Clara Bow should, by rights, be as much a household name as Marilyn Monroe, so famous was she as an actress in the silent cinema of the 1920s. She was arguably the first real big screen sex symbol and the original 'IT girl', a term coined in her 1927 film 'It'. But unlike the movie stars that followed her, Clara ended up retiring at the age of 28 and living out her days as a virtually unknown recluse who would only see her nurse. Her story was sadly shaped by the hypocrisy of Hollywood and a lifelong battle with mental illness.
A huge fan of motion pictures from her childhood, Clara was inspired by actresses like Theda Bara, Lillian Gish and Gloria Swanson. In 1921, she won a talent contest, the prize for which was a small role in a film. Clara's mother didn't approve, and even threatened to kill her daughter, brandishing a knife, before Clara's father had her sent to an asylum. At 16, Clara left New York for Hollywood at the invitation of producer B.P. Schulberg who saw her potential. He went on to exploit her greatly, paying her next to nothing while he pocketed most of her fees. Clara worked incredibly hard, making 16 movies in 18 months between 1923 and 1924.
Clara in amazing flapper garb!
Clara was seen as defining the twenties, and was briefly adored by the public. But even with women gaining the vote and flappers raising hemlines, people just weren't ready for a woman like Clara. With her hair dyed bright red, she would speed around town in her car, gamble away her money and take numerous lovers. She was officially engaged four times and had an open affair with a married man. 'Marriage ain't a woman's only job no more' she preached.
Still from one of the only colour films we have of red-headed Clara
Hollywood high society refused to accept someone who had no regard for etiquette (Clara was famous for telling rude jokes and getting drunk in public - she sounds like a blast!) and the press spread terrible tales about the extent of her debauchery, printing rumours that she had sex with men, women and even dogs. Clara caught her best friend and secretary, Daisy DeVoe, embezzling money from her, and when she took her to court, Daisy revealed uncensored and probably exaggerated details of Clara's sex life. This scandal effectively finished off her career.
Still from Rough House Rosie - the film is lost, only a trailer survives.
Tired of being celebrated as a sex symbol and then condemned for the same thing, she left Hollywood and married a cowboy actor turned politician with whom she had two boys. Unfortunately this didn't turn into a happy fairytale ending. She was plagued by insomnia and hypochondria and after attempts to take her own life she was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia, like her mother. She separated from her husband and moved back to LA in 1950, but lived out her life as a recluse, dying in her bed aged 60.
Now that feminism has progressed, the film world finally seems ready to acknowledge what a star Clara was. She was an incredible actress, saying everything that needed to be said in silent movies with just her huge, expressive eyes. You might have caught the recent documentary 'Hollywood's Lost Screen Goddess: Clara Bow' on BBC Four, which set about answering some of the mysteries of Clara's life. It doesn't seem to be available on iPlayer at the moment, but you can read more about Clara's life in 'Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild' by David Stenn.