Clara Bow – The 1920s Icon Who Became The First It Girl

Clara Bow 1920s icon
| Feminism > UK Feminism

Born of a mother who tried on multiple occasions to murder her, Clara Bow survived to become the world’s first It Girl. Clara Bow, we salute you.

Dear Clara Bow,

Your life reads like a really shoddily plotted romance novel. You were bullied for wearing rags. Your mentally-ill prostitute mother only became pregnant with you as part of a suicide attempt and once you became an actress she was taken to a sanitarium for holding knives to your throat while you slept. However, your beauty and tenacity meant that the whole world knew your name – and, perhaps even more importantly, you drew the attention of the fabled Mrs. Dorothy Parker, who complimented your breasts.

Well done for living such a big life, Clara, dear!

Love Mookychick xxx

Clara Bow Quotes:

“We had individuality. We did as we pleased. We stayed up late. We dressed the way we wanted. I used to whiz down Sunset Boulevard in my open Kissel, with several red chow dogs to match my hair. Today, they’re sensible and end up with better health. But we had more fun.”

Clara Bow Best known for:

Making passionate love to Bela Lugosi, John Wayne and a host of others in the public eye as Hollywood’s first It Girl.

Clara Bow Least known for:

When they were nine years old, her best friend caught fire and burned to death in her arms.

Mooky factor:

Clara Bow suffered a lot, but when the opportunity arose for her to shine, she didn’t turn it down. She lived her life the best that she could. She was the world’s first It-girl. She gave the 1920s it’s ‘roaring’ reputation. She became a hotness symbol, both a Hollywood taboo and darling. She was glamorous, fun-loving and was simply trying to find happiness.

From being abused and neglected as a child to become one of the most legendary screen icons to ever have lived, Clara Bow is an inspiration to those trying to turn their lives around and make something of themselves. She was a wife, mother and star of the silver screen who won one of the most prominent awards in the film industry.

A short history of Clara Bow:

Sarah Gordon, Clara Bow’s mother, was a sex worker in late 1800s New York. She had given birth to two daughters, both of whom died days later. She also suffered from mental illness and epilepsy. Her husband, Robert Bow, was a carpenter and also mentally impaired. They lived in a dirty and rotting tenement in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, New York. And it was into this dark existence that one of the world’s favourite stars was born.

Clara Gordon Bow came silently into the world on the 29th of July 1905, in Brooklyn. Even from the start, this girl didn’t have it easy; she was neglected from day one. Her mother had hoped that the baby would die from the current heat wave hitting the nation and, because she didn’t cry, everyone assumed that the baby was still-born. No-one bothered to call the doctor to get a birth certificate. Sarah’s mother, however, decided to double-check that the baby wasn’t alive, so she shook the girl’s limp body – waking up little Clara, much to the devastation of her mother. This third pregnancy, unbeknown to her husband, had been a suicide attempt; surely this pregnancy would be the death of not only her baby, but herself too?

Bay Ridge wasn’t quite so middle-class at the turn of the century, especially not where these tenements stood. The family was poor. Local girls bullied and teased Clara because she was often dishevelled, dirty , hungry and dressed in clothing only one step away from rags.

But instead of hiding away from everything, Clara sought out companionship. As the girls didn’t accept her she befriended the boys and ran around the streets with them. But at the tender age of nine, Clara’s already crumbling world came crashing down around her. One of her very few friends, a young boy named Johnny, was playing too close to the fireplace when his clothes caught on fire. He screamed out for his dear friend Clara, who rushed to his tenement to find him severely burned. Moments later, Johnny died in Clara’s arms.

She desperately wanted an escape from this world of physical and emotional abuse, from her mother’s worsening mental illness, and from the general neglect that she suffered. Luckily, in 1921, the ‘EXIT’ sign that she had been looking for appeared before her eyes. Motion Picture Magazine ran a competition – ‘The Fame And Fortune Contest’ – and the winner would star in a film. This was fifteen-year-old Clara’s dream come true. And, despite wearing the same outfit for every day of the screen tests, she won. ‘Beyond The Rainbow’ was released in February 1922. How many people can say that, before the age of sixteen, they would have the guts to personally deliver photographs of themselves in order to win this competition? Bearing in mind that she pretty much only had one or two outfits…

The teenage Clara was extremely beautiful. She’d already overcome enough hardship for a lifetime to get this point in her life. Things should have gotten easier for her, but life is sometimes quixotically cruel. Clara’s mother was disgusted by the idea that her daughter was an actress and attempted to kill her daughter. Clara woke up during the night to find a knife pressed to her throat. It wasn’t until after Sarah’s second attempt that she was admitted to an asylum.

After a highly-praised performance in ‘Down To The Sea In Ships’, young Miss Clara Bow managed to pick up a few bit-parts before being offered a 3-month trial by an officer for Preferred Pictures. Reluctant at first, the company’s head B. P. Schulberg was astounded by Bow – she was able to cry on command for roles and it didn’t hurt that she was extremely photogenic.

Clara soon brought her father to live with her in Hollywood, but with disastrous consequences. You think that your dad is embarrassing? Rob Bow was a drunken nuisance on set who constantly tried to sleep with young actresses. Fortunately for Clara, thought not for the young actresses, the film companies glossed over that and instead, Paramount Pictures signed her up.

1927 threw Clara Bow into the spotlight and into the public’s heart. She was given the starring role in the film ‘It’. It was her performance in this film, plus the flurry of off-screen romances, which turned her into a star. She was a sexual revolution all by herself and incredibly open about her ‘escapades’, listing Bela Lugosi, Victor Fleming and John Wayne as just some of her conquests.

Clara Bow was finally living the high life; every aspect of it! Her striking beauty and her love of romance and fun all conspired to turn her into the world’s very first It-girl. Clara loved every minute of it, turning up to social functions, embarking on highly-publicised romantic affairs. She was both hated and loved, but nobody could deny her popularity. According to a character in ‘It’, this is what Clara was embodying: “‘It’…that strange magnetism which attracts both sexes… Entirely unself-conscious… Full of self-confidence… Indifferent to the effect she is producing and uninfluenced by others.”

Hotness appeal, basically. And as Dorothy Parker said, “It, hell. She had those.”

Clara was a young woman living life to the fullest. She did what women do best: Experience things with their entire being. She was the darling rebel of the roaring 20s, the era which she personified. She won the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture in 1927 and was Paramount’s biggest star, aged just 22! But as is the story of her life, good things never last.

In 1930, Paramount began to cancel her films. They docked her pay, charged her for unreturned costumes and even told her that she would have to pay for her own publicity photographs! This stress, combined with already-shattered nerves and insomnia – plus a court case on top of that – gave her the nickname of ‘Crisis-a-day-Clara’.

In 1931, she ended up in a sanatorium.

In 1944, Clara attempted suicide while her husband, cowboy Rex Bell, was running for the U.S House Of Representatives.

She finally passed away in 1965 from a heart disease that had been undiagnosed since adolescence.

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