21 Surprising Facts About "It Girl" Clara Bow

Actress and "It Girl" Clara Bow circa 1932.
Actress and "It Girl" Clara Bow circa 1932. / Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Clara Bow, one of the earliest megastars of the silent film era, is famous for being Hollywood’s first “It Girl.” But there’s a lot more to Bow’s dramatic life than bobbed hair and flapper couture. Here are 20 fab facts about one of early cinema’s brightest stars.

1. Clara Bow was a Brooklyn native.

Clara Gordon Bow was born on July 29, 1905 in a tenement apartment above a Baptist church at 697 Bergen Street in Brooklyn's Prospect Heights neighborhood. Bow’s parents, Sarah and Robert, were poor and moved frequently around Brooklyn during Bow’s childhood. Her strong Brooklyn accent caused her some stress when the transition to talkies came along—though her accent did not, as is sometimes reported, ruin her career.

2. Clara Bow is connected to a Brooklyn legend.

While growing up in Brooklyn, young Bow took a job working at a hot dog stand owned by a man named Nathan Handwerker. She didn’t work there long; in 1921, she won an acting contest and was put on the path toward fame. Handwerker did alright for himself in the culinary arena, though. The hot dog stand Bow worked at grew into the Nathan’s Famous brand. (Cary Grant is another Nathan’s alum.)

3. Clara Bow was cut from her first film.

Bow's victory in the “Fame and Fortune” magazine contest got her a role in her first film, Beyond the Rainbow, in which she played the lead’s little sister. When the film opened, Bow invited two friends from school to see it with her, only to discover that her role was among those that had been cut from the film entirely.

4. Clara Bow’s mother tried to kill her.

Clara Bow relaxes on the sofa of her Beverly Hills home, in the company of her father, Robert Bow, in 1928.
Clara Bow relaxes on the sofa of her Beverly Hills home, in the company of her father, Robert Bow, in 1928. / General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To say that Sarah Bow was angry that her daughter had entered that movie contest would be a major understatement. When she was told that Clara had entered a movie contest, Sarah fainted, then told Clara that she was going to hell for what she had done. But that wasn't even close to the worst of it: Sarah actually tried to murder Clara while she was shooting Beyond the Rainbow. Clara woke up one night to find her mother standing over her with a butcher knife, who then told her, "I'm gonna kill ya, Clara. It'll be better." Sarah fainted and didn't remember the incident the next morning. Later, she chased Clara around their apartment, again with a butcher knife. Sarah was committed to an asylum; Clara suffered from lifelong insomnia.

5. Clara Bow wasn’t cinema’s first flapper.

Bow is often thought of as the flapper icon of silent cinema. And though she’s probably the most iconic, she wasn’t the first. That honor goes to the tragic Olive Thomas, who starred in The Flapper (1920) a good three years before Bow’s Black Oxen, the first film in which she played a flapper, hit screens. Bow was also beaten to the punch by actress Colleen Moore, who starred in Flaming Youth earlier in 1923.

6. Clara Bow was the original “It Girl.”

The film of Bow’s that had the most cultural impact was It, about a salesgirl (Bow) who has a crush on the upper-class manager of the department store where she works. The movie was loosely based on a two-part serial in Cosmopolitan by Elinor Glyn, who wrote that “It” was “That quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With 'It' you win all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man. 'It' can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.” Glyn was paid $50,000 by Paramount for the rights to the concept as “It” and Glyn’s endorsement of Bow as the “It Girl.” Glyn also has a cameo in the film, playing herself.

7. “It Girl” wasn’t Clara Bow’s only nickname.

In an insensitive nod to Bow’s scandalous lifestyle and mental health issues, producer and studio head B.P. Schulberg nicknamed Bow “Crisis-A-Day Clara.

8. Clara Bow was amazingly popular.

Clara Bow poses next to a giant portrait of herself, taken by photographer Eugene Robert Richee, in 1928.
Clara Bow poses next to a giant portrait of herself, taken by photographer Eugene Robert Richee, in 1928. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Audiences loved Bow. Between 1927 and 1930, she was either the biggest or second biggest box office draw in America. At one point, she received a whopping 45,000-plus fan letters in a single month.

9. Clara Bow could cry on cue.

Bow “could cry at the drop of a hat, and you'd believe her," William Kaplan, a prop man at Paramount, once said of the actress. It was a skill she utilized on her first film, Beyond the Rainbow—though she later explained her ability in a pretty depressing way: "It was easy for me t'cry. All I hadda do was think of home."

10. Clara Bow was engaged to the director of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.

At one point, Bow was engaged to Victor Fleming, who would later direct Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. He also directed the 1933 comedy Bombshell, about an uber-popular film actress (played by Jean Harlow, in one of her best roles) who yearns to escape her cadre of professional moochers (which includes her actual family) and live a normal life, only to discover that the life of a film star is all she’s really suited for. The film, per the biography Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow, is meant to be a satire of Bow’s life.

11. Clara Bow is the reason the boom mic was created.

Director Dorothy Arzner is often credited with inventing the first boom mic—which is likely a bit of a simplification, given that film professionals were all figuring how to work with this new thing called “sound” at the same time. So multiple people probably “invented” the boom mic roughly contemporaneously. Still, the story goes that Bow had a large role in the creation of the now-ubiquitous piece of equipment. Arzner directed Bow in the latter’s first talkie, 1929’s The Wild Party. Bow’s habit of walking around during filming, which was easy for directors to deal with during the silent age, proved to be problematic during the early talkie era, when microphones had to be planted on-set (sometimes hidden in literal plants). To track Bow in all her restlessness, Arzner rigged a microphone to a fishing rod, and the boom mic was born.

12. Clara Bow defended Dorothy Arzner after an awkward on-set moment.

Clara Bow clings to Charles 'Buddy' Rogers in Dorothy Arnzner's Get Your Man (1927).
Clara Bow clings to Charles 'Buddy' Rogers in Dorothy Arnzner's Get Your Man (1927). / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On the set of Get Your Man (1927), Arzner set the crew into gales of laughter when she instructed Bow and co-star Buddy Rogers to “come together, meet in the middle, and we fade out.” Bow ran to the embarrassed director and embraced her, yelling “She don't know what she said! ... The boys’ll try ta twist everythin’ into a double meanin’ on ya, see. Anythin’ for a laugh.”

13. Clara Bow was involved in an early Hollywood scandal.

Perhaps the most scandalous chapter in Bow’s life involves her one-time secretary/best friend Daisy DeVoe, who was put on trial for allegedly stealing from Bow. The 1931 trial and attendant press furor dredged up all sorts of sordid information about Bow’s extravagant lifestyle and sexual affairs. Many of Bow’s papers, including love letters, had been taken by DeVoe and were thus entered as evidence, their contents thus brought up on the stand. The American public, mired in the Great Depression, turned on Bow, and her career never recovered to its former heights. DeVoe was convicted of one count of grand theft and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

14. One tabloid reporter went above and beyond to report filthy rumors about Clara Bow—and went to jail for it.

15. The tabloid Court Reporter, claiming to have gotten salacious details about Bow’s private life from DeVoe, published some whoppers about the embattled screen star. These tales included, but were not limited to: Drug use, sleeping with women, public sex, and bestiality. Karma came for Court Reporter’s publisher, Fred Girnau, when he was convicted of sending obscene material through the mail and sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison.

15. Clara Bow is rumored to have slept with John Wayne.

One of the most memorable rumors about Bow’s sexual appetites came from Kenneth Anger’s notorious Hollywood Babylon, which published all sorts of titillating—and mostly false—anecdotes about the stars of early Hollywood. Per Anger, Bow partied with—and slept with—the entire USC football team, including young offensive tackle Marion Morrison, who was later (and more famously) known as John Wayne. There is no evidence that this actually happened.

16. Clara Bow co-starred in the first Best Picture Oscar Winner—but she wasn’t a fan of the movie.

Clara Bow resting between shots during the filming of Wings (1927).
Clara Bow resting between shots during the filming of Wings (1927). / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Bow was the female lead in the first-ever film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture: 1927’s Wings, a romantic drama centering on two WWI pilots. (To be entirely accurate, that year the category thought of today as Best Picture was actually two categories, one called “Outstanding Picture” and one called Unique and Artistic Picture. Wings won the former award.) She hated her “girl next door” character, however, calling Wings “a man’s picture and I’m just the whipped cream on top of the pie.”

17. Bela Lugosi commissioned a nude portrait of Clara Bow.

Fearing that her strong Brooklyn accent would hamper her transition to talkies, a curious Bow went to a theatrical performance of Dracula, whose star—a Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi—was able to perform in English even though he didn’t actually speak the language (yet). Their relationship, although brief, made enough of an impact on Lugosi that he commissioned a nude portrait of Bow that he kept until his death.

18. Clara Bow and Gary Cooper were an item.

Clara Bow may not be the reason Gary Cooper got his start in film, but she certainly gave him a boost. After spotting him on the Paramount lot, Bow insisted that he be cast in It; he was given a small role, playing a newspaper reporter. Later, he showed up in Bow’s Wings. They embarked on an intense, six-moth relationship that ended in part because Cooper’s mother objected to Bow. After their breakup, Bow had this to say: Cooper had “the biggest cock in Hollywood and no ass to push it with.”

19. Clara Bow retired from acting early and became a rancher.

Clara Bow’s final film, Hoopla, came out in 1933, when Bow was the ripe old age of 28. She retired with her husband, Western actor Rex Bell, to a ranch in Searchlight, Nevada, near the California border. "Walking Box Ranch," as they called it (a tip of the hat to the old-style Hollywood film cameras), was a working cattle ranch into the '80s as well as being a hang-out for some of Bow's famous friends, including Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and Errol Flynn.

20. Clara Bow was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

A photo of Clara Bow from 1925.
A photo of Clara Bow from 1925. / Eugene Robert Richee/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While in her 40s, Bow engaged in intense psychotherapy and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. (Her mother, too, suffered from mental health problems and died in an asylum when Bow was young.) Therapy brought out suppressed childhood memories, including her mother locking her in a pest-infested closet so she could bring over johns and her father sexually abusing her.

21. Clara Bow inspired Betty Boop.

Bow was one of the women who provided Max Fleischer with inspiration for Betty Boop, the squeaky-voiced flapper icon. Other inspirations include singer Helen Kane, who sued Paramount for what she called Fleischer’s “deliberate caricature” of her. The court ruled against Kane, noting that Boop was a composite of several different women, including Bow.

Additional Sources: Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild by David Stenn