Who was Clara Bow? The original It girl who inspired a track on Taylor Swift’s new album

circa 1928 1920s hollywood film star, clara bow 1905 1965 photo via john kobal foundationgetty images
Who was Clara Bow? John Kobal Foundation

Any Swiftie worth their salt will be aware of the singer’s fascination with Old Hollywood figures: whether it’s references to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Ready For It, or the storyline of the Wildest Dreams video, in which she plays an actress who falls for her co-star on an early 20th-century film set. So it was no surprise when Swift shared the track listing for her upcoming album, The Tortured Poets Department (out on Friday), that one of the songs references a famous Hollywood star – specifically, the silent movie icon Clara Bow.

london, england november 30 editorial use only exclusive coverage taylor swift attends the london premiere of renaissance a film by beyoncé on november 30, 2023 in london, england photo by kevin mazurwireimage for parkwood
Kevin Mazur

Of course, when it comes to Swift, nothing is accidental, and there are multiple ways in which Bow’s life echoes that of the singer. Born in 1905 in Brooklyn, New York, Bow had a troubled childhood. Her mother had long suffered from poor mental health, following the death of her first two children (Bow would later say one lived two hours, the other two days), while her father was known to be abusive. She had her big break in the acting world aged just 16, when she won Brewster Pictures’ annual 'Fame and Fortune' competition, with the prize being a small part in a film. Those scenes were sadly left on the cutting room floor, but it didn’t matter: within five years Bow would be the biggest name on the silver screen, with her most famous role being in 1927’s It – where the term “It girl” comes from.

original caption clara bow 1905 1965, american actress undated photo circa 1920s

Bow’s fame coincided with the Roaring Twenties, and she was considered the ultimate flapper, epitomising the era’s hard-partying and sexually liberal lifestyle. It’s no surprise that she insisted on dodging a so-called “morality clause” in her studio contract so that she couldn’t be sacked for doing something that they deemed unsavoury. A sex symbol with cropped red curls, doe eyes and pencil-thin eyebrows, she was reportedly the inspiration behind the cartoon character, Betty Boop. She was known for her tumultuous love life, and was linked to actors including Cary Grant, Victor Fleming and Bela Lugosi, with various dramas playing out in the press. One of the most infamous was in 1925, when the actor Gilbert Roland staged a fake suicide attempt after she rejected him, despite the fact that she was engaged at the time.

Unsurprisingly, the tabloids were obsessed with Bow, and her every move was speculated upon. In 1931, she found herself at the heart of a courtroom drama when her former secretary – whom she was suing for theft – decided to air Bow’s dirty laundry, including illegal whiskey payments and love letters. She made headlines again for not paying a $13,900 gambling bill in Nevada, after losing at blackjack. There was even an urban legend that she had bedded an entire football team. By the end of the year, she had checked into a sanatorium, in a devastating echo of her own mother, who spent years in an asylum. Censorship boards started to ban her films due to her newfound notoriety and, in 1933, she gave up acting for good – a cautionary tale for the ways in which Hollywood can chew you up and spit you out again.

new york, new york october 15 taylor swift and travis kelce have dinner at waverly inn on october 15, 2023 in new york city photo by gothamgc images

Of course, there are obvious parallels in the ways in which Bow and Swift have been treated by the press as strong-willed women – particularly in connection to their love lives. Music fans have also speculated about whether or not Bow’s fame as a silent-movie star is also important. Swift has reportedly enjoyed rediscovering her voice after a more private life lived with ex-boyfriend, the actor Joe Alwyn (another track on the album, But Daddy, I Love Him, is a reference to The Little Mermaid, a story in which the heroine loses her voice for love). Whatever the reasoning, one thing is certain – Clara Bow will probably be a bop.

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