Clara Bow doesn’t look like a relic. She doesn’t look like she belongs in the ‘20s, or even in black and white. She looks nothing like the other stars of the silent era, who either seemed frozen in puberty (Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish), outrageously "exotic" (Theda Bara, Pola Negri), or untouchably glamorous (Gloria Swanson). This girl’s got something like whoa.
Look at her. She looks so ... MODERN. Like she could be a star today, right? When I show footage of Bow to my undergraduates, who generally consider the viewing of silent film as the sixth level of hell (trumped only by the viewing of Soviet silent film) they can’t take their eyes off her. It’s her movement, her eyes, the way she flirts with the camera.
But it’s something else, too — something Billy Wilder once referred to as “flesh impact," a rare quality shared only with the likes of Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth, and Marilyn Monroe. Flesh impact meant having “flesh which photographs like flesh,” flesh you felt you could reach out and touch.
In other words: flesh with which you would very much like to have sex. That desire made Clara Bow a star, but would also make it easy to tell outrageous stories about her, and for people to believe those outrageous stories. In 1927, she was the No. 1 star in America. When she retired in 1931 amid a tangle of scandals, she was all of 28 years old.
Like so many stars from the silent era, Bow started from nothing. After living a childhood sort of like Francie's in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, she won a “starmaking” contest in a fan magazine in the early ‘20s. But American Idol this was not: Winning meant a feature in the magazine, a walk-on role, and little more. (Bow’s walk-on role was later cut, but she didn’t find out until she was in the theater watching with friends — for a teenage girl, this ranks up there with the dreaded getting-your-period-while-wearing-white-pants.)
But Bow had a tenacious (and total creep-fest) father who encouraged her to keep pestering for roles. Small roles snowballed into bigger ones, and she eventually found herself under contract to Paramount, which refined her image as the quintessential woman of the era: the flapper.
Now, my knowledge of flapper mostly stems from the very serious research I did to assemble a costume for a college frat party. (OK, OK, I also watched “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” in 11th grade American Lit. And took several graduate courses.) But the flapper was more of an idea than an actual person — F. Scott Fitzgerald vaguely referred to them as “lovely, expensive, and about nineteen.”
Most women were less of the subset of “flappers” and more of the larger designation of “New Women,” i.e. women who left their (usually) rural homes, came to the city, lived with (other female) roommates, found jobs in department stores, and became consumers, buying clothes, hair-dye, makeup, movie tickets, and fan magazines.
The dresses we now think of as “flapper dresses” were shorter and looser, and allowed their wearers to move: to dance, to play sports, even just to walk in a way that didn’t imply a constant state of constipation. And the appearance of knees, shoulders, and necks — along with a certain kinetic animation of those parts — suggested something that Elinor Glyn, the best-selling author who single-handedly paved the way for the likes of Danielle Steele, coyly referred to as “It.”
According to Glyn, “It” was ...
that strange magnetism which attracts both sexes ... a purely virile quality ... belonging to a strong character ... entirely unselfconscious ... full of self-confidence ... indifferent to the effect ... producing and uninfluenced by others.
But Photoplay, the leading fan magazine of the time, was still baffled:
“What is this quivering – pulsating – throbbing – beating – palpitating IT? Undeniably IT is a product of this decade. Indeed, you might say IT is a product of this hour. But what is IT?”
So in 1927, Paramount offered a definitive answer, placing Bow in a film very subtly titled ... It.
Bow had been a star before, but her appearance in this film (please, I beg you, watch the segment below, you’ll be sold — and make sure you get to the part where she takes the scissors to her dress) seemed such an embodiment of a sentiment, a type of woman, and a type of joyful consumerism, that she, and the film, were an immediate smash.
Girls wanted to be her, boys wanted to date her, and old people thought she was a sign of the apocalypse, which obviously meant she was star material. When the fan magazines revealed that her hair was red — isn’t that weird, that they wouldn’t know? Black and white, you so crazy! — sales of henna exploded. (Take that, Jennifer Aniston and your Rachel shag.) The only contemporary analog would be Julia Roberts circa Pretty Woman, before you were like, “oh Julia Roberts, put your teeth and postfeminism away.” Think of how you felt the first time you saw her in the bubble bath? Or in the red off-the-shoulder dress! Julia Roberts in 1990: That's how people felt about Clara Bow.
Over the next three years, Bow appeared in several films, most notably Wings (1927), which won Best Picture, and The Wild Party (1929). She managed to weather the transition to sound, despite her dislike of the “talkies” (she thought they were stiff, which the early ones totally were) and her very, very strong Brooklyn accent.
But Bow flamed out fast, embroiled in several scandals that would earn her the nickname “Crisis-a-Day-Clara.” The causes were straightforward:
Clara liked boys.
And, like many female stars of the time, she treated the boyfriends that she (most likely) slept with as “engagements.” This led to a series of quickly formed and broken “engagements” to the likes of Gary Cooper (so, so hot when young, trust), the director Victor Fleming, and “Latin Lover” Gilbert Roland. When she had a “case of nerves” in the late ‘20s, she was treated by a Hollywood doctor. She developed a crush on the doctor, but who knows if they just played MASH or made out or what. But when the doctor’s wife sued for divorce, she named Bow as cause for “alienation of affection.” No good.
Clara liked boys who were football players.
In the 1920s, Los Angeles was still a bit of a cowtown, and USC football was the best and biggest thing going. Bow made friends with the football team, went on a double date with a player, and regularly hosted post-game parties at her house with food, energetic dancing, and (supposedly) no drink. This known association would make it particularly difficult to counter later rumors about her involvement with the team.
Clara had a problem with money.
Bow came from a family with little to nothing. She had an exploitative father, poor management, and not a ton of training on how to manage her finances. She was no Gloria Swanson-with-the-solid-gold-bathtub, but she did have a gambling problem, which came to light in a government investigation.
Clara didn’t play by the rules.
1920s Hollywood was trying really f-ing hard to prove that it had the same sort of class as New York. After a series of scandals and concerted clean-up efforts in the early 1920s, the image rehabilitation program seemed to be working. But Bow, by refusing to dispose of her attitude and accent, was the embodiment of all that was “new money” and "trashy" about Hollywood. She was gorgeous, sure, but she was gauche and an embarrassment. She wasn’t invited to who’s who parties in Hollywood, so she made her own (which, duh, were probably much more awesome — do you want to go to the stuffy classy party or the one with the football players, dancing, and flesh impact?) She was the beautiful, beguiling new girl in your circle of friends who you want to like, but who threatens the integrity of the group so you exclude her.
As a result, Hollywood stars, reporters, and others intent on preserving a specific image of the “movie colony” had little compunction tarnishing Bow’s image and/or keeping silent with the rumors started. Mean-girling, slut-shaming, class-snobbery — all in ample doses.
The first serious scandal broke in 1930, when Bow’s secretary and confidant Daisy DeVoe absconded with a large pile of Bow’s personal records following an argument over the handling of the star’s finances and future. (DeVoe had originally served as Bow’s hairdresser at Paramount — Devoe was to Bow as Ken Paves is to Jessica Simpson, only less prom hair.)
DeVoe attempted to blackmail Bow, but Bow called the police and took her to court. This was a spectacularly poor PR move, as a trial ensured that the specific stains on Bow’s dirty laundry would be made public knowledge. DeVoe also put on a dramatic show on the witness stand, insinuating Bow’s constant drunkenness, her hook-ups, and the number love letters she had destroyed at Bow’s behest (which, apart from the love letters, actually just sounds like freshman year in college, but bygones). DeVoe went to jail, but the damage was done.
Now, Paramount could have hushed this up. It could’ve given DeVoe hush money and made the case go away. But by Fall 1930, Bow’s star was already fading, and her troubles for the studio were such that the studio heads were eager for a reason not to renew her contract.
Soon thereafter, the suggestions made in the trial were amplified, made abject, and put in print in a three-week series in the Coast Reporter. These articles suggested what other “upright” publications, such as the fan magazines, had merely whispered: namely, that Clara Bow got around. She drank like a fish. She spent money, she took drugs, and she had sex with men, women, and, when neither of those was available, dogs. She had threesomes. She had sex in public. She was a living, breathing Dan Savage column.
I AM NOT KIDDING; THIS WAS IN PRINT. Sure, this was a tabloid — but not a News of the World bat-boy tabloid, more like a New York Post tabloid. People read this; people re-circulated this. And because her image was that of a joyful, hedonistic woman with which you would like to have sex, people believed it — if not the bestiality, then the wanton sexuality. Even when the editor of the paper was put in jail, the remainder of the suggestion stuck to her image like lint.
The articles demanded that Paramount cancel Bow’s contract, and after the middling success of Kick In and No Limit, the studio released her.
Bow made a few more films with Fox, but her career was over. Even a film lampooning the rumors about her (Call Her Savage), which featured Bow wrestling with a very large and virile Great Dane, couldn’t resurrect her career. By 1932, with the nation deeply mired in the Depression, the joy in consumption Bow had embodied — and that had resonated so profoundly — seemed excessive, even perverted.
Bow slipped from stardom, retreated, married a seemingly nice man, had some children, battled depression, and lived in relative obscurity for the next three decades. She died in 1965, purportedly while watching an old Gary Cooper Western. (That detail, however concocted, is totally the saddest. If I’m watching a YouTube video of my college boyfriend playing beer pong when I die, that will be the second saddest.)
That same year, avant garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger, best known for Scorpio Rising and generalized bat-shit-craziness, published Hollywood Babylon. Babylon, which details silent and studio-era Hollywood stars' wanton antics, was so lascivious that it was banned for nearly a decade in the U.S. But like all things that American bans, it circulated widely in Europe, cultivating the American appetite for what it cannot have. (Hollywood Babylon, the Kinder Surprise Egg of books?)
While some of Anger’s stories were true, many, including a story of Clara Bow and sexual relations with the entire USC football team, were exaggerated and unfounded. But again, they were easy to believe — even for a generation who knew Bow as little more than a star of their parents’ era — because of her known associations with the team. The gossip lesson: Say it once, and say it convincingly, and say it about someone who seems like they might have done it, and it will. never. go. away.
After a handful of years as the most desirable woman in America, Bow became its most abused punching bag. Of course, that’s how stardom works — contingent, as it is, upon our ever-shifting affections. But that doesn’t mean that the story of Bow isn’t a tragic one, or that we should forget what was done to a woman whose bliss was so clearly written all over her body.
Previously: Robert Mitchum, Smokin' the Dope.
Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.