28 October 2014

Clara Bow & her fan letter to Marlon Brando

Clara Bow was one of the greatest stars of the 1920s. She was the ultimate flapper, the original "It girl" and Hollywood's first sex symbol. An extremely popular actress in her time, Bow received more than 45,000 fan letters per month, a number seldom equalled. Born in 1905 in Brooklyn, New York, Bow grew up in poverty with a sexually abusive father and a schizophrenic mother. To escape her miserable life, Bow found comfort in movies ("For the first time in my life I knew there was beauty in the world"). She dreamed of being an actress and, after winning an acting contest, made her film debut at age 16. Between 1922 and 1933, she starred in 57 films, including box-office hits like "Mantrap" (1926), "It" (1927) and "Wings" (1927). "It" was the film that made her a star and gave her the nickname the "It girl".

Although Clara Bow was adored by the public, she was shunned by Hollywood. Actors like Douglas Fairbanks jr., Mary Pickford and Marion Davies, who belonged to Hollywood's high society, distanced themselves from her, thinking she was vulgar and bad-mannered. And Bow's studio, Paramount, was none too happy with her unconventional lifestyle and the scandals that surrounded her (scandals that involved her public love affairs, her gambling addiction etc.). The tabloids, meanwhile, were having a field day covering Bow's life in detail. Eventually, Bow couldn't handle the pressures of Hollywood anymore and retired from acting in 1933 at age 28. She left California and moved to Nevada with actor husband Rex Bell with whom she had two sons. By that time, Bow had already been showing signs of mental illness and was ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia (like her mother). In 1950, Bow separated from her husband, moved back to California and spent the last 15 years of her life in seclusion, all the while struggling with her mental health. She died of a heart attack in 1965, 60 years old.

In the early 1950s, Clara Bow became a fan of upcoming star Marlon Brando. Until then, Bow's favourite actor had been Gilbert Roland (her ex-fiancé), but in Brando she found a new favourite actor. According to David Stenn (author of "Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild" (1988)), Bow met her new idol somewhere in the mid-50s. After she discovered that Brando was a fan of hers, she visited him at his home (leaving her house was something she would only rarely do). Bow and Brando reportedly enjoyed their meeting, and Brando later sent the retired actress a signed photo with the inscription: "For Clara Bow Bell, a memorable personality who has given so much to so many. With sincere respects, Marlon Brando". 

Written before they met, the following letter was sent by Clara Bow to Marlon Brando in December 1954 (it's actually a lengthy message written on a Christmas card). In it, Bow asks Brando for a new autographed photo. Apparently Brando had sent her one in 1952, but the ink on it had faded ("You didn't by any chance write with vanishing ink, did you?"). What is quite interesting is that, apart from being a fan letter, Bow also touches upon her Hollywood days, mentioning her wild behaviour, Paramount and Hollywood's social elite:







Source: heritage auctions/ image reproduced with permission

Transcript:

1954

Dear Mr. Brando,

May I at this time, again, congratulate you on your superb performances in "On the Waterfront" and "Desiree".
I know how busy you are with your career, but if in the future, you take ten, I'd appreciate a new autographed photo from my favorite artist. The one you autographed and sent me almost two years ago is still framed and on my dressing table, but the writing on it has almost vanished- for what reason I can't understand- thus the above request. You didn't by any chance write with vanishing ink, did you? Although we have never met personally I feel as we did. I know two of your friends, however, and they told me how much you enjoyed playing tricks on them. I adore a good sense of humor, wit and whimsy in people, so I would not mind a past photo written in vanishing ink. -When I was in my teens and even older I did things that most people considered crazy, wild and unconvential [sic]! Paramount raised hell when they found out I was rolling-skating [sic] on the streets of Beverly Hills. I still went on skating, nevertheless, I liked doing it and could not understand the consternation I provoked in the studio- heads hearts [??] I don't need to tell you that the so-called social elite of Hollywood snubbed me, and you know what- I didn't give a hoot!
Don't forget that new photo and this time- no ink that disappears into thin air- please Marlon B.
Sincerely, Clara Bow

A rare photo of Clara Bow from the 1950s, and Bow's idol: hunky Marlon Brando
*I must admit that I never knew much about Clara Bow. I am no fan of silent films and have so far only seen a couple of Charlie Chaplin pictures. But my curiosity is now piqued and I will definitely check out her films! This is my contribution to the CMBA Blogathon "Forgotten Stars". Click here to see all the other entries!

15 comments:

  1. That was very interesting. Clara's screen personality is a wonderful combination of electric and appealing. I'm sure you'll enjoy catching some of her silent films.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, I'm looking forward to seeing her films.

      Delete
  2. It's great to see that letter, it's always very cool to see one star show genuine admiration for another that isn't geared towards publicity.

    I read Running Wild many years ago after finding a copy in a second hand store. Talk about a horror show! No wonder she cracked as the years went on and of course the treatment for her illness was nowhere near as advanced as it is now. She came across as a tremendously likable, extremely complicated woman.

    I've only seen a few of her silents, It, The Plastic Age and Wings, but she makes an impact in them that makes it clear why she was such a huge star. Like Garbo she registers in way that so many silent stars don't to modern audiences in seeming very present and natural. She did make some sound films,the best one of those I've seen was also one of her last Call Her Savage. It's chockful of outrageousness being a pre-code but it shows that she had what it takes had she chosen to continue.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment! Running Wild must be a fascinating read. And apart from her silent films, I will certainly try and see that talkie you mention.

      Delete
  3. Wonderful. Clara was such a warm and intelligent person. If you haven't seen any of her films, please do. She was a force of nature and a truly great star. Thanks for sharing such a lovely letter.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. From what I've read about her, she must have been a special person. And I will check out her films. Thanks!

      Delete
  4. Terrific. "Please, Marlon B." I love that letter. Shows a side of her I'd never have imagined. I have to watch more Clara Bow films myself.

    Great read.

    Aurora

    ReplyDelete
  5. I love that Clara Bow would roller skate on the streets of Beverley Hills. The mental image of it makes me admire her all the more.

    I saw the movie "It" for the first time a few months ago, and I admit I was a bit skeptical beforehand about all the fuss over this movie. However, I became a devoted fan five minutes into the film. She is amazing on screen.

    So glad you included Clara Bow in the blogathon. :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. This was fascinating! I know my basic Bow, more or less up to her retirement, but had no idea about her being a Brando fan and really got a kick out of the card. Nice find!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Loved reading this, these letters make the stars so much more human. Great post

    ReplyDelete
  8. I had no idea that she was a fan of Brando! Thanks for a fascinating look at the It Girl!

    ReplyDelete
  9. I loved this post. How cool to know how much they admired one another! It makes so much sense, as both had such an intuitive, natural style to their acting, and both are mesmerizing onscreen. Thank you so much for sharing this story.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Fantastic read , , Hopefully you have seen more of Clara's work IT is a must
    as is Kid Boots , but what ever she is in she just lights up the screen , like know one else , Bless Her may her Memory live on

    ReplyDelete
  11. Great Reading. Thanks for sharing. I admire both of them as they both light up the screens with their beauty and acting.

    ReplyDelete