At thirteen, Clara’s parents dragged her out of school. Over the next year she endured menial jobs, including a short-lived spell as a receptionist for an abortionist – Clara had learned so much about life by this tender age that she was already well-qualified to graduate from the ‘School of Hard Knocks’.
Seeking relief from her mundane work, Clara mimicked her favourite movie stars, like Mary Pickford, in front of a mirror. She also lost herself in movie magazines, including Motion Picture. In the January 1921 issue of Motion Picture, Clara noticed a feature on the ‘Fame and Fortune Contest’, first prize – a part in a motion picture. Clara was desperate to enter that contest. However, entry required two photographs of the contestants. Sadly, Clara did not have enough money to pay a photographer.
Clara’s mother, Sarah, refused to help. However, Clara’s father, Robert, took her to a rundown studio in Coney Island where a photographer took two “terrible” – to use Clara’s word – photographs of her.
Robert’s motives are hard to discern. Maybe he genuinely wanted to help his daughter – although his previous behaviour towards her does not support this assumption. Or maybe he saw this as a big chance for him as well, a chance for Clara to make big money for the family.
Clara took the streetcar to Brooklyn to deliver the photographs in person. The manager of the ‘Fame and Fortune Contest’ appreciated the gesture. He made a note on the photographs: ‘Called in person – very pretty’.
Along with dozens of other hopefuls, Clara qualified for a screen test. She did well enough in that test to make it through to the next round. Nine contestants stepped forward and Clara watched every one of them, noting their errors, particularly the error of mimicking other actresses. Instinctively, she realised that she was not Mary Pickford – to succeed she had to be herself.
Clara made it through to the final, along with a blonde Texan, Lula Hubbard. In the final, Clara wore her threadbare clothes. In contrast, Lula was elegant.
Clara was a quick learner, especially when it came to acting. The judges noted that she was ‘quick, alert, young and lovely’. They also stated, ‘She is very young, only sixteen. But she is full of confidence, determination and ambition. She is endowed with a mentality far beyond her years. She has a genuine spark of divine fire. The five different screen tests she had, showed this very plainly, her emotional range of expression provoking a fine enthusiasm from every contest judge who saw the tests. She screens perfectly. Her personal appearance is almost enough to carry her to success without the aid of the brains she indubitably possesses.’
Three days after the final ‘Fame and Fortune Contest’ screen test, the judges announced their 1921 winner: Clara Bow.
Clara Bow won the ‘Fame and Fortune Contest, 1921’. Her prizes: an evening gown, a silver trophy, and a part in a movie. Clara was on her way to stardom. Only she wasn’t. Her mother’s ‘episodes’ were becoming more frequent and more violent, including knife attacks on Clara. Plus, the promised movie part never materialised.
On 24 February 1922, Clara’s father, Robert, placed her mother, Sarah, in an asylum. Sixteen years earlier Sarah’s father had placed her mother in the same institution.
Clara moved with her father to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. There, she sought to fulfil her dream and appear in the movies.
Clara wandered from studio to studio, from agency to agency, only to suffer rejection. However, she did impress directors with her ability to cry on demand. “All I had to do,” Clara later said, “was think of home.”
Clara met director Christy Cabanne who cast her in Beyond the Rainbow, released 19 February 1922. Clara shot five scenes for Cabanne, but was cut from the final print. “I was sick to my stomach about that”, Clara recalled.
Further rejection followed. “There was always something,” Clara said. “I was too young, or too little, or too fat. Usually I was too fat.”
Looking for a tomboy to appear in his movie Down to the Sea in Ships, director Elmer Clifton offered Clara $35 a week for the part. She demanded $50 and Clifton agreed. It’s interesting that while Clara was desperate to appear in the movies, she wasn’t prepared to sell her soul; she had a sense of her worth.
Down to the Sea in Ships documented life, love and work in the whale-hunter community. The movie premiered at the Olympia Theater in New Bedford, on 25 September 1922, and went on general distribution from 4 March 1923. Clara was billed tenth in the movie, but outshone the cast. Her reviews:
“Miss Bow will undoubtedly gain fame as a screen comedienne.” – Ogden Standard Examiner, 17 December 1922.
“She scored a tremendous hit in Down to the Sea in Ships … [and] has reached the front rank of motion picture principal players”. – Pennsylvania Daily News, 4 September 1923.
“With her beauty, her brains, her personality and her genuine acting ability it should not be many moons before she enjoys stardom in the fullest sense of the word. You must see ‘Down to the Sea in Ships‘” – The Kokomo Daily Tribune, 6 October 1923.
“In movie parlance, she ‘stole’ the picture.” – Davenport Democrat and Leader, 28 November 1923.
Clara Bow had arrived. Her life, and the movies, would never be the same again.
Sarah Bow, Clara’s mother, died on 5 January 1923 aged 43. She had suffered from poor physical and mental health, probably inherited from her mother, for much of her life.
When Sarah was sixteen, she fell from a second-storey window and suffered a severe head injury. A later diagnosis stated that she suffered from ‘psychosis due to epilepsy’. The understanding and treatment of such a condition was very primitive in the 1920s.
From an early age, Clara cared for Sarah, easing her through her seizures, and her psychotic and hostile episodes. “As a kid I took care of my mother,” Clara said, “she didn’t take care of me.”
Clara said her mother could be, “Mean to me, and she often was.” However, Clara forgive her mother. “She didn’t mean to be (mean). She couldn’t help it.”
Sarah resented Clara’s movie ambitions and stated that her daughter, “Would be much better off dead.” In February 1922, Clara awoke to find Sarah holding a butcher’s knife against her throat. Clara fended off the attack, and locked her mother in her room. The following morning, Robert Bow committed his wife to an asylum.
Clara later said, “It was snowing. My mother and I were cold and hungry. We had been cold and hungry for days. We lay in each other’s arms and cried and tried to keep warm. It grew worse and worse. So that night my mother – but I can’t tell you about it. Only when I remember it, it seems to me I can’t live.”
When relatives gathered for Sarah’s funeral, Clara was so upset that she ‘went crazy’ and tried to jump into the grave to be with her mother. She yelled at her relatives calling them “hypocrites” because they hadn’t loved or cared for Sarah whilst she was alive.
Some sources suggest that Robert Bow molested Clara when she was sixteen, and that a short while later Clara suffered a nervous breakdown.
Clara felt guilty about Sarah’s death, partly because, by pursuing a movie career, she had gone against her mother’s wishes. Clara’s mother came close to killing her on several occasions, but Clara always forgave her.
Later photographs show Clara smiling, happy in her father’s company. If the molestation incident had occurred, it would appear that later she also forgave him.
I think it’s fair to say that Robert and Sarah Bow, for a variety of reasons, were appalling parents, and that’s to state it mildly. Yet, when you are in a vulnerable position, like Clara was, often crumbs of love are better than none at all.
Clara was forgiving by nature, and eager to please, traits that were both strengths and weaknesses. For her, family bonds were strong, even though they were akin to elastic bands, often snapping back to slap her in the face.
Slowly, but surely, Clara was making her way in the movies. However, to live, to survive, she needed love in her life. Clara had never experienced love; when it arrived, would she be able to recognise it?
In the summer of 1923, Clara Bow secured a role as a street urchin, Orchid McGonigle, in Grit, a F. Scott Fitzgerald story that dealt with juvenile crime. Whilst filming Grit, Clara met her first boyfriend, cameraman Arthur Jacobson, (23 October 1901 – 6 October 1993).
Aside from being a cameraman, Arthur Jacobson was also a thinker and a writer about culture. For someone as sensitive as Clara, on the face of it, he was the ideal boyfriend, and one wonders what direction her life would have taken if Hollywood had not intervened and their relationship had fully developed.
Whist filming Grit, Clara also met director Frank Tuttle. She worked with Tuttle on five productions, which enabled him to offer this insight that summed-up Clara in a nutshell:
“Her emotions were close to the surface. She could cry on demand, opening the floodgate of tears almost as soon as I asked her to weep. She was dynamite, full of nervous energy and vitality and pitifully eager to please everyone.”