Extreme poverty was the least of Bow’s childhood problems. She grew up unwanted and unloved in the midst of perennial battles between a sexually demanding and abusive father and an asexual, mentally disturbed mother. Throughout her career, Bow could produce real tears on demand simply by thinking of her home, the place where her mother tried to murder her with a knife and her father raped her. Given this background, her lifelong insomnia, insecurity, and sexual confusion are understandable.
Her escape from home came when she won a photo contest and an opportunity to appear in a film, where her vivacity, ingenuous charm, and radiant sexual appeal made directors and film executives overlook her “low-class” Brooklyn accent and her lack of education and acting experience. Audiences responded to Bow and the image of the “It” girl, cultivated on-and-off screen, and her films were enormously successful. At the height of her popularity, she received more than 45,000 fan letters a month. Leading men also responded to Clara, and her filmed romances paled in comparison to her real love affairs with a long list of men, including Victor Fleming and Gary Cooper.
Clara’s successes, though, did not last long and rarely brought her happiness. Stenn is particularly good at describing the exploitation that is intrinsic to fame. Clara was overworked, shuffled quickly from one picture to another to capitalize on her popularity, and all the while she...
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