Hollywood has been a huge platform for so many stars and celebs, ever since it became a big deal and all the way up until this very day. The box office hits lead to fame, paparazzi attention, awards, expensive travels, wardrobes, and shooting of commercials with million-dollar endorsements. A dream come true for most celebrities—but not all.
A celebrity lifestyle can be fun, and at other times it can be scandalous. In the early to mid part of the previous century, Clara Bow rose to fame in Hollywood through the most difficult hardships. But nobody expected how her career would end. Stick with us till the end, and you’ll be taking a bow with us, as we present her life.
In the 1920s, Clara appeared in movies like It Girl, which made her a household name. Her aura and looks also made it easy for her to sweep Hollywood right off its feet. She was sensational, and her fame spread so fast that she became an icon.
Although it may have seemed like Clara was a born star, she was actually raised in hardship and had suffered childhood abuse. It didn’t matter how deeply she went in the showbiz world and enjoyed its benefits, her past always crept in, and her popularity in time worsened.
Clara Gordon Bow was born in Brooklyn to Robert and Sarah Bow. It may have seemed like Clara was an only child, but she was really the third child. Her two older sisters had died in infancy, and Clara could have suffered the same fate, except she was fortunate.
We can see that Clara was almost not going to make it, given the times, but Sarah, her mom, was not backing down. Her mother gave birth to her during a horrible heatwave. Clara and her mother, Sarah, struggled much more during their lives from that time on.
One of the most traumatic things anyone could ever experience, let alone a child, is the death of a loved one. Sadly, at the age of nine, Clara experienced this with one of her best friends, Johnny, who died in her arms from a fire accident. Sadly, there was nothing Clara could do to help.
Clara would eventually become known for her talent to cry whenever needed on the film set. She only needed to listen to “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” and the tears would flow effortlessly because it reminded her of Johnny. Unfortunately, this loss of a friend was only the beginning of sad events in Clara’s life.
Clara hung out more with the boys at school. She believed she was not girly or perfect enough to be with the girls. She had a stunning face, but it had some comic-like features with spiky red hair as a child, and so girls mocked her appearance.
Clara wore boyish clothes to her girls-only high school. She also had athletic abilities, and the passion she had for sports activity made her want to teach athletics. However, Clara eventually developed a strong interest in acting. She loved the idea of being able to create her own reality.
Clara’s family life was also dysfunctional. Her father was an alcoholic and was never around or sober. Clara believed she grew up in a home where love wasn’t the foundation. However, a loveless family is only the tip of Clara’s problems to survive.
Clara’s father may have deserved to be unloved. He did terrible things to young Clara. Clara’s mom, Sarah, had schizophrenia, so she had to be institutionalized. Her father raped her while her mother was away. The abuse had long-term consequences in ways that cut really deep.
Clara took a bold step entering into Brewster Magazine’s nationwide acting contest because she entered the contest against her mother’s wishes, though she had her father’s support. Despite her imperfect appearance, she emerged as the winner, and Clara was now ready to get on set for her first movie.
The contest earned her a trophy and one small film role but no contract. She faced a lot of rejection from directors. Being a strong-willed hustler, Clara resorted to going to the Brewster Magazine office every day and begging for work. It did pay off eventually.
Clara got a part in the movie Beyond the Rainbow (1922). She nailed her five scenes and even managed to cry her renowned real tears for the first time on a movie set, desperate to please. But Clara was disappointed when the film was released.
What she thought was a break was maybe not a break after all. The director of Beyond the Rainbow had her scenes deleted in the final edit. Clara was “sick to her stomach” when she viewed the finished film and was on the verge of quitting acting completely.
The thought to quit came strongly for a moment, but she was well aware that she was overdue for a major break, and she was determined to get it. Clara went on and attended more auditions and tried a new strategy, thinking it would work, but it backfired.
She tried to hide her provocative appearance by attending a casting in a grown-up outfit she borrowed from her mother, when she learned they were casting for Down to the Sea in Ships (1922). Ironically, the director Elmer Clifton wanted a young tomboy for the job.
Clara had to spend the rest of the audition convincing the director she was a youngster after all! Finally, he cast her in the role. It’s surprising to think that she almost missed it. Clara moved from New York to Los Angeles on the strength of accolades she received.
She not only performed more flapper roles in films like The Plastic Age (1924) and Dancing Mothers (1926), but she also established a reputation as the perfect flapper! Her performance in ”Down to the Sea in Ships” gained her notoriety, and the break finally came.
Amid all the fame and glamour, Clara’s mother died in 1923 from an epileptic attack in the asylum where she resided. What affect did all of this have on Clara? You’ll get to see it all. Despite their rocky and unstable relationship, Clara was her mother’s biggest cheerleader.
While she was alive and then even after her death, Clara always defended her mother. Every family member who Clara felt let her late mother down got served. If you think it was uncalled for, wait until you hear what Clara did next… at the funeral.
She attempted to jump into her mother’s grave! When the Bow family gathered for Sarah’s funeral, she yelled at her relatives and branded them hypocrites for never caring about her mother.. After this painful experience, however, Clara still had much to look forward to.
The ambitious actress quickly became an icon and a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. Like her brilliant red hair, Bow’s lips were a national treasure. She applied her lipstick in the heart-shaped technique that we are familiar with and which women still use today.
The look was so popular that women would say they were putting on their “Clara Bow” when applying lipstick. It can become tough not to let fame get to one’s head when you become a big household name. Clara let herself get drunk on popularity, occasionally.
Clara would sometimes put up a snobbish disposition. She’d show a hint of the impulsive free spirit that would later turn into a more evil aspect in her life. In one case, Clara attempted to take a colleague’s role on a movie set. Unbelievably bold!
Clara was cast as Colleen Moore’s younger sister on the set of Painted People (1924). But the part wasn’t enough for feisty Clara, who marched over to Colleen and informed her of her feelings and asked that they switch roles. Colleen’s reaction was unexpected, and Clara was put in her place.
With Colleen’s influence, the filmmakers were refused permission to shoot any close-ups of Bow on the set. Clara promised to get her revenge, but it didn’t work out quite well. She had been diagnosed with sinusitis, and her surgery was urgently moved to the shooting period.
Clara had a secret weapon in silent movies, in addition to her immensely expressive face and large eyes. This was her super tears. Clara found it easy to shed tears, and she could do it any time at the command of directors. This made her feel like a little wonder.
But, like so many other superpowers, this one also had a dark side. Clara had low self-esteem. Sadly, her poor father was among the reasons for her greatest pains. Robert, Clara Bow’s father, obtained a full-time job on one of her film sets.
At work, what Robert mostly did was stumble around drunkenly while trying to pick up young actresses by claiming he was Clara Bow’s father. Surprisingly, Clara even persuaded Tui Lorraine, who was her friend, to marry her violent father—that didn’t end well, of course.
Clara may appear kind and vulnerable, but don’t get on her bad side! In 1924, she moved in with her father, together with her boyfriend, Arthur Jacobson, a Hollywood cameraman. This enraged her studio executive, B.P. Schulberg, who dismissed Jacobson. This move didn’t go down well with Clara.
Her executive claimed it was her boyfriend’s punishment for living in sin with his celebrity client and causing her to become embroiled in a scandal, thereby affecting the good image they’ve been trying to build. She stormed over to Schulberg’s office, tore her contract in half, and dumped it in his coffee cup!
Still, Clara wasn’t done with her agent yet! She then ripped into him for attempting to micromanage her personal life, before walking her legs out the door! Clara still made more fashion statements when it came to legs. She painted her legs that year, and soon after, ladies all over California were doing the same.
Her wild red hair gained her a new nickname. When she hit major screens and made it big time, even though the teenage kids once taunted her for her carrot top during her teenage years, now she could be proud of her features. The blazing epithet “The Brooklyn Bonfire” was given to her by audiences and critics all around the country. Isn’t it clear that she influenced Betty Boop?
The studios were disturbingly scathing, despite all the millions they made from her good beauty, charisma, and physical emotion that made its way across the silent screen. Some of the directors called her many humiliating names, and one executive stated she couldn’t act. However, they had no idea she’d go down in history, while they vanished from the pages of history!
Clara despised practices and rehearsals and required a great deal of guidance, but she blossomed into a little pocket rocket with coaching! Victor Fleming, her lover and later director of The Wizard of Oz and other blockbusters in his time, compared her to a Stradivarius violin for her ability to pick up and make magic even at the slightest opportunity.
She was charming, but her habits were horrible as a messy, lower-class kid, and she faced the consequences for her egregious behavior. She refused to kneel to them or their traditional views, and high-class Hollywood society looked down their noses at her, considering her the odd one out.
Clara Bow starred in the first film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Wings (1927), a masterwork by William Wellman, is known for its bubble sequence, magnificent tracking shot, and overall nuance. The director on this set could not miss getting Clara’s crazy personality that came with outstanding talent.
At first, she was excited by the eccentric role she played. Still, she later lamented about the film’s excessive nudity, saying she didn’t want to be recognized for playing such explicit roles only.
Little did she know that this decision would mark a turning point for her.
On the other hand, Clara made history when she starred in the flapper film called “It.” She was the first lady to be irrevocably identified with the term “It Girl.” Her Paramount contract was extended for another five years, and her pay was tripled.
She was receiving over 45,000 fan mail correspondences every month by January 1929. She was on top of the world, smashing her previous records and ultimately living her best life. However, no one expected the major change to the movie industry to come when it did.
Talkies were all the rage two years after The Jazz Singer (1927), and the former silent film actress had her first speaking role. Fans were taken aback by what they heard: lovely, innocent Clara Bow had a heavy Brooklyn accent, but audiences enjoyed her “Noo Yoik” twang, contrary to any popular belief that her career suffered from her dialect.
Her newly released films at the time, such as The Wild Party, The Saturday Night Kid, and Dangerous Curves, all released in 1929, were box office smashes. The truth is that her on-screen demise was caused by her low self-esteem and mental health, not by her Brooklyn accent.
The box office star didn’t know how to feel about these innovations in cinema. An era of silent movies was about to fade out completely, and the idea of talkies terrified Clara. She described them as “rigid and restrictive.” She felt it just wasn’t as beautiful when being watched.
Despite all her years of acting, she still never felt at ease speaking in front of a camera. She was at ease on a silent film set, but the new inventions of microphones and wires terrified Clara. She needed dozens of takes on the set of The Wild Party, and she kept nervously gazing at the microphone above her head.
Clara wasn’t the most stable person emotionally, but having to deal with the stress of talkies and the new standards they presented with shooting movies simultaneously, caused further challenge. It’s no surprise that people observing the actress would need to be concealing a dark secret of hers from those most close to her.
Her nerves were described as “shot,” and as she became a tabloid fixture, Photoplay—one of the first American cinema fan magazines, which initially adored her—even reported seeing bottles of sedatives beside her bed. This fearless music lover would dance till the wee hours of the morning, with little care and a lot of enjoyment.
As Clara partied, she would also take as many men as she wanted. Gary Cooper, Gilbert Roland, and Victor Fleming were her most renowned conquests. However, she was deeply unhappy inside, and a cloud of sorrow hung over her like a stormy cloud that wouldn’t go away.
Clara could get any man she wanted, but she was also severely damaged at some point. Her irresponsible lifestyle may have caught up with her big time. Some of her sexual partners were married men, and an angry wife once sued her in divorce court for stealing her husband!
Her affair with horror star Bela Lugosi was also one of the most unexpected. She originally fell in love with Lugosi while watching the theatrical adaptation of Dracula, which initiated her going to a performance in her mink coat and bathing suit one night. She completely enthralled the Dracula star!
Clara heightened her bad girl image for Lugosi, and the two were smitten with each other and inseparable at that point. They did, however, see other individuals at the same time. This was Hollywood, and it was offering up so many good-looking and successful people at the same time. Lugosi married affluent socialite Beatrice Weeks in 1929. This wasn’t one of Clara’s happy moments.
People undoubtedly wagered on how long Lugosi’s marriage would continue because he only married Weeks for her money. Some weeks—just like her name—maybe? You could make a guess. Lower, it was! The vows they took sanctified their marriage for exactly three days. The cause for the breakup, according to Beatrice Weeks? Well, Clara Bow comes to mind.
Despite Clara’s short-lived feelings for Lugosi, he had created a nude painting of her. Much more shocking, he hung it just above his mattress, and he kept it there for the rest of his life, even though his subsequent marriages. Clara’s naked image was still hanging above the original vampire when he died! Needless it is to try to distinguish if this was love or obsession.
Overworked and mistreated, Clara’s best friend turned on her in 1931. Daisy DeVoe, the actress’s assistant and confidante had been scamming her, and Clara had taken her to court. Even though Daisy was the one on trial, Clara was the one who got criticized when Daisy disclosed all of Clara’s secrets.
DeVoe presented the judge and jury with several greatly inflated stories about Clara’s wild lifestyle. Photoplay and other tabloid vultures scooped up the excitement, added their own, and carried filthy tales, including ridiculous brutality charges and other heinous deeds. Clara’s nerves were strained after her trial, and she could not continue. She was worn and broken at the age of 25, so she pleaded with Paramount to let her out of her studio contract and went into an asylum, thinking it would offer her the peace she needed.
Clara Bow eventually made a comeback on screen a few years later. She secured a two-production deal with Fox to make Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoop-La (1933). She later acknowledged that she returned to Hollywood to make some money to sustain her while she was going to be out of it.
Although audiences and studios were still hungry for more Clara Bow, she wasn’t interested because fame had already harmed her. Nobody thought she was going to give up that easily, anyway. She reached the end of her movie career at age 28, although this was her decision, and it was maybe best for her.
Clara stopped acting in 1933 and tried to live a normal life, even moving in with her gorgeous western co-star Rex Bell. In December 1931, the couple got married, and she moved to his Nevada ranch. They had two children together, Rex Bell Jr., and George Beldam Jr., and they were happy for a while.
Clara’s gloomy days, on the other hand, were only about to start. At some point, she distanced herself from reality, including family. Living in her lonely cabin and enjoying the fortune she accumulated over time, away from the craziness of fame, didn’t mean she was healthy.
Remember how we said the audience was clamoring for more Clara? Her costumes were barely using any cloth. It was more skin and less cloth. They got to see everything in her short-lived comeback film, Hoop-La, when it was released in 1933. Audiences, we think, adored all of the hoopla of Hoop-La, but critics detested it.
No one despised the show of nudity more than Clara’s husband, Rex Bell, who was enraged that she was squandering his property and giving it away for public consumption. Rex and Clara had an intense quarrel about her barely clothed acting in Hoop-La.
Clara claims that her spouse accused her of showing off her skin. Clara, however, defended herself by saying that was how she made a living to cater to the family—from being an actress. And if a role requires some nudity, she would just as well take it. She even earned more than her husband.
Rex seemed to get over the controversy, and they established The “It” Cafe off Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles in September 1937. It was decommissioned in 1943, after Clara began to show worrying signs, and just when the pair appeared joyful.
Clara refused to leave the house or mingle, already by 1944, but her symptoms increased when she wasn’t with her husband. The ex-star was dealing with serious and aggressive mental health difficulties. Sadly, Clara was diagnosed with schizophrenia and this condition was exacerbated by the pressures of being a Hollywood celebrity.
She attempted suicide in 1944 while Rex was campaigning for the House of Representatives. She wrote a devastating personal statement confessing that she preferred the thought of eternal slumber over continuously being in the spotlight. Clara couldn’t handle the fame.
Clara checked into the Institute of Living sanatorium in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1949, when her mental health began to deteriorate, this time for persistent insomnia and abdominal problems. She was subjected to a battery of psychiatric exams and shock treatment.
Clara informed doctors about the most traumatic events of her life, and she began remembering things she had been ignoring and sweeping under the carpet for years. As Clara related her experiences, and after analysis, her traumas were mostly traced back to her mother, Sarah, who had been ill as well.
Sarah had fallen from a second-story window when she was a teenager. After that incident, she was never the same. Sarah experienced epileptic convulsions, insanity, and even schizophrenia for the rest of her life due to the resulting head injury. It’s a pretty sad reality.
Clara said that her mother’s mental illness made her quite mean, and Sarah grew more aggressive over time. Clara had to care for her mother during her fits despite all this. From doctors appointments, to ensuring her medication was right, and eventually checking in with her at the asylum. Sarah wasn’t the perfect mother, but she still had a loving daughter.
Clara had told her mother when she was 16 that she wanted to be an actor. Her mother’s retort was chilling; the daring girl never got the support of her mother but went on with her plans anyway. Sarah had constantly labeled actresses “whores,” although she had previously worked as a prostitute. Her mother once was literally standing over her with a knife to her throat.
Luckily, Clara was swift, and before her mother could hurt her, the young girl managed to flee and disarm the threat from her mother. Sarah had no recollection of the encounter the next morning.
About now, the family had to acknowledge it was dangerous to keep Sarah at home. Robert had her committed to an asylum right away, allowing him to then abuse his daughter sexually.
When a child lives in such conditions, it isn’t unusual for them to grow up earlier than they would normally, to form a defense and protect themselves. Clara had stored all of this trauma deep within her psyche, whether consciously or subconsciously. She had never gotten over those experiences of her youth.
When the truth came out, she could link every aspect of her life back to her childhood trauma, including low self-esteem, nervous energy, desperate and codependent attempts to impress, and philandering. Clara tried to talk about the night her mother assaulted her, in an interview, but she stopped short.
Still, Clara refused to accept psychological explanations or the idea that her mother’s attack had anything to do with her mental health issues. However, she felt she couldn’t manage to return to her husband and children after reliving all of her suffering in the asylum sessions.
At last, Bow spent the rest of her days alone in a modest bungalow, which she rarely left until her final days. Clara’s Bow’s last appearance was not on the silver screen but over the radio, or as it was known back then, the wireless. As usual, it was quite the show.
Despite her dislike for “talkies,” she appeared as a mystery voice in the Mrs. Hush contest on the 1947 radio show Truth or Consequences. Clara spent her final years in Culver City, California, under the care of live-in nurse Estella Smith and supported by a $500,000 fortune.
The musical Singin’ in the Rain, released in 1952, added fuel to the fire that the sound era had ended Clara’s career and further tarnished her reputation. It was a movie where Jean Hagen plays Lina Lamont, a talentless silent-movie flapper actress who can’t handle the talkies because of her Brooklyn accent. Even if it wasn’t real, the plot seemed to have been inspired by Clara.
The most unfortunate aspect? Clara Bow died after a heart attack in 1965. She was only 60 years old at the time. She had developed so much fear and discomfort with the spotlight—or the attempts to exorcise the traumas of her upbringing. She spent decades holed up in her carative home, nearly entirely alone. She didn’t just lose herself, history books almost forgot about her as well.
The movie industry and its compatriots had ignored Clara Bow by the time she died. In Kevin Brownlow’s book The Parade’s Gone By (1968), about the silent era, she isn’t even mentioned. Worse, she was omitted from the American Film Institute’s 100 Years -100 Stars list in 1999. But in the end, Clara Bow had the fairytale ending she deserved, and it came from an unexpected source.
Clara’s silent film co-star Louise Brooks—who starred in Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl, and God’s Gift to Women (all 1929)—wrote to Kevin Brownlow after reading The Parade’s Gone By, chastising him for featuring herself but excluding Clara!
A film based on the only, the sad, often crazy, but always brilliant, original It Girl, Clara Bow, was developed in 2016 after a movie studio acquired the rights to David Stenn’s 1988 memoir Runnin’ Wild. According to Brooks, “You dismiss Clara Bow in favor of some old Brooks… but Dancing Mothers, Mantrap, and It are three films that Clara created that will never be surpassed.”
In his TV documentary adaptation, Kevin Brownlow made up for his very obvious omission of Clara’s works from his book by dedicating an entire section to her. This piqued people’s curiosity in her life and professional work, and it generated a well-deserved, renewed visit back to her films.
Truly, we wouldn’t only call Clara wild and daring but unlucky. We hope that if there’s any truth to the idea of a next life, that she would then, at that time, be more fortunate to enjoy her fame and fortune. Till then, Clara leaves us memories filled with bitter-sweet emotions.