Meet Clara Bow: The True Story of the “It Girl” Behind Taylor Swift’s New Song

clara bow sits on a wooden post in a swimsuit, she smiles at the camera and holds a newspaper in one hand as the other hand rests on her hip
Clara BowGetty Images
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Latest News: Taylor Swift Names New Song After Silent Film Star Clara Bow

Clara Bow retreated from the spotlight at age 28, but once again, all eyes are on the late silent film star. On February 6, pop megastar Taylor Swift released the track list for her just-announced new album on her social media accounts, and the final song is titled “Clara Bow.” The album, The Tortured Poets Department, releases on April 19.

After a traumatic childhood in New York City, Bow became the preeminent leading lady of Hollywood in the 1920s and one of the first sex symbols onscreen. She became the original “It Girl” after starring in 1927 box-office smash It. Bow’s romantic life, including her multiple broken engagements, was publicly scrutinized and served as fodder for Hollywood gossip. That, in addition to a demanding work schedule and unraveling mental health, led Bow to retire from acting in 1933. She went on to have a family with her husband of more than 30 years, actor-turned-politician Rex Bell.

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Who Was Clara Bow?

Actor Clara Bow became famous during the silent film era of the 1920s. As a teenager, she starred in her first movie by way of a beauty contest. Later roles in films like Black Oxen and Wine brought the onscreen sex symbol considerable attention. Bow had major success with the 1927 movie It, which proved a tremendous box-office draw and lent her the nickname the “It Girl.” That year, she also starred in Wings, the first movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. After a number of scandals and a mental health breakdown, Bow retired from acting in 1933 and lived the rest of her life away from the spotlight. She died in September 1965 at age 60.

Quick Facts

FULL NAME: Clara Gordon Bow
BORN: July 29, 1905
DIED: September 27, 1965
BIRTHPLACE: New York, New York
SPOUSE: Rex Bell (1931-1962)
CHILDREN: Rex and George

Troubling Childhood

Clara Bow was born on July 29, 1905, in the Bay Ridge area of New York City’s Brooklyn borough. She was the youngest of three siblings and the only one to survive past childhood. Her father, Robert, was sexually abusive and left the home for long periods of time, while her mother, Sarah, suffered from severe mental disorders, later threatening her adolescent daughter’s life. The family was quite poor.

clara bow wears a tall tophat and looks to the right
A teenaged Clara Bow in Down to the Sea in ShipsGetty Images

Bow took to watching movies as an escape from the horrors of home and dropped out of school. At 16, she entered a magazine’s beauty contest and won a small part in the 1922 film Beyond the Rainbow, though her scenes were cut.

Even while facing resistance, Bow persevered in continuing to audition at New York studios and eventually received a part in Down to the Sea in Ships (1922). The budding actor also contended with the institutionalization and death of her mother.

Movies: Becoming the “It Girl”

Bow made her way to Hollywood and signed with Preferred Pictures under honcho B.P. Schulberg. She starred in an array of silent films such as Black Oxen (1923), Grit (1924), Wine (1924), The Plastic Age (1925), and Dancing Mothers (1926). The latter was filmed by Paramount Studios, which Schulberg and Bow joined after Preferred’s bankruptcy.

clara bow and antonio moreno in a scene from the movie it, she lies on her stomach with her legs up in the air and smiles at him, he sits at a table writing, several other papers are on the table as well
Clara Bow and Antonio Moreno in a scene from the 1927 movie It.Getty Images

Bow became wildly popular after 1927’s It, a movie adapted from an Elinor Glyn novella. The project proved to be a tremendous box-office success and lent the actor a nickname that continues to stick: the “It” Girl. Bow’s magnetism and electric, hot performances spoke to the flapper persona of the times. The redhead was a style icon as well, with her particular look taken on by women across the country.

Often relegated to roles that played into her sex symbol persona, the actor nevertheless made cinematic history with her 1927 co-starring role in Wings. The movie won the first Oscar for Best Picture. Bow later made the transition to talking movies with 1929’s The Wild Party. Her other talkies included The Saturday Night Kid (1929) and True to the Navy (1930).

Bow ultimately starred in dozens of films over the course of her career, though rigorous shooting demands, industry exploitation, and her own unraveling mental health took its toll. Her final movies, Call Her Savage and Hoopla, were with Fox Studios. Neither were successful, and she retired from acting in 1933 at age 28.

The Toll of the Spotlight

Known for having a fun and affable personality, Bow still suffered from an overloaded work schedule, celebrity scrutiny, and the lingering traumas of her upbringing. She had been associated with a number of men offscreen, and her romantic life became the object of much hurtful speculation and gossip, including a pamphlet put forth by an assistant with stories of Bow’s relationships. She was rumored to have multiple partners at once and endured a handful of broken engagements.

In 1931, Bow had a breakdown and entered a sanitarium. After spending weeks there, she left and continued her recovery at her home in Nevada. Bow returned to the screen as planned but only briefly before leaving her fame behind for good.

Later Years

clara bow and rex bell stand in long coats outside and smile, both wear hats, a group of people stands behind, she holds a clutch to her body
Clara Bow and her husband, Rex Bell, were married for more than 30 years.Getty Images

While recovering from her mental health breakdown, Bow met fellow actor Rex Bell. They married in 1931 and moved to his ranch in Searchlight, Nevada, south of Las Vegas. The couple had two sons: Rex, who went by “Tony” in childhood, and George. The boys were born in 1934 and 1938, respectively.

Bow and her husband briefly had a restaurant in Hollywood’s Plaza Hotel called “It” Cafe in the late 1930s. Bell later entered politics, serving as Nevada’s lieutenant governor and running for governor. In 1947, Bow temporarily returned to public life by voicing the character of Mrs. Hush on the radio game show Truth or Consequences.

Still, Bow struggled deeply with her mental health. She attempted suicide in the mid-1940s and underwent a score of examinations. The former movie icon was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia.

By the time her husband died in 1962 during his campaign for governor, Bow had been in seclusion for many years. Her attendance at his funeral marked one of her few public appearances later in life.

Death and Legacy

Bow died at age 60 on September 27, 1965, in Los Angeles. The cause of death was a heart attack.

Decades later, her trailblazing role in shaping film and general culture has continued to be explored. Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, and Rita Hayworth—all actors who became onscreen sex symbols after Bow—have all been compared to the original “It Girl.” In 1988, David Stenn published his biography Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, while 1999 saw the release of the documentary Clara Bow: Discovering the It Girl, directed by Hugh M. Neely and narrated by Courtney Love.

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