Clara Gordon Bow (July 29, 1905 - September 27, 1965) was an American actress who rose to stardom in the silent film era of the 1920s. Her acting artistry and high spirits made her the premier flapper and the film It (1927) made her world famous. Bow came to personify the “roaring twenties” [1] and is described as its leading sex symbol. [2]

Early lifeEdit

Bow was born in a tenement in Brooklyn, New York, the only surviving child of a dysfunctional family afflicted with mental illness, poverty, and physical and emotional abuse. She was the third child of Robert Bow and Sarah Gordon; the first two, also daughters, died within days of their births. Bow was born during a severe heat wave, and Bow's mother, hoping that she and her third child would die from the heat, did not bother to call a doctor or get a birth certificate. Bow did not cry after she was born so her grandmother thought her to be dead and tried to make sure of it by shaking her, but miraculously, the baby awoke. [3]

Suffering from severe neglect throughout her childhood, she was often filthy, hungry, and ill-clothed, for which other girls teased and bullied her; instead, Bow became a tomboy and ran the streets with neighborhood boys. One of Bow's only childhood friends, a boy named Johnny, was severely burned and died in her arms when she was nine years old. Years later, she would make herself cry at will on a movie set by asking the band to play the lullaby "Rock-a-bye Baby". She said it reminded her of Johnny because that was the song Johnny's mother would sing to help him fall asleep.

Bow's mother was an occasional prostitute who suffered from mental illness and epilepsy. Bow's father, Robert Bow, was rarely present and may have had a mental impairment. Whenever he returned home, he was verbally and physically abusive to both wife and daughter. Bow almost never spoke of the trauma of her early years, unwilling to exploit them for publicity.[4]

Early careerEdit

Bow dreamed of being a movie star from an early age. Since she was ignored at home, she spent much of her free time at the movies. In 1921, she entered Motion Picture Magazine's "Fame and Fortune" contest, the grand prize being a part in a film. According to the articles in February, March, and April 1928 in Motion Picture Classic, in which she told her life story, she asked her father for one dollar to have some pictures taken for the contest's judges. He took her to a cheap Coney Island photographer, who took two pictures which she said "were terrible". She then delivered the pictures in person, and the secretary who accepted them from her wrote on her entry form "Called in person. Very pretty."[5] After numerous screen tests, Bow was selected as the winner. She won a part in Beyond the Rainbow (1922), but her scenes were cut from the final print and were not seen until the film was rereleased several years later to capitalize on her fame.

Bow's mother Sarah considered actresses no different than prostitutes and threatened to kill her for her ambitions. One night, Bow awoke to find her mother holding a butcher knife at her throat. She said, "I'm gonna kill you, Clara. It'll be better." and then fainted into an epileptic seizure. This incident was the beginning of Bow's lifelong, losing battle with insomnia. A few weeks later, her mother attacked her again, chasing her around their apartment with a knife and then banishing her to the streets. She wandered Coney Island, traumatized, for two days until her father found her and brought her home. Robert Bow committed his wife to an insane asylum, where she died shortly afterward. Bow blamed herself for her mother's death for the rest of her life, feeling that her choice of career was somehow responsible for it.[6]

Fame and FortuneEdit

Bow made her screen debut in her next film, Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), which she filmed on location in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The film was popular with audiences and, although critics loathed it, Bow was singled out for praise. She began to go from studio to studio, looking for work, and picked up bit parts. She got her big break when an officer from Preferred Pictures approached her on a movie set, offering her trainfare to Hollywood and a 3 month trial contract at $50 per week. When Preferred Pictures head B. P. Schulberg saw the bedraggled teenager, he was reluctant even to give her a screen test, but he relented, and the results left him flabbergasted. Bow was extremely photogenic, and she could cry on command.[7]

Starting with Maytime (1923), Schulberg cast Bow in a series of small roles. However, instead of creating projects for her, he loaned her out to other studios. Nevertheless, Bow started to make a name for herself through these many small roles and was selected as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars in 1924.

As soon as Bow started to make money, she brought her father to live with her in Hollywood. For the next few years, she funded numerous business ventures for him, including a restaurant and a dry cleaners, all of which failed. He soon became a drunken nuisance on her sets, where he would try to pick up young girls by telling them his daughter was Clara Bow.

In 1925, Schulberg cast Bow in The Plastic Age. The movie was a huge hit, and Bow was suddenly the studio's most popular star. She also began to date her co-star Gilbert Roland, who would become the first of many fiancés. Bow followed her first big success with Mantrap (1926), directed by Victor Fleming. Though he was twice her age, Bow quickly fell in love with her director. She began seeing both Roland and Fleming at the same time.

The It GirlEdit

In 1927, Bow reached the heights of her popularity with the film It; the film was based on a story written by Elinor Glyn, and upon the film's release, Bow became known as "The It Girl". In Glynn's story, It, a character explains what "It" really is: "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." More commonly, "It" was taken to mean sex appeal. "It, hell," quipped Dorothy Parker, "She had those."[8]

This image was enhanced by various off-screen love affairs publicized by the tabloid press. She was very open (for the era) about her sexual escapades with many famous men of the time. Bela Lugosi, Gary Cooper, Gilbert Roland, John Wayne, director Victor Fleming, and John Gilbert were all reputed to have been among her many lovers. In 1929, Lugosi's wife, Beatrice Weeks, cited Bow as the other party in their divorce.

However, most Hollywood insiders considered her socially undesirable. Bow was not liked by other women in Hollywood, and her presence at social functions was taboo, including her own premieres. Bow's bohemian lifestyle, thick Brooklyn accent and "dreadful" manners were considered reminders of the Hollywood Elite's uneasy position in high society, and they shunned her for it. [9] Budd Schulberg, the producer's son, wrote in his memoir Moving Pictures, "Hollywood was a cultural schizophrene: The anti-movie Old Guard with their chamber music and their religious pageants fighting a losing battle against the more dynamic culture of the Ad Schulbergs who flaunted the bohemianism of Edna St. Vincent Millay and the socialism of Upton Sinclair. But there was one subject on which the staid old Hollywood establishment and the members of the new culture circle would agree: Clara Bow, no matter how great her popularity, was a low life and a disgrace to the community." [10]

However, Bow was praised by critics for her beauty, vitality and enthusiasm — Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount, said that "She danced even when her feet weren't moving. Some part of her was always in motion, if only her great, rolling eyes. It was an elemental magnetism, an animal vitality, that made her the center of attraction in any company."[11] Unfortunately, her roles rarely allowed her to show much range. Bow did not have enough confidence to demand input in the scripts she was given, and the studio businessmen considered her to be stupid and gullible, so she was treated as a commodity instead of a serious actress.

In 1927, Bow starred in Wings, a war picture largely rewritten to accommodate her, as she was Paramount's biggest star at the time. The film went on to win the first Academy Award for Best Picture. In 1928, Bow wrote the foreword for a novelization of her film The Fleet's In. Between 1927 and 1930, Bow was one of Hollywood's top five box office attractions.[12]

Bow's career continued into the early sound film era. Legend contends that her first talkie, The Wild Party, directed by Dorothy Arzner, was a disaster, but audiences crammed into theatres to see it, and the reviews, though they gave the film itself poor marks, commented that her voice suited her screen image well.[13] However, Bow began experiencing microphone fright on the sets of her sound films. A visibly nervous Bow had to do a number of retakes in The Wild Party because her eyes kept wandering up to the microphone overhead; Arzner took credit for being the first director to hang the microphone from overhead. [14] However, her performances in her sound films improved rapidly, and she continued to be a box office success.

MGM had given their biggest star, Greta Garbo, two years to prepare for her first sound film; Paramount gave Bow two weeks. Paramount began canceling her films, docking her pay, charging her for unreturned costumes, and insisting that she pay for her publicity photographs. As she slipped closer and closer to a major breakdown, her manager B.P. Schulberg began referring to her as "Crisis-A-Day-Clara".[15]

The pressures of fame, public scandals, overwork and a damaging court trial involving former assistant Daisy DeVoe took their toll on Bow's already fragile emotional health. She ended up in a sanatorium in April 1931 with a case of shattered nerves. Paramount released her from her contract a short while later.

Following a brief period away from Hollywood to recover, Bow signed a two-picture deal with Fox Film Corporation and returned to the screen in the early talkie Call Her Savage (1932). Although the film was a success, Bow opted for marriage and motherhood, and ended her film career after the release of Hoop-La the following year.

Later lifeEdit

The 1930 U.S. Census lists Bow's residence as 512 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, California. Her home's value was listed as $25,000, higher than most others on her block at the time.

Bow and cowboy actor Rex Bell (actually George F. Beldon), later a Lieutenant Governor of Nevada, married in 1932 and had two sons, Tony Beldon (born 1934, changed name to Rex Anthony Bell, Jr.) and George Beldon, Jr. (born 1938). Bow retired from acting in 1933. Her last public exposure, albeit fleeting, was a guest appearance on the radio show Truth or Consequences in 1947; Bow provided the voice of "Mrs. Hush".

In 1944, while Bell was running for the U.S. House of Representatives, Bow tried to commit suicide.[16] In 1949 she checked into The Institute of Living to get treated for her nerve-wracking Insomnia. Shock treatment was tried and numerous psychological tests performed. Bow´s IQ was measured bright normal (111-119), while others claimed she was unable to reason, had poor judgment and conducted inappropriate or even bizarre behavior. Bow was diagnosed with Schizophrenia although she was not hallucinatory or psychotic. Her Insomnia was attributed to childhood trauma, the analysts said, but Bow rejected psychological explanations for both her sleep disorder and her physical pains.[17]. [18].

Bow spent her last years in a modest house in Los Angeles under the constant care of a nurse, living off an estate worth about $500,000 at the time of her death.[17] She died on September 27, 1965 of a heart attack while watching a Gary Cooper movie. The autopsy revealed that Bow suffered from Atherosclerosis (death certificate), a heart disease established in early adolescence.[19] Bow´s heart bore scar from an earlier undiagnosed heart attack [20] She was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.


Clara Bow was voted one of the 40 Most Iconic Movie Goddesses of all time in 2009 on UK Glamour.

For her contributions to the motion picture industry, Bow was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In 1994, she was honored with an image on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.


"Even now I can't trust life. It did too many awful things to me as a kid."
"All the time the flapper is laughing and dancing, there's a feeling of tragedy underneath. She's unhappy and disillusioned, and that's what people sense. That's what makes her different."
"The more I see of men, the more I like dogs."
(On Victor Fleming) "Of all the men I've known, there was a man."
"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."
"A sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt and bewildered."
(when asked what "It" was) "I ain't real sure."

Urban mythsEdit

The book Hollywood Babylon spread the urban myth that Bow's friendship with members of the 1927 University of Southern California football team included group sex with the entire team. This was finally proved incorrect by her biographer, David Stenn, who interviewed still-living members of that year's team while researching her.[14]

During her lifetime, Bow was the subject of wild rumors regarding her sex life; most of them were untrue. A tabloid called The Coast Reporter published lurid allegations about her in 1931, accusing her of exhibitionism, incest, lesbianism, bestiality, drug addiction, alcoholism, and venereal disease. The publisher of the tabloid then tried to blackmail Bow, offering to cease printing the stories for $25,000, which led to his arrest by federal agents, and later an eight-year prison sentence.[21]

In popular cultureEdit

  • In Tennessee Williams' play The Night of the Iguana, Hannah Jelkes explains to Reverend Shannon that when she was 16, a young man made advances toward her in a movie theatre and was arrested. To get him off the hook, she says, "I told the police it was a Clara Bow picture—well, it was a Clara Bow picture—and I was just over-excited."
  • The alternative rock band 50 Foot Wave entitled a song "Clara Bow" on their CD Golden Ocean.
  • Bow is mentioned in the song "Condition of the Heart" by Prince on his album Around the World in a Day.
  • Max Fleischer's cartoon character Betty Boop was modeled after Bow and entertainer Helen Kane (the "boop-boop-a-doop-girl").
  • Bow's mass of tangled red hair was one of her most famous features. When fans of the new star found out she put henna in her hair, sales of the dye tripled.[14]
  • Bow applied her red lipstick in the shape of a heart. Women who imitated this shape were said to be putting a "Clara Bow" on their mouths.[14]
  • Bow was mentioned in the lyrics of the song "Chop Suey" in Rodgers & Hammerstein's musical comedy Flower Drum Song
  • She is Effy's idol in the popular E4 show Skins.[22]
  • An autographed picture of Bow is offered as a consolation prize of a beauty contest in the 1931 George Gershwin musical Of Thee I Sing.
  • In an episode of the Fox TV series, Bones, forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan's undercover persona "Roxie," is based on Brennan's memories of watching Bow's films as a child. Her partner mentions that Clara Bow was a silent screen star, to which Brennan replies that she was imitating what she imagined Bow sounded like. Obviously, Brennan had never seen Bow's "talkie" work.
  • In the novel Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, the character Florence Wechek is described as looking like Clara Bow.
  • In the 1990 novel Vineland by Thomas Pynchon, the character Zoyd Wheeler refers to his daughter watching Pia Zadora in the fictitious movie “The Clara Bow Story.”
  • Two graphic adventure games by Sierra star a heroine named, Laura Bow, who is a clear homage to Clara Bow.
  • In the film, The Rules of Attraction directed by Roger Avary and based on the novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, the character Lauren is told by a NYU film student at a party that she she looks like Clara Bow.


  • Beyond the Rainbow (1922)
  • Down to the Sea in Ships (1922)
  • Enemies of Women (1923)
  • The Daring Years (1923)
  • Maytime (1923)
  • Black Oxen (1923)
  • Grit (1924)
  • Poisoned Paradise (1924)
  • Daughters of Pleasure (1924)
  • Wine (1924)
  • Empty Hearts (1924)
  • Helen's Babies (1924)
  • This Woman (1924)
  • Black Lightning (1924)
  • Capital Punishment (1925)
  • The Adventurous Sex (1925)
  • Eve's Lover (1925)
  • The Lawful Cheater (1925)
  • The Scarlet West (1925)
  • My Lady's Lips (1925)
  • Parisian Love (1925)
  • Kiss Me Again (1925)
  • The Keeper of the Bees (1925)
  • The Primrose Path (1925)
  • Free to Love (1925)
  • The Best Bad Man (1925)
  • The Plastic Age (1925)
  • The Ancient Mariner (1925)
  • My Lady of Whims (1925)
  • Dance Madness (1926)
  • Shadow of the Law (1926)
  • Two Can Play (1926)
  • Dancing Mothers (1926)
  • Fascinating Youth (1926)
  • The Runaway (1926)
  • Mantrap (1926)
  • Kid Boots (1926)
  • It (1927)
  • Children of Divorce (1927)
  • Rough House Rosie (1927)
  • Wings (1927)
  • Hula (1927)
  • A Trip Through the Paramount Studio (1927) (short subject)
  • Get Your Man (1927)
  • Red Hair (1928)
  • Ladies of the Mob (1928)
  • The Fleet's In (1928)
  • Three Weekends (1928)
  • Hollywood Snapshots #11 (1929) (short subject)
  • The Wild Party (1929)
  • Dangerous Curves (1929)
  • The Saturday Night Kid (1929)
  • Paramount on Parade (1930)
  • True to the Navy (1930)
  • Love Among the Millionaires (1930)
  • Her Wedding Night (1930)
  • No Limit (1931)
  • Kick In (1931)
  • Call Her Savage (1932)
  • Hoop-La (1933)




  1. Joseph Morella, Edward Epstein, The IT girl , p.283, 1977, Dell Publ. Co, inc, ISBN: 0-440-14068-4
  2. Kathleen Morgan Drowne, Patrick Huber, The 1920´s, p. 237, 2004, Greenwood Publ. Group
  3. Stenn, David, Clara Bow Runnin' Wild, P. 8-9, 1988 Penguin Books, a Division of Viking Penguin, New York, New York, originially published by Doubleday, New York, New York
  4. Stenn, David, Clara Bow Runnin' Wild, P. 11, 1988 Penguin Books, a Division of Viking Penguin, New York, New York, originially published by Doubleday, New York, New York
  5. Stenn, David, Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild, P. 16, 1988 Penguin Books, a Division of Viking Penguin, New York, New York, originally published by Doubleday, New York, New York
  6. Stenn, David, Clara Bow Runnin' Wild, P. 22-26, 1988 Penguin Books, a Division of Viking Penguin, New York, New York, originally published by Doubleday, New York, New York
  7. Stenn, David, Clara Bow Runnin' Wild, P. 37-38, 1988 Penguin Books, a Division of Viking Penguin, New York, New York, originially published by Doubleday, New York, New York
  8. Template:Citation/core
  9. Stenn, David, Clara Bow Runnin' Wild, p. 116-117, 1988, Penguin Books, a division of Penuguin Viking, New York, New York, originally published by Doubleday, New York, New York
  10. Schulberg, Budd, Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince, September 25 2003, Ivan R. Dee, Publisher
  11. Stenn, David, Clara Bow Runnin' Wild, p. 70, 1988, Penguin Books, a division of Penuguin Viking, New York, New York, originally published by Doubleday, New York, New York
  12. The Girl Who Had IT - TIME
  13. Stenn, David, Clara Bow Runnin' Wild, pp. 157-162, 1998 Penguin Books, a Division of Penguin Viking, New York, New York, originally published by Doubleday, New York, New York
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Clara Bow and the USC Football Team at
  15. Stenn, David, Clara Bow Runnin' Wild, pp. 231, 1998 Penguin Books, a Division of Penguin Viking, New York, New York, originally published by Doubleday, New York, New York
  16. Politics '99 | Human Events | Find Articles at
  17. 17.0 17.1 Stenn, David. Running Wild, p.263, p.266, Cooper Square Press, New Ed Edition 2000. ISBN
  18. Joseph Morella , Edward Z Epstein The "It" Girl", p.276, Dell TM 681510 Dell Pub Co, INC, 1977, ISBN 0-440-14068-4
  19. De Vane, Mattew S, Heart Smart, p.31-32, Edition illustrated, Publ. John Wiley and Sons, 2006
  20. Stenn, David. Running Wild, p. 281, Cooper Square Press, New Ed Edition 2000. ISBN
  21. Stenn, David, Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild, P. 238, 1988 Penguin Books, a division of Viking Penguin, New York, New York, originally published by Doubleday, New York, New York
  22. Effy's blog - skins -



  • Template:Citation/core
  • TCM Film Guide, "Leading Ladies: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actresses of the Studio Era", Chronicle Books, San Francisco, California, 2006.


External linksEdit