that everyone knew Clara was unconditionally devoted to despite his shabbiness and squandering of her money. At this time, the public, who Clara loved because she claimed they made her dreams possible, turned on her. They snickered as she took the stand, crying and stammering from heartache and nerves. (David Stenn, Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild)
Daisy had been her best friend in the world and deceived her. Now Clara’s fans had done the same. As a result, Clara wanted to disappear altogether. Despite what other bloggers might claim, Bow was not fired but instead broke her contract with Paramount. Escaping with her then boyfriend, Rex Bell, to the Nevada desert. They married and Clara took a much needed hiatus. However, it wasn’t long before she was receiving fan mail asking for her return to the screen. Every studio, other than Paramount, began offering Bow contracts for better roles that she was long entitled to. She went and signed a two-picture deal with FOX, making her come-back vehicle Call Her Savage. It was the perfect dramatic role that she had been waiting for. After making another film for FOX, Hoopla, which she hated but the public loved; Bow retired forever. Stating:
“I don’t want to be remembered as somebody who couldn’t do nothing but take her clothes off. I want something real now.” —Clara Bow
She Was a Nazi Sympathizer
Clara Bow and husband Rex Bell finally took a honeymoon after the filming of Call Her Savage wrapped. They took a tour of Europe, where Bow kept a journal to record her experiences. When they arrived in Berlin, Adolf Hitler received them warmly. Unbeknownst to Clara Bow, she was his favorite American actress. Adolf gave her a signed copy of his Mein Kampf, and a cloche hat with the swastika stitched into it. Meanwhile, Clara wrote of Berlin:
Clara Bow had no political knowledge, even less of Nazi Germany. To her, Hitler was just another fan. The publicity photos of her donning the swastika stitched clothe were done out of innocence, but unfortunately sparked rumors later that she was part of the Nazi party.
She Told Colleen Moore She Wanted Her Part
In the ill researched biography, The IT Girl, the author penned that Clara Bow went up to Colleen Moore and demanded her part in Painted People. This is also stated by Moore, who claimed all Clara could take on the set with her was “two days.” I’m personally not a fan of Colleen Moore, as she has a bad record of lying, and very poorly. The truth is a bit different.
In truth, David Stenn dug a little deeper on the encounter. Which he recorded in his biography Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild. Clara Bow was filming Painted People for three weeks, not two days. The producer of the filmwas Moore’s husband, so she received plenty close-ups that she just didn’t need. Bow did something unheard of by confronting the star, asking why she hogged the camera and prevented the director from granting Clara any closeups. Clara argued that Colleen Moore was a “big star,” and that “every closeup I get helps me!”
Moore reacted by requesting no close ups of Bow be shot.
Seeking revenge, Clara Bow went into the hospital for sinus surgery. They would be forced to recast Clara Bow, putting the film behind schedule. Artie Jacobson, Clara’s then boyfriend is quoted as saying:
“She made that bitch pay!” and that “Clara was the sweetest girl in the world. But you didn’t cross her, you didn’t do her wrong.”
Colleen Moore would have karma bite her in the ass two-fold. Not only would Painted People go beyond its intended schedule, but Moore’s flapper fame would sway just a few months later under the weight of Bow’s soaring fame and popularity. Moore attempted to make one last flapper picture, The Perfect Flapper, in May of 1924. It was an almost desperate attempt to push Bow, who had quickly and unexpectedly topped Moore at the Box-office; out of becoming Hollywood gold. However, The Perfect Flapper became a perfect flop in comparison to Clara Bow pictures.
Just a month after The Los Angeles Times claimed Clara Bow was “an outstanding type. She has almost immediately been elected for all the recent flapper parts,” (Stenn, Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild) Moore told the Times that she was done with flapper films. Only decades later would Moore admit that she saw Bow as her ultimate opponent.
Clara Bow is one of the most iconic, yet tragic figures in movie history. Like Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow, Louise Brooks, James Dean, and so many others…She is “Rags to Riches” personified, with a heart of gold that would harden if you were to cross or betray her. A gentle and genuine soul that was abused and exploited by family, friends, boyfriends, fans, and the studios. Shunned for her honesty and openly attacked for being herself.
References: Runnin’ Wild by David Stenn
Silent Movies: The Birth of Films and the Triumph of Movie Culture by Peter Kobel