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The It Girl
For a moment between the terrors of her childhood and the terrors of the talkies, she was America’s most successful movie actress
July/August 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 4
Sin awaited someone who wanted to be a movie actress, Clara’s mother told her—and then chased her with a knife.
The first breakdown came when she was twenty-two—“nervous exhaustion, nervous collapse,” the papers said. She got out of the Glendale Sanitarium and went back to the pictures, looking great on-screen but increasingly frenzied off it: men, pills, drink, eambline, no sleep.
In the next four years there were wrist and throat slittings, thirty thousand dollars paid out to a doctor’s wife charging alienation of affections, charges she welshed on paying off lost bets, stories in a sleazy Hollywood rag about her sex life. In the Glendale Sanitarium she awoke from drugged sleep screaming, “Mama’s here! She’s in this room!”
Her secretary-companion, who lived with her, was found to have lifted valuables and money; when confronted, the woman tried to shake Clara down for $125,000 by threatening to tell about all the men. There was a trial with Clara on the witness tand making people titter by her shrill stage-fright tone and honking Brooklyn accent and things she said: “Well, she took my dough, see? What’re ya tryin’ to do, kibollix me all up?” She broke down in tears and stutteringly apologized for it. “I can’t help it, I c-c-c-c-can’t.” At the recess she said to reporters, “I’ve got feelings. Gosh, I’m tired.” She became afraid of people. “When they stare at me, I get the creeps. If they would only treat me like a regular human being.”
On the sets she developed a terror of the new-technology microphones of the talkies, of having to read lines where once she had expressed herself through silent action: “I can’t make no sense outta what I’m supposed t’say. Everybody’s gonna think I’m a dumb jerk.” She attacked a microphone with her fists until they bled.
The minor Westerns actor Rex Bell, kindly, decent, took her away to a ranch her money bought. After 1933 she never again appeared before a camera. She married Bell, had two sons, separated from him, and went to live in Los Angeles near her psychiatrist and the Glendale Sanitarium, saw no one, went to drive-in movies with the trained nurse who lived with her, took a correspondence course in remedial English, and proudly showed her doctors the good grades she got on her papers. Her sons visited when they could. She was unable to attend their weddings.
In 1960, five years before her death, she wrote the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper of another lost waif in a magnificent package: “I shall slip my old crown of ‘It’ girl not to Taylor or Bardot—but to Monroe. She’s just like me!”