With her tomboy charms and expressive face, Clara Bow took Old Hollywood by storm. She was one of the most iconic “It” Girls of her day—in fact, she practically invented the term. But sadly, the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown quickly turned sour, and the starlet suffered a downfall that was as tragic as it was legendary.
1. She Had a Bitter Beginning
Clara Bow was a Brooklyn girl through and through. She was born on July 29, 1905 to Robert and Sarah Bow in Prospect Heights, New York. Little Clara came into the world in a “bleak, sparsely furnished room above [a] dilapidated Baptist Church,” and these very humble beginnings were about to turn into an absolute nightmare.
2. Her Childhood Was Fatal
Bow was born into tragedy. Though she was her mother’s third daughter, Sarah had lost her two eldest children when they were babies, and doctors begged her not to get pregnant again or have another child for fear that this infant would perish too. Sarah didn’t listen—and the conditions of Clara’s birth couldn’t have been worse.
3. Her Birthday Was Nearly a Tragedy
When Clara was born, New York was in the middle of a ravaging heat wave, with temperatures rising over a punishing 100 degrees. This had devastating consequences. Both Clara and her mother nearly didn’t make it, and Bow later recalled how the two of them “looked death in the face” that day. Sadly, more harrowing moments were in store.
4. Her Lifestyle Was Infamous
Once she hit Hollywood, Bow gained fame not only for playing “flapper” roles, but for being a riotous flapper herself. These women took over the Roaring 20s with abandon, wearing shorter skirts, shorter haircuts, and generally having good, reckless fun. The pert, audacious Bow became an icon of the type—but one day she took it way too far.
5. She Tried to Nab Her Co-Star’s Part
In 1924, Bow was on the set of Painted People with the more famous star Colleen Moore; the still-green Bow was due to play a bit part as Moore’s kid sister. Well, that simply wasn’t good enough. Bow reportedly went up to Moore and stated frankly, “I don’t like my part. I wanna play yours.” Moore’s response was swift and brutal.
6. She Got a Harsh Payback
Shocked and appalled at Bow’s total disregard for the fame food chain, Moore flexed her power in the cruellest way she knew how. From then on, Moore refused to let the director get any close-ups of Bow or her famously beautiful face. Now that’s how an Old Hollywood starlet does “mean girl.” That said, Bow tried to get her revenge…
7. She Nearly Lost It All
After Moore’s machinations, Bow reportedly vowed to “Get that witch.” Instead, fate dealt her a bitter hand. Bow suffered from chronic sinus problems, and decided to get them fixed. This? Was not the smartest move. With her face bandaged up for the foreseeable future, Bow not only lost her close-ups in Painted People—she lost the part entirely. Better luck next time, Clara.
8. She Inspired an Iconic Character
If Clara Bow looks eerily familiar, maybe that’s because she’s one of the inspirations behind the iconic cartoon character Betty Boop. After all, Bow was known for her huge eyes and her incredibly expressive face.
9. Her Family Life Was Horrific
Bow’s family life gave new meaning to the word “dysfunctional.” Her father, though intelligent, was aimless and usually absent. However, he had a reason to dread home. As Clara once admitted, “I do not think my mother ever loved my father.” Even worse, “He knew it.” However, this was far from the worst thing Clara’s mother would do.
10. Girls Never Liked Her
Clara Bow always had a cartoonishly beautiful face and an iconic tuft of red hair. Yet growing up, this only made her a target for cruel girls. Girls would often tease her and call her “carrot top,” or else make fun of the shabby clothes her family couldn’t afford to mend. As Bow said, they “shunned” her for her lack of fashion.
11. She Faked It
Bow came by her famous, wild red locks naturally, but she still got a little artificial help for it. As a part of her beauty routine, she also put henna in her hair to give it extra depth and brightness. When her young fans found this out, they wasted no time buying up hordes of the stuff, tripling henna prices that year.
12. She Was One of the Boys
Instead of trying to get the popular girls to like her, Bow went another route entirely—she became an incorrigible tomboy. She played games with boys her age, and they didn’t seem to mind her patchy sweaters. The brassy Bow wasn’t afraid to get into scuffles, either. Bow once quipped, “I could lick any boy my size. My right arm was quite famous.”
13. Her Friend Died in Her Arms
When Bow was still a little girl, unimaginable tragedy struck. One of her playmates, a young boy named Johnny who lived in the same building as her family, caught fire in an accident. But that wasn’t even the worst part. He actually ran to Bow to help him, and she had to watch as he perished in her arms. That’ll scar you for life—and it did.
14. She Was Terrified of Intimacy
Clara was always a charmer with men, but she was also deeply damaged. Half her playmates nursed crushes on the young Bow, and one of her best school friends friends even tried to kiss her. Bow’s response? She said she was “horrified and hurt” by the gesture. Well, can you blame her for having a such a maladjusted view of affection?
15. She Never Stopped Loving Her Mother
Although she had a turbulent relationship with her mother (more on that later), Bow never stopped being her biggest defender. After Sarah passed in 1923, Bow screamed at her other family members who had gathered for the funeral, calling them “hypocrites” for never caring about Sarah. If that weren’t unhinged enough, Bow then tried to jump into her mother’s grave.
16. She Set an Unusual Beauty Standard
Besides her flaming red hair, Bow’s lips were also a national sensation. She drew on her lipstick in a now-iconic heart-shaped style, and her unique look soon took the public by storm. The style was so popular that when women put on their lipstick that way, they often said they were putting their “Clara Bow” on.
17. She Loved Movies for a Heartbreaking Reason
Bow truly loved movies, but her adoration came from an incredibly dark place. She had a miserable home life and few friends, yet films were different. When she watched them, she said, “For the first time in my life I knew there was beauty in the world.”
18. She Had a Snobby Side
Bow looked pert and cute, but don’t be fooled: She could be as arrogant as any other starlet. In fact, when she first decided she wanted to go into movies, she said it was because she would go to see an actress or actor in a performance and come away with the feeling that “I knew I would have done it differently.” In other words, “better.”
19. She Won a Fateful Contest
When Bow decided to act, it all came together with frightening ease…at least at first. When she was just 16 years old, she entered the annual “Fame and Fortune” Brewster magazine contest, which pitted hopefuls against each other in a series of screen tests and promised film work in the winner’s future. Naturally, Bow won—but then came the hard part.
20. She Almost Didn’t Become a Star
After winning 1921’s “Fame and Fortune” contest, Bow was all ready to sign a movie contract. Instead, she suffered a deep disappointment. Approximately zero film offers came knocking, and Bow had to resort to going down to the Brewster’s magazine office every day and begging for work. Bow always did know how to hustle.
21. The Public Adored Her
In January 1929, Clara Bow received more than 45,000 letters in a single month. In a purely-postage world, that’s a lot of licked stamps.
22. She Was a One-Time Wonder
Eventually, Bow’s scraping and begging paid off…sort of. She landed a role in 1921’s Beyond the Rainbow. Desperately eager to please, Bow nailed her five scenes and even managed to cry real tears—a feat many actresses today can’t even match. But when she sat down to watch the film, she was utterly devastated.
23. Her First Director Betrayed Her
To Bow’s eternal shame, the director cut down her scenes in the final edit of Beyond the Rainbow. According to Bow herself, when she saw the final print of the film, she felt “sick to her stomach” and nearly quit acting all together. Only this is Clara Bow we’re talking about, and she didn’t have a quitting bone in her. Except she was due for more humiliation.
24. She Suffered a Brutal Rejection
When she was trying to make it in movies, the petite and cute Bow said casting directors always turned her down—for one disturbing reason. As she confessed, “I was too young, or too little, or too fat. Usually I was too fat.” Need I remind you that she was 16 years old at the time? Real nice, 1920s casting directors, real nice.
25. She Went to Disturbing Lengths for a Part
Bow knew she was due for her big break, and she was absolutely determined to get it. When she heard they were casting for the film Down the Sea in Ships, she tried to hide her offending “youth” by marching down to the casting couch in a grown-up dress she “borrowed” from her mother. Well, this backfired horribly.
26. She Sweet-Talked Her Way Into a Role
As it turned out, the director actually wanted a young tomboy type for the part, and Bow’s disguise worked a little too well. He told her she was too old, and Bow had to spend the rest of the appointment convincing him she was a kid after all. Finally, though, her luck turned, and he gave her the part. It was a fateful decision.
27. She Gave up Everything for Fame
After the release of Down the Sea in Ships, Bow became an absolute sensation—but that fame came with a high price. Up until this point, Bow had been working in her hometown of New York, but Hollywood soon offered her a contract. In the blink of an eye, Bow left everything to travel west to Tinseltown…and she soon found out it was a snake pit.
28. She Had a Punishingly Short Attention Span
In addition to athletics and acting, Bow was also a fan of poetry and music. The only art that was off-limits to her, according to some, was novels. She simply didn’t have the attention span for long-form literature.
29. She Had One Rare “Gift”
Though Bow lost her fair share of cat fights in Hollywood, she did have one secret weapon. She was renowned throughout the studio lots for her ability to cry on cue. As her director Frank Tuttle recalled, “She could cry on demand, opening the floodgate of tears almost as soon as I asked her to weep.” This, however, came with a dark side…
30. She Was More Fragile Than She Seemed
Throughout her entire career—and particularly during her tragic end—Bow was incredibly emotionally fragile. Though this is exactly what helped her cry at the drop of a hat, Tuttle also noted that it made Bow “full of nervous energy and pitifully eager to please everyone.” Soon enough, this tendency would ravage Bow.
31. Her Father Was a Total Creep
Bow’s father Robert was one unsavory dude. Although his famous daughter supported him financially and gave him jobs, Robert always managed to be out of money. He eventually took up a full-time “position” on her film sets, where he roamed around drunkenly and tried to pick up actresses by telling them he was Clara Bow’s father. Oh, but it’ll get creepier…
32. She Starred in a Landmark Film
Bow starred in the first movie to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars. That would be Wings in 1927. The director William Wellman described her as “mad and crazy, but WHAT a personality!”
33. She Courted Scandal
Bow might have looked sweet, but you best not cross her. In 1924, she moved into a house with her father and—gasp—her boyfriend at the time, Hollywood cameraman Arthur Jacobson. This did not please her studio executive B.P. Schulberg. Schulberg fired Jacobson for leading his starlet into scandal…and Bow’s unhinged reaction was one for the ages.
34. She Flexed Her Power Over the Studio
When Bow found out that her sweetums got sacked, she marched right up to Schulberg’s swanky office and tore up her contract right in his face—then threw it in his mug for good measure. Not done yet, she began reaming him out for daring to control her private life, and finished by strutting her world-class stems out the door. What a dame.
35. She Earned a Fiery Nickname
Though school-girls used to tease Bow for her “carrot top” red hair, her wild locks did earn her another cool nickname when she hit the big time. Enraptured audiences and critics called her “The Brooklyn Bonfire.”
36. Her Bosses Mistreated Her
For all that they were making stacks of money off of her, Bow’s studio executives and directors were incredibly demeaning of their star. People called her “birdbrain,” while another executive named her as the “easy winner of the dumbbell award” and claimed she “couldn’t act.” However, nothing could be further from the truth.
37. She Had Hidden Depths
In actuality, Bow was very sharp, it’s just that her acting was more hands-on than cerebral. She needed specific direction and hated rehearsals, but after that she’d take off. One of her more understanding directors, Victor Fleming, compared her to a Stradivarius violin, saying “Touch her, and she responded with genius.” Take that.
38. Her Manners Shocked People
Bow had plenty of charm, but her manners were atrocious. High-class Hollywood society considered her and her brassy ways “dreadful” because she refused to bow down to them or their old rules. As Bow once retorted, “They are snobs. Frightful snobs … I’m a curiosity in Hollywood. I’m a big freak, because I’m myself!”
39. Her Real Voice Was Surprising
In 1929, Bow’s life and stardom changed forever. Talkies were now the thing in Hollywood, and the former silent film star had to put her vocal chords on the line for the first time ever. When audiences first watched her in a talkie, they might have been shocked at what they heard: You see, Bow still had an intense Brooklyn accent.
40. Her Career Took a Huge Turn
The shift from silent films to talkies was an enormous sea change in Hollywood that drowned many a star—but contrary to popular belief, our gritty Clara survived and thrived. Audiences still loved her, Brooklyn accent or not, and her new films were hit. Yet the new talkie format still took a huge toll on the actress…
41. Talkies Nearly Destroyed Her
In truth, Bow never liked talkies, calling them “stiff and limiting” and complaining that “you lose your cuteness.” She also never got comfortable with them. One day on the set of her talkie The Wild Party, she had to endure retake after retake because she couldn’t stop nervously glancing at the microphone above her. And that wasn’t all…
42. She Had a Disturbing Addiction
According to those close to Bow on her film sets, the actress was hiding a dark secret. Never that emotionally stable, the stressors of talkies pushed her over the limit. Her nerves were “all shot,” and Photoplay even reported sightings of bottles of sedatives by her bed in one long row. But the worst was yet to come.
43. She Lived Life on the Wild Side
Bow lived her life to the limit, and became a tabloid staple during the heady years of her fame. She had no problem carousing late into the night and then rolling into the film set in the early hours of the morning, taking whatever lover she pleased along the way. Some of her most famous flings included the heartthrob actors Gary Cooper and Gilbert Roland.
44. Only One Thing Could Make Her Cry
In order to cry on cue, Bow put herself through intense mental anguish. Reportedly, all she had to do was listen to the lullaby “Rock-a-Bye Baby” to turn the faucet on. If you’re not tearing up just thinking about that, it goes deeper: Bow claimed the lullaby reminded her of her late, little friend who expired in her arms.
45. She Was Accused of Indecent Behavior
Soon enough, Bow’s wild lifestyle caught up to her in a big way. The beautiful Bow was pretty indiscriminate about where she lay her head, and her habits always got her into hot water if her bed-mate was actually, uh, married. A woman even once brought Bow to divorce court for stealing her husband. And a bigger scandal was on the horizon…
46. She Had a Bitter Falling out
In 1931, one of Clara Bow’s best friends turned on her. That year, Bow discovered her secretary and confidant Daisy DeVoe had been mismanaging her money, and took her to court. Though it was DeVoe who was on trial, somehow Bow ended up with all the backlash—especially when Daisy revealed all of Clara’s worst secrets.
47. Her Friend Told Infamous Lies About Her
In front of the judge and jury, DeVoe related a series of stories about Bow’s fast and loose ways, many of them exaggerated. True or not, it didn’t matter. The tabloids started running infamously vicious stories about her, with outlandish claims of beastiality and other unsavory acts. After this blow, all her inner torment reached a terrifying climax.
48. Hollywood Gave Her a Humiliating Moniker
Bow’s frayed nerves during this time had already earned her the dubious title of “Crisis-a-day Clara” from her studio executives, but after her trial she simply couldn’t take it anymore. Bow was so worn down, she begged the studio to release her from her contract, and checked herself into a sanatorium. She was only 25 years old.
49. She Made a Desperate Comeback
Bow did try to make a comeback a couple years after—but although audiences and studios were still thirsty for her, her heart wasn’t in it. She signed a two-picture contract with Fox Film Corporation and admitted she had come back to Hollywood “for the sole purpose of making enough money to be able to stay out of it.” But the damage was already done.
50. She Had a Brief Happy Period
For a time, Bow tried to return to a normal life. She settled down with her hunky Cowboy co-star Rex Bell, moving into his ranch outside of Hollywood and marrying him in December, 1931. It almost worked: They had two children together and lived happily at first. Yet as always with Bow, darker days were just around the corner.
51. She Bared It All on Screen
When Bow made her short-lived comeback in the 1933 drama Hoop-La, she really let it all hang out. Her costumes in the film were so “scarce,” one magazine noted they “wouldn’t weigh two pounds soaking wet.” Maybe more scandalously, Bow’s new husband Rex Bell was less than pleased about her giving away the goods…
52. Her Husband Shamed Her
When Bell saw Hoop-La, he raised his eyebrows higher than anyone, and he and Bow got into an explosive fight about her scantily-clad acting. According to Bow, Bell accused her of enjoying “showing myself off.” Bow’s pert response? I make the big bucks in this family, and this brought in the paycheck. Yeah, sit down Rex.
53. She Started a Risque Trend
In 1925, Clara started a scandalous sensation. That year, she went out of her house in hand-painted legs, a phenomenon that soon women all over California were taking up.
54. She Had a Mysterious Illness
Just as Bow was beginning to be happy with Rex, she started showing disturbing signs. She almost never went out of the house and refused to socialize, but she also hated if her husband left her alone. By 1944, the truth was unavoidable. The starlet was suffering from deep and violent mental issues. That very year, Bow resorted to desperate measures…
55. She Tried to End It All
In 1944, when she was still in her 30s, Clara Bow tried to commit suicide, leaving only a note. Its contents were heartbreaking. In it Bow confessed that she preferred eternal slumber to the idea of always being a public figure, and every day seemed unbearable to her. There’s always a price for stardom, and it’s never pretty.
56. She Was a Self-Made Star
Clara was different in more ways than one, but nothing was as unique as her rise to stardom. In the 1920s, studio systems ruled the roost, and actresses often rose or fell on the power of studio publicity sprees. Not so with Bow, who functioned on a personal contract with Schulberg. As fellow starlet Louise Brooks put it, Bow “became a star with nobody’s help.”
57. She Forced Her Friend to Marry Her Father
Clara Bow could be a devoted lover, only she sometimes showed her devotion in strange ways. When her friend Tui Lorraine faced exile from America and desperately needed a cash injection, Clara generously offered…her own gross father, Robert. Amazingly, Tui and Robert actually went through with it, but not without a handful of drama.
58. She Was an Illicit Object of Desire
Bow’s friends wondered what Tui was possibly getting out of the marriage. Tui did complain about Creepy Robert’s insatiable appetite in bed, but she put up with it. That’s because she was hiding a more scandalous motive than money. Tui wanted to be closer to Clara…since she was actually in unrequited love with the star. Of course she was, have you seen the girl?
59. She Was the First “It Girl”
In 1927, Bow gained eternal fame when she starred in the flapper flick “It.” At the time, “It Girl” was a brand-new term, and Bow was the first to become permanently associated with it when she played the brash title character. That’s right, followers like Edie Sedgwick and Sienna Miller have Clara Bow to thank.
60. Her Father Hurt Her in the Worst Way
If you ever felt even a little bad for Clara’s father, you should know one thing. He committed an unforgivable act. When Bow was 16 and alone, Robert attacked her in the bedroom. Perhaps most poignantly, Bow barely if ever talked about this incident; her biographer, David Stenn, unearthed evidence about the attack.
61. Her Final Performance Was Poetic
Clara’s Bow’s final public performance was not on the silver screen, but on the radio. For all that she hated “talkies,” she made a cameo as the “mystery voice” in the 1947 radio show Truth or Consequences in their “Mrs. Hush” contest. What a fitting final curtain call for a performer who got her start in a national competition.
62. She Had an Affair With a Vampire
Of all of Bow’s scandalous affairs, her tryst with horror star Bela Lugosi was the most bizarre—right from the very beginning. Bow was attracted to Lugosi when he was still doing the stage version of Dracula, and sauntered down to a performance one night wearing only her mink coat and bathing suit. Need I say that Bela was hooked?
63. She Had an Open Relationship
When it came to Lugosi, Bow took her bad girl image into overdrive. The pair were obsessed with each other, but as two Hollywood hotties, they also saw other people. Lugosi must have gotten confused about this arrangement, because during this time he married…not Clara Bow. In 1929, Lugosi tied the knot with wealthy socialite Beatrice Weeks. This did not end well.
64. She Was the Scandalous Other Woman
Lugosi’s marriage to Weeks might have been for her money, or maybe he was trying to make Bow jealous. Either way, no one was surprised when it ended, but they were downright astonished by just how quickly things went south. The union only lasted an infamous three days. And the reason Weeks cited for the split? Clara Bow, of course. As we’ll see, it only got weirder from there.
65. She Became a Bizarre Totem
Although Clara Bow’s love for Bela Lugosi flamed out fast, she gave the Dracula star a creepy memento of their time together, and it wasn’t a chaste lock of hair. It was her own naked portrait. Even more scandalously, the OG vampire hung it over his bed for the rest of his life, including through his next two marriages. In fact, the naughty work was still hanging over him when he passed. And they say love isn’t real.
66. She Underwent Harrowing Treatments
In order to manage her deteriorating mental health in the 1940s, Bow checked herself into a sanatorium again, this time with much worse symptoms. The diagnosis was disturbing. Although doctors never definitively answered her issues, they believed she had schizophrenia and forced her into shock treatments. But they also discovered Bow’s biggest, darkest trauma…
67. Her Past Held a Dark Key
While in the sanatorium, Bow told doctors about the darkest period of her life—and it went back to the very beginning. You see, as it turned out, mental problems ran in Bow’s family, and her breakdowns and crises traced directly back to her mentally-ill mother Sarah. But while Bow’s issues came naturally, Sarah’s were born of cruel twist of fate…
68. Her Mother Traumatized Her
When Sarah was just a teenager, she fell from a second-story window and was never the same again. She suffered seizures and psychosis from the ensuing head injury, and Bow grew up learning how to control her mother during these fits. A young child taking care of a parent is never a good thing, but then the situation took a truly bitter turn.
69. Her Own Mother Rejected Her
Bow confessed that her mother’s mental issues often made her “mean” to her, but as the years passed, Sarah’s hostile episodes got worse and worse. When Bow told her mother as a teenager that she wanted to be an actress, Sarah’s response was utterly cold-blooded. She told Bow she would be “better off dead” than a Hollywood star, then made good on that disturbing promise…
70. She Barely Escaped a Horrific End
In February 1922, Clara Bow awoke to a horrifying sight: Her mother holding a butcher’s knife to her throat. The young girl was miraculously able to escape and then disarm her mother before she could hurt her, and she quickly locked Sarah up. The next morning, the older woman couldn’t even remember the incident.
71. She Repressed Her Emotions
Bow dealt with her trauma in a tragic way—that is, she didn’t deal with it at all. When she tried to talk about “The Butcher Knife Episode” once in an interview, she cut herself off, saying, “but I can’t tell you about it. Only when I remember it, it seems to me I can’t live.” No wonder Clara Bow lived like she was running out of time.
72. She Abandoned Her Family
After reliving all this trauma in the sanatorium, Bow couldn’t go back to the way she was. Although she refused to believe her mother’s attack had anything to do with her problems and left the sanatorium in a huff, she didn’t return to her young family. Instead, she lived by herself in a small bungalow until her devastating end.
73. Her Passing Was Tragic
When the magnificent Clara Bow passed in 1965 from a heart attack at the young age of 65, she was a has-been by choice. Unable to cope with the pressures of a public life or work through the traumas of her childhood, she locked herself up in that bungalow for decades, and passed almost entirely alone. Yet that wasn’t the only tragedy.
74. History Forgot Her
By the time the reclusive Clara Bow passed, almost no one remembered her. AFI left her off their iconic “100 Years…100 Stars” list, and movie historian Kevin Brownlow completely omitted her from his silent film book The Parade’s Gone By. But there is, at long last, a happy ending for Clara Bow—and it comes from a most unusual heroine…
75. She Had a Surprising Savior
After reading The Parade’s Gone By, Bow’s fellow silent film star Louise Brooks personally wrote to Kevin Brownlow and admonished him for giving her a whole chapter while giving Bow zilch. As the sassy broad wrote, “You brush off Clara Bow for some old nothing like Brooks.” Brooks’ letter actually had the intended effect.
Appropriately chastised, Brownlow included a whole segment on Bow in his next documentary, sparking renewed interest in the lovely, effervescent, and indescribable Clara Bow. As it should be.