While attending the third annual, TCM Film Festival this past April, one of the many pictures screened was Call Her Savage. One of the presenters was none other than David Stenn, the author of Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild (a truly fabulous and enlightening biography). Not only did he provide background information on the film (a risque film, allowing her to make light of some of the outlandish allegations made against her during a scandalous period of time) but a he also initiated the first ever screening (approximately 3o seconds) of colorized footage of Miss Bow. The last film she ever made was in 1933, well before the color medium was being utilized. All together, it was one of the most memorable moments of the festival. Seeing Clara come to life in this film made me realize just how terrific her on screen presence was. No one in the audience could avert their eyes from her. It was then and there, that I decided I had to learn more about this iconic woman. Clara exuded a carefree, delightful, wistful persona, but in those all encompassing eyes of her, one could clearly see the heavy weight of sadness that lingered. Thanks to the fabulous site of maxwelldemille.com, I was able to obtain a three part personal interview (interviewer was Adela Rogers St. Johns) that Clara Bow partook in. These three segments were featured in the February-April issues of Photoplay in 1928. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did!!
When I write down at the very beginning that I am twenty-two years old, I can hardly believe it.
I feel much older than that. I feel as though I had lived a long, long time. That is because I have suffered so much, and suffering makes you feel old inside, just as happiness makes you feel young even when your hair is white.
I think this story will surprise you very much. It isn’t at all the sort of life story you would expect to belong to Clara Bow. For you know the Clara Bow who has been driven by misery and loneliness to clutch at joy and merriment almost wildly.
There is only one thing you can do when you are very young and not a philosopher, if life has frightened you by its cruelty and made you distrust its most glittering promises. You must make living a sort of gay curtain to throw across the abyss into which you have looked and where lie dread memories.
I think that wildly gay people are usually hiding from something in themselves. They dare not be quiet, for there is no peace nor serenity in their souls. The best life has taught them is to snatch at every moment of fun and excitement, because they feel sure that fate is going to hit them over the head with a club at the first opportunity.
I don’t want to feel that way. But I do. When I have told you about my short life, maybe you will understand why, in spite of its incongruity, I am a madcap, the spirit of the jazz age, the premier flapper, as they call me. No one wanted me to be born in the first place.
And when I was born, at first they thought I was dead. They thought every spark of life had been strangled out of me during my long and stormy entrance into this world. They fought for hours, fanning the poor, feeble little flame of life that was in me, and it would flare up and then die down again, quite as though I didn’t want to stay.
Everything was against my coming here at all, everything was against my staying here.
There have been a great many times when I wish they hadn’t fought quite so hard to keep me here. But I don’t feel that way any more.
I don’t know an awful lot about my ancestors or relations. It isn’t really strange if my memory is not good, if I am not very definite about facts and dates. I have been trying all my life to forget, not to remember. Besides, young people aren’t much interested in family history. At least I wasn’t. I don’t like my relations, anyway. They never paid any attention to me until I was successful and they weren’t kind to me or to my mother when we needed it so much. I try not to have resentment against them, but I don’t care anything about them.
My father is the only person I care for, really.
My mother was a very beautiful woman. She came of a good family in New York State and her mother was French and her father was Scotch. They lived on a country place a few hours from New York City. I was never there, because it was gone before I was born. But from what my mother told me it must have been quiet and beautiful and prosperous.
Perhaps that was the reason that my mother didn’t want to marry. She idolized her father and loved the home where she had been born and brought up, and that was all she wanted from life. Marriage frightened her. She felt no need of anything more in her life than her father and mother and the quiet life she lead in the country.
On an adjoining farm lived a family named Bow. They had always been neighbors. The Bows were Scotch and English, of the kind I guess that make landed farmers and squires in the old country. There were thirteen children in the Bow family and my mother had always played with them. The youngest of them was a boy, Harry Bow. And he was the darling of the family and just about my mother’s age. He was a handsome, talented boy who captivated everybody. He just made people like him so much that they didn’t stop to think much else about him. He had a merry laugh, and he could ride and play and was always good-natured and happy.
My mother’s mother adored him. When she knew that she was dying, she called my mother to her and told her that this young man had asked for her hand and that she must marry him. My grandmother was very old-fashioned, very French in her thoughts and traditions, and she did not believe that a girl could be happy unless she was married. She said she couldn’t die happy unless she knew that her daughter had a husband to care for her and provide for her later years.
They were married shortly after she died.
I do not know all the story of what happened here and it is too painful for my father to speak of.
But you see my father had been terribly spoiled. He had neglected his opportunities for education and training. He often speaks sadly now of his wasted youth and I know that is what he means. He had a quick, keen mind, he had imagination, he had all the natural qualifications to make something fine of himself. But he just didn’t.
His people thought him too young to marry; they realized he was not able to face the world and take care of himself and a wife. They were very unjust it seems to me, for after all his life had been in their hands. But they cast him off after his marriage.
My mother’s people had gradually lost what money they had – they had never been rich -and I think my grandmother must have been the business head of the family, for after her death things went to pieces very quickly, and the home my mother had loved had been sold.
So soon after they were married, my father and mother and her father moved to Brooklyn and my father started a small business there. They lived in a very small place to begin with, only two rooms, and it was hard on them both. My mother had always been accustomed to country life and she always hated the city. My father had never worked and he had always had money and attention. My grandfather was unhappy over the loss of his wife and his home and over being dependent upon them.
I do not think my mother ever loved my father. He knew it. And it made him very unhappy, for he worshipped her always. His devotion to her, his unfailing gentleness and kindness all through the years of her illness is like a miracle to me.
There were two children born before I came along, both girls. One lived two hours. One lived two days.
My mother came forth from the tragedy of that second death a woman broken in health and spirit. I don’t think she ever recovered from those two terrible illnesses, nor from the sorrow and horror of losing her two first born babies.
The doctor told her she must never have any more children. And she said over and over that she didn’t want any more. They might die, as her two little girls had died. They might leave her without any reward for all she had gone through, without the comfort of a baby’s presence which wipes from a woman’s mind the suffering of such times.
She didn’t want me. Terror possessed her all the time before I was born. Would she die, as the doctor had said? Or, if she survived the ordeal that had nearly cost her her life twice before, would the baby die, as the two others had died? If so, would she lose her reason? She was almost mad with apprehension and fear.
I don’t suppose two people ever looked death in the face more clearly than my mother and I the morning I was born. We were both given up, but somehow we struggled back to life.
From that day to the day she died my mother never knew a moment free from ill health of the most shattering kind. She idolized me, but with a strange, bitter love, almost as though she was afraid to love me for fear I, too, would be snatched away from her. She used to watch me when I ran about the house as a little thing, never taking her eyes off me, and in their depths were many things I was too young to read.
I loved her terribly. Her beauty to me was something divine. She had long golden hair that hung way down below her knees, the most beautiful hair I have ever seen. It shone like pure gold. I used to make up fairy stories about it. And her face was pale, almost transparent, with fine, chiseled features.
The pain had worn her face thin, but it hadn’t lined it, and still, to me, in spite of all that happened, the word beauty brings up a picture of my mother’s white thin face under that mantle of gleaming hair. She was tall and slim and carried herself like a princess, so I think it must be true that she had good blood in her. No woman could have carried herself like that in the midst of so much misfortune unless she had.
When she was mean to me – and she often was, though I know she didn’t mean to be and that it was because she couldn’t help it – it broke my heart.
I wasn’t a pretty child at all, in spite of the fact that both my parents were and such a contrast to each other. My mother so slim and fair, my father a squat strong man, with black hair and twinkling black eyes. My eyes were too black, and my hair was too red. But I was sturdy and healthy. When I was little people always took me for a boy.
We lived then, and all the rest of the time we stayed in Brooklyn, in the upstairs of a house on a side street in an ordinary neighborhood. I went to the nearest public school and played in the streets like the other children. I always played with the boys. I never had any use for girls and their games. I never had a doll in all my life. But I was a good runner, I could beat most of the boys and I could pitch. When they played baseball in the evening in the streets, I was always chosen first and I pitched. I don’t think I had very good clothes, they were rougher and older than the other girls’, and the girls used to say snippy things to me and shout “carrot-top” and things like that. Outwardly, it seemed as though I were just a rough, strong little tomboy. But tragedy seemed to mark me early for its own.
I was about five when the first thing that really stands definitely in my mind happened. Clear, with all the little details. All children have those memories, I guess, but oftenest they are happy. Mine are not.
My grandfather, who lived with us, was very dear to me. Father worked so hard and mother was always ill, always strange and depressed, sometimes smothering me with kisses and without a word of any kind for me. My grandfather was the one who played with me and taught me little things and sometimes told me stories. He must have been a very good and gentle old man, for he used to look after mother and me both.
He had built a little swing for me. I used to sit on the floor and watch him while he was making it. He fixed it so that you could pull it up out of the way, on hooks. There wasn’t much room, you see. We thought it was a very famous contrivance and perhaps it was. On cold winter days, when I couldn’t get out to play, grandfather used to swing me and we had great fun that way.
It was very cold on this particular afternoon. Snow lay everywhere, the whole outdoors was white with it. It was even a little cold in the house. We had always to economize on coal. Sometimes we had to economize on food, too. There was usually enough of these things, but never just plenty, never all you wanted. Scrimping the corners, that’s the way it was in our house.
I was cold and lonesome. I went out into the kitchen, looking for something to do. My mother was washing and she didn’t speak to me. Her face looked desperately ill, white and weary. I felt she shouldn’t be washing. She was washing a red tablecloth for the kitchen table. While I stood there I saw tears dropping from her eyes and splashing into the soapy water. I felt like crying, too.
I went back in to my grandfather and asked him to swing me. He got up and pulled down the swing and began to push me, and pretty soon I forgot I was cold and that mother was crying again, and began to shout with glee. Then, suddenly, the swing gave a violent twist so that I nearly fell out and then it stopped, and I heard a kind of dull fall behind me.
I looked around and my grandfather was lying on the floor. His face was purple and his eyes were open and staring.
My screams brought my mother to the door. In her hands she still held the red tablecloth. It dripped water all over the carpet. She threw it down and ran to my grandfather, saying over and over, “Father, speak to me. Speak to me.” She looked so wild I was frightened and ran downstairs and called a neighbor.
They brought a doctor, but it was too late to do anything. He had died instantly, while he was pushing me in my little swing. That was my first encounter with death and I didn’t believe it. I was quite sure they were mistaken.
The first night as he lay in his coffin in the dining room, I crept out of my bed and lay down on the floor beside him, because I had a feeling that he might be lonely. My father found me there in the morning, almost frozen. I said, “Hush, you mustn’t wake grandfather. He’s sleeping.” But I knew that he was dead. I missed him very much.
That was a terrible blow to my mother. There had existed a great love and sympathy between them. He was the only one who could make her laugh and talk naturally. Often, when they sat together talking, I would see her pass her hand across her head, as though something cleared away.
After his death, she was sad for a long, long time. She wanted to die, too. She often spoke of it. But she never mentioned suicide. Her courage was too high for that. Though she suffered all the time, more and more, and was depressed, and couldn’t seem to rise above it, she went on as best she could.
My school life in those earliest days didn’t seem to make much impression on me. I have no distinct impression of any of my teachers, or my school mates.
I had one little playmate, though, to whom I was devoted. He was a little boy who lived in the same house with me. I think his name was Johnny. He was several years younger than I was and I used to take him to school with me, and fight the boys if they bothered him. I could lick any boy my size. My right was quite famous. My right arm was developed from pitching so much.
One day after school I was alone in our house upstairs when I heard a terrible noise downstairs. For a minute if curdled my blood, then I ran down wildly. Johnny had gone too near the fire and his clothes had caught and were burning and he was screaming with pain and fright. His mother was standing there, wringing her hands and screaming, too, like a crazy woman and not doing a thing.
When I came tearing in Johnny screamed “Clara, Clara, help me.” He ran over and jumped into my arms.
I had just enough sense to know what to do. I laid him on the floor and rolled him up in the carpet and tried the best I could to put the fire out. The poor little fellow struggled and screamed all the time.
I shouted for his mother to get a doctor and she ran out. I stayed alone with Johnny, holding him in my arms rolled up in the carpet and trying to soothe him and quiet him. I was crying all the time myself and pretty nearly crazy, too. I seemed to feel the fire on my own flesh, and every time he cried out it seemed to me I couldn’t bear it any more.
The doctor came. He couldn’t do anything. The little fellow died in my arms. He was just – just all burned up, that’s all. I tried to pray then, begging God not to let him suffer like that. The last thing he said was “Clara- Clara-.”
When I knew he was dead I went upstairs and cried for hours. I have never cried but once like that since. That was when my mother died. It seemed to me that life was just too terrible to be borne. When my mother came in I was asleep. I had cried myself into complete exhaustion, and I was ill for several weeks. The shock had been too much. For months I used to wake up and think I heard that little fellow calling “Clara-Clara-help me.” Things like that are terrible for a little child to go through – I was only about eight or nine, I guess.
As I got older, I played with the boys more and more. I still was an awfully plain kid. I was shy and nervous around girls. They were always hurting my feelings and I thought they were silly anyway. I wore plain clothes and kept my hair tied back out of my face. I was as good at any game as any of the boys. And just as strong. They always accepted me as though I had been one of themselves.
We used to skate together and play baseball and all sorts of rough games in the street and I never felt there was any difference between us. At night sometimes we would build a bonfire and sit around it after we had skated awhile, and the boys never noticed me. They talked about everything just like they were alone. That was where I learned what boys really think. I knew how they judged girls. I knew which ones they could kiss and how they made fun of them. I was mighty glad they didn’t think I was a sissy. I’d do any darn thing to prove I wasn’t. We used to hop rides on trucks and get lost and do all sorts of crazy stunts. They let me take care of myself, too, just like I’d been another boy. Once I hopped a ride on behind a big fire engine. I got a lot of credit from the gang for that.
All this time my mother was growing more ill. She had always been subject to fainting spells and they grew gradually worse. They weren’t fits and they weren’t regular fainting spells. Often they would happen two or three times a day, and then maybe she would be free from them for a long time. When she felt them coming on she would look at me so pathetically. Like a woman caught in some trap. Then her eyes would grow glassy and she would start to gasp for breath. It was just as though she were being strangled. She would fight and fight for breath.
Usually I was alone with her, and I would run to her and massage her throat to try to make her breathing easier. I’d say, “Mother, mother, don’t – please don’t.” When father was there sometimes we’d cry together, because it is terrible to see someone you love suffer like that and not be able to help them.
We never had much money, you know, and so we couldn’t consult any specialists. Our own doctor told us it was a nervous disease. My father said her mother had once told him that when she was a child she had a bad fall on her head. When I was four years old she fell again, on the stairs, and it opened up the old scar. They had to take stitches in it. Probably advanced brain specialists today would tell us that that had a lot to do with it. Perhaps they might have helped her, but we didn’t know what to do.
Of course when she was having her bad times I had to do most of the house work and the washing and cooking. Father had had a lot of bad luck. Everything seemed to break against him. He worked as a carpenter or an electrician, or at any odd jobs that he could get to do. Everything seemed to go wrong for him, poor darling. He wanted so much to do more for us and he worked so hard, but just bad luck followed him all the time. So I had to do the best I could taking care of mother and the house, but I wasn’t very good at it. I never had any knack about housework, or cooking. I got to be a pretty expert nurse for mother, but it always frightened me when she got bad and I dreaded seeing her suffer.
When I first started to the Bayside High School in Brooklyn, I was still a tomboy. I wore sweaters and old skirts made over from my mother’s. I didn’t give a darn about clothes or looks. I only wanted to play with the boys.
I guess I was about fourteen or maybe fifteen when my mother had quite a long spell of being almost herself. Her health was better and things brightened up quite a good deal. Then she began to take a little interest in my clothes and my looks. She combed my hair a new way, so the curls fell around my face, and she made me a pretty dress, that was cut in at the waist and showed pretty plainly that I wasn’t a boy after all.
Right away there was a change in the boys’ attitude toward me. Oh, I was heart-broken. I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t want to be treated like a girl.
There was one boy who had always been my pal. We always fought each other’s battles and he used to catch on the baseball team I pitched for. Well, one night when we’d been out skating, he kissed me on the way home.
I wasn’t sore. I didn’t get indignant. I was horrified and hurt. It seemed to me that the end of everything had come. I knew now that I could never go back to being a tomboy. The boys wouldn’t let me. They’d always liked me so well, I’d always been their favorite. Not to kiss or be sweet on, but because I was game and could run fast and take care of myself. They’d always liked me better than those sissy girls that put powder on their noses.
Now that was over. No matter how much I wanted to be a tomboy still, I couldn’t. The boys wouldn’t let me.
I wasn’t ready for the dawning of womanhood, for the things that would take place of what I had lost. I’d been cast out by my pals. The girls still made fun of me for being a tomboy. I was absolutely alone.
I had never liked to study. I was just skimming along because I was naturally quick, but I never opened a book and the teachers were always down on me. I don’t blame them. I guess I must have looked pretty hopeless. But I often think now, when I come of myself to realize how I love reading, how much I want to know things, that it wasn’t all my fault. If they had made me see what I see now, by myself, I know I would have been good.
In this lonesome time, when I wasn’t much of anything and hadn’t anybody except Dad, who was away most of the time, I had one haven of refuge. Just one place where I could go and forget the misery and gloom of home, the loneliness and heartache of school.
That was to the motion pictures. I can never repay them what they gave me.
I’d save and save and beg Dad for a little money, and every cent of it went into the box office of a motion picture theater. For the first time in my life I knew there was beauty in the world. For the first time I saw distant lands, serene, lovely homes, romance, nobility, glamour.
My whole heart was afire, and my love was the motion picture. Not just the people of the screen, but everything that magic silversheet could represent to a lonely, starved, unhappy child. Wally Reid was my first sweetheart, though I never saw him except on the screen. He was Sir Galahad in all his glory. I worshipped Mary Pickford. How kind and gentle and loving she was. Maybe there were people like that in the world.
A great ambition began to unfold in me. I kept it hidden for fear of being laughed at. I felt myself how ridiculous it was. Why, I wasn’t even pretty. I was a square, awkward, funny-faced kid. But all the same I knew I wanted to be a motion picture actress. And I can say one thing, right here. If I have had success beyond my own greatest dreams, it may be that it is the reward for the purity of my motive when I first dreamed that dream. For I truly didn’t think of fame or money or anything like that. I just thought of how beautiful it all was and how wonderful it must be to do for people what pictures were doing.
One day I saw in a paper an announcement of a contest. Not a beauty contest. I wouldn’t have dared to enter that. This said that acting ability, personality, grace and beauty would be judged in equal parts.
I went to Dad. Shyly, I told him my dream. He was so kind. He always understood. He was harassed and miserable and overworked, but he was kind and understanding always.
He gave me a dollar. I knew, even then, what a sacrifice it was to him. I went down to a little cheap photographer in Brooklyn and he took two pictures of me for that dollar. They were terrible.
Without daring to tell mother, I sent them in to the contest. And sat down to wait and pray.
No star ever has spoken so frankly, so bravely about her childhood and early struggles. No actress has written more dramatically or truthfully about her rise to fame. In the second installment of her Life Story, Clara Bow tells Adela Rogers St. Johns about her first pathetic efforts to find a place for herself in the movies.
You won’t want to miss a word of this great Life Story.
* * * * * * * * * *PART TWO: March 1928
Miss Bow tells of the days when ridicule, disaster and defeat nearly ended her career
Last month Clara Bow told how her mother, who was of French descent, married her father, the youngest of a neighboring Scotch-English family of fourteen. The newly married couple moved to a small place in Brooklyn. Clara’s father had difficulty making a place for himself. Troubled days came. Their first two children died almost at birth. Clara was the third. She grew up to be the tomboy of the neighborhood. She never had a doll in her life – but she had a place on the street corner baseball team.
At school Clara read of a motion picture contest. She went to a photographer and had two pictures made for a dollar. They were terrible, but she sent them to the contest judges.
* * * * * * * * * *Hope is a funny and wonderful thing. Every bit of reason I had, every logical thought process I followed, told me I had no chance to win any contest to enter motion pictures. It was silly to even dream of it. There wasn’t a single person who knew me, except my Dad, who wouldn’t have laughed long and loud at the mere idea. Why, the contest was open to everyone in the United States. The world was full of beautiful girls, girls with clothes and education and advantages of every kind, who wanted to go into pictures. They would enter such a contest.
What chance would I have?
I lay awake night after night telling myself all these things, preparing myself for what I felt was an inevitable disappointment.
Yet hope went on singing in my breast. Sometimes I think that is why hope was included with faith and charity by St. Paul, as the greatest thing to possess. Hope is the thing that enables us to try to accomplish the impossible, that urges us on to heights that, without the encouragement of its music, we would never dare attempt.
Finally, a letter came. My hands were cold as I opened it. I don’t think I breathed for several minutes. I was afraid to look. At last I did. It told me to come to the magazine offices.
That didn’t mean anything. The judges in this contest were Howard Chandler Christy, Harrison Fisher and Neysa McMein. Judges of beauty, all right. No fooling them. Still, it was one tiny step nearer.
My school work was going all to pieces under the strain. I couldn’t keep my mind on it for a second. I was just one big pulse of hope and excitement. Every teacher I had – I was in my third year – was sour at me. But I couldn’t help it.
On the day set, I went to the contest offices. I sat rigid all the way. It seemed that ages passed. I had a fantastic idea that my hair would have turned from red to white by the time I arrived.
The office was full of girls and my heart just flopped when I saw them. Every bit of hope and assurance oozed right out through my boots. Oh, they were pretty girls. To me, they seemed the most beautiful girls in all the world. Blondes and brunettes, no vulgar little redheads. They were elegantly dressed, perfectly groomed, with lovely manicured hands and slim, delicate legs in sheer stockings. They had poise.
I hadn’t dressed up because I had nothing to dress up in. I had never had a manicure nor a pair of chiffon stockings in my life. I had never even been close to the scent of such perfumes as filled that room. I wore the one and only thing I owned. A little plain wool dress, a sweater and a woolly red tam. I hadn’t thought much of that angle. I had only looked at my face, and that was disappointment enough.
But now, in this gathering, I was painfully aware of how I was dressed. I felt presumptuous to be there at all. Shame and humiliation overcame me.
Those girls didn’t leave me much room for doubt that the impression I made was as bad as I thought it would be. Eyebrows went up, noses elevated, there were snickers here and there. At first I wilted. Tears came up and choked me, but I beat them back somehow. I had learned not to cry in a hard school – on the pavement of Brooklyn with a gang of boys.
But slowly rage began to well up in me. Why should they look at me like that? Why need they be so unkind? I wasn’t much, but I knew I wouldn’t be as cruel as that to anyone that was worse off than I was. Suffering had taught me how bitter suffering can be, and I never, never wanted to inflict it on anybody else.
So I managed to keep my chin up and my eyes began to blaze and for a moment I reverted back to the little street tomboy and wanted to sail into those pretty, painted, perfumed girls.
Just then the door opened and some men and a couple of ladies came out. They walked around the room, looking everybody over, very carefully, as though they had been so many statues. I tried to keep out of sight, I didn’t know who the people were and I was too busy trying to keep from crying to have an idea of posing or making an impression.
Suddenly one of the men said, “There’s an interesting face – that kid with the red tam and the gorgeous eyes.”
I looked around. I was the only girl with a red tam. The blood came singing up and nearly suffocated me. The words kept ringing in my ears. “Interesting face.” “Gorgeous eyes.” Me-Me-little Clara Bow.
They went back in. Several girls went in, came out. Pretty soon, I was called. A few minutes before I thought of how I’d ritz those girls, if I should happen to get a summons. But when they called me I was too excited to remember a detail like that. They talked to me. What made me think I could act?
Well, I couldn’t exactly tell them. I don’t know why I can act – if I can. Only, in the many hours I had spent in motion picture theaters I had always watched intently and I had always had a queer feeling about actors and actresses on the screen. Sometimes what they did seemed just right. Again, I felt they were doing it wrong. I knew I would have done it differently. I couldn’t analyze it, but I could always feel it. It just threw me right out of the feeling of reality about a picture when an actress made a gesture of used an expression that seemed wrong to me.
I tried to explain, and they all laughed a little, but kindly. And said I should wait for a test.
I think there were about twelve girls who had made tests that day.
They all wanted to do it first. I didn’t. So I never said a word. I sat there, though, through every one of those tests and watched everything that was done, everything they were told, every mistake they made. They all had to do the same thing – walk in, pick up a telephone, laugh, look worried, then terrified. I got it finally so I knew how I was going to do it and just what I was going to think about while I was doing it.
Gradually, little by little, the tests narrowed down. I went back and forth, making new ones as more and more were eliminated. Each time I expected to be the next one to go – but I didn’t. It was tough getting the carfare and I had only the one dress.
I had been out of school a lot, going over to New York, and the teachers had been complaining and telling me I was sure to flunk. What did it matter? If I failed in this, I’d go to work somewhere.
The day I went to the offices – it had in some marvelous fashion narrowed down to a statuesque blonde beauty and me – I got home about five o’clock.
Mother was sitting motionless in the dining room. Her face was white and I had never seen her eyes look like that, even when she had her worst spells.
She said, “Where have you been?”
Just that in the most awful, cold tone.
It seems that one of the teachers from high school had been there to tell her how much I was absent and that I would fail if something wasn’t done about it.
Well, I told her where I had been and what I was doing. I told her it looked as though I had a chance to win this contest and if I did it meant a job in the pictures and a chance to make good and I could do a lot of things for her.
She fainted dead away, not one of her choking fits, but just a dead faint. I was so scared I hardly knew what to do. I ran and tried to lift her up and threw water on her. She didn’t come to for a long time and when she did she just cried and cried.
“You are going straight to hell,” she said. “I would rather see you dead.”
I had never dreamed she would feel like that. I hadn’t told her because I didn’t want to disappoint her and put her through the strain of waiting, she was so nervous. Besides, I was ashamed. I knew she didn’t think I was pretty or clever, and I thought she’d say I was a fool.
Dad came in just then and we tried to soothe her, but she just sat and stared at me, with those awful, burning eyes, and her face was so white and still.
So I cried, too, and promised her I’d give it up right away.
But Dad told her she had no right to ask such a promise of me. He said he knew I had talent. He said I might not be pretty, but I was different, I was a type. He said I had a chance for a real success, with a big future and that outside that the best I could hope for was a job in a store or an office with long, hard hours and little pay and no future. He said pictures weren’t any more dangerous for a girl, they weren’t as dangerous as working in stores and offices and that I had always been a good girl and she had no right to feel that way about me.
For a long time she didn’t answer, just sitting there white and still, her hands hanging down. At last she said, “All right.”
Three days later they sent for me and told me I had won the contest and would have a good part in a picture and all the publicity that had been promised and everything.
It was hard for me to believe. I kept thinking they’d change their minds and every time the postman stopped at our door my heart stopped beating. They told me the judges had picked me because I was “different” and had a unique personality.
I went back to high school and told them. The girls only laughed at me. Oh, how they laughed. They just decided that any beauty contest I could win must be a bum one. Every time they looked at me they giggled and giggled. So I decided not to go to school any more. It hurt to be laughed at. I thought maybe they would be glad.
Then began a terribly hard time. I guess all contests are like that. For weeks, nothing happened. I waited and waited. I haunted the office. Panic was growing inside of me, driving me crazy. After all I had been through, all my great joy, was this going to be a failure?
But at last I hung around so much they decided to get me a job to get rid of me. Or maybe they really meant to all the time and were just busy. Christy Cabanne was making a picture with Billy Dove as the star. They took me over to him and explained the situation and he took one look at me and almost had a fit.
“Don’t tell me she won a beauty contest,” he said.
It almost broke my heart.
Anyway, he agreed to give me a small part.
But there was another stumbling block. I had to have four dresses to play the part and I had to furnish them myself. I didn’t have four dresses. I didn’t have one dress. Dad didn’t have any money – yes, he had enough to buy about half a dress. So then I did something I’d never done before. I put my pride in my pocket and for the first and last and only time I went to some of my relatives for help.
I had an aunt in New York who was rich. They had a beautiful home and one of the girls had made a good marriage and the son was in Wall Street or something. I had never been in their house, but I went. I told my aunt the whole story. I didn’t need much and I would pay it back out of the first salary I got. It was my big chance and it looked like I was going to lose it because I didn’t have four dresses.
She put me out of the house.
While I was walking away, just sunk, I heard footsteps behind me and somebody called my name. It was her son, my cousin. He didn’t know me at all, but he had heard our conversation. He was interested in pictures, and he didn’t think about them as his mother did.
“I don’t think you’ve got a chance, kid,” he said, but I like your spirit. Here’s all the change I’ve got.”
He handed me eighty dollars.
Eighty dollars may not sound much to buy four dresses. It wasn’t. But it was so much more than nothing. I went to a second hand place, to a wholesale place, and I got four dresses. I know now they must have been pretty terrible. But then I thought they were magnificent.
The next day I went to the studio ready to work.
I had never put on a make-up. While I was doing the tests for the contest they had an actress who made up all the girls. Now I had to go alone. But I was encouraged when they put me in a dressing room with four other girls. I thought surely they would help me. But they didn’t. They just laughed. They said, “Go ahead and learn like the rest of us did.”
Sometimes I wonder about things like that. Most of the people in pictures are so kind. It seemed as though fate were just throwing everything in my way, giving me every possible obstacle. I don’t think those girls meant to be unkind. They were careless and self-centered. Most of the unkindness in the world comes from thoughtlessness. I am sure of that.
I did the best I could. When I came on the set Mr. Cabanne thought I had gone crazy. I looked like a clown. I tell you I didn’t have to use any cold cream to take that grease paint off. I washed it off with good hot tears. The next day I watched the other girls and learned a little and got by all right.
My part wasn’t very big but I had about five scenes. In one of them I was suppose to cry. Mr. Cabanne didn’t seem to think I could, but I did. It was always easy for me to cry. All I had to do was think of home. He said I had done it well and it seemed to please him. After that he was kinder, and helped me.
When the picture came to Brooklyn I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. I asked some of the girls from school to go with me to see it. I guess maybe I wanted to show off a little. I wanted to prove to them what I could do. I thought of those five scenes and I felt sure they’d respect me after that. I’d be a real movie actress.
We went. They ran the picture. There wasn’t a single shot of me in it anywhere.
The girls certainly made life miserable for me. You can’t blame them. But it was a bitter blow to me.
But not the worst one.
Mother was growing steadily worse and her thoughts seemed to center on me.
She came up to me one day on the back porch where I was doing some washing and she said, “I think I’ll kill you. You would be much better off dead. This is a terrible world. Motion pictures are terrible. I think it is my duty to kill you.”
I was frightened but – it was more than that. I was so sorry for her, I loved her so. I knew she loved me. I never mentioned pictures to her after that, but every once in a while she would start talking about how it was her duty to kill me. I told Dad and it worried him terribly and we had a new doctor but he said there was nothing he could do.
Things weren’t breaking for me at all. Winning the contest hadn’t seemed to mean a thing. I wore myself out trying to find work, going from studio to studio, from agency to agency, applying for every possible part. But there was always something. I was too young, or too little, or too fat. Usually I was too fat. When I told them that I’d won this contest, they only laughed. They said the woods were full of girls who’d won some bum beauty contest and they were mostly dumb or they wouldn’t have been in any beauty contest in the first place. Which I guess maybe was right. And I couldn’t wear clothes and I wasn’t pretty enough.
But finally I got a job. Elmer Clifton was going to make a picture called Down to the Sea in Ships. He wanted a small, tomboy type of girl to play a second lead. He hadn’t much money to spend and he couldn’t afford to pay much salary for this part. He had been at a casting agent’s office and they had been going over all the people they knew without hitting the right one. The contest manager had sent Mr. Clifton copies of the magazines containing my picture. After the agency visit he happened to open one of them to a picture of me. It was one in the red tam and was part of the publicity from the contest, so you see it did do me some good.
He said, “Who the dickens is that? Clara Bow. Cute name. That’s what I want. Send for that kid.”
They sent for me.
But I was terribly discouraged by then. I was so sick of being told I was too young or too small. So I decided to take a desperate chance. I put my hair up, sneaked one of mother’s dresses and went over done up like that.
When Mr. Clifton saw me he said, “Great heavens, you’re not the girl I saw in the picture. I wanted a kid, to play a tomboy part. You won’t do at all.”
Just think. I had guessed wrong and nearly missed my chance. I started explaining so fast the words stumbled over each other. I said, “Oh, I’m the girl all right. But I’ve lost so many parts because I was too young that I put on mother’s clothes to see if I couldn’t look older.”
That made him laugh and I went home and got my own clothes and came back and got the part at fifty dollars a week. That was more money than I knew there was in the world.
But we had to go away. They were going to make the picture up in New Bedford. I’d never been away from home a night in my life and I knew mother wouldn’t let me go. But Mr. Clifton arranged for the cameraman’s wife to go along and be with me as a chaperon – so Clara Bow went on her first location with a chaperon.
I went home all happy and thrilled. Mother was sitting there, and she was very quiet and didn’t say much. She looked well, though, there was color in her face. Father was working and we had dinner and she was quiet, but very pleasant and sweet. Then I went to bed. I hadn’t told her about the job. I thought I’d wait until father was there. I don’t know how long I had been asleep when I woke up and realized there was somebody in the room. My heart was beating hard and funny. The door was a little open and in the light from the other room I saw mother standing there, in a white nightgown. Her hair was braided over each shoulder and hung down to her knees. In her hand was the butcher knife.
I said, “Mother?”
She didn’t answer. Just came closer to the bed.
I said “Mother, darling, what are you doing?”
She pinioned my hands down. “I’m going to kill you, Clara.” She said very quietly. “It will be better.”
She put the knife at my throat.
The room went all black. I fought to keep consciousness. I knew if I didn’t I was lost – we were both lost. I kept thinking. “Oh, poor mother, poor mother, how terrible she will feel if she ever knows she has done this. I mustn’t let her.”
I moved. The knife came closer. The hands tightened like steel.
I started to talk, to plead, to soothe, watching her all the time. She didn’t seem to hear me. Her eyes burned into mine. I don’t know how long it was, but it seemed hours. At last, when she seemed to relax for a final effort, I made a desperate spring, as swiftly, as strongly as I could. It knocked her away from me. I ran across the room and out the door and turned and locked her in.
Outside I was so weak I could hardly move. I could hear her inside trying the door. The handle turned. I wanted to go back in and comfort her. But I was afraid to. It was too terrible to stay alone. I went downstairs and asked the lady there if I could sit there awhile. She looked at me , but didn’t ask me any questions and she said I could stay.
I sat there all night. At five o’clock, I heard Daddy’s step. I ran to meet him. Poor Daddy. We went up together. There was no sound from the room. We opened the door and se was sleeping on my bed, as peacefully as a child, her hands folded, the long, golden braids over her shoulders. When she woke up she didn’t know anything about it.
I was glad to go away then. She didn’t make any objection, when Dad explained it to her. But the shock had upset me more than I knew. All the thirteen weeks we were on location I was ill. I knew it was only nerves and I fought against it. But I couldn’t sleep. I used to wake up crying all the time.
When I came home, mother was there. Dad told me he had had her away in a sanitarium for treatment. They said she wasn’t insane. You couldn’t call her that because she was so intelligent. She could answer any question, talk well, be as calm. Then once in a while these spells came on. But she seemed so much better Dad brought her home. She wanted to be at home. But she began to be unhappy again about my going into pictures. Once she said, “You don’t take me to the studio with you. You’re ashamed of me. You think I’m crazy.” That broke my heart. I was so proud of her.
So I decided to give up pictures. Maybe mother would be better. I couldn’t bear to make her unhappy like that. So I hunted around and got a job answering the phones in a doctor’s office. I hated it. The trip was long and the pay small, but it was all right.
And then, I started trying to have a little fun. I just had to. I knew a lot of young people around Brooklyn, boys I’d been to school with. They were always asking me to go places. The boys seemed to like me and I liked them, though I had never been in love, not even a kid romance. I never had a love affair until after I went to Hollywood.
One night I went to a party with some young friends, two boys and a girl. We were having a fine time, dancing and playing the phonograph, just like a bunch of kids will, when the telephone rang.
It was my father and he said I was to come home right away.
I didn’t want to go. I said: “Oh, Dad, please don’t make me. I’m having such a good time. If mother’s having one of her spells, she’ll come out of it all right.”
That was the only time I’d ever said anything like that. But I was only a kid and I wanted a little fun.
But Dad insisted. He said, “You’d better come right away, Clara.”
(To be continued)
* * * * * * * * * *In this final installment Miss Bow tells about her first success, her loves and her philosophy of living.
In the previous installments of this engrossing story, Clara Bow told of her early life in Brooklyn; of her love for her father; of her devotion to her pathetic mother. Clara was the tomboy of the neighborhood – a strange, vivid but far from pretty child.
She entered a motion picture contest and won a prize, but when she tried to find work in the studios, she was snubbed and ignored. Her mother, desperately ill, fought against Clara’s career. One night, in a fit of insanity, she tried to kill Clara. After getting her first chance in Down to the Sea in Ships, Clara decided to give up pictures, for her, mother’s sake. Then, one night, she is called home from a party by an urgent message from her father.
Now go on with the concluding installment.
* * * * * * * * * *That night, after my father called me on the telephone at the party and told me to come home, we went through the dark streets in silence. All the laughter and gaiety had fled. We were just scared kids. I remember thinking then that fun didn’t seem to last very long, that something terrible always happened, and maybe it was best to get all you could out of it when you could.
Mother was on a couch in the living room. She was white and still. She did not know me. She never knew me again, though I used to try so hard to make her. For days she lay like that and I cared for her, trying to ease the paroxysms of pain when they came.
And just then, with the particular way fate has of always bringing extremes into my life, my first chance in pictures came. They sent for me to play a little dancing girl in Enemies of Women. At first I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t think I could, my heart was so heavy. But there was nothing I could do for mother and Dad insisted that I go ahead. He saw that I was breaking down under those days of silent grief, of being shut up all the time in one room with mother like she was.
It was only a bit in the picture. I danced on a table. All the time I had to be laughing, romping wildly, displaying nothing for the camera but pleasure and the joy of life. As I say, it was only a bit, but no matter what parts I have been called upon to play as a star, or ever will be, not one of them could compare in difficulty to that role. I’d go home at night and help take care of mother; I’d cry my eyes out when I left her in the morning – and then go and dance on a table. I think I used to be half-hysterical, but the director thought it was wonderful.
One day when I was on the set working, in some sort of a little scanty costume, I looked up and saw father standing there. One look at his face told me that the end had come. I walked over to him and just stood staring. I was paralyzed. I don’t think I had realized until that moment that mother was really going to die. And I don’t think I had ever realized how much I loved her.
Looking back on it now, it seems to me that the day of my mother’s funeral was the beginning of a new life for me. Perhaps it was the birthday of the Clara Bow that you know. The end of my kid life had come. Sorrow and disappointment had been my lot so much that I didn’t believe in anything but trying to get what you could out of life. I’ve come to a saner philosophy now, But then I was just hard and bitter.
On that day, we went across to Staten Island on the ferry, and I sat absolutely motionless all the way, my hand cold and frozen in my dad’s. All feeling had left me. Loneliness engulfed me. Even during the services, in the church and at the grave, I didn’t cry. Dad said my face was like a piece of marble. Poor dear, he was weeping enough for two of us, but I couldn’t cry. When they started to lower the coffin into the ground, my heart began to beat again. Then the clergyman turned and told me to throw the first pieces of earth down upon her I had so greatly loved.
At that, I came to life and went crazy. I tried to jump into the open grave after her. I screamed and cried out that they were all hypocrites, they hadn’t loved her when she was alive, or cared for her, or done anything to make life easier. I raved and fought like a little wildcat. The thought of leaving her there in that hard, cold ground tortured my imagination beyond bearing.
And then I was overcome with remorse. Just think, when she felt the way she did about pictures, I’d actually been working, dancing on a table with just a few clothes on, when she left me for good. A deep knowledge, perhaps the deepest emotion I had ever had in my life, came to me then of how much she had loved me. I’d been the only thing she’d ever had to love, she’d poured all the frustration of her soul out upon me. And I’d disappointed her, gone against her wishes.
I felt that I never wanted to see another motion picture. I was very ill again after that. And for a while I stuck to my resolution about motion pictures. But Dad – who is so very sensible, who knows the world well and understands so much – talked it all over with me. I remember he came in and sat on the end of my bed one night and looked down at me.
“Little daughter,” he said, “you’re making a big mistake. You’re very young and I know you think your heart is broken. But it isn’t. You mustn’t allow it to be. You have a long life ahead of you, and your mother – as she was before her illness changed her – would want you to go on and live it to the fullest. She was a very wonderful woman and she expected a great deal of you. It would make her so unhappy to know that your grief is ruining your life. And at the time when she was herself, she would have understood your ambition, your desire to be in pictures. She loved beauty and all expressions of it. So you must, for her sake and your own and mine – because after all, Clara darling, I’m still here and I need you, too – you must pull yourself together and do your work.”
That woke me up. I hate a quitter and I saw that I was quitting. And I knew he was right, that if mother had been herself she would have understood my picture work. So I started in again looking for work. I don’t believe anybody had a harder time getting started in pictures than I did.
You see, I had to make a niche for myself. If I am different, if I’m the “super-flapper” and “jazz-baby” of pictures, it’s because I had to create a character for myself. Otherwise, I’d probably not be in pictures at all. They certainly didn’t want me.
I was the wrong type to play ingenues. I was too small for a leading woman and too kiddish for heavies. I had too much of what my wonderful friend Elinor Glyn calls “It,” apparently, for the average second role or anything of that sort. I got turned down for more jobs, I guess, than any other girl who ever tried to break into pictures.
Finally I did get a lead with Glenn Hunter. The girl was a little rough-neck, and somehow they thought I fitted into it. I guess I did. I’d always been a tomboy, and at heart I still was. I worked in a few pictures around New York and by that time Down to the Sea in Ships, which had been held up for such a long time, was released and that helped me.
About this time, I met a woman in New York who was sort of a casting agent. I am not going to mention her name in this story because I am trying to be truthful all the way through and I cannot say anything kind about her. Perhaps she did try to help me, but she did so many things that didn’t help and while I try not to hold any hard feelings against anyone, I cannot help feeling unhappy whenever I think of her.
Anyway, about that time Mr. Bachmann saw me in Down to the Sea in Ships, and he liked my work. He came to talk to me. At that time, he was B. P. Shulberg’s partner and he wired Mr. Shulberg, who was in Hollywood, that he thought I was a “bet.” He suggested that Mr. Shulberg give me a three months’ contract and my fare to Hollywood, at a salary of fifty dollars a week, and give me a chance.
“It can’t do any harm,” he said.
So this agent – I’ll call her Mrs. Smith, because that wasn’t her name – and I came to Hollywood.
We left my Dad in New York, because we didn’t have the money for railroad fares and besides he’d gotten a job down at Coney Island, managing a little restaurant, and he liked it. So we thought we would wait and see how I made out.
Mrs. Smith and I took a little apartment in Hollywood and I started to work. I did nothing but work. I worked in two and even three pictures at once. I played all sorts of parts in all sorts of pictures. In a very short time I had acquired the experience that it often takes years and years to get. It was very hard at the time and I used to be worn out and cry myself to sleep from sheer fatigue after eighteen hours a day on different sets, but now I am glad of it.
The story of my career from there on isn’t so different from the story of all other motion picture careers. I’ll wind it up later, but right here I’d like to stop and tell you something of my personal life in Hollywood and the three love affairs – or engagements – that have happened to me since I came and that have been so much in the newspapers.
You know enough about me to realize that I’d never “had things.” I’m not going to pretend that I had. Everything was new and wonderful to me. It was wonderful to have the things I wanted to eat, not to have to scrimp on dessert and be able to order the best cuts of meat. It was wonderful to have silk stockings, and not cry if they happened to get a run in them. It was wonderful to have a few dollars to spend, just as I liked, without having to worry about the fact that they ought to be used to pay the gas bill.
Maybe other people don’t realize that, don’t get the kick out of those things that I do. Of course I still can’t exactly understand the money that is coming and is going to make my Dad and me comfortable and happy all the rest of our lives. When I bought my first home, the one I still live in, a little bungalow in Beverly Hills, when I signed the check, I couldn’t possibly appreciate what the figures meant. I knew I had that much in the bank -me, little Clara Bow – and that the home was mine and I’d actually earned it. But the figures were just too big for my comprehension.
But I do know what a hundred dollars is. That used to be a dream to me – to have a hundred dollars. I never thought I would, not all at once – have a hundred dollars, and certainly not to do something I really wanted to do with. So now I get more thrill out of a hundred dollars that I can go and buy a present for a friend with, or do something for Dad, or get myself something awfully feminine and pretty with, than I do out of my salary check.
I guess I’m still just Clara Bow at heart.
I’m getting away from the run of my story, but a life story ought to tell you a little about how a person feels, and that’s how I feel about the success that has come to me.
Well, a short time after I’d come to Hollywood and Mrs. Smith and I were living in a little apartment and I was working in three pictures at once I met Gilbert Roland.
I’d never been in love all my life. Funny, because I suppose people think I was born being in love with somebody. But Gilbert was the first man I ever cared about. There isn’t any reason why I shouldn’t tell it, because we were both kids, and we were engaged, and we were very happy. Not a bit in the modern, flapper fashion, but rather like two youngsters that didn’t know what it was all about and were scared to death of it.
We used to sit and just look at each other, hardly breathing, not really knowing each other at all. He called me “Clarita” – he still spoke with a good deal of Spanish accent in those days, and I used to love to hear him say my name, it was so soft and sweet. Neither of us had much money, and we used to do all sorts of silly little things to have a good time, and we used to think it was wonderful when we could go out to dinner and to a theater.
I think we might have been happy together if outside things hadn’t interfered so dreadfully. We were happy, for a year and a half, and used to talk about getting married, and the time when we’d both be stars.
Well, we’re both stars now, but the rest of the dream has vanished, and like every girl, I look back on my first love with tender memories and maybe a tear, though I know it can never come again.
I don’t know just what separated us, but Gilbert was working hard on one lot and I on another, and everyone came between us, and we were both very jealous. And at last we had a violent quarrel. I don’t think either of us meant it, or dreamed it would be final. But it went on and on, and we were both too proud to make the first move, so the breach finally grew so wide and we were so far apart that we never made it up.
Mrs. Smith had been doing a lot of odd things about my business affairs. She kept trying to make me think that I wasn’t making good and that they were going to send me back to New York very soon. I worried about that all the time, and gave her more and more authority and power, because I thought she might keep them from doing that.
Finally, my Dad came West. Mrs. Smith had done a lot of things to make me think that Dad wasn’t what he should be and that he would handicap me in a business way. She said relatives always did and that it would make the bosses sore around the studios if my father came interfering. I believed her. I knew so little about things, and what with working the whole time and trying to enjoy myself in spare moments I was – just dumb, I guess.
When Daddy arrived I had quite made up my mind to leave him out of things and to show him at once that he must not interfere with this great “career” that seemed opening up before me. I felt that perhaps he actually would be out of the picture and – oh, I am ashamed to tell this, but it came out all right and perhaps will make you understand a little of what I went through – when he arrived I was going to be very cool and aloof with him. I was now a successful motion picture actress and I intended to keep my new position and put him in his place.
When we met I just said, “Hello, Dad,” and looked at him. I had on a new frock and, maybe, a new personality. I had learned so much about personality in the months I had been in Hollywood. I had been seeing the world and getting my first taste of success and admiration and money. I had begun to stand out a little, to hear people say, “That’s Clara Bow. They say she’s very clever.”
Dad just stood and looked at me. He looked a little tired and worn, as though he had been working very hard. But as he looked the light went out of his face, the light and joy and welcome that had been his at seeing his little daughter again.
And suddenly I couldn’t do it. I didn’t care a – a rap, for Mrs. Smith, nor B. P. Shulberg, nor my motion picture career, nor Clara Bow. I just threw myself into his arms and kissed and kissed him, and we both cried like a couple of fool kids. Oh, it was wonderful. I knew then how lonely I had been for someone of my own, someone who belonged to me and really loved me.
We sat down and had a long talk, and right away Dad started looking into all these things. And soon I knew that Mrs. Smith hadn’t told me the truth at all. She knew that the work I had done was very successful and that they liked me very much. But she wanted to keep a hold on me so she made me think I wasn’t getting over and that nothing but her clever management kept me going.
About this time Frank Lloyd, the great director, was looking for a girl to play the flapper in Black Oxen. He had looked at everybody almost on the screen and tested them, but he had not found exactly what he wanted and finally somebody suggested me to him. I shall never forget the kind way he received me. He didn’t do as most people had done in Hollywood, try to make me think I didn’t have a chance and that they were doing me a favor when they let me work in their pictures. When I came into his office a big smile came over his face and he looked just tickled to death. And he told me instantly that I was just what he wanted.
Of all the people in motion pictures I owe the most to Frank Lloyd, for the chance he gave me to establish myself as the screen flapper in Black Oxen, for the direction he gave me which showed me entirely new vistas in screen acting – and to Elinor Glyn, for the way she taught me to bring out my personality, and the way she concentrated her great word “It” upon me.
All this time I was “running wild,” I guess, in the sense of trying to have a good time. I’d never had any fun in my life, as you know. And I was just a kid, under twenty, with a background of grief and poverty that I’ve tried to make you understand, even though I’ve had to bare my whole soul to do it. Why, I’d never been to a real party, a real dance. I’d never had a beautiful dress to wear, never had anyone send me flowers. It was like a new world to me, and I just drank it all in with that immense capacity of youth for understanding and loving excitement, I tried to make up for all my barren, hungry, starved-for-beauty years in no time at all.
Maybe this was a good thing, because I suppose a lot of that excitement, that joy of life, got onto the screen, and was the sort of flame of youth that made people enjoy seeing me. A philosopher might call it the swing of the pendulum, from my early years of terror and lack, to this time when all the pleasures of the world opened before me.
Just about this time I met Victor Fleming, who directed me in several pictures.
Victor Fleming is a wonderful man. You have no idea how wonderful he is because the public scarcely knows about directors at all. But he is a man, older a great deal than I am, and very strong. He knows the world, he has cultivated a great sense of values through living, and he is deeply cultured. I liked him at once, though I didn’t feel in the least romantic about him.
But soon we became great friends and he had a tremendous and very fine influence on my life. He grew fond of me at once. And he began, with his strong intellect and understanding of life, to guide me in little ways. He showed me that life must be lived, not just for the moment, but for the years. He showed me what a future I might have as an actress, because I had made a place for myself that people seemed to want. He was very patient, and he taught me a great deal. He formed a lot of ideas that were running around in my mind.
Mr. Shulberg had gone into Paramount and taken my contract, which he had signed a while before, with him. So I was working for Paramount, and they were beginning to do things for me and I could see that I was important to them. If looked as though if I made good in the chances they gave me I would be a big star. So I began at that time to be subject to flattery, to people who had never paid any attention to me coming around to tell me how wonderful I was, to getting a salary that I didn’t in the least know how to spend or invest.
Under all this I use to feel a little lost. I’d wake up in the morning and like the old woman in the nursery rhyme I’d wonder if this “could be really I.” I think that sense of things kept me from ever getting fatheaded, as the youngsters I know say. But it all had to be coped with.
And in this crisis I learned to find the advice and companionship of a man like Victor Fleming invaluable. You couldn’t deceive him with any false glitter. He steered me straight a lot of times when I was going “haywire.”
And gradually our friendship seemed to deepen until it became the great thing in both our lives. I think he cared for me because he knew how much I wanted to get happiness out of life, and yet how frightened, in a way, I was of it, — and still am for that matter. Life has been so good to me. And yet, even now, with all I see before me, I cannot quite trust life. It did too may awful things to me in my youth. I still feel that I must beat it, grab everything quickly, enjoy the moment to the utmost, because tomorrow, life may bludgeon me down, as it did my mother, as it used to do to the people I lived with in Brooklyn when I was a kid.
I had had a pretty good education, in spite of lacks in other ways, and while Victor Fleming and I were engaged – we became engaged about that time – I began to read again, and to enjoy music, and to grow calmer about many things.
I was very happy. I was gradually growing more and more successful in my work. I loved it. There is one thing I must say about my work as a picture star. I have worked very hard. I’ve been at the studio terribly long hours. I’ve had very little time between pictures. It would probably amaze anyone to see how much of my life the last four years has been spent on a motion picture set. But I’ve loved it.
Perhaps the difference in age brought about the severing of the tie between Victor Fleming and me, though we are still the best of friends. Perhaps the feeling I had grown so gradually and under such circumstances that there wasn’t quite enough romance in it. I was young and I needed romance. Perhaps even he found that I didn’t give him the sort of companionship he needed.
Anyway, our feeling for each other became more and more that of close friendship and less and less that of lovers. Until finally we agreed that it would be best that way, to be friends, nothing more.
Right after that, while I was making a picture once more with my dear Frank Lloyd, a picture called Children of Divorce, I met a young man named Gary Cooper. It was his first big part – he’d been a cowboy up in Nevada or something and played a small part in some Western picture. He was to play the lead. Of course he was new to the screen and didn’t know exactly how to do things, though he was wonderful and photographed marvelously. I always like to help anyone who is new, so I was willing to go over and over scenes with him, in rehearsal, to help him out.
While we were doing that, we fell in love. If I wanted to be the Clara Bow of the screen, I’d say – and how! It was very wonderful and beautiful while it lasted. But – I can’t altogether explain. It’s very difficult to be a motion picture star and be married. So many fail at it. I have made up my mind that I shan’t fail when I do marry. I shall wait until I’m sure. Gary was – so jealous. I know he wouldn’t mind my saying that. Anyway, we parted.
Is that so many romances for a girl of twenty-two? Haven’t most girls been engaged two or three times, before they’re twenty-two? Yet just because I am Clara Bow and it is always printed, it sounds as though I were a regular flapper vamp. And I’m not at all.
It seems to me I’ve said very little about my career, after I became successful. But the story of every success is much the same. You work and suffer and battle and starve, and then you get your nose in a little way and then – you get the break. And if you have it in you, you make good. And then you just go on working, getting more money and loving the fame and the admiration of the public.
Somehow, I had managed to make a niche for myself. I’d created a Clara Bow by being myself largely I guess, who fitted the public desire and the public imagination. I hope they’ll go on loving me a long time. I don’t know.
I live in my little bungalow in Beverly Hills with my father. I work very, very hard. I like young people and gaiety, and have a lot of both around me whenever I have time. I like to swim and ride and play tennis. I have a few close friends, but not many acquaintances. I don’t have time. I am happy – as happy as anyone can be who believes that life isn’t quite to be trusted. I give everything I can to my pictures and the rest to being young and trying to make my father happy, and filling up the gaps in my education.
I don’t think I’m very different from any other girl – except that I work harder and have suffered more. And I have red hair.
All in all, I guess I’m just Clara Bow. And Clara Bow is just what life made her. That’s what I’ve tried to tell you in this story. I’m terribly grateful and still a little incredulous of my success. It seems like a dream. But – I’m willing to work just as hard as ever to go on having it. Beyond that, I haven’t yet evolved any plans or desires.
After all, I’m still only twenty-two. That isn’t so very old, is it?
**I am so thankful to have found this article, as it gives an in depth look at a very misunderstood woman. She was the icon and love of millions of people across the world. Yet, in the blink of an eye, judgement and lies took away everything that she had worked for. I have always found it interesting how fickle people can be in their affections. To me, Clara is a woman whom fame and fanatics created, and those same two sources of empowerment ruined her. Thanks to the continued works of people across the world, film preservation efforts enable us to re-experience these classics. It enables us to experience first hand how and why people feel in love with these icons to begin with. Clara was a strong, smart woman with an enduring spirit, and that is demonstrated every time she is on the big screen. **