America's red-hot sweetheart

Clara Bow biographer David Stenn talks about how this poor abused beauty from Brooklyn became Hollywood's first real sex icon -- and why she was so reviled for it.

Published June 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"A rogue -- But her manner was gay and delicious.

She could make a Baptist preacher choke

With laughter over a dirty joke."

-- Joseph Moncure March, "The Wild Party"

When March described a redheaded flapper in his notorious 1928 verse novel, he must have modeled her on Clara Bow, who had been dubbed the "It" girl two years earlier. From 1925 to 1933, the entire moviegoing world knew this ravishing live wire as the epitome of the Jazz Baby, "naughty of eye" and "expressive-lipped" -- "cute, lecherous: lovable, treacherous."

Well, maybe not "treacherous" -- except in the minds of scandal-mongers and pop moralists. A jaw-dropping Turner Classic Movies documentary, "Discovering the 'It' Girl" (debuting Monday at 8 p.m. EDT, 5 p.m. PDT), reveals that Bow was a generous and plucky gal, on-screen and off. Her multifaceted beauty -- dreamy and kinetic, spellbinding and spine-tingling -- will mesmerize those who've never seen her. And her tale of triumph and woe will astonish those who've never heard of her.

She wasn't merely a movie star, but a battered Hollywood heroine. On ambition and instinct alone, she pulled herself out of Brooklyn tenements, escaping from a sexually abusive father and a murderously unbalanced mother who tried to slit Clara's throat when she was sleeping -- catalyzing, among other things, a lifelong case of insomnia. Clara's father put her mother in an insane asylum, where she died while her daughter was appearing in a picture.

Becoming a performer in a disreputable fledgling art form, Clara managed to use her disadvantages and her psychic wounds. As Budd Schulberg says in the TCM press notes, "She felt so unable to cope on many, many levels. And that's why I think, in a way, she was so promiscuous." To Schulberg, that was how "she could speak without using the 'ain'ts' and fracturing the language." Her vocabulary was "her sexuality."

Bow's swift, intuitive mastery of a new erotic syntax made her a revolutionary star. She was all the more alluring -- and, to some onlookers, "dangerous" -- because her sexuality was part of her overall life force. As the documentary's abundant film clips illustrate, Bow's performances have depth of feeling as well as dynamite charm.

In addition to the documentary (Courtney Love narrates from a script by co-producers Elaina Archer and Hugh Munro Neely, who also directs, and John J. Flynn), TCM will be showing "It"; her first talkie, "The Wild Party" -- a college film from 1929, unrelated to the March poem; and the 1922 whaling film "Down to the Sea in Ships," which gave Bow her first major role. These are world television premieres, and presumably TCM is showing them for their historical interest -- as movies they creak. TCM isn't broadcasting what is arguably her juiciest vehicle, "Mantrap," directed by Victor Fleming -- who was, along with Gary Cooper, Gilbert Roland and Bela Lugosi, one of her many lovers before she settled down in Nevada with cowboy star Rex Bell.

Bow's story contains two grand retreats: one from moviemaking, when a combination of microphone fright and scandal fatigue made her give up on Hollywood in the early talkie days, and the other from public and even family life, when Bell became a Republican politician. After a year at Hartford's Institute for Living (she was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1949), Bow separated from her husband and began a reclusive life back in Los Angeles, where she died in 1965.

David Stenn, the Yale-educated author of the groundbreaking biography "Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild" and a writer for TV shows ranging from "Hill Street Blues" to "Beverly Hills, 90210," sees her as bloodied but unbowed. A creative consultant on "Discovering the 'It' Girl," he spoke with me last week about the intertwining of Clara Bow's agonies and ecstasies.

Do you support the film's notion that she was the first sex symbol?

She overturned the whole manner of courtship in this country -- the titles of her movies speak for themselves. "Get Your Man," "The Wild Party," "Rough House Rosie." And the plot was always the same. She would see a man, she would go after him and she would get him. The idea that a woman could pursue a man and not be a bad girl changed the way men perceived women and women perceived themselves. I've always thought that the true decade of sexual liberation for women -- the decade when the major changes took place in this country -- was the '20s, not the '60s. Women had just received the vote, and they were starting to open up to the stirrings they were feeling and also reading about in F.Scott Fitzgerald or Gertrude Atherton.

Clara Bow wasn't only or exclusively about sex, but she enjoyed it, and she wasn't ashamed of it. A coed in a movie like "The Plastic Age," a girl in school who wanted to "go the limit," which was what they called it, with her boyfriend? That was "flaming youth," that's what the '20s were about and that's what freaked out the parents. Watching her, the flapper generation found a role model. They felt, "She doesn't feel bad about it, why should I?"

Weren't there sex stars before Bow, and erotic dramas by De Mille and Von Stroheim?

Yes, but the sex was tawdry and depraved. What you had were "vamps" -- and Bow was not a vamp. Vamps were "foreign," which meant decadent. Theda Bara? She was a nice Jewish girl from Cincinnati, but nobody knew that, and she always played foreign women. Vamp comes from vampire -- Bara played women who were sucking the blood from American men. Bow is the woman as sexual being; there was an innocence to her that saved her from being immediately condemned. She played American girls. She never appeared as an upper-class character, only as manicurists and shop girls, and her own background mirrored her characters'. So people felt they were seeing her, and to a real extent they were -- although, of course, to another extent they weren't.

It's almost impossible for us to conceive of a time when there wasn't a female sexual icon in our popular culture. When Madonna hit, everyone said she was doing Marilyn Monroe, and when Monroe hit, everyone said she was Harlow all over again. But when Bow hit there was no precedent. It's almost impossible to imagine what that must have been like. She wasn't able to do what Madonna and Monroe and Harlow did, even when they were doing it on an unconscious level -- which was to look at a predecessor and say, this worked for her, this didn't work for her.

As far as I am aware, according to everything I've read, Monroe chose not to wear underwear because Jean Harlow didn't wear underwear. And with Madonna -- it almost doesn't bear discussion because it's so obvious what she did: the postmodernity of her saying, "I'm going to show you how calculated my act is." When she does the video for "Material Girl" and we all know it's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," it's not subtext, it's above-text -- she's saying, "I'm Marilyn for you guys."

But Bow was so new. That was the cause of her impact, and also the cause of why people turned against her. And the fact that she achieved so much is a testament to her drive. People ask me what the most incredible part of her story is, and the most incredible part is that she even had a career. There's never been a less educated star or one who came from more dire Dickensian poverty.

Think of the rest of the female stars in silent movies -- they all had a mother. I mean, Mary Pickford's mother was such a good negotiator Adolph Zukor was afraid of her. Clara Bow had nobody. She had a father who took her money and went off to the whorehouse, that's all she had. She didn't have an agent, she didn't have a manager. She didn't have anyone guiding her professionally or personally. When you think of her mother hovering over her sleeping body with a knife, or her father raping her, it's amazing she lived. Marilyn Monroe was like Laura Ingalls Wilder by comparison.

And I think the whole Bow personality is intensely lovable -- you root for her, you really care for her, because she is kind and decent. Despite what other people did to her she never retaliated. The documentary says she was naive, and that's one way of looking at it. But that naiveti came out of her generosity of spirit. I mean, Marilyn Monroe keeping Clark Gable waiting on the hot Nevada desert for six hours on "The Misfits" -- Bow didn't speak that language. She had a nervous breakdown because she was upset about holding up production. Watching the documentary, I thought: Harlow died at 26, Monroe at 36, but Bow lived till she was 60, stayed married and had two kids who still love her to this day. She maintained her dignity, which is really incredible, and she kept her money, which neither Monroe nor Harlow did.

Bow was plagued by scandal. Yet celebrities were usually protected from it, even in Monroe's day. How did stories get started like the absurd but ubiquitous one about Bow "taking on" the whole USC Trojans football team?

I did find a newspaper report that the Trojans' coach had declared Clara Bow's house off-limits. But what one was to extrapolate from that is a different story. It was really Kenneth Anger in "Hollywood Babylon" [published underground in 1959, above-ground in 1975] that first printed the story, and that book is primarily fiction.

There was usually a difference between things that got printed and things that got discussed. But her case was a huge exception, because there was a whole series about her in a tabloid called the Coast Reporter that was unprecedented and hasn't been matched since, and that led to an obscenity trial that preceded the "Ulysses" trial by three years. This man accused her of bestiality and drug addiction and incest and insanity and lesbianism and venereal disease. One of the issues concluded by saying, "You know, Clara, you'd be better off killing yourself." It never happened before, and it never happened since; the guy went to federal prison for eight years, to do hard labor.

But the fact that he had printed that stuff showed how far her reputation had gone. Here's how I interpret how it worked in those days. If it got out in the community, it gave the local press -- and by extension the chains they were all part of, like the Hearst papers -- permission to print things that otherwise they never would have. Because they heard so many more outrageous things about her, what they were printing was still worse than what they'd print about anyone else.

Even the fan magazines -- they might have used schoolmarm language, but people understood what they were saying. In the documentary you see one with Clara on the cover and the headline, "Quit pickin' on me!" -- mocking her language as well as showing that she's being harassed. And they tell you why she's being harassed, but they don't tell you that any of the scandals are untrue, so in a way they acknowledge them. They say, "It's because of her background, it's because she's so young, it's because she's a motherless child, it's because she didn't have any guidance."

She was crucified by the press, but also by her own public demeanor. She talked about breaking her engagements, about trying to choose between Victor Fleming and Gary Cooper and Gilbert Roland: "Well, Vick-ie mothered me, but Gary was a big bashful boy." Everyone knew what a euphemism "engagement" was for her. When I started the book I was skeptical about the coarseness of her reported language. But when I interviewed the actresses she worked with and Tui Bow (her stepmother and pal), they all said, "That's how she talked!" She'd compare sizes of her lovers and that kind of stuff -- unheard of in those days, especially in public. Esther Ralston said, "She used to come on the set and love to shock me."

After Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish -- who, as you write, played Victorian heroines -- to project something that was groundbreaking and individual, didn't a woman have to be sexually adventurous on-screen? What other avenues of expression were open to her as an actress?

Without her looks what else would Clara have had to offer? That's why Elaina Archer, one of the show's producers, picked that clip from "Dangerous Curves" -- Clara's character looking in the mirror and saying, "You did it yourself." Elaina thought it symbolized Clara's life and career. She was totally self-made. She dubbed herself a working girl, and she was -- being a star was her job. She called her fans her "wonderful fan friends"; they had helped anoint her the It girl and she was going to do the best she could to live up to that title. And by doing so she broke herself, or was broken. Because in the history of this business there has never been anyone so viciously persecuted.

Most people in Hollywood were burying their past; she was exhuming hers. They were doing everything behind closed doors, and she was talking to the press. Esther Ralston told me a story on herself that I thought revealed a lot about Clara and Hollywood. She and Clara were shooting "Children of Divorce" and the day they wrapped Esther was having a big party. Esther was very proper -- blond, petite, pretty -- and she lived in a big mansion. And everyone in Hollywood was invited -- that is, all the right people. So Esther was getting dressed in the dressing room and Clara walked by and lingered in the doorway and said, "You're having a party, ain't cha, Esther?" And Esther said, as if it had just hit her, "Oh Clara, would you like to come?" And Clara Bow stood in the doorway and said, "Oh, no, I know you don't want to invite me." This is the biggest star in Hollywood -- and she's a pariah to the point where no one even pretended to accept her. And Esther liked her.

I mean, there are plenty of people around who don't like the big female stars today, but they sure put on a great act.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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