A while back I wrote of one tragic sex zombie, and referred to Clara Bow
as having written the script of that now all-too-familiar scenario: Girl from unsettled family with ambitious/crazy mother and absent/worse father ends up in Hollywood and ignites the screen. She becomes the hot ticket in town, going through the A-list men like tissues but somehow never finding affection– while her insecurities and anger slowly sabotage her career, ravage her beauty, and finally subsume her life force.
I’ve been thinking about Bow, not just because she and I share a birthday, or because I just dyed my hair a fabulous red–but because I recently perused “Running Wild,” a biography of Clara Bow’s tragic life written by David Stenn (Doubleday, 1988). Frankly, I found the writing both patronizing towards and unilluminating about its subject–but there was one beautiful moment, a brief oxygenating minute of kindness and humanity amidst this rather plodding account of the true ghastliness of Bow’s life.
Back when Clara was in her blazingly successful “It” girl days she was juggling three big stars in her personal life: Gary Cooper (hung like a water buffalo but a mamma’s boy, and Clara was not the sort of dame any mamma wants around); macho but paternal film director Victor Fleming (who helmed the future Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz); and young star Gilbert Roland, (a Mexican slice of beefcake considered too pretty to be sexy, with whom Clara had recently filmed a spicy dance scene in their film The Plastic Age,1925). Of course, Clara drove them all away with her insecurities, infidelities, and indecisiveness. And equally of course, she didn’t know–she had no basis for knowing–if any of them loved her, or just “It”.
She probably never knew, until years later. 1950, to be exact.
Living alone, separated from her husband, just released from a sanitarium for treatment of schizophrenia and barbiturate addiction, Clara received this poetic, poignant letter from Gilbert Roland, who was still in the middle of a very successful longterm career in Hollywood.
Hello Clarita Girl:
I am truly sad that you don’t feel well. Sometimes when I go to church and I think of you, I say a prayer. It will be heard. God hears everything.
You tell me you long for your boys. I share your feelings. My daughters are with their mother in Wiesbaden, Germany. And there is nothing I can do, except cry a little once in a while.
I hope someday they show The Plastic Age. It would be wonderful to see that dancing scene, you and I. It would be pleasant seeing how I looked when I was your beau, and you were my dream girl. It would be pleasant seeing that. And then it might be very beautiful, and suddenly it might be very sad.
It seems you are in my thoughts.
It’s good to feel that way.
It’s good I have never forgotten you.
God bless you.
This letter is so kind, so loving and acknowledging of the toll time and pain take of our lives, so generous in giving Clara her dignity as a human being and not a piece of ass marketed for millions before being tossed on a junk-heap, that it must have pierced poor Clara Bow’s heart. This note was found among her effects after her death. Roland was once quoted as saying, “If you forget the beauty of your youth, you are no more than an animal.” Clara was the beauty of his youth, and this letter makes Gilbert Roland very sexy indeed. Who needs water buffalo?