“A sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt and bewildered.” Clara Bow
Look honey I hear you. Believe me it’s hard work and, like they say, it gets darn lonely at the top. But enough about me. Today my thoughts veer towards a certain red head, Clara Bow, the original “It” girl. In in the 20s she was a leading sex symbol, a sure bet at the box office and for millions of young women a role model; a woman not afraid to portray herself as strong, as ‘original’ and sexually liberated both on and off screen. Plucked from the slums of New York she fought her way to stardom to escape a troubled childhood and what would have been, a rather dismal future, had she not found fame. The fortune that should have gone hand in hand with said fame, well, I suppose you might say money wasn’t her thing. She was about living in the moment and just being grateful she had an opportunity to be herself, and get paid, and really didn’t care that the studios were making a ton of money off her. And they made a lot of money off her; they worked her hard, rolling out film after film to capitalize on her popularity without any thought for artistic integrity or her well being.
“Clara was a total nonconformist, she had a big heart, a remarkable brain, and the most utter contempt for the world in general. She had real courage because she lived boldly.” So wrote Adela Rogers St Johns a noted screenwriter and journalist from the 20s and 30s. Clara, although popular with the public, was scorned by the Hollywood elite who thought her crude, gauche and although they were more than happy to exploit her personality onscreen, off screen they shunned her for this very same behaviour. Clara liked her fun, and her leading men, and if it is to be believed, her leading women. The stories that were circulated of her escapades would make even Hugh Heffener blush. She was tabloid fodder and no one ever stepped in to help her, defend her or even to give her legal advise. Scandal after scandal eventually took its toll and both her career and mental health suffered. At age 25 she took time off, checked herself into a sanatorium and then left Hollywood for a ranch in Nevada. She returned to the film world for some talkies but she ultimately retreated to her ranch again and towards the end of her life was a virtual recluse.
Marilyn Monroe, the other Hollywood bombshell, shared many similarities with Clara and she too expressed a similar sentiment about the reality behind the facade of a Hollywood sexpot. Neither Clara nor Marilyn sought the fame for money, and perhaps all either wanted was the love that had been denied them as children. Another undeniable factor is that both had something, had “It”. This ‘it’ is hard to define other than to say it meant they were now loved by all, but in what ultimately proved to be a destructive way. In both cases their fame rested on the adoration of the public, a fickle and capricious lover, at best.
They were major money makers for Hollywood yet neither was respected by Hollywood. Both had their bodies used to sell tickets, yet all like pimps it was the studios who made the dosh. And so for both it was this abuse, this milking of them, that left them dry with feelings of isolation, loneliness and serious psychological issues. And I think we do not have to look too far for examples of this in today’s celebretaries. Britney, Miley are just the first two that pop into my head. They too are victims of their own success stories, and of a system that offers stardom but delivers gaping, soul destroying, black holes.
Clara, I think, did find some peace, some rest, at her ranch so although scarred she did manage to carve out a few years for herself. Marilyn was not so fortunate and I hope that some of these young women today take note and do not allow their skills, their talents to be the cause of their downfall. That whether it be the music mogul, the studio heads or ‘your people’, it would be wise to remember that to all of them you are a commodity, a thing from which they can make money. That perhaps there are lines you must draw in the sand, things you will and will not do. Thankfully sometimes the little guy can win, there are David’s among the celebrated, Madonna springs to mind, but I think I’ll leave the final words on this to Marilyn who fought so bravely but sadly, in her case, the Goliath’s won.
“Everybody is always tugging at you. They’d all like a sort of chunk out of you. I don’ think they realize it, but it’s like ‘grrr do this, grr do that…’ But you do want to stay intact–intact and on two feet.”