Named the first ever “It girl,” Clara Bow made a huge impact in the roaring twenties and was known as one of the decade’s leading sex symbols.
In 1921, at sixteen years old, she entered a nationwide acting contest called “Fame and Fortune.”
Showing up in her tomboyish sweater, lackluster skirt, and with absolutely no experience, Clara’s chances of winning were slim. But when she turned on the emotion, she won the judges over. She walked away with a silver trophy and an evening gown.
After the contest, Clara dropped out of high school to pursue her dreams. Then with two movies under her belt, Clara felt she was on her way, but then tragedy struck. Her mother’s mental health began to deteriorate after a diagnosis of epilepsy. Her father offered little help and left Clara alone to deal with her mother’s erratic fits of rage and temper. One night, Clara woke up to her mother holding a knife to her throat. Clara’s father had his wife committed. Even though Clara knew this was in her best interest, it still caused her great distress and in 1923, her mother died.
That same year, Clara left her father and New York and headed for Hollywood. She secured several other silent film roles and charmed audiences with her perky personality and her bold sexuality. She portrayed the perfect, adorable and charming “flapper” and the motion picture world took notice.
In 1926 she signed her first big movie contract with Paramount Pictures, and in 1927 she landed the lead role in a movie called It. The film was an instant box office success and Clara Bow became America’s first “It girl.”
Clara starred in 46 silent films, and eleven “talkies.” Her star burned bright, but at age 26, the actress burned out and started to show signs of mental instability, much like her mother. In 1931, Clara married Rex Bell, a rancher from Texas. She dropped out of Hollywood and went to his ranch to recuperate. She starred in two more movies, but then officially retired from acting two years later to devote her life to her husband and sons.
But, Clara’s gradual slide into mental illness culminated in a suicide attempt in 1944. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia. When she was released from the hospital, she did not return to the ranch but instead bought a modest bungalow where she lived out the rest of her days until she succumbed to a heart attack in 1965.
Clara Bow became one of America’s best-loved film icons and the highest paid actress of her day. She influenced some of the most powerful people in Hollywood, and also the common woman who wanted to personify the loveable flapper with her “Clara Bow heart-shaped lips” and her charming down-to-earth realism and individuality.
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