BOW, CLARA (1905–1965) Actress

Called by F. Scott Fitzgerald the “quintessence of what the term ‘fiapper’ signifies,” Clara Bow was American film’s greatest sex symbol during the 1920s. Born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 29, 1905, she survived a brutal childhood, marred by poverty and her mother’s severe mental illness. Bow found comfort in the movies and dreams of stardom, especially after winning a beauty contest that gave her a small movie part as a prize. After several years in Hollywood, she secured a contract with independent producer B. P. Schulberg that initially paid her $50 a week.

Embued with a strong work ethic, Bow made 55 films between 1923 and 1930. In most, she portrayed a young working girl who asserted her independence by smoking, drinking, wearing short skirts, and dancing all night. Although other stars also adopted the pose of the fiapper, Bow, with her pixyish face and fiery, bobbed hair, was by far the most popular, receiving at her height more than 40,000 fan letters a week. She was known by the public as the “It Girl” after appearing in the 1927 film adaptation of popular author Elinor Glyn’s novel It. “It” became a euphemism for the earthy, highly energized sex appeal of Bowa distinct departure from the exotic allure of earlier film sirens such as THEDA BARA.

Bow’s life was sensational offscreen as well. The lover of many of Hollywood’s leading men and a cohort of gangsters and bootleggers, Bow was dubbed “crisis-a-day Clara” by her producer. Her unconventional love life prompted a major public scandal when her former secretary Daisy Defoe wrote a tell-all book in retaliation for Bow’s accusations of embezzlement. Defoe’s disloyalty lead to one of several nervous breakdowns Bow suffered during her film career. It also encouraged her studio, Paramount, to fire her in 1931. Paramount, however, had already seen evidence that Bow’s film popularity was waning. With the advent of sound movies and stationary microphones, the frantic movements of Bow’s signature acting style had to be reined in, eliminating much of her screen appeal.

Within six months, Bow married cowboy film star Rex Bell and retired to his ranch in Nevada. She made several attempts at returning to film, but her efforts were defeated by bad reviews. By the mid1930s, Bow had given up on Hollywood and devoted herself to raising her and Bell’s two sons. Yet, even in the relative quiet of her later life, she continued to be plagued by insomnia and a growing fear that she had inherited her mother’s mental problems. By the early 1950s, Bow had moved permanently to Los Angeles in order to be closer to her psychiatrists and to a mental hospital in which she was periodically institutionalized. Largely removed from the public eye, the former “It Girl” died of a heart attack in her home on September 26, 1965.

Further Reading
Morella, Joe and Edward Z. Epstein. The “It” Girl: The Incredible Story of Clara Bow. New York: Delacorte, 1976.
Stenn, David. Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild. Expanded edition. New York: Cooper Square, 2000.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Clara Bow: Discovering the “It” Girl (1999). Kino Video, VHS, 1999.
It (1927). Kino Video, VHS, 1999.
Wings (1927). Paramount, VHS, 1996.