I am hoping that someday a movie will be made about the life of Clara Bow. Not a trashy version based on scandals, but an insightful depiction of a life filled with enough tragedy and heartbreak to give those Greeks a run for their money. God knows this poor woman was exploited enough in her lifetime, so one can only hope that the real drama of her life would suffice and she would be treated with kindness and respect.
Unfortunately, kindness and respect were two things that Clara rarely encountered. Raised by a mentally unstable mother who tried to kill her and emotionally chained to a monster of a father who abused her in more ways than one, Clara was desperate for love, but, unguided, ran wild through the Roaring Twenties in Hollywood. Her youthful errors and unsophisticated Brooklyn background made her a target of the press. Her employer, Paramount, used her up and abandoned her. By 26 she was done. Mental and/or emotional illness followed and she lived out the rest of her life as a virtual recluse.
David Stenn’s 2000 Bow biography, Runnin’ Wild, tells Clara’s story with great compassion. Known for the many men in her life (Gary Cooper, Victor Fleming, Harry Richman, and husband Rex Bell to name a few), there is one story of a romantic encounter that stands out and touches my heart: her romance and engagement to actor Gilbert Roland.
Gilbert Roland (born Luis Antonio Dámaso de Alonso in Mexico) thought he might become a bullfighter like his father, but instead tried his hand at acting (his rechristened name being a combo of John Gilbert and Ruth Roland). He was gorgeous and the fact that he barely spoke English didn’t matter in the days of silent films. He and Clara met when both were filming The Plastic Age in 1925. Based on a “banned in Boston” novel, The Plastic Age tells the story of those wild college kids of the ’20s who do things that would make their parents blush.
Beautiful Clara and beautiful Gilbert, both 20 years old, soon became romantically involved. Clara later described Roland as her “first really big love experience.” Young Budd Schulberg, son of producer B.P. Schulberg, was befriended by Bow on the film and recalled the blossoming romance when Roland handed him a note to pass to Clara:
”I don’t know what was in the note because I was too conscientious to read it, especially when I could feel his strong Latin eyes drilling into my back as I caught up with Clara and delivered it. She mumbled ‘Oh, thanks, Buddy, sweet of ya,’ and took a quick glance over her shoulder at the young bullfighter turned actor. That evening they came into the local hotel dining room together, two head-turning twenty-year-olds whom my father had put together from such totally different worlds – Chihuahua and Brooklyn.”
Roland was rugged, but sweet and both shared social insecurities: his because of his limited ability to speak English at that point and hers from a general lack of self-esteem that plagued her throughout her life. “We was real happy,” said Clara, “sorta like two youngsters that didn’t know what [life] was all about and was scared t’death of it.” Bow’s monster dad hated Roland because he was Mexican and Catholic (calling him a “greasy Mexican”), but her possessive father hated any man that came near his daughter.
Clara and her bullfighter continued to have an ardent relationship for a time, but the vivacious redhead was the girl of the moment, and she could not resist the temptation of the attentions of director Victor Fleming or socialite Robert Savage, who tried to commit suicide when she rejected him. When the press called Clara on the carpet for her dalliance with Savage she had a great comment: “Well, lemme tell ya this. When a man attempts suicide over a woman, he don’t cut his wrists with a safety razor blade, then drape himself over a couch with a cigarette between his lips. No, they don’t do it that way. They use pistols.”
Nevertheless, Clara’s wandering ways and Roland’s jealousy put an end to the youthful romance, but both remembered one another fondly for the rest of their days. She chose Roland as her co-star in one of her last films, the successful Call her Savage (1932). Many years after Clara’s career had ended and she was living in seclusion, Roland was one of the few people she allowed to visit her. “Still handsome and still my favorite actor,” she said. They spoke regularly and this one letter illustrates why Clara never shut him out of her life:
“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 that 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.
Could you have ever parted with a letter like that? After Clara, Roland went on to romance Norma Talmadge and marry Constance Bennett (the mother of his two children). After divorcing Bennett, he wed again and remained married to the same woman for 40 years until his death in 1994. Known as “Amigo,” he was indeed a loyal friend to a fragile woman who was his “dream girl.”
Marsha Collock has been an avid fan – not scholar – of classic films since she saw the first flicker of black and white on the TV screen. Her muse is Norma Desmond, to whom she has dedicated her blog, A Person in the Dark, a site designed for all of the wonderful people out there in the dark who have an unabashed passion for silents, early talkies, all stars and all films. For more information, visit her Facebook page.