A good chunk of what you think you know about Clara Bow, if you’re only vaguely aware of her, is probably a lie. Not merely untrue—a fair amount of it was deliberate falshood, smears that in one case were written by a man who ended up serving prison time for blackmail. Ugly gossip. The kind of urban legends that end up being passed from celebrity to celebrity; there are versions of some of those lies being told about women today. And, of course, one very specific to celebrities of her era that’s told about anyone whose career ended in the late ’20s or early ’30s who didn’t just, you know, die. But that one isn’t true, either.
Clara Bow was yet another Hollywood sex symbol with a tragic childhood. Her family was desperately poor. Her family moved pretty much every year, in part because her father was off seeking work. Her mother fell out a window and suffered a head injury that left her with ongoing mental health issues; she actually tried to kill Clara, which seems in part to have been an attempt to save Clara from their poverty, from what Clara later said. She was a tomboy . . . but when she hit puberty, the boys wouldn’t let her be “just one of the guys” anymore. And the girls shamed her for her appearance and her ragged clothing.
She won a beauty and talent contest in 1921 and made her first movie; sources seem conflicted as to whether her part was cut or not. But her second movie, 1922’s Down to the Sea in Ships, launched her career. She was considered one of the greatest stars in the industry; in time, her appearance in a movie was all it took to guarantee the movie’s success. She would make 57 movies in her career, most famously It. Indeed, she became known as the It Girl, “It” being ’20s slang for sex appeal. Which Clara had in spades.
Which is probably why so many people believed that she had as much promiscuous sex as she did. She referred to her years of stardom as fun, but she also had great sympathy for Marilyn Monroe, when Monroe died, and understood the weight of being a sex symbol on a woman without the emotional strength to bear it. (Whether Bow herself was mentally ill seems in question; it’s certainly true that her childhood was not conducive to emotional stability even in someone without an organic mental health condition, but the later diagnosis of schizophrenia seems in no small part to have been caused by a belief that her physical health symptoms were psychosomatic.) But while Bow probably had lovers, as was the fashion at the time, it was a prudish morality that built her apparently healthy sexuality into “she slept with an entire football team.”
And honestly, she survived the transition to sound just fine. I’ve seen at least one of her sound pictures, and there are worse voices in acting today. Her charm and good nature are still apparent, and okay, she did have a Brooklyn accent. But she left movies not because she was no longer successful but because she didn’t want to be. Her mental health wasn’t up to it. She was still a box office success—probably a bigger name at the time than a lot of people who get talked about more. It’s a little disappointing, really.