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Clara Bow was a movie star by the age of 20 — and washed up by 28. Now she’s poised to win over a new generation of fans as the title of the last track on Taylor Swift’s “The Tortured Poets Department.”

Known as the “It Girl” for both her starring role in the silent comedy “It” and her place as one of the pre-eminent sexy symbols of ’20s Hollywood, Bow wasn’t washed up because her box office slipped. She was washed up because her scandal-plagued life made her a liability, both for the studios and for her own mental health. In David Stenn’s masterful biography “Runnin’ Wild,” he sums up the tragedy of Bow’s life with two quotes from the former Brooklyn girl who found her unaffected zest for living slowly beaten out of her. “Marriage means the fulfillment of everythin’ to me,” Bow said in 1933. “This sounds like the bunk, I know. But I mean it. Else I wouldn’t say it.” Directly beneath, Stenn quotes a psychiatric report from seven years and marriage to movie cowboy Rex Bell later: “She has been exceedingly unhappy at [Bell’s] ranch and sees nothing but hopelessness and ruin ahead of her…”

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Which is to say that Clara Bow is someone who knew her way around a broken heart. And she had plenty over the years, all breathlessly recapped in the tabloid press. Sound familiar?

Swift is hardly the first person to mine Bow for contemporary commentary. Damien Chazelle largely based Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy in “Babylon” on Bow. But where Robbie’s character was intentionally brash, Bow was increasingly bewildered by people’s reaction to her. Penniless Mary Pickford became a star and promptly started serving tea at her Pickfair estate; Bow survived a gothic nightmare of a childhood (she woke one night to her mother holding a knife to her throat), became a star, and said things like, “Poor Gary [Cooper]. The biggest cock in Hollywood and no ass to push it with.” In the process, Bow became an object lesson in what happens when you’re unwilling — or incapable — of playing the game.

Hollywood lore (and Kenneth Anger) has it that man-eater Bow blew her career (and the microphones) on the set of her first talkie with her nasal Brooklyn honk. In reality, her sound films are remarkable achievements for just how well her still-modern persona made the transition; Bow was never cloying in the ’20s, and she seemed uniquely poised to segue effortlessly into a new chapter. But a messy trial in which Bow sued her secretary/best friend for embezzlement and the erstwhile bestie went straight to the tabloids with gossip about Bow’s sex life put a damper on Paramount’s willingness to continue working with her.

“Clara laid everything but the linoleum,” went one joke. The rumors had it that Bow was a lesbian, that she participated in orgies, that she had sex the entire USC football team (including a young John Wayne), even that she had sex with her Great Danes! The nickname was cruel but accurate when the suits began referring to her as “Crisis a Day Clara.”

She escaped in 1931 by marrying Bell and moving to Nevada. But then Bell became a politician, and who better to trot out to events and dinners than his movie star wife? In 1944, Bell ran for Congress and Clara tried to kill herself, writing in a suicide note that she preferred death to public life. In 1949, she checked into a sanitarium, where no one could agree on what was wrong with her (if anything). When she got out, she moved into a bungalow and lived alone and away from her family until her death in 1965.

It’s hard not to think of Swift — a target for vitriol and gossip because she loves to sing — when reading this quote from Bow, reflecting on her reputation: “My life in Hollywood contained plenty of uproar. I’m sorry for a lot of it but not awfully sorry. I never did anything to hurt anyone else. I made a place for myself on the screen and you can’t do that by being Mrs. Alcott’s idea of a Little Woman.”



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