Voices: Clara Bow’s Year as “Crisis-a-Day Clara” That Helped End Her Career

Clara Bow was born in 1905 and she was a has-been by 25.

The original It Girl, Clara’s life was a study in tragedy. Her mother fell out of a window when she was 16 and was later diagnosed with “psychosis due to epilepsy,” which didn’t make Clara’s childhood any better. At one point, Clara woke up to find her mother holding a knife to her throat. She got away, but that set the tone for her life: Peaceful one minute, fighting for survival the next.

Initially dreaming of becoming a gym teacher, Clara’s fascination with films and movie stars led to her film debut in 1923’s Down by the Sea in Ships, which earned her great reviews. She’d be a star for most of the next decade. The major difference between Clara Bow and her contemporaries: She was singularly open about everything and, more importantly, she never put on airs or attempted to imitate class. Needless to say, she was not overly popular in Hollywood. Certainly not with women.

By 1926, when It was released and made her “The It Girl” for all time, she was a massive, bankable star. Directors like Victor Fleming and Josef von Sternberg routinely called her the greatest actress on screen, though now she’s just known as the OG Marilyn Monroe. After a slew of scandals, not to mention the advent of the talkies, she married movie cowboy Rex Bell and retired. But Rex became a politician, and who better to trot out to events and dinners than his gorgeous movie star wife? At one point in 1944, Bell ran for Congress and Clara tried to kill herself, writing in a suicide note that she preferred death to public life. In 1949 she checked into a sanitarium, where no one could agree on what was wrong with her (if anything).

When she checked herself out, she went straight to a bungalow and lived alone, away from her family, until her death in 1965 at age 60.

So what happened to Clara Bow?

Well, a few things. She was uninhibited enough to be found problematic, and certainly rumors swirled about her on-set behavior when movies switched to talkies. She did struggle, because talkies were very static at the time due to an inability to track a performer across the soundstage, and that was rough for her. A beloved, apocryphal story is that her Brooklyn honk blew out the microphones on her first day.

And god, the rumors about her sex life! “Clara laid everything but the linoleum,” went one joke. They said that she was a lesbian, that she participated in orgies, that she banged the entire USC football team (including a young John Wayne). That she had sex with her Great Danes! Granted, she was a pretty free woman, but these weren’t the kinds of rumors circulating about other stars of her caliber. At least she did fuck the lanky Gary Cooper, despite his flat ass, and got off the immortal lines: “He’s hung like a horse and can go all night” and “Poor Gary. The biggest cock in Hollywood and nothing to push it with.”

For the full story of Clara’s incredibly modern performances and style, along with the string of scandals that left her emotionally bereft and barely functioning, listen to the episode. But let’s give Clara the final word:

“My life in Hollywood contained plenty of uproar. I’m sorry for a lot of it but not awfully sorry. I never did anything to hurt anyone else. I made a place for myself on the screen and you can’t do that by being Mrs. Alcott’s idea of a Little Woman.”

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