Clara Bow was, arguably, America’s first major superstar. At the apex of her stardom in 1929 she received 45,000 fan letters a month. Yet, Clara was born into abject poverty. Indeed, it’s possible that her birth was not even recorded. Certainly, no record of her birth survives.
Various records list Clara’s birthday as 29 July, but the years vary – 1905, 1906 and 1907. The 1910 US census was taken on 15 April. Clara was recorded as aged four in that census, which suggests she was born in 1905.
The 1910 census also recorded that Clara was one of three children born to her parents, Robert and Sarah, but the only one alive. A heat wave gripped her home city, New York, in July 1905, with temperatures topping 100 °F. Many people died.
Later, Clara wrote: “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.”
I’m researching the life of Clara Bow, a superstar in the 1920s. However, before exploring Clara’s life, where did the Bows come from? The answer is England. Like many of their generation, they set sail for America in the 1600s and became planters in Hartford.
The early American Bows were wealthy men and women. However, by the time Clara was born in New York in 1905, the family fortune had long gone. Indeed, Clara’s father Robert flitted from one humble occupation to another, and between 1905 and 1923 the family lived at fourteen different addresses.
Clara Bow was a superstar in the 1920s, yet her birth was not even recorded. Piecing the facts together from various records, a birthdate of 29 July 1905 looks the most likely candidate. Why wasn’t Clara’s birth registered? There were several reasons.
One, Clara’s father, Robert, was often absent from the family home. Two, Clara and her mother, Sarah (pictured), were ill after the birth, and their illnesses were exacerbated by a New York heatwave. Indeed, Sarah was in such poor physical, and probably mental, condition that a doctor warned her not to become pregnant.
Clara was Sarah’s third child. Her first daughter, Alene, was stillborn on 25 June 1903 while her second daughter, Emily, was born and died on 13 May 1904. Given this background, it was a minor miracle that Clara made it to 30 July, let alone beyond.
Clara Bow was born into a family of alcoholics and psychologically damaged people. Abuse, in all its ugly forms, was common. Clara’s family needed help, but in New York in 1905 few people, and certainly not the authorities, were prepared to offer a helping hand.
Clara’s neighbourhood was a network of slums and brothels, populated by the likes of ‘Submarine’ Mary – her name speaks for itself. House fires were common. Cholera, diphtheria, scarlet fever, smallpox and tuberculosis were rife. Violence was a way of life.
During the summer heatwave of 1905, the New York infant mortality rate was estimated at eighty percent. Clara’s parents, Robert and Sarah, were convinced that she would die, so they didn’t even bother obtaining a birth certificate.
To understand Clara’s later choices in life, you need to understand where she came from: a hellhole where love was just a four-letter word.
Welcome to the world, Clara Bow.
In 1906, shortly after Clara Bow’s first birthday, her maternal grandfather Frederick Gordon, committed his wife, Sarah Grace Hatton, to an asylum for the terminally insane. Clara’s mother, Sarah, hated her father, Frederick. Furthermore, it would appear that she had no love for her husband, Robert, who was often absent from the family home.
Already burdened with a range of physical and mental problems, Sarah suffered a head injury, which resulted in frequent seizures. With her father absent, young Clara had to tend to her sick mother and ease her through these seizures.
When Robert returned to the family home, often he would vent his frustrations on Clara. Graphic details are not needed here. Life for Clara the child was grim. It’s little wonder that she developed a stammer, lacked self-esteem and suffered from a lack of confidence.
Children, often cruel, mocked Clara’s stammer, and the threadbare clothes she wore. As a defence mechanism, Clara became a tomboy. She also learned how to use her fists. “My right was famous,” she later said.
To survive, Clara needed relief from the torture of her home life and the bullying she received at school. Mercifully, she found that relief – in the movies.
Seeking relief from abuse at home and bullying in school, Clara Bow found solace in the cinema. She would study movie magazines and dream of appearing in them. Without love, and with little food, Clara survived on dreams.
Clara’s mother, Sarah, an invalid, was dependent upon Clara for daily care. Maybe through a fear of losing that care, Sarah sought to thwart Clara’s ambitions. Some people have suggested that Sarah kept Clara in a state of nervous anxiety as a means of exerting control.
The flu epidemic of 1918 prompted the Bows to leave Brooklyn for Coney Island. The change of scenery benefited the family, for a short while. However, around this time Sarah, gripped by one of her ‘episodes’, attacked Clara.
Often, a person’s life can dramatically change for the better thanks to the belief of one person. A grammar school teacher believed in Clara and selected her to play Priscilla in Miles Standish. Clara’s parents dragged her out of school, so she never fulfilled that role. However, Clara did learn her lines and thanks to repetitive recitation, her stammer disappeared.