The Silencing of Clara Bow 
By Christina Ball

From Gadfly March/April 2001


Silence is complex, multi-faceted, enigmatic. It can palpitate with presence and fall off into haunting echoes of absence. It can both affirm and negate, communicate something and snuff it out. It can be a peaceful refuge or a place of loneliness, alienation and forgetting. Silence can be a choice. It can also be imposed.

Legendary once, curiously unknown today, Clara Bow is both a heroine and a victim of silence. For the original "IT girl," the first sex symbol and most popular female icon of the wildly modern, jazz, gin, sex and cinema-filled decade of the Twenties, there was also a hell of a lot of noise. That her name is not as familiar as Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Mae West or Marilyn Monroe, despite the fact that she was more famous than all of them, is testament to the power of public opinion to silence the very personality it helped to create.

MOTION PICTURE KID Clara Bow seemed doomed to silence from the very beginning. When she was born into the madness and poverty of Sarah and Robert Bow's Brooklyn household on August 25, 1905, the baby—who would later be known for her easy, uncensored mouth, vivacious personality and physical dynamism—didn't make a single sound. It was only after several minutes of vigorous shaking by her grandmother that Clara finally made her presence known with a life-affirming cry. No one cheered. Instead, her mother thought—and prayed—that Clara was dead.

Sarah Bow was a woman who had little respect for life, including her own. Not only had her first two babies died prematurely, but Sarah Bow's own days were threatened by debilitating and dangerous—for Clara, especially—psychotic fits (she was epileptic in a time when the disease was thought to be a nervous disorder caused by masturbation and sunstroke) and by marriage to a hyper-sexed, constantly disappearing drunk who couldn't hold a steady job.

So convinced were Clara's parents of her imminent death that the Bows never acknowledged her existence with a birth certificate. But feisty little Clara refused to be snuffed out. She would soon prove her own existence to the world, with a little help from the motion picture camera.

Clara made it through a physically and emotionally abusive and virtually loveless childhood by playing rough-and-tumble street games with neighborhood boys and by going to the movies. She was a self-described tomboy ("I could lick any boy my size. My right was famous."). She never cared to own a doll or play house (she did enough real housework to take the fun out of this sissy game) and, much to her teachers' despair, rarely opened a book. When puberty came along—and boy, did it—Clara developed into the curvaceous young woman that men all across America would soon be lusting after.

Since breasts and hips meant that it was no longer appropriate for her to hang out with the opposite sex, her former pals cast her out; as her young female peers, who still viewed Clara as a stuttering, homely, rattily dressed ragamuffin, had already done. She was heart-broken, horrified and bewildered. From an early age, this naíve, but soon-to-be "modern" lack of understanding and respect for conventional morality (especially as it applied to women) was both Clara's blessing and her curse. Like a lot of soon-to-be flappers, it just didn't make sense to her that the boys got to have all the fun—not to mention freedom—while the girls sat demurely on the sidelines, looking pretty. As double standards would have it, Clara would continue to pursue her love of games considered more proper for men—football, gambling, fast driving, sexual gallivanting—and she would be both celebrated and condemned for it.

As part of the first generation to grow up with, or in, the movies, Clara's story can be looked at as both a fairy tale and a cautionary one. Forced to quit school at the age of 13 in order to work and help support the family, Clara made the movies into her primer. She spent every penny she could save, or beg away from her dad, at the box office, where she found both love, of a sort, and die-hard ambition in the big, beautiful images of the silver screen. Steps and worlds away from the loneliness and misery of her real life, Clara educated herself in the new art of acting for the camera by studying, intently, the gestures and expressions of her female role models—Pickford, Lillian Gish, Mae Murray, Theda Bara, Gloria Swanson—actresses whose roles merely hinted at the tremendous changes women were about to make, on and off the screen. After the picture, she'd run home to her mirror where she'd work secretly for hours at creating real-looking expressions, inspired by her cinematic mentors but ultimately, and uniquely, her own. Here, in complete silence, without books or pencils or teachers, she learned to communicate, in a unique and natural way, emotions and ideas both tragic and comedic, sweet and seductive, both feminine and undeniably strong and tough. Before the mirror she practiced the look, the coy smiles and the painful, easy-flowing tears that would soon captivate the world on screen.

Her working-girl spirit and dedication paid off. After several screen tests, the judges of Motion Picture Magazine's Fame and Fortune contest were completely convinced by Clara's natural acting style, her ability to learn quickly and her photographically perfect features. Barely noticeable in a crowd of beautiful young contestants, Clara literally transformed before the camera and brought the screen to life in a way few could. Much to her surprise, this little tomboy from Brooklyn was picked as the 1921 contest winner. The prize was a small role in a New York production, Beyond the Rainbow.

Clara's mother wasn't happy about the news. Sexually repressed and, at times, scary as hell, Sarah Bow considered actresses, with their flashy dresses and painted faces, about as respectable as prostitutes. "You ain't goin' inta pictures. You ain't gonna be no hoor. I'd rather see ya' dead," she preached. It was an early warning sign of the hypocrisy Clara would meet with later in her life—that her moralizing mother used to entertain "uncles" for cash, as her daughter waited in a locked closet, hands over her ears. When verbal threats didn't stop Clara from pursuing acting, Sarah tried to squelch her daughter's dream, and save her soul, with a butcher's knife. "I'm gonna kill ya' Clara" she threatened, more than once. "It'll be better." Though Clara would suffer from debilitating insomnia and insecurity for the rest of her life because of them, she survived her mother's murder attempts and madness. Daddy put mommy away (in an asylum) and, soon after, daughter got away—for good.

Clara was still a kid of 16 when her brief but unforgettable performance as a sad-eyed, ready-fisted stowaway in the whaling saga Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) caught the eye of Preferred Pictures (soon to be Paramount) producer B.P. Schulberg. At his invitation, she left Brooklyn for the already mythical place called Hollywood. Here the self-proclaimed "woikin' goil" was put to work. A movie-mogul in the making, Schulberg was quick to spot Clara's box-office potential. Her beauty, vulnerability and affordable price tag didn't get by him, either. He signed her for pennies and put her on a non-stop filming schedule, loaning her out to several different production companies in order to maximize the profit earnings of his newest and youngest starlet.

In the first years, Schulberg paid Clara from $500 to $750 a week, although he received up to $3,000 a week for renting her out, an exploitative, yet not unusual practice even back in the early days of movie making. Glad to be acting, but increasingly run down, Clara made an unthinkable sixteen movies in a mere eighteen months, between 1923 and 1924, and fifteen in 1925 alone. She literally lived on the set and spent her nights tossing and turning or playing poker with her maid, her hired female companion or her father, who was quick to join his meal-ticket daughter in California.

The quality of Clara's films was clearly not Schulberg's concern, nor would it ever really be. Even as she started earning serious, unanimous critical praise, he kept hiring her out to one poorly written, low-budget flick after another. But by 1925, Clara was already soaring high above her material. A zesty, refreshing alternative to Mary Pickford's chastity, Clara Bow had what the Twenties craved—before there was even a name for "it."

FLAPPER ON FILM Clara was a child not only of the motion pictures but also, and undeniably, of the Roaring Twenties. As a movie star and female icon, she helped define what it meant to be both an actress and a woman in this dizzying decade of change.

Battles were fought, won and surrendered in the 1920s and early '30s, the likes of which wouldn't be seen again until the post-1968 days of Gloria Steinem and Co.'s bra-burning feminism and Jill Clayburgh's revolutionary performance in An Unmarried Woman. In 1920, women won the right to vote, just one sign of the power and independence they had earned and enjoyed while the boys were off fighting (not to mention Folies-Bergéres playing) in Europe. When peace was declared, the boys came home to a war of a different sort. Its front-line soldier was an entirely new breed of woman: the "flapper," the "modern." She refused to relinquish the newfound sense of freedom and strength that came with a job—and without a husband. She tossed her grandmother's corset, went braless and didn't bother to buckle her galoshes (thus putting the "flap" in the "flapper").

As Clara's mother had feared, the flapper painted her face like a whore and wore her hair and hemlines short. She was in no rush to get married and preferred dates and dancehalls to dubious domestic bliss. She considered all her options. She drank and smoked. She liked sex and wasn't afraid to admit it. And she was mad about motion pictures.

Before censorship and the moral codes of the mid-'30s took all the fun, realism and complexity out of playing a woman, by swapping strong heroines with goodie-two-shoes purity or evil sexuality, the motion pictures both fed and fed off of the freedom and frivolity of the post-war period, ushering in the flapper's glory years. The silver screen was the flapper's favorite Speakeasy, a place where women could break free of old taboos and explore new roles—not just the black and white types of good girl and bad girl, the ingénue and the vamp, but every other shade of gray in between. As names like Dorothy Arzner, Elinor Glyn, Gloria Swanson, Norma Shearer and Mae West can attest, the glitz, glamour, artistry and social power of early Hollywood were to provide female actors, directors, writers and even viewers with a new and powerful voice. At first this voice was silent, and the most outspoken star of the silent screen was undoubtedly Clara Bow.

On screen, Clara Bow embodied the Twenties. Her beautiful, beguiling, independent-minded heroines also helped bring into focus a new breed of woman. With her performance as the sexy and sexually aggressive young co-ed in Wesley Ruggles' fine adaptation of The Plastic Age (1925), Clara caught the eye not only of major directors and producers but also of the entire flapper-mad country. With subsequent films like Dancing Mothers (1926), Mantrap (1926), Wings (1927) and the legend-maker, "It" (1927), she blew away the competition (Colleen Moore, Joan Crawford) and became universally recognized as the premier flapper, the "hottest jazz baby in films." She was the girl who F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose name is virtually synonymous with the Twenties, called "the real thing, someone to stir every pulse in the nation."

Clara Bow put the "s" in seduction and the seduction in silent film. She was a sexual magnet with dancing feet whose provocative powers were so strong that all she had to do was lift her lids and she was flirting, unabashedly and irresistibly. She had what racy novelist turned Hollywood screenplay writer and socialite Elinor Glyn declared as the most desirable quality of the times—"It"—a rare, difficult to define combination of raw animal magnetism and an unselfconscious indifference to this same ability to attract members of both sexes.

Not just a boy-toy, she was also a director's joy and was recognized by the directors and actors of her day as the most naturally gifted and hard-working actress Hollywood had ever seen. Pioneers such as Frank Tuttle, Victor Fleming, Clarence Badger and Dorothy Arzner praised her for her improvisational skills, emotional range and overall dedication and professionalism. No matter how similar they could seem on paper, she brought freshness to each of her roles and was able to create strong female characters who were also vulnerable and human, much like herself.

An "emotional machine," Clara was as famous for her crying as she was for her flirting. Cast and crew marveled at her ability to shed real, deep-seeded tears at the drop of a hat or the sound of a violin. She'd request "Rock-a-bye Baby" from the studio's musical trio, remember her childhood and within seconds she'd start to sob—quietly, convincingly and very photogenically. In films as early as Down to the Sea with Ships, as celebrated as Wings (for which she would accept the first Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929) and as late as her talking masterpiece Call Her Savage (1932), Clara's crying reveals the flapper's flip-side; the subtle yet tragic underbelly of a young woman whose growing pains, magnified under the microscope of the public eye, reflected those of society-at-large.

Clara's many moments of sorrow on-screen also attest to her dramatic skills, skills that she desperately wanted but wasn't allowed to develop or seriously pursue. Though many tried to convince him otherwise, Schulberg kept his box-office baby glued to high-grossing formula films (risqué romantic comedies), even after the onset of the Depression when this frivolous genre became shamefully outdated. Had she been given more of a fighting chance, a chance to evolve out of the flapper formula into a mature, complex dramatic heroine, Clara Bow would've certainly reigned with the screen queens of the '30s—Garbo, Dietrich, Shearer, Crawford, West.

To recall Sunset Boulevard's faded silent goddess Norma Desmond, Clara Bow didn't need dialogue; she had a face, and she knew how to use it. It made all her fans happy and made a fortune. It also made her into the biggest (and still most underpaid) star of Hollywood. By 1928, her face was a household name, and her films played to consistent sell-out crowds.

Though they loved her movies, the tabloid-fed public was even more curious about their favorite star's infamous off-screen life, for Clara Bow was much more than just a flapper on film.

MODERN, ALL-TOO-MODERN Despite all the encouraging signs, the Twenties weren't ready for Clara's breed of woman. Even in decadent Hollywood, she was way too hot, way too modern, to handle. Unconventional, uninhibited, irreverent and utterly, helplessly herself, Clara Bow was both the champion and the victim of her own projected image.

As the model modern, Clara set herself apart from Hollywood hypocrites by actually practicing what she preached. She was her own woman—and her own man. Her signature color was red. She died her hair flaming orange and (literally) sped around town in her red roadster sports car, a pack of Chihuahuas in tow. She ignored fashion conventions and flaunted her own sense of style, wearing gold slippers to football games and a belted bathing suit to a formal hotel dinner. When she felt lucky (she wasn't), Clara headed for the Cal-Nevada border, where she'd gamble away more money than she thought she had (scandal). She took advantage of her sex appeal and took numerous lovers (scandal). After her conquests, she'd shock the women and entertain the guys on the set with the juicy, graphic details. She worked hard and played hard and, despite her fast-paced lifestyle, was in no rush to get married.

The original runaway bride, Ms. Bow was officially engaged four times (Gilbert Roland, Victor Fleming, Harry Richmond and Rex Bell) and had an open affair with at least one married man (scandal, lawsuit). "Marriage ain't woman's only job no more, " she convinced a columnist. "A girl who's worked hard and earned her place ain't gonna be satisfied as a wife. I know this. I wouldn't give up my work for marriage. I think a modern girl's capable of keepin' a job and a husband."

Clara's candor spared nothing, not even her childhood. Where most of Hollywood's so-called trailblazers were taking care to conceal their humble pasts in favor of a new, glitzier image, Clara shared all the details of her brief, but dramatic life, most notably with readers of Photoplay magazine in 1928.

Celebrated and clearly respected as an actress, Clara the woman was shunned by Hollywood high society. William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Eddie Sutherland and Louise Brooks—all of the most powerful and elite couples in the business took care to omit her name from their guest lists. Everyone who was anyone considered her a low-life from Brooklyn—vulgar, immoral, poorly mannered, rebellious and entirely unpredictable.

Gossip spread like the bonfire she was. If given the chance, Clara Bow could embarrass even the most "modern" of hosts with her dirty jokes, drunken revelry and total lack of regard for etiquette. In an age that pretended to be liberal and liberated, Clara appeared to be the only one who really was. When she was invited to the Schulberg's home to meet the scandalous pre-marital sex advocate, Judge Ben Lindsey, Clara, considering herself in sympathetic company, kissed him brazenly on the lips. She then proceeded to unbutton his jacket and, ultimately, his pants, to the tune of "Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief." Horrified and outraged, the Judge and his wife fled the premises. "Well, gee whiz," Clara responded to her embarrassed hosts, "if he believes in all that modern stuff like ya' say he does, how come he's such an old stick-in-the mud?"

Just as the "It girl" reached the peak of popularity, double standards came indignantly forth to slap her in the face. As scandalous words spread and more of the lurid details of her so-called "private" life were revealed (thanks to an embezzlement trial involving her vengeful personal secretary, Daisy DeVoe), the jury of the moral majority came to its unanimous decision: Clara Bow was morally unfit to act in films, morally unfit to be a role model for young women. She was judged guilty of being herself. The punishment: shut "it" up, shut her out.

When the Coast Reporter, the sleazy tabloid that was responsible for spreading many of the ugliest rumors about Clara (alcoholism, spending sprees, drug addiction and sex with men, women and dogs) demanded that Paramount cancel her contract, B.P. Schulberg did everything he could to get rid of "Crisis-a-day Clara." Now that public opinion had turned against the "ain't girl" (her films Kick In and No Limit flopped and were even banned in California and Texas), he considered her a worthless has-been. But in the end, it was Clara who, after a surprisingly successful attempt at a comeback, decided to release herself from all contracts and retreat from the noise of public life and the accusatory gaze of the public eye.

The girl who lived to act made her last movie in 1933, at the age of 28. It is an unfounded myth that Clara went down with the Silents. Though her kinetic acting style was more suited to cinema's original form than the more static, dialogue-heavy talkies, she braved criticism of her untrained voice and the resulting mike fright to make more than a few, well-received talking pictures. The best of these was the strange and seemingly autobiographical Call her Savage (her personal favorite along with It and Mantrap). The last was Hoopla.

Though her role as a cooch dancer reformed by love left a lot to be desired, like clothes, she was once again lauded for the depth and maturity of her acting. But, by this time, she had had enough of Hollywood hypocrisy and decided to take her life into her own hands. "I don't wanna be remembered as somebody who couldn't do nothin' but take her clothes off. I want somethin' real now."

Sick and tired of her role as America's sex symbol and scapegoat and on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Clara left Hollywood for the desolate tranquility of the Nevada desert. Instead of death, the screen's first truly modern woman sought a more traditional way out. Hoping to find happiness and salvation in the very mold she had tried to break, she became the wife of cowboy actor turned politician Rex Bell and, a few years later, the mother of two boys.

But the change from working actress to desert housewife was too abrupt. As Rex began to travel more and as his growing popularity as a public figure threatened to drag her back into the domain that she had fled, Clara became increasingly fearful and insecure. The fairytale became her nightmare. The house of her dreams transformed into her prison. Haunted by demons of her childhood and scandal, she was plagued by the private illnesses of insomnia and hypochondria. Desperate, she tried to end the torment of her lonely life with pills, but failed. After intensive psychotherapy at several clinics, it was discovered that Clara Bow, the unknowing victim of America's schizophrenia, was, clinically, a schizophrenic herself, just like her mother—and grandmother—before her. If acting kept her madness at bay before, now only complete solitude could save her. So, in 1950, she separated from Rex and moved back to Los Angeles.

Clara Bow lived out the rest of her years as a total recluse, a ghost of Hollywood's shameful, silent past. Alone except for a live-in nurse, she refused all but a few visitors (ex-fiancé Gilbert Roland, favorite actor Marlon Brando) and spent her days reading books and newspapers, painting, recording dramatic readings and writing letters to old fans and powerful figures of the day.

Clara Bow was watching an old Gary Cooper western when her heart stopped on September 26, 1965. Now that the flapper has given way to feminism's third wave and magazine covers flaunt the faces of Hollywood's newest generation of actresses (Kate Winslet, Angelina Jolie, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore), the time has come to re-discover Clara Bow.

At last, efforts are being made to preserve Clara's memory and give her back the credit she deserves. The web is crawling with sites devoted to her (the best is at Thanks to the efforts of silent film lovers like biographer David Stenn, dusty, disintegrating reels of Clara's films are being recovered and restored. Whenever they are screened, such as at NYC's Film Forum retrospective last year, the "It girl" movies brings in huge crowds of newly amorous, appreciative fans.

After almost 70 years of silence, it seems that Clara Bow is finally being allowed to speak her mind. Seduced by her bedroom eyes and rock-a-bye tears, we may just be ready to listen.