She was her own man. She didn’t care what people thought of her, and she was resented for it.
Dorothy Mackaill on Clara Bow
It was originally a book by Elinor Glyn who was considered a writer of racy trash. Here is a section from a 1907 novel by Glyn called Three Weeks:
They were on the tiger [rug] now and she undulated round and all over him, feeling his coat, and his face, and his hair as a blind person might, till at last it seemed as if she were twined about him like a serpent.
After running out of steam as a writer Elinor moved to Hollywood. Gloria Swanson had this to say about her,
Her British dignity was devastating. She took over Hollywood. She went everywhere and passed her fearsome verdicts on everything. ‘This is glamorous,’ she would say. ‘This is hideous,’ she would say, as she baby-stepped through this or that dining room or garden party. People moved aside for her as she were a sorceress on fire or a giant sting ray.
Clara’s manager thought Glyn’s novel It might be a handy gimmick. Would Elinor agree to designate Clara the “it” girl? What does this uncontrived publicity shot tell you?
Here is the meeting as described in the Clara Bow biography by David Stenn, Runnin’ Wild:
[Clara] was greeted by the sight of a sixty-two year old redhead swathed in purple chiffon veils. “So this is Clara Bow,” she said, approaching Clara with mincing steps. Once she reached her, Elinor placed both hands upon Clara’s head as if it were a crystal ball. “You are my medium, child,” she informed Clara gravely. “You are to portray the leading role in my story.” …. Elinor explained the title to her. “‘It’ is an inner magic and animal magnetism,” she said. “Valentino possessed this certain magic. So do John Gilbert and Rex.” Elinor’s second and third choices were, respectively, another actor and a stallion. “I was awful confused about the horse,” recalled Clara, “but if she thought he had ‘It’, then I figured he must be quite an animal.”
Animal magnetism? It feels a bit like cheating to say that an animal has animal magnetism. A bit like saying a guy you met had real human qualities.
Nevermind. By an amazing fluke the gimmick in this case actually was spot on, because Clara really was the “It” girl, and had astonishing fame for her few years at the top. Unfortunately she was spectacularly badly equipped to deal with this, and also very, very young. Stenn recounts an incredible interview Clara gave to a Photoplay reporter all through a night late in 1927. The reporter, Adela, said:
Before me rolled a mind entirely untrained, grappling in its own way with the problems of a sophisticated and civilised world. There is hammered into her soul a fear of life, and that is why she desires to live fast and furiously, why she must seek forgetfulness in mad gaiety.
Which led to all kinds of problems. It was not “done” to talk frankly about poverty and mental illness in the family as Clara did in that interview, and it was also not done to be a lady with multiple lovers and fast-living life unconcerned with things like matrimony (“A girl who’s worked hard and earned her place ain’t gonna be satisfied as a wife”). Of course in the 1920s and well beyond society considered a man who slept around a stud, but a woman who slept around a whore.
Clara’s frankness makes her appealing to us so-called moderns, but it was just going to lead to trouble and encourage sewer rats. Probably the most extraordinary press slander of Clara Bow occurred in something called the Coast Reporter. What they wrote about her is so extraordinary it is laughable. Here are the “highlights”:
- She went on a drunken spree with a Mexican croupier in Tijuana where Clara initiated a three-way between herself and two whores while the Mexican watched.
- Clara seduced her chauffeur and then her cousin.
- When there were no men around she slept with her girlfriend Tui Lorraine, or her servant Dorothy Carlson.
- When there were no women around she liked to turn to her pet koala or to her Great Dane.
- She became addicted to morphine while in hospital getting cured of all her sexually transmitted diseases which doctors assured her would eventually cause disintegration of the brain cells.
- She had three highballs before breakfast every morning.
The Tui Lorraine mentioned above was Clara’s best friend for quite a few years and, curiously, was a New Zealander.
Unfortunately when her visa status came under question Tui’s solution was to marry Clara’s extremely dodgy dad, Robert. I think the best word to describe this new domestic situation (Robert lived at Clara’s house) would be “awkward”. Needless to say the marriage and the relationship between Tui and Clara didn’t last long after Tui Lorraine became Tui Lorraine Bow.
Clara made choices that are hard to understand. Her undying loyalty to her father is hard to understand and, even though loyalty is admirable, it is hard to admire in this case. Robert Bow was a horrible man, who did horrible things to his daughter when she was very young, and freeloaded of her until he died. She loved him I guess. And whatever you can say about him, he did stick around.
So Clara made poor choices, and was impulsive, and flew in the face of the mores of her time, but she also seems sort of wonderful, and fresh and vivid. Which is what it seems the 1920s were partly about. A flare shot up between the darkness of World War One, and the long night of the depression and World War Two.
Jeanine Bassinger has written a wonderful book called Silent Stars, and she has a chapter on Clara Bow and Colleen Moore called Flappers.
The movie flapper was an escapist creation. The real thing may never have even existed. Her role was to embody the evolution of the old-fashioned girl into the modern woman. Picture the lovely young heroine of 1914 being transformed: her skirt goes up, and her neckline comes down. Her long thick hair is cut short and bobbed. Her layers of petticoats and corsets are stripped off and replaced with a simple loose dress. Her legs, formerly hidden, are now… on display…. Freedom. It all spelled freedom, and with fashion freedom came other, more daring freedoms – staying out late at night, driving fast in cars, drinking from whiskey flasks, and of course the big one, the freedom to have sex.
Except, of course, Clara Bow discovered that this freedom was an illusion, a bubble that could easily be burst. We, none of us are free, and that is why we sometimes love to see freedom at the movies, and why the flapper, who probably didn’t even really exist in actuality, appealed so much to the crowds who jammed the theatres in the 1920s to see Clara Bow.
To see the wonderful Clara Bow.