Bow, Clara (1904–1965)
Bow, Clara (1904–1965)
Popular star of the silent screen and early talkies who was the idol of the "flappers" and, as the "'It' Girl," with her spit curls, bee-stung lips, and kewpie-doll eyes, came to epitomize the devil-may-care, flaming youth of the 1920s. Name variations: The "'It' Girl," The Brooklyn Bonfire, The Red Head, Paramount's Forest Fire, The Blaze from Brooklyn, The Queen of the Flappers, The Personality Kid, The Playgirl of Hollywood, and, by studio staff, simply as The Kid. Born Clara Gordon Bow in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, New York, on July 29, 1904 (and not 1905 as usually given or 1907 as occasionally found); died of a heart attack in Los Angeles, California, on September 27, 1965; daughter of Robert and Sarah Gordon Bow; attended public schools 111 and 98 in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, which she left after 8th grade at age 14; married Rex Bell (né Beldam, an actor), in December 1931; children: Rex Lardlow Beldam, nicknamed "Tony" (b. 1934); George Francis Robert Beldam (b. 1938).
Won a beauty contest conducted by Shadowland magazine, received a screen test, and cast in Beyond the Rainbow (1922); in Hollywood, signed by Preferred Pictures (1923); moved to Paramount Studios appearing in the silent films (1926); cast in talking films (1928).
Down to the Sea in Ships (1922); Enemies of Women (1923); Maytime (1923); Daring Years (1923); Grit (1924); Black Oxen (1924); Poisoned Paradise (1924); Daughters of Pleasure (1924); Wine (1924); Empty Hearts (1924); This Woman (1924); Black Lightning (1924); Capital Punishment (1925); Helen's Babies (1925); The Adventurous Sex (1925); My Lady's Lips (1925); Parisian Love (1925); Eve's Lover (1925); Kiss Me Again (1925); The Scarlet West (1925); The Primrose Path (1925); The Plastic Age (1925); Keeper of the Bees (1925); Free to Love (1925); Best Bad Men (1925); Lawful Cheaters (1925); Ancient Mariner (1926); My Lady of Whims (1926); Dancing Mothers (1926); Shadow of the Law (1926); Two Can Play (1926); The Runaway (1926); Mantrap (1926); Kid Boots (1926); It (1927); Children of Divorce (1927); Rough House Rosie (1927); Wings (1927); Hula (1927); Get Your Man (1927); Red Hair (1928); Ladies of the Mob (1928); The Fleet's In (1928); Three Weekends (1928). Talking films: The Wild Party (1929); Dangerous Curves (1929); Saturday Night Kid (1929); Paramount On Parade (1930); True to the Navy (1930); Love Among the Millionaires (1930); Her Wedding Night (1930); No Limit (1930); Kick In (1931); Call Her Savage (1932); Hoopla (1933).
Clara Bow was born in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, New York, on January 29, 1904, the youngest and only surviving child of Robert and Sarah Gordon Bow (two earlier daughters died in infancy). Of mixed English, Scottish, and French descent, Clara Bow came from a poor background and had an unhappy childhood, not hesitating to assert in later years that "nobody wanted me in the first place." In his biography of Bow, David Stenn makes much of her "gothic" upbringing but admits to having drawn most of his data from a three-part series of articles in Photoplay magazine based on interviews that she gave to the noted reporter Adela Rogers St. Johns in 1928; thus, it would be unwise to take uncritically.
What seems to be true was that her father was a ne'er-do-well and that her maternal grandmother, Sarah Hatton Gordon , became mentally ill and was committed to the Long Island State Hospital in August 1906 and died not long afterwards. In addition, there seems to be no doubt that for whatever reasons, her family moved about regularly from one Brooklyn tenement to another so that Bow had lived in over a dozen cold-water flats before leaving for Hollywood. On the other hand, the idea that her mother, though she had her mental problems, was actually insane and that she once threatened to kill Clara with a knife seems far-fetched. Her cousin Billy Bow, who lived with the family from time to time, stated that his aunt was suffering from pernicious anemia, and even Clara admitted that her mother did not begin to suffer from "fits" until after she fell down a flight of stairs in 1911.
As a child, Clara was lonely and hypersensitive, covering this with an exterior that eventually evolved into the devil-may-care "jazz baby" persona of her Hollywood years. She was also burdened with a slight stammer that arose in later years whenever she was nervous or under pressure. Leaving school after the eighth grade, she sold french fries from a stand in Coney Island one summer and then secured a job as a sort of receptionist for a doctor. In any case, poverty and deprivation were not to be her lot for long.
In 1921, still only 17 but already an ardent movie fan and devourer of movie magazines such as Photoplay, Shadowland, and Motion Picture Classic, she borrowed two dollars from her father to have some cheap photographs taken of herself and with them entered a beauty contest conducted by Shadowland. One of 20 finalists, she was called back for a screen test and won first prize: a trophy, her picture in the January 1922 issue, and an introduction to some casting offices in New York. One of these agencies gave her a small part in a Billy Dove film titled Beyond the Rainbow but when it appeared, Bow's part had been cut. Nevertheless, her photograph in Shadowland had been seen by a director who, three months later, hired her at $50 per week, to appear as a stowaway in Down to the Sea in Ships, an opus filmed in Bedford, Massachusetts. Almost simultaneously, Bow learned that her mother had been taken to a state mental hospital, where she shortly died (January 1923) and that an agent had gotten her a three-month contract with Benjamin P. Schulberg, a former Paramount executive, who had left to head one of the lower-end Hollywood studios, Preferred Pictures. Shortly thereafter, though she was still less than 18 and half his age, Schulberg made her his mistress.
Clara Bow was never to know poverty again. Schulberg elevated his inamorata to major roles, and she quickly began to catch the public's eye. Stardom came almost at once; the heartbreaks were to follow. Bow made 12 pictures in 1923–24, most of them drivel (though Grit had been scripted by F. Scott Fitzgerald), and many of them were filmed at other studios to which Schulberg lent her out to build up her value, charging $500 a loan while paying Bow $200 and pocketing the rest. Though there is no question that Schulberg exploited Bow both financially and sexually, it is also true that it was due to his providence that Bow never had to worry about money once her career came to an end. He forced her to invest half her salary (which eventually rose from $1,000 to $5,000 per week), and though she spent everything that came into her hands, thanks to Schulberg, she was never allowed to squander it all.
Schulberg had purchased a popular novel The Plastic Age which he thought would make Bow a star, and so it did in 1925. It also made Bow too important to have to knuckle down any longer to Schulberg's demands. The Plastic Age starred a handsome new Mexican actor, who was to have a long career under the name Gilbert Roland, and, in short order, he became the first of a long line of lovers of her own choice. Gary Cooper was next; the directors Victor
Fleming and William Wellman overlapping him, much to his chagrin.
But though Bow was extraordinarily pretty and by no means untalented, she would never have gotten as far as she did had it not been for the remarkable concurrence of her personality and the era that was ready for it. In what was perhaps the first age in history to glorify youth, Clara Bow (together with Colleen Moore and, to a lesser extent, the very young Joan Crawford ) was presented in her films as the epitome of what the youth of the day had come to represent, and she was featured as such in no less than 37 pictures in her first five years on the screen. The so-called "Roaring '20s" was the period of cynicism and anomie that followed immediately upon the First World War. It was beyond any doubt, a reaction to the disillusionments of that war and a revolt against the values that had characterized the era that had preceded it. From the new "lost generation" of free-living young men known as "sheikhs" and carefree young women called "flappers," the fashions, fads, and follies of the day quickly spread to other levels of the population. For women, this meant knee-length skirts, flat chests, short haircuts, slathers of make-up and an uninhibited lifestyle (including the swilling of illegal bootleg liquor and abandoned sex in parked cars), that sent the chaperon packing. To cash in on this new world of easy morals and hot jazz, Hollywood needed only to find a model who could set the tone for the day—both to epitomize it and establish and affirm its norms. Clara Bow filled the bill with astonishing success.
For seven years, Clara Bow was the queen of the movies, the embodiment of everything that the flapper supposedly was or wanted to be. Everywhere, young, and not so young, women copied her hair, her kewpie-doll make-up, and her flippant mannerisms. Saucily winking an eye, pursing pouty lips, flashing a dazzling smile, coyly peeking over a raised shoulder were all part of her stock in trade, coupled with a what-the-hell insouciance and a readiness to fly to the dance floor at the first Charleston beat that suggested everything that the postwar "Jazz Age" stood for. There is no question that she was gifted with an extraordinary sense of fun. Yet for all this, Clara Bow was capable of looking more deeply than did her audiences into the character she portrayed, on one occasion saying: "All the time the flapper is laughin' and dancin' there's a feelin' of tragedy underneath. She's unhappy and disillusioned and that's what people sense, that's what makes her different."
The studio publicity mills, the fan magazines, and the Hollywood gossip columnists were at pains to assure audiences that Bow was exactly the same hell-raising hoyden off screen as she was on. Unfortunately, this appears to have been true. Equipped with a Brooklyn accent, a tough-gal demeanor, and a mouthful of wisecracks and four-letter words, Clara Bow became a byword in Hollywood for her numerous affairs and the scandals that clouded the last years of her career. Not all of her escapades actually took place, of course, the studio having a definite stake in perpetuating the notion that Clara Bow the woman and Clara Bow the star were one and the same. Nevertheless, as movie stars began to take themselves more and more seriously, Clara Bow and her public antics were seen as an embarrassment, and, early on, Hollywood hosts and hostesses made it a point to keep her off their guest lists.
To her family, Clara Bow was devoted, clear evidence that her home life could not have been all that wretched. She brought her father to live with her in the modest (and untidy) home on Hollywood Boulevard that she shared with Artie Jacobson; she also financed her father's ill-conceived attempts to establish a business, including a dry-cleaning operation and a restaurant both of which failed, and gradually encouraged all her relatives to join her in sunny California. A petite red-head (5'2", weighing about 110 lbs.), with brown eyes and a dazzling smile, Clara Bow was sincere and unaffected. She tended to be trusting—too much so—and was known for keeping her word. Despite her humble origins and her rapid rise, she never developed a swelled head, was pleasant to everybody high and low, and by all accounts remained extremely likable. Poorly educated, she was by no means unintelligent (she had a B+ average in high school), and after her retirement from the screen did much to educate herself on her own. Sexually, she appears to have been as liberated as anyone else in Hollywood at that time, though she tended to be more open about it and made no secret of either her lovers or one-night stands.
Although Clara Bow's career had begun incredibly early and she was a star before she was 20, the pinnacle of its short span was not reached until she was signed to a new five-year contract by Schulberg, who had left Preferred Pictures to become the Western managing director of production at Paramount Studios, on the eve of the advent of talking films, and had taken Bow with him. Shortly after this, she came to the attention of author Elinor Glyn , who, having shocked America with her shallow but startling novel Three Weeks in 1907, fancied herself a lady of letters and convinced Hollywood to do the same. Inventing the term "it" to refer to sex appeal, which she then used as the title of her latest novel, Madame Glyn, as she liked to be called, declared Clara Bow to be the very personification of the ideal. Though "it" was little more than a shrewd device for self-promotion on Glyn's part, when Bow was cast in the silent adaptation of Glyn's novel (1927), the film not only became a huge success but made Bow an international star. Her salary soon soared to $2,700 per week.
It is a myth that the studios rushed into the making of talking films. With some 20,000 movie theaters in the United States, the cost of wiring them for sound was a formidable obstacle, and there was a wide belief that talking pictures, which had been tried before, were only a fad. Thus, for two years, Clara Bow continued to be featured in silent films only. So successful were these, that Paramount—and Schulberg—gradually lost interest in the development of Bow as an actress and instead banked on her continued appeal in her conventional role, placing her in one formula picture after another. The first of these was Rough House Rosie, which was filmed early in 1927 and set the tone for the rest: a poor young woman seeks fame and fortune, uses her vivacious charms to hit the top, then, after many adventures and diverse men, realizes that the fellow she left behind is her only true love and returns to his waiting and forgiving arms. From then on, Paramount, realizing that audiences came to see Bow cavort and little else, saw no point in spending money on production values, expensive leading men, or scripts that varied her characters. Over and over, whatever the name given to her in the film (Rosie, Trixie, Lila, Bubbles, Mayme, Lolly, Hula), Bow was simply cast as Bow clowning around. For all this, some of her last silents were not without interest: Hula (1927) had a nude scene in it with Bow floating on her back in a pond that made the front pages around the world; Ladies of the Mob (1928) was a promising, albeit sole, attempt at a dramatic role; and Red Hair (1928) had a sequence in the then new Technicolor process that showed off her hair as advertised in its title. Also, she didn't always play a baddie, and her performance as the wartime ambulance driver Mary Preston in the prestigious Wings (a 1927 silent with added sound effects that cost the studio some $2 million to produce) was much appreciated. But it was now becoming clear that Bow was being overworked as well as exploited. She had had her first breakdown after the filming of Rough House Rosie and had to enter the Glendale Sanitarium to recover.
Meanwhile, her public continued to adore its "'It' Girl." Her fan mail came in by the train load—33,727 letters in May 1928 alone; 35,339 pieces in June. In August, a van had to be called to her home to haul 250,000 pieces to storage. Hailed in an exhibitor's poll as the top box-office draw of 1928 and 1929, she was mobbed at Grand Central Station on a trip to New York in January 1930. As late as 1932, when after the completion of Call Her Savage Fox sent Bow on a tour of Europe, she would attract enormous attention in Paris and, going on to Berlin, receive an autographed copy of Mein Kampf from the hands of its author, Adolf Hitler, who was also besmitten.
At last, in 1929, after considerable dithering, Paramount let Bow make her first talkie, Dorothy Arzner 's The Wild Party, with young Fredric March as her co-star. Though the need to stand close to the hidden microphones cramped her style, which had always included bouncing all over the set, and her voice initially disappointed her fans, Bow made a successful transition with her popularity undimmed. She never got used to the new talking pictures, however, and always claimed that she hated the medium. The talkies, as they were quickly dubbed, proved disastrous to some silent film stars, either they hadn't the voices to match their looks (John Gilbert), couldn't speak English (Emil Jannings), or spoke with such heavy accents that their voices were better suited to comedy than to serious roles (Vilma Banky, Pola Negri ). They proved no problem, however, for Bow. After some concerns in her initial talking venture, her sassy Brooklynese turned out to be perfectly suited to the type of role that she played. Nevertheless, Bow took voice lessons and the practice of pearshaped tones gradually had her speaking "real refined." In time, she added singing to her previous charms, warbling competently in a couple of talkies, if offering no threat to the professional chanteuses of the day.
But Clara Bow had begun to get reckless. While hospitalized with appendicitis, she fell in love with a young intern, Earl Pearson. Unfortunately, Pearson was married. After a brief affair, Bow found herself the subject of a lawsuit, charged with alienation of affections. She wisely settled out of court, reputedly paying Mrs. Pearson some $30,000, but the affair brought her considerable bad publicity and proved to be only the first of a series of scandals that were to rock her career and wreck her precarious health. The Pearson affair was followed by an over-publicized and abruptly canceled marital engagement to cabaret artist Harry Richman, who had once been the piano accompanist for Mae West in her vaudeville days and who had come to Hollywood to make his first, and only, talking picture. Shortly afterwards, in 1930, while filming in Nevada, Bow went gambling with Will Rogers at the Calneva Lodge in Lake Tahoe and, ignorant of the rules, ran up a $13,500 debt that she later refused to pay. Only after more bad publicity did she agree to settle what she owed. Next, when she sued her maid, one Daisy de Boe (who called herself Daisy de Voe, to avoid confusion with her employer), for embezzling money from her bank account, the latter retaliated with sordid revelations of Bow's private life and numerous lovers—naming Richman, Pearson, Cooper, Lothar Mendez, and a certain young man named Rex Bell. The maid even went so far as to suggest that her own character had become corrupted through association with such a creature, thus explaining her casualness towards the bank account whose access had been entrusted to her by Miss Bow. Finally, the publisher Frederic H. Girnau, after printing Miss De Boe's more salacious anecdotes about Bow in his Hollywood tabloid, The Coast Reporter, was jailed for eight years for sending obscene materials—his scandal sheet—through the mails. None of this, however, was a match for the ribald stories, true and untrue, that were passed from mouth to mouth, first in Hollywood and then throughout the country.
Preoccupied by her legal battles (which a more hardened entertainer like Mae West would have had the nerve and savvy to turn to her own advantage), Clara Bow was off the screen for almost two years (1931–32), though afterwards, far from finding herself finished, offers continued to pour in. The producer Earl Carroll wanted her in New York for his Vanities, Flo Ziegfeld wanted to create a Broadway show around her, the Shuberts wanted her for a 20-week stage tour at $20,000 per week, and she was being offered as much as $10,000 for an interview or a personal appearance. As far as the movies were concerned, both Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Howard Hughes were seeking her services. Nevertheless, the strains of the scandals, the trials and the ugly headlines, proved too much for Bow, who, having inherited the fragility of her mother and her maternal grandmother, now suffered a second nervous breakdown that forced her to abandon work on her latest film, The Secret Call, and take refuge in the Glendale sanitarium in May 1931. With appalling callousness, Schulberg chose that same month to announce that Paramount, for which she had made millions, would release her from her contract, due to expire in October. Bow took this fresh blow with dignity and grace and never spoke out against either Schulberg or the studio. Despite the offers still coming in, she was slipping and she knew it. Jean Arthur had stolen one picture from her, and she lost her chance to play a good dramatic role in City Streets, a part that went to Sylvia Sydney . Meanwhile, in small town America, the women's clubs, so powerful in those days, were railing against her.
The one bright spot in all this was that just as her career was drawing to an undistinguished close, Bow fell in love with a handsome stunt man and cowboy actor named Rex Bell (né Beldam), the last of a long line of lovers, who, after her release from the sanitarium (which he had convinced her to enter), took her to live on the small ranch he had bought near Searchlight, Nevada. There, in a rough-hewn cabin, he nursed her back to health. Born George F. Beldam in Chicago in 1903, Bell had been brought to Hollywood by his family while still a teenager and had attended Hollywood High School. By all accounts he was a fine "all-American boy," who always wanted to have his own ranch, and who would abandon his hopes of a Hollywood career as soon as he could afford one. After his father died in 1924, he had been left the sole provider for his mother and younger siblings and was driving a truck when he was discovered by a studio. Admitting that he couldn't act, he was nevertheless hired as a stunt man and worked at this for four years. Then, in 1930, he was co-starred with Bow in True to the Navy, one of her poorer formula films that was a wretched successor to her recent hits Dangerous Curves and Paramount on Parade. Her career nearing the rocks and his never having quite taken off, the two seemed to find in each other the "real" person behind the Hollywood facade, and both decided simultaneously to get off the carousel and return to the real world. They were married in Las Vegas in December 1931.
That year, her health apparently recovered, Clara Bow came out of her recent retirement, signing with her old friend Sam Rork to do four pictures for Fox. Even then, however, she waited almost a year before settling on a picture that she felt willing to do. In the name of "keeping faith with her public," she showed courage and considerable integrity in her search for just the right script for her return to the screen but, unfortunately, to little avail. She appeared in two poor films over the next year, Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoopla. In 1933, while waiting for the release of Hoopla, she had said:
The minute that I see the first sign that my public doesn't want me any longer I'll retire. People tell me I'm crazy to talk about quittin' when I'm only 27. Well, maybe I am. But I want to stop when they still want me. I want to quit at the top—not at the bottom of the scale. I've been criticized because I won't cut my salary. I get $75,000 a picture and $25,000 more if the picture grosses over a certain amount. Here's how I feel—the minute that I can't get $75,000 it's because I'm not worth it. And when I'm not worth that much anymore, it's because the public is beginning to tire of me. Then it's time to quit.
Both movies were failures, and Bow, released from her obligation to do the remaining two pictures by Rork's untimely death, calmly accepted the end of her career.
Thereafter, Bow and Bell settled down at Rancho Clarita, as he had named his spread. Now grown to 360,000 acres, its original cabin was replaced by a modern home consisting of a two-storey, 12-room hacienda with a 50-by-30 foot living room, a swimming pool with piped in water, and its own electric generating plant. There Bow eased into the comfortable if unlikely role of middle-class matron. Two children were born to the couple, Rex Lardlow Beldam, nicknamed Tony (1934), and George Francis Robert Beldam (1938). Tony, who looked like his father, made a movie debut in a bit part in a western in 1964 but chose to became a lawyer, taking the name Rex Anthony Bell, and eventually becoming district attorney for Clark County, Nevada. George took after his mother in appearance but steered clear of show business. In between the two boys, Bow lost a baby girl after which her husband encouraged her to go into business as a means of occupying herself. Her venture, "The It Cafe" at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, was not a success, however, and the family returned to Rancho Clarita. There Bow resumed the role of wife and mother, romping with her sons, whom she adored. Unfortunately, her mental health remained precarious, and she suffered from acute insomnia, as well as from other ailments both real and imagined. Though she was usually rational, she was often severely distraught and never ceased to require considerable medical care.
But Clara Bow was not forgotten during the long years that followed her retirement from the screen. As time went on, a nostalgia developed for the 1920s. The Charleston, which had had a brief vogue in the middle of the decade, was taken as having pervaded the era, the short-lived short skirts were taken as the typical wear, and Clara Bow came to epitomize the flapper to such an extent that the flapper era became forever associated with her name. In the early 1930s, she was obviously the model for the title character in the Betty Boop cartoons. Offers still came in to do films, but she refused them, and, if she ever missed being the "'It' Girl" of the silver screen, she never said so. In 1950, when Life Magazine devoted a special issue to commemorate the midpoint of the century, a color photograph of Bow, her age considerately given as 41 (which would have made her enter the movies at 13) was chosen, along with those of Charles Lindbergh, Herbert Hoover, Grover Cleveland, and Gilda Gray , to represent the 1920s.
Gray, Gilda (1901–1959)
Polish dancer and actress. Born Marianna Michalska on October 24, 1901, in Krakow, Poland; died in 1959.
Gilda Gray, who was born in Poland but immigrated to America in 1908 at age seven, starred in a number of silents between 1923 and 1936. She is credited with inventing the dance-craze, the shimmy. Her films include: Lawful Larceny (1923), Aloma of the South Seas (1926), Cabaret (1928), The Devil Dancer (1928), Piccadilly (U.K., 1929), Rose Marie (1936), and The Great Ziegfeld (1936).
Bow's marriage to Bell had remained the one solid bedrock of her life. If Clara Bow, so amoral in her early youth, ever had another lover after she married Bell, no one ever knew it. For his part, Bell never seemed to be concerned with what people thought of him for marrying a woman whose name for looseness had once been a by-word in Hollywood. He loved her, saw the best in her, and had the strength of character to forget the rest. Eventually, however, Bell was no longer able to endure his wife's instability and hypochondria, and they separated in 1950. By mutual agreement, he retained custody of the two boys. Thereafter, Bow moved back to Los Angeles, living first in the Los Altos Apartments in the Wilshire district for a year and then in the Gramercy Apartments in the same neighborhood. Rex and her sons visited from time to time. Increasingly reclusive, she finally took a small house in Santa Monica when it became clear that only a private residence would suit her need to be left alone. There, attended by a live-in maid and two dogs, she passed her time swimming, painting, keeping up with current affairs, and maintaining a voluminous correspondence, her income from her trust fund providing for all her needs. She had once taken a speed-reading course and now took up serious books including Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. An avid movie-goer, but attending only drive-ins to protect her privacy, Bow adored Marilyn Monroe and was so taken by Marlon Brando that she arranged to have him come to her home so she could meet him. She continued to suffer from a nervous condition, however, as well from acute insomnia and was in and out of sanitariums according to how ill she was from one month to the next. In 1955, Bow's father, who had been working for a casino in Las Vegas, retired and returned to California to live with her once again. He died two years later at the age of 84. In time, Rex Bell entered politics, rising to become lieutenant governor of Nevada in 1954. Ever loyal to Bow but making no secret of her condition, he never admitted the actuality of the separation, asserting that his wife lived in Los Angeles because her medical needs could not be satisfied in Nevada. He died of a heart attack in Las Vegas on July 4, 1962, at the age of 58 while running for governor of his home state. Bow was not present at her husband's funeral, but she did attend a second funeral service held at Forest Lawn Cemetery, her first public appearance in 15 years as well as her last. Swathed in black, and accompanied by her sons, she gamely smiled for journalists, who marveled at how little she had changed.
In her last years, Bow continued to be in poor health and until just before her death had been treated for her chronic insomnia in a local sanitarium. For several years, she had maintained her own apartment there and had a private nurse on duty at all times, though she was free to come and go. On September 27, 1965, Clara Bow died in her Hollywood home of a heart attack at the age of 61. An autopsy revealed that she had been suffering from severe heart disease and that this had not been her first seizure, the previous symptoms having been overlooked as part of her chronic hypochondria. She was buried beside her husband in Forest Lawn.
Viewed in the light of present-day medical knowledge, it is not clear that Clara Bow—or, for that matter either her mother or grandmother—was actually mentally disturbed, and it is not at all impossible that all three were simply victims of a glandular or chemical disorder causing acute depression and irrational behavior, a condition now treated with such medications as Prozac. Whatever the exact nature of her illness, however, there is no question that her single marriage was the wisest move she had ever made, and her sons remained the center of her life in the long years that separated her from her days of fame and glory until her death more than 30 years later. Although most of Clara Bow's silent films are now lost (Mantrap, Kid Boots, Get Your Man, and Red Hair are among those that survive) and only a very few of her talkies are available on video cassette, her vivacious charm still comes through on the small screen, and her name has not been forgotten. Two biographies appeared of her in due course: The "It" Girl, a rather sensational pot-boiler in 1976, by Morella and Epstein, who specialized in unauthorized biographies; and Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild, a much more serious tome written in 1988 by David Stenn, who enjoyed the cooperation of her family. Years after Bow's death, Madonna's manager ventured to call his client "the 'It Girl' of the 'eighties," while Madonna stated her desire to portray Clara Bow on the screen. But perhaps the best tribute to Clara Bow's memory was the one given her by her film contemporary and fan Louise Brooks , who, after Bow's death, said simply that "Clara Bow was the 'twenties."
Bow, Clara. "My Life Story," as told to Adela Rogers St. Johns in Photoplay. February–April, New York, 1931.
Philadelphia Free Library, Theater Collection.
Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. Rev. ed. New York, 1979.
Stenn, David. Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild. NY: Doubleday, 1988.
Morella, Joe, and Edward Epstein. The "It" Girl: The Incredible Story of Clara Bow. New York, 1976.
Rosen, Marjorie. Popcorn Venus. NY: Coward, 1973.
Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey