July/August 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 4
For a moment between the terrors of her childhood and the terrors of the talkies, she was America’s most successful movie actress
All her mature life Clara Bow had insomnia nothing could relieve—not sedatives, liquor, endless psychiatric intervention, electric shock therapy. She dated it from the moment she awoke in her family’s one-room cold-water Brooklyn flat to find her mother holding a butcher knife to her throat.
Sin awaited someone who wanted to be a movie actress, the mother said. It was better that her daughter die and so escape damnation. The girl jumped up and ran, her mother after her with the knife.
Mrs. Bow’s history was of days-long crying jags, glassy-eyed catatonic-like trances that left her immobile on the floor, and prostitution to put food on the table when her silent, strange, shift-less busboy-laborer-sometime carpenter husband vanished for weeks on end. (Her daughter was locked into a tiny closet while the customers were there.) She was committed days after Clara’s first movie was released in 1922, soon to die still institutionalized. The daughter blamed herself for her mother’s sorry end, saying she had disappointed her, gone against her wishes. “I was dancing on a table with just a few clothes on when she left me for good.”
That was what she did, Clara, dance on tables in the movies. That was what flappers were supposed to do in the Roaring Twenties while being, Scott Fitzgerald said, pretty, impudent, worldly-wise, briefly clad. And Clara Bow, he said, was “the quintessence of what the term ‘flapper’ signifies.” For being such and for vibrantly and with immense vitality portraying mad gaiety and reckless youth, a “dancing flame on the screen,” said one of her directors, she was billed as the Hottest Jazz Baby in Films, the Brooklyn Bonfire. She laughed on cue, cried instantly when ordered, rushed about with lighthearted abandon, winked, peeked, pouted charmingly, smiled to show perfect teeth in the beautiful cupid’s-bow mouth, cocked her head and tossed her auburn curls, romped, darted, bounced, and seemed a jaunty, impish minx, a spunky and bubbly beautiful tomboy with great luminous eyes who came simply leaping off the screens of America’s rapidly growing collection of movie houses. Soon Clara was grinding out movies, fifteen of them in 1925.
Before Clara, film actresses portraying the sexually desirable vamped and slithered about in extravagant exotic attire, wore black eye shadow plastered on to contrast with almost ghostly white makeup, and elaborately leered at the intended objects of their charms. Clara on the screen looked and acted like the girl next door, only prettier. She played shopgirls, manicurists, sodashop waitresses, and the plots were all the same: Her character was always, it was said, akin to the Northwest Mounted Police in that in the end she always got her man.
Her movies had names hinting of erotic delights— The Adventurous Sex, My Lady’s Lips, Kiss Me Again, No Limit, Call Her Savage —but in fact were generally mild enough and were as popular with women as with men. Their star needed almost no direction and had a great instinctive comprehension of who her character was and what she should do. You gave Clara her head and kept the camera rolling and the movie got made and the money rolled in. She was never temperamental, always cooperative, uncomplainingly worked twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day six days a week, treated the studio head and the other stars precisely as she treated the electricians, grips, painters, cameramen, bit players, and extras, and was loved by everyone on the set. She never asked for any privileges and made no demands and was always ready to help anybody. She loved Christmas, for it offered an opportunity to give gifts to everyone.
Clara Bow was Hollywood’s biggest draw, and the company that became Paramount forced theaters to accept its productions by saying that if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be offered the new Bow, but she was ridiculously underpaid and had no great mansion, no vast swimming pool, no squads of servants. She didn’t mind. She did like cars, and she roared down Wilshire and Sunset boulevards in her roadster or shot along the unpaved roads of the vast undeveloped lands around Los Angeles and through the orange groves. (Motorcycle cops got talked out of tickets with pictures autographed in her childish scrawl.)
She remained what she had been upon her arrival in California from Brooklyn: a chewing-gum-smacking eighth-grade dropout kid who dropped her gs, said “he don’t” and “they was” and “youse,” told dirty jokes in inappropriate settings, and was so innocent of social conduct that she could arrive at an elegant hotel dinner in a belted bathing suit with high heels, so ignorant of convention that she had to be told to stand up when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played. She liked to roller-skate up and down her driveway.
She possessed no vocabulary beyond that of sexuality, thought young Budd Schulberg of later What Makes Sammy Run? and On the Waterfront fame. To his father, Clara’s producer, who made millions off her, she was “a disgrace,” a “lowlife.” For she was what cannot be called immoral, but rather amoral. Certainly she was wildly promiscuous. The British writer Elinor Glyn declared Clara had “It” above all women, and so she became the It Girl, destined to be remembered as such and for her position, which ranked her with Garbo, Gish, Pickford, and Swanson and saw her receive fortyfive thousand fan letters in January of 1929.
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!”