Clara Gordon Bow (July 29, 1905 – September 27, 1965), was known as the “it girl” in Hollywood during the 1920s for her stardom in silent movies. Her flamboyant nature and bohemian image cast her as the original flapper girl and it’s most recognizable sex symbol.
This glowing star rose from the shadows of poverty and the hardship of caring for her mother who suffered from seizures and psychotic episodes, and a father who struggled to support his family and often abandoned the family for long stretches. There are stories that her father was both mentally and physically abusive, which may have included rape, but Clara never abandoned her father and eventually brought him to Hollywood to keep him by her side. Her mother died just before Clara’s first lead role, and after attempting to cut Clara’s throat when she told her mother she was becoming an actor.
Impoverished life in the Brooklyn New York tenements at the beginning of the century was a hard and unforgiving life. There were no social programs or aid. People either survived any way they could or died. Clara told stories of her mother sometimes working as a prostitute and “entertaining” men while she hid in a closest.
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During her entire career and even for decades after her death Clara Bow’s public reputation was soiled by outlandish stories of lurid behavior, most of which was later proved to be false.
The two contributing factors to this was the mindset of the Hollywood elite at the time and her openness about her horrendous childhood and flamboyance. Most of her fellow stars in Hollywood of the 1920s also came from similar backgrounds, but as they became established in their careers they took on the persona of aristocrats.
They hid or denied their lowly beginnings. To talk openly to the press and public about family mental illness, abuse and poverty was abhorrent to these people and Hollywood society shunned her.
Tabloids began pumping out rumors and torrid stories about wild sexual orgies, lesbian relationships, bestiality, and in one instance attempted to blackmail her. The tabloid publisher was arrested by federal officers and sent to prison for eight years.
Long after her death Clara Bow was again maligned first in a book called Hollywood Babylon by avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger. The book details the scandals of Hollywood personalities from the 1900s to the 1950s.
First published in the US in 1965, it suggests that Bow took on the entire USC Trojan football team in a wild orgy. In another book her morality was thoroughly questioned by Budd Schulberg, son of the powerful producer B.P. Schulberg who exploited her sexually and held control of her early film career.
In his book Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince (Stein and Day, 1981) Schulberg says “Clara Bow, no matter how great her popularity, was a low-life and a disgrace to the community”. The football team story has been proven false several times over the years and was put to rest by biographer David Stern.
Clara Bow appeared in 56 movies from 1922 to 1933. She won a photo beauty contest that launched her career in Hollywood and her last movie was Hoop-la in 1933. Bow and cowboy actor Rex Bell (real name George F. Beldam) who later became a Lieutenant Governor of Nevada, married in 1932 and had two sons, Tony Beldam (born 1934, changed name to Rex Anthony Bell, Jr.) and George Beldam, Jr. (born 1938).
Bow spent her last years living modestly under the care of a live in nurse, from an estate worth about $500,000 at the time of her death. She died on September 27, 1965, age 60, of a heart attack while watching a Gary Cooper movie.
The autopsy revealed that Bow suffered from atherosclerosis, a heart disease established in early adolescence and had suffered from an undiagnosed heart attack years prior. She is buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.