Clara Bow

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Jennifer Murdoch:

Clara had a problem with money.
Bow came from a family with little to nothing. She had an exploitative father, poor management, and not a ton of training on how to manage her finances. She was no Gloria Swanson-with-the-solid-gold-bathtub, but she did have a gambling problem, which came to light in a government investigation.

Clara didn’t play by the rules.
1920s Hollywood was trying really f-ing hard to prove that it had the same sort of class as New York. After a series of scandals and concerted clean-up efforts in the early 1920s, the image rehabilitation program seemed to be working. But Bow, by refusing to dispose of her attitude and accent, was the embodiment of all that was “new money” and "trashy" about Hollywood. She was gorgeous, sure, but she was gauche and an embarrassment. She wasn’t invited to who’s who parties in Hollywood, so she made her own (which, duh, were probably much more awesome — do you want to go to the stuffy classy party or the one with the football players, dancing, and flesh impact?) She was the beautiful, beguiling new girl in your circle of friends who you want to like, but who threatens the integrity of the group so you exclude her.

As a result, Hollywood stars, reporters, and others intent on preserving a specific image of the “movie colony” had little compunction tarnishing Bow’s image and/or keeping silent with the rumors started. Mean-girling, ****-shaming, class-snobbery — all in ample doses.

The first serious scandal broke in 1930, when Bow’s secretary and confidant Daisy DeVoe absconded with a large pile of Bow’s personal records following an argument over the handling of the star’s finances and future. (DeVoe had originally served as Bow’s hairdresser at Paramount — Devoe was to Bow as Ken Paves is to Jessica Simpson, only less prom hair.)

DeVoe attempted to blackmail Bow, but Bow called the police and took her to court. This was a spectacularly poor PR move, as a trial ensured that the specific stains on Bow’s dirty laundry would be made public knowledge. DeVoe also put on a dramatic show on the witness stand, insinuating Bow’s constant drunkenness, her hook-ups, and the number love letters she had destroyed at Bow’s behest (which, apart from the love letters, actually just sounds like freshman year in college, but bygones). DeVoe went to jail, but the damage was done.

Now, Paramount could have hushed this up. It could’ve given DeVoe hush money and made the case go away. But by Fall 1930, Bow’s star was already fading, and her troubles for the studio were such that the studio heads were eager for a reason not to renew her contract.

Soon thereafter, the suggestions made in the trial were amplified, made abject, and put in print in a three-week series in the Coast Reporter. These articles suggested what other “upright” publications, such as the fan magazines, had merely whispered: namely, that Clara Bow got around. She drank like a fish. She spent money, she took drugs, and she had sex with men, women, and, when neither of those was available, dogs. She had threesomes. She had sex in public. She was a living, breathing Dan Savage column.

I AM NOT KIDDING; THIS WAS IN PRINT. Sure, this was a tabloid — but not a News of the World bat-boy tabloid, more like a New York Post tabloid. People read this; people re-circulated this. And because her image was that of a joyful, hedonistic woman with which you would like to have sex, people believed it — if not the bestiality, then the wanton sexuality. Even when the editor of the paper was put in jail, the remainder of the suggestion stuck to her image like lint.

The articles demanded that Paramount cancel Bow’s contract, and after the middling success of Kick In and No Limit, the studio released her.

Bow made a few more films with Fox, but her career was over. Even a film lampooning the rumors about her (Call Her Savage), which featured Bow wrestling with a very large and virile Great Dane, couldn’t resurrect her career. By 1932, with the nation deeply mired in the Depression, the joy in consumption Bow had embodied — and that had resonated so profoundly — seemed excessive, even perverted.

Jennifer Murdoch:
Bow slipped from stardom, retreated, married a seemingly nice man, had some children, battled depression, and lived in relative obscurity for the next three decades. She died in 1965, purportedly while watching an old Gary Cooper Western. (That detail, however concocted, is totally the saddest. If I’m watching a YouTube video of my college boyfriend playing beer pong when I die, that will be the second saddest.)

That same year, avant garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger, best known for Scorpio Rising and generalized bat-****-craziness, published Hollywood Babylon. Babylon, which details silent and studio-era Hollywood stars' wanton antics, was so lascivious that it was banned for nearly a decade in the U.S. But like all things that American bans, it circulated widely in Europe, cultivating the American appetite for what it cannot have.  (Hollywood Babylon, the Kinder Surprise Egg of books?)

While some of Anger’s stories were true, many, including a story of Clara Bow and sexual relations with the entire USC football team, were exaggerated and unfounded. But again, they were easy to believe — even for a generation who knew Bow as little more than a star of their parents’ era — because of her known associations with the team. The gossip lesson: Say it once, and say it convincingly, and say it about someone who seems like they might have done it, and it will. never. go. away.

After a handful of years as the most desirable woman in America, Bow became its most abused punching bag. Of course, that’s how stardom works — contingent, as it is, upon our ever-shifting affections. But that doesn’t mean that the story of Bow isn’t a tragic one, or that we should forget what was done to a woman whose bliss was so clearly written all over her body.

Previously: Robert Mitchum, Smokin' the Dope.

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip.  No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.

Victoria Liss:
Clara Bow Dresses for Dinner

From Clara Bow's iconic film "It". A scene contrasting the preparations she and her romantic rival make to ready themselves for a dinner at the Ritz. Shopgirl Clara displays the inventiveness, ebullience, and other charms she'll need to catch the eye of her handsome employer.


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