Clara Bow: The actress who was a dazzling darling of the Roaring 1920s

Actress Clara Bow at ClickAmericana com

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Rediscover the roar behind the 20s: The life & legend of vintage celebrity actress Clara Bow

Do you know Clara Bow? A hundred years ago, she was an emerging star in the acting world — and today, her legacy is celebrated by a contemporary icon. How? The last song on Taylor Swift’s 2024 album, The Tortured Poets Department, is called simply “Clara Bow.”

Vintage actress Clara Bow black and white portrait (7)
Photo courtesy the Daniel D Teoli Jr. Archival Collection/Creative Commons 4.0

Clara Bow was the original “It Girl” of the Roaring Twenties. With her magnetic charm and effervescent personality, Bow became emblematic of an era defined by its breakneck pace and cultural revolutions.

From her humble beginnings to her ascent to silver screen stardom, we’re shining a light on her life — and what made her such an icon of early Hollywood that endures to this day.

Vintage actress Clara Bow black and white portrait (3)
Photo courtesy the Daniel D Teoli Jr. Archival Collection/Creative Commons 4.0

A rags-to-riches story

Born in Brooklyn in 1905, Clara Bow’s journey to fame is a classic tale of rags to riches. Her natural talent and vivacious spirit caught the eye of Hollywood’s elite, propelling her into the limelight.

Bow’s on-screen presence in films like “It” and “Wings” showcased her unique ability to blend innocence with allure, making her the quintessential flapper of the 1920s.

Her infectious energy and distinctive look, characterized by her cupid’s bow lips and expressive eyes, set the standard for the era’s beauty ideals.

Clara Bow in It - the it girl movie (1927) at ClickAmericana com

120+ gorgeous, glamorous actresses of the 1920s

An independent role model for modern audiences

What truly set Clara Bow apart was her ability to connect with the audience, embodying the carefree and rebellious spirit of the time.

Her portrayals of strong, independent women resonated with the newfound sense of freedom and empowerment that women were beginning to enjoy.

Off-screen, Bow’s life was just as colorful and eventful, marked by passionate romances and the glitz and glamour of Hollywood parties.

Vintage actress Clara Bow black and white portrait (1)
Photo courtesy the Daniel D Teoli Jr. Archival Collection/Creative Commons 4.0
Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild
  • Stenn, David (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 400 Pages - 03/13/2000 (Publication Date) - Cooper Square Press (Publisher)

Who was Clara Bow? A peek into the past

Below, we’ve put together a collection of vintage articles, photographs and videos that highlight some of the most memorable moments from Clara Bow’s life and career.

From her groundbreaking roles to her trendsetting fashion and the life challenges she endured, these pieces offer a glimpse into the world of a woman who wasn’t afraid to break the mold and become one of the most beloved figures in film history.

1927 Clara Bow - Girl of the Hour

Let’s step back in time and explore the legacy of Clara Bow, whose spirit and style continue to inspire even today. Through these carefully curated snippets from the past, we invite you to experience the charm and charisma of an icon who left her mark on Hollywood and beyond.

Vintage actress Clara Bow black and white portrait (8)
Photo courtesy the Daniel D Teoli Jr. Archival Collection/Creative Commons 4.0

Vintage biography & pictures of Clara Bow

The article below about Clara has a little too much fanciful prose to be considered a newsworthy biography — still, it presents a picture of the actress as viewed from a couple decades after her heyday.

Clara Bow’s three engagements (1928)

Gilbert Roland, Victor Fleming & Gary Cooper

Clara Bow's three engagements (1928) at ClickAmericana com

ARTICLE: Who remembers Clara Bow? The ‘It’ Girl story (1954)

By Earl Wingard in the Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota) June 20, 1954

Whatever happened to Clara Bow? Wait — did we hear someone ask, “Who is Clara Bow?”

It seems unbelievable that a whole generation has matured since the pert, curvaceous redhead tomboyed her way from a Brooklyn tenement to the pinnacle of Hollywood fame, just like in the movies.

Clara Bow was in her time — those years from 1926 to 1934 — what Marilyn Monroe is at the moment, only with more frosting, more spice.

They invented movie magazines so they could put Clara Bow on the cover. Men mumbled her name in their sleep. Women worshipped her — at a distance; hated her within reach of their men.

Clara Bow on the cover of Photoplay (1928) at ClickAmericana com
Clara Bow on the cover of Photoplay (1928)

Clara Bow, on the other hand, loved everybody in the broad sense, was linked romantically with several — Gary Cooper among them — in the Hollywood gossip sense, but married a rangy, sun-bronzed Nevadan cowboy actor Rex Bell.

ALSO SEE: How cowboy actor Tom Mix gained fame on a horse, and lost his life in a car

That marriage — a headline sensation that startled the nation — took place in Las Vegas, Nevada, on December 3, 1931. To modernize again, it was as though Marilyn Monroe up and eloped with the Lone Ranger, leaving Tonto holding the reins of a moist-eyed Silver.

The marriage won’t last, said the typewriters of Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons and the other Hollywood chit-chat experts. There were whispers of “publicity stunt,” “spur-of-the-moment” and “conflicting personalities.”

Vintage actress Clara Bow black and white portrait (2)
Photo courtesy the Daniel D Teoli Jr. Archival Collection/Creative Commons 4.0

Marriage still going strong

That was nearly 23 years ago and the marriage still is alive. It has stood firm against strains and buffeting that would test the stoutest anchor chain. At times the pressure has been brutal.

On June 1, Rex won the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor of Nevada, but Clara wasn’t with him to share the distinction. She was back in a sanitarium.

The Bells have two sons, Toni (Rex Anthony), 19, and George, 15.

But to fully understand the story of Clara Bow, we must leave Rex Bell and the boys momentarily, and take ourselves back to the beginning.

Silent movie actress Clara Bow with a dog - Star from the 1920s and 1930s

We can skim over the early years — a none-too-prosperous Brooklyn household, a neurotic mother (Clara once told an interviewer of a time her mother threatened her with a butcher knife), a carpenter father who never seemed to have steady work, and the child, born January 29, 1905, who grew up red-haired and freckled and with a tomboy temperament.

That would make Clara 49 now. The freckles vanished long ago. The red hair and the temperament remained.

Clara Bow in Red Hair - movie ad from 1927 at ClickAmericana com
Clara Bow in Red Hair – movie ad from 1927

The story really begins in 1922 when, as a movie-smitten 17-year-old, Clara entered a film magazine’s “Most Beautiful Girl in the World Contest” and won, For that she got a silver trophy, an evening gown and a bit part in a New York-made movie that died in the first reel.

Next came a part in “Down to the Sea in Ships,” a picture filmed in New Bedford, Mass. A Hollywood producer with uncanny vision saw the picture, tracked down Clara and signed her to a three-month contract at $50 a week, plus train fare to Hollywood.

Vintage actress Clara Bow at age 16 at ClickAmericana com

She reached stardom at Paramount, driving herself at a pace that in time led to her crackup: 10 pictures a year, thousands of personal appearances, and all the while thrashing about madly in the hectic Hollywood whirl during its whirlingest years.

Novelist Elinor Glynn in 1926 tagged Clara as the “It” girl from Miss Glynn’s book of the same name. “An indefinable sort of sex appeal,” she said. “You either have ‘It’ or you don’t.”

Clara Bow in The Saturday Night kid movie (1929) at ClickAmericana com

Tomboy in Hollywood

Clara’s contemporaries — Constance Bennett, Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri, Ruth Chatterton, Kay Francis — were Hollywood’s original “clothes horses.” To them furs and silks were essential to stardom. Yet the irrepressible Clara would show up at the Ambassador in a brightly-colored tam, a red dress and short socks trimmed with beads.

She drove a Kissel roadster (predecessor of today’s convertible), the back seat occupied by seven yapping Chow dogs, each, chosen because his fur matched Clara’s flaming hair. That was before she got a pet monkey.

1920s shoes for women: Stylish footwear from a century ago

Clara’s mother died before Clara attained stardom, but daughter set up dad in the dry cleaning business in Hollywood. Studio executives groaned when they’d see Clara roller-skating around the Paramount lot, picking up dry cleaning for her father’s business.

Baby photo of Clara Bow at ClickAmericana com
Baby photo of Clara Bow

Her Beverly Hills bungalow was a regular stopping place for patrol cars. There were always coffee and sandwiches waiting for hungry cops.

The University of Southern California football team found a home in Clara’s backyard and the star at one time was whispered as “that way’ about Jesse Hibbs, the Trojans’ All-American tackle.

But the competition for Clara’s heart was as keen as any gridiron contest that ever occupied the Trojans, First Clara was linked with dark, suave Gilbert Roland, and by a not-so-strange coincidence their engagement was announced about the time the studio released “Plastic Age” in which they co-starred. That romance fizzled.

ALSO SEE: Hanging from a clock, Harold Lloyd made movie history with his thrilling stunt in ‘Safety Last!’ (1923)

Clara Bow in It with Antonio Moreno in 1927 at ClickAmericana com
Clara Bow in It with Antonio Moreno in 1927

It was unfair to Southern Cal, but Clara next was reported sighing over Robert Savage, a former football star at Yale, Savage gave spectacular credence to the rumor when he slashed his wrists because, he said, Clara had rejected him. Savage survived but the romance didn’t.

Next two men on Clara’s list were director Victor Fleming and actor Gary Cooper. But two weeks after the announcement of her engagement to Fleming, Clara broke it with go explanation.

Cooper, who still can make feminine hearts flutter, was dismissed by the capricious redhead as “too jealous.”

In July 1929, entertainer Harry Richman announced that he and Clara would be wed. They never were.

Vintage actress Clara Bow black and white portrait (4)
Photo courtesy the Daniel D Teoli Jr. Archival Collection/Creative Commons 4.0

Salary rises to $5,000 weekly

The on-again, off-again romances made Clara Bow the most talked-about star of her time, perhaps of all time (with Ingrid Bergman and Rita Hayworth supporters lining up at the right to protest). Her studio claimed 10,000 fan letters a week, many of them proposals of marriage. Her salary jumped to a reported $5,000 a week.

But the emotional crises, the strain of work and her frenetic social activity took their toll, Clara suffered what was described as “a slight nervous breakdown” in 1927 during the filming of “Roughhouse Rosie.”

That led to her first stay in the Culver City, Calif., sanitarium. There have been many since, each a little longer.

Vintage actress Clara Bow in 1930 at ClickAmericana com
Vintage actress Clara Bow in 1930

A lawsuit changes everything

The Clara Bow bubble burst in November 1930 when Clara abruptly fired her personal secretary, Daisy De Voe, a former hairdresser at Paramount. The angry Miss De Voe filed a civil lawsuit against the star, charging Clara had confiscated Daisy’s personal belongings.

Clara, living up to her red hair reputation, counter-charged Daisy with 37 counts of grand larceny, specifically the writing of some $16,000 in unauthorized checks against the household account.

1927 Clara Bow

The trial was sordid, sensational. Daisy charged Clara once threatened to kill her, that huge deliveries of liquor (then illegal) were made to Miss Bow’s home — as much as $275 worth at a time, and that the actress bought jewelry for her male friends. Daisy insisted the checks she had written were to pay off Miss Bow’s gambling debts.

About the time of the De Voe trial, Miss Bow was named defendant in a $150,000 alienation of affections sult brought by the wife of a Texas physician. Reportedly Miss Bow settled by paying $30,000 to the wife.

Vintage actress Clara Bow black and white portrait (9)
Photo courtesy the Daniel D Teoli Jr. Archival Collection/Creative Commons 4.0

The De Voe case ended with victory for Clara. Daisy De Voe was sent to prison, but she had accomplished her end: Clara Bow was through in pictures.

The publicity had been bad. The star suffered another of her more frequently occurring nervous breakdowns. Paramount terminated her contract.

Clara Bow in 1929 on the cover of Photoplay at ClickAmericana com
Clara Bow in 1929 on the cover of Photoplay

Rex stands by her

But through it all, Rex Bell, the tall, handsome cowboy actor, stood faithfully at Clara’s side. A few months after the De Voe trial they were married and went into seclusion at Rex’s ranch near Searchlight, Nev.

Twentieth Century Fox recalled Clara from Nevada for two pictures – “Hoopla” in 1932 and “Call Her Savage” a year later. Neither was strong enough to boost her up the comeback ladder.

In 1937, she and Rex opened a glittery supper club on Hollywood’s Vine Street. It didn’t click.

Clara soon was dividing her time between the Nevada ranch and various rest hospitals. In 1939, she was a patient at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Clara Bow vintage graphic word art from the 1920s at ClickAmericana com

A few years ago, Clara Bow emerged, in a sense, from her cloistered existence of the last 15 years. She was the “Mrs. Hush” on a radio mystery voice program.

But life for Clara Bow now is a constant battle against pressures. When life is good, she is with the husband who stood by her, and the boys, Toni and George.

Rex, his thick dark hair bisected by one long silver wave, his skin leather-tan from a lifetime of ranching, has much to tell her when they are together.

He, too, has pretty much abandoned Hollywood, although he dabbles financially in small productions and frequently chats with former cowboy actor Hoot Gibson (remember him?) about a prospective television western starring Rex.

Actress Clara Bow in the movie The Wild Party - Vintage ad at ClickAmericana com

He tells Clara how, to help their sons, he became active in Boy Scout work and last year was given the Silver Beaver award, highest area honor a scout leader can achieve. He tells of his activities with the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, his belief that the city must be refooted on an economy more dependable than gambling.

MORE: See glamorous young Joan Crawford showing her good side in the 20s & 30s

Those conversations come when life is good to Clara Bow. When life is bad, Clara has only the emptiness of a sanitarium, the strength-sapping tortures of insomnia.

Vintage actress Clara Bow in 1928 at ClickAmericana com

Between sedatives she watches television, thumbs through movie magazines or paces the floor — back and forth, back and forth — trying to force her footsteps back through time, back to the days of a red dress and seven red Chows.

She talks sometimes of writing a book — her life story. It should be good, because it would at times be gay and at times be sad, and that’s the way life is.

Vintage actress Clara Bow black and white portrait (6)

VIDEO: Full-length films starring Clara Bow

“It” (Silent movie from 1927)

YouTube video

“Get Your Man” (1927)

YouTube video

“Call Her Savage” (1932)

YouTube video

Old silent movies: Why so many classic films have been tragically lost (1910s-20s)

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