Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Clara Bow, "It" Girl

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.

55 Comments / Post A Comment

Katie Walsh

These are such a treat. And servicey!


@Katie Walsh Agreed! I love these!

oh, disaster

I love love love this series.


I LOVE THESE! Keep doing them pleeze?


Where do I have to go to grad school to take a class with this woman? Sign me up!


Ahh, this was fascinating!


CALL HER SAVAGE is delightful. "Racist" but in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. MANTRAP is also tons of fun. You can get fair to middling quality dvd's of a fair number of her films on ebay.


@Kakapo And RUNNIN' WILD is well-researched and a good read if you can get past the author's constant quoting of her in over-the-top Brooklyn-speak.

sarah ruth

@Kakapo agreed with the brooklyn-speak! why do biographers DO that sometimes? i still totally devoured that book during my bow-obsession in high school.


@sarah ruth I know! It irritated me so much that I wrote (an otherwise positive) review on Amazon bitching about it. And the author wrote me back with his feelings clearly hurt. Made me feel bad. But, really, if you absolutely need to do that sort of thing, throw in a couple of "New Yawk"s early on and then leave it the hell alone.

sarah ruth

@Kakapo yikes! but oddly funny that he took the time to write back and defend himself.

raised amongst catalogs

Why, oh why, is there NOT a Clara Bow bio-pic starring Rose Byrne?

sarah girl

@vanillawaif THANK YOU! I was watching the clip and it was killing me, trying to figure out who she looked like.

Frankie's Girl

I adore Clara Bow. So cool to see this!


Eeeeeee she's doing a craft project!!! One which seems misguided and yet turns out kind of okay! AND is interested in booze and sex = clearly a total Hairpinner. I just think she could do with a touch of the Jane Feltes on her eyebrows maybe?

Annie Carroll@twitter

Hollywood Babylon is a frigging GOLDMINE of stories like this!
And YOU, Ann Helen Peterson, PHD of my heart, are an absolute doll for reminding me/writing this/validating my own post-grad research.

Anne Helen Petersen

@Annie Carroll@twitter PhD of my heart! That's the best compliment I've ever received.


<3 her so hard


Wait, how did I just spend 45 min watching silent film clips!? Damn you Clara! Damn you, Anne! Actually that was awesome. More, please.

Anne Helen Petersen

@scully I know, right! Black hole of silent film clips! But if anyone has suggestions for stars whose scandals/images they'd like to see covered, please let me know....

Edith Zimmerman

@Anne Helen Petersen Can you do a big Brigitte Bardot one? I would read that like 10 times over even if I knew everything in it.

Anne Helen Petersen

@Edith Zimmerman I know so little about Brigitte Bardot so this will be the best homework assignment ever.


@Anne Helen Petersen Vivien Leigh? Going off vague memories from twenty years ago, when my best friend was obsessed with Gone with the Wind, wasn't Leigh kind of a mess?


How about one on Lizabeth Scott?

Anne Helen Petersen

@thefingersofgod TOTAL HOT MESS. Plus canoodling with Laurence Olivier!


@Anne Helen Petersen She's not as famous, but maybe you could have some fun digging around with Evelyn Nesbit? The Girl on the Velvet Swing? The original Gibson Girl and center of the Stanford White love triangle/murder affair?


@maevemealone yessss! And the inspiration for Anne of Green Gables (at least lookswise).

Anne Helen Petersen

@maevemealone I am so doing the Thaw White Scandal (as the Stanford White love triangle/murder/affair is known). That shit is JUICY.


Oh please, oh please, oh pleeeeeeease do Hedy Lamarr! She was so awesome and interesting and gorgeous!


Once I got a Kinder Surprise Egg with a little grasshopper in a boat. Why can't we have them heeeeeeeeeere??


@theharpoon ......I can't even believe how much I want a grasshopper in a boat right now.


Those are some crazy eyebrows.

Gnome Vagina

Loooooove this series. Can you do one on Clark Gable? It Happened One Night is one of my favorite things ever. Plus you mentioned him driving into stop signs in one of your previous articles, so -!


I loved this so much. Please do more of these.


i am forever in love with clara bow. thank you TONS for this amazing summation of her career.

and i laughed very heartily at this parenthetical: "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."

(oh and The Plastic Age is supremely adorable. please watch it.)


Also KID BOOTS is another absolute delight although she's not in it enough.


This series is a ton of fun, please keep it up! I had a great prof at the time, but I really wish you'd taught my Film Industry undergrad class.


I totally want to ask you to do Louise Brooks, because she had an amazing life, but I guess it wasn't truly that scandalous. Unless you consider getting blacklisted in Hollywood for refusing to do reshoots, and instead fleeing to Europe to make incredibly dark German expressionist silent film masterpieces scandalous. Oh, and there was the whole having fun trying to convince everyone she was a lesbian thing, including a rumored one-night stand with Greta Garbo!


This series is making my "Crushes on Dead/Fictional People" list significantly longer.

I am interested in the bloggers of the future who will be detailing the sordid lifestyles of LiLo and ScarJo.

J.K. Rogers@facebook

Joseph R. Roach wrote a book called "It" that traces the phenomenon of the "It factor" from the days for Charles II of England through the stars of today. Clara Bow is included in this cultural cross-section. Roach has divided the book into chapters called: Accessories, Clothes, Hair, Skin, Flesh, and Bone. I really recommend this book to anyone interested in the whole Hollywood mystique.

Faye Katsipanou@facebook

I'm such a sucker for these stories, early Hollywood, the morals of the time... and the disturbing thing is not as many things have changed since... We like to think they did, but society and it's questionable one side moral is not all that different today.
Great read, a real treat.


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For quite some time I have been a classic fan of classic Hollywood but probably it has gotta do with my weird fetish about black and white or more like vintage stuff. - Lindsay Rosenwald


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It irritated me so much that I wrote (an otherwise positive) review on Amazon bitching about it. And the author wrote me back with his feelings clearly hurt. Made me feel bad. But, really, if you absolutely need to do that sort of thing, throw in a couple of "New Yawk"s early on and then leave it the hell alone.
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"Racist" but in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. MANTRAP is also tons of fun. You can get fair to middling quality dvd's of a fair number of her films on ebay.replica Barcelona Soccer Jersey


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