Before Kim Kardashian West, before Paris Hilton, before Kate Moss, beforeChloë Sevigny, before Edie Sedgwick, before even Brenda Frazier and Cobina Wright, Jr. (look them up!), there was the original It girl, the very first young woman who brought the category to life. In 1927, the red-haired, wildly bohemian Clara Bow, starred in It, a silent film wherein the heroine, a broke shopgirl, so embodies the irresistible charisma of It-ness that she wins the heart of her wealthy employer.
Bow’s own story reads like one of the movies she made: Though there is some dispute about her birth year—she was a Hollywood star, after all!—by most accounts she was born to an impoverished family in Brooklyn 110 years ago today. “No one wanted me in the first place,” she once recalled. “Often I was lonesome, frightened and miserable. I never had a doll in my life. I never had any clothes, and lots of times didn’t have anything to eat. We just lived, and that’s about all.”
Clara Bow in Wine
Photo: Everett Collection
At sixteen, Bow entered a magazine contest meant to give young beauties a crack at the movies, and, just as if this were a movie, she won. She quit school and found her way to California, where her stunningly naturalistic acting became an immediate hit with audiences and the press. “Don’t miss Wine,” a Los Angeles Times critic declared in 1924. “It’s a thoroughly refreshing draught . . . there are only about five actresses who give me a real thrill on the screen—and Clara is nearly five of them.” (In that film, now lost, Bow plays an innocent girl who becomes a naughty, inebriated flapper.)
She may have killed it at the box office in the twenties, but like so many other silent stars, the arrival of sound would kill off her career. “I hate talkies,” she said. “They’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me.”
Bow retired from the screen in the early thirties. Years later, reflecting on the death of another It girl, Marilyn Monroe, she said, “Being a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry, especially when one is tired, hurt, and bewildered.” Asked to define the maddeningly elusive quality of “It” itself, she reportedly confessed, in the dulcet tones of her notoriously honking Brooklyn accent, “I ain’t real sure.”