Clara Bow as shown in article about hair styles in the 1920s.
January 8, 2014

It Girl Clara Bow

I don't really have a favorite female movie star from the 1920s. There's Harlow in the 1930s, Rita Hayworth in the 1940s and maybe Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe and Kim Novak and Cyd Charisse in the 1950s, but before and after that not too many that I really like. If I had one for the 1920s, I think Clara Bow would have to be “It.”.

I think my favorite film with Clara in it is probably Wings, though I have see one or two of other films, notably the afore mentioned It. This biography of Clara goes into great detail about her early years, and the years she actually worked in films, which is up to 1933, but seems relatively rushed in dealing with her later years, 1933–1965.

Clara grew poor with an absent father and a crazy mother. She dropped out of school when she was about 15, and sought work as a model and an actress. On her first trip to Hollywood she did something that I think many of us would like to do when buying some good thing:

"‘Clara’s first trip to the dining car was an experience I shall never forget,’ continued Alton. ‘She could read, but the menu was Abyssinian to her.’ Clara solved the problem by ordering one of everything , and during a stopover in Chicago she made Alton take her to a chop suey parlor.”*

*Stenn, David (2000-03-13). Clara Bow (p. 32). Rowman & Littlefield. Kindle Edition.

" There are some oddities in Stenn's writing. For example, here is his comment on Clara's female problems:
"Her irregular menstrual cycle and abdominal pains led Dr. Clarence Toland to advise not only the removal of her appendix, but her ovaries as well. The medically correct term for this operation was ‘castration.’*

*Stenn, David (2000-03-13). Clara Bow (p. 132). Rowman & Littlefield. Kindle Edition.

" What's up with this? Surely castration is an exclusively male thing.

Clara battled depression and security for much of her life, and was hospitalized at the Institute of Living in Connecticut in the 1950s. Stenn doesn't explicitly say which tests she was given, but she was apparently given the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory). He gives her results:

"Meanwhile a battery of psychological tests began. As expected, Clara scored abnormally in every category . Her most marked aberrations included ‘Hypochondriasis,’ a result which confirmed the imaginary basis for her incessant physical complaints , and ‘Psychopathic Deviate,’ a condition involving ‘an inability to profit from past experience’ and ‘a disregard for social mores.’ Of course, anyone who read a fan magazine or newspaper in 1930 could have figured as much.

“More revealing and even more abnormal was a massive ‘Depression’ factor caused by her retirement almost twenty years earlier.”*

*Stenn, David (2000-03-13). Clara Bow (p. 261). Rowman & Littlefield. Kindle Edition.

" Clara may have been, and indeed probably was, a bit of a slut. Stenn, however, debunks the allegation that she had a fling with the USC football team one night. Presumably only the first string players, since the allegation is for 11 men. In any case he attempts to lay that rumor to rest. One reviewer on Amazon gave the present work a three star rating, and contended that Clara was a slut, and proud of it. His contention appears to have been based on Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon, which Anger claimed to have researched by “mental telepathy.” So much for Mr. Anger's claims.

Clara may have had multiple partners prior to her marriage, however, Stenn does not cite any affairs, on her part, during her marriage. He ultimately argues that she was schizophrenic with a break occurring during her 16th year. The schizophrenia was expressed through heightened sexuality and through her work, when she retired the outlet that film had provided was lost, and she was quietly mad for the remainder of her life.

Now I'm one of those who feels, for various reasons that I won't go into, that I've been victimized by shrinks, so I take a somewhat jaundiced view of psychiatrists. While the MMPI is regarded, according to Wikipedia, as the gold standard of psychological tests, I've taken a more negative view since learning, back in the 1970s when I read Kate Millet's Sexual Politics, that the female portion of the gender identity scale derived from the answers of male homosexuals. So Clara may have been mad as a hatter for all I know, but she doesn't seem to have heard voices, and she wasn't violent.

Clara died in 1965 just shy of turning 60. She'd retired from pictures at the ripe age of 27, and made some great pictures, particularly during the silent era. She overcame poverty, familial insanity, and, possibly, paternal rape in her teen years. Not bad for a poor girl from New York.

Next up, a book on the great jazz songs.