When one looks at Clara Bow’s childhood, it is nearly unfathomable that she was able to rise up and become the star that she was. “Hellish” and “miserable” are gross understatements. Clara Bow was conceived, born and raised in unbelievable poverty in Brooklyn. Before significant reformation had taken place, the tenements in which Clara spent her childhood were hell’s breeding grounds. Disease was rampant throughout the crowded tenements and it was miraculous if a child survived infancy.
Clara Bow was born to Robert and Sarah Bow. Robert Bow can be described simply as “no-good”. One of 13 children, he was raised in New York. A small man with little ambition past frequent visits to the brothels and saloons which graced Brooklyn at the turn of the century, he could rarely keep a steady job. Some even felt that he may have suffered from some sort of mental retardation.
Sarah Bow (nee Gordon), known for her fair skin and golden hair, was the perfect prey for Robert. Raised by an alcoholic father and insane mother, she had little choice when Robert Bow asked her to marry him. They were married in 1902, and moved into a squalid tenement in Brooklyn. Sarah was already pregnant.
Theirs was a match made in hell, as they soon found out. Robert Bow spent his days working in restaurants in Brooklyn, while Sarah spent her days in bed or nagging Robert about his lack of ambition and inability to make money.
A few months later, she gave birth to a daughter who died within two days and was disposed of in a trash can. Several months later Sarah was pregnant again, but like the other, it ended in death. Sarah’s third pregnancy was an attempt at suicide. She hoped and prayed that this time, God would take her life along with the child’s, feeling it was her only escape from her miserable life and the man she hated. Robert Bow knew of her intentions and posed no objections whatsoever.
On July 29, 1905, Sarah gave birth to a third daughter, who was miraculously born alive. In an almost cruel twist of fate, Sarah had survived the pregnancy, and the baby, whom they still hoped would die, was named Clara.
Clara Bow was unwanted and unloved by her parents. Robert and Sarah fought nearly constantly, and often took out their frustrations and hate they felt towards one another on Clara. Often, Robert would disappear for weeks or months at a time, leaving Clara with her mentally unstable and violent mother. Clara did everything she could to please her parents, but they were apathetic towards her. Despite this, she adored and idolized her parents, and rarely spoke of them in anyway that reflected their cruelty towards her. She always felt that her parents cruelty was her fault, and that underneath their abuse and neglect, they loved her.
Clara found affection only in her grandfather, who, despite his abuse of Sarah when she was a child, was kind and loving towards Clara. However, he died of an apoplectic fit when Clara was only four. This would be the first of many major tragedies that would mark Clara’s life.
Her childhood continued on as miserably as it began. She was shunned by the girls in her neighborhood and school, who derided her ragged appearance and embarrassing stutter. She became a classic tomboy, playing with the boys in her neighborhood. She was accepted amongst these hoards of boys whose pastimes included gang fights and stick ball. Clara’s best friend, however, was a younger boy named Johnny. She adored him and doted upon him as she would if he were her own brother. One afternoon, Clara heard dreadful screams of “Clara! Clara!” coming from Johnny’s tenement. By the time she reached him he was nearly dead. His clothing had caught fire while playing near the fireplace. Johnny died in Clara’s arms. She would revisit his death many times in her dreams.
Clara Bow was forced to leave school after 7th grade, in order to seek work and supplement some sort of income. Sarah Bow became more and more mentally unstable, Clara became her caretaker. Prone to sudden, uncontrollable ‘fits’ in which she would go glassy-eyed and having difficulty breathing, Sarah was confined to her bed for long periods of time. Doctors were unable to properly diagnose Sarah, and nothing was done for her condition. Sarah became progressively worse, and her behavior more and more bizarre. She seemed to be slowly succumbing to the insanity which had already taken her mother and two sisters.
The only solace Clara found from her absent father, her insane and violent mother, the cruel neighborhood children and filth and poverty she was surrounded by was at the movies. These movies enthralled and enchanted her, and were her only escape from the harsh reality of her life. She had dreams of one day starring in the pictures, but like most of her aspirations, they were dashed to pieces by reality.
In January of 1921, a new contest was announced- “The Fame and Fortune Contest”. This was a beauty contest, and the winner of the contest would win a part in an upcoming film. To Clara, this seemed her one chance. Although she did not mention any word of her intentions to her mother (who considered actresses equal to, or worse than, prostitutes), she entered the contest. Her father, apparently even encouraged Clara, and helped her pay for two portraits of her to be taken. She submitted her photographs to the judges, and waited for the results. She did not expect any positive outcome, as neither her parents, nor her peers considered her pretty at all. To her great surprise, Clara was chosen as a semi-finalist. Along with dozens of other contestants, Clara Bow went to take a screen test. A week later, she was invited to return for more screen tests with the other finalists.
Despite how far she had come, Clara still kept her hopes low. She felt vastly inferior to the other finalists- well-dressed and well-mannered beauties from all over the country. Clara, who wore her her single skirt and sweater for each day of the screen tests, knew that she had little chance against the other finalists. However, the judges were taken with Clara’s unique charm and beauty, and announced her as the winner.