Roughly a month ago it was my good fortune to inherit a collection of about 120 books on the subject of Hollywood during its heyday between 1915 and 1960. Many of these books were from the seventies and have long been out of print, so the information and details which they contain have brought me no end of delight (Brendan Gill’s Tallulah is particularly enjoyable). Though, I must admit, I have been rather slow in digesting them all I have already found one biography which I would like to single out.
There is no doubt David Stenn is a name well-known to enthusiasts of classic Hollywood films. His financing for restorations of the films of Clara Bow, including Mantrap (dir. Victor Fleming, 1926), coupled with his own project/film Girl 27 (2007) has made him indispensable. But Stenn remains best known for his meticulously researched and definitive biographies of Clara Bow and Jean Harlow.
Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild (first published in 1988) is one of those rare biographies that is overwhelming with information but whose literary style gives it a sense of urgency and modernity. Stenn’s meticulous research gives the reader a tremendous insight into the business affairs of B.P. Schulberg and Paramount, reprinting numerous cables, memos and letters between studio executives, personnel, artists, and Clara Bow herself. Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, like the best Hollywood biographies, succeeds in presenting a star in such detail and with such life that it invariably enhances one’s viewing experience of their films. It is also of note that Clara Bow’s acting style (discussed at great critical length by Stenn), like that of Louise Brooks’, was considerably modern for its period. However, Stenn’s real achievement with this book, and my primary reason for recommending it, is how it rewrites Hollywood history; dispelling long accepted rumors and assumptions.
Stenn goes to great lengths defending Clara Bow from the gossip that arose after 1932; mainly in the form of Kenneth Anger’s notorious Hollywood Babylon (1965) which alleges Clara Bow’s multiple “gang-bangs” with different sports teams. The widely held assumption that Clara Bow was, as a woman waiting for the trolley with me one day put it, a floozy is investigated at length and countered with evidence that paints a portrait of Clara Bow as something more akin to Protofeminist. Sources ranging from telegrams to eye-witness accounts verify that Clara Bow was not a dim-witted nymphomaniac but rather a slightly naive, generous, openly sexual person who always spoke her mind come hell or high water. This also helps illustrate the degree to which Hollywood sought to control their star and also how American culture in the twenties vilified promiscuity, female strength, and sexuality. Stenn’s biography concludes that Clara Bow, given all of the well researched evidence, is a woman who would not change herself to conform to society’s idea of who she should be.
There is also plenty of material in Stenn’s book that undermines the romanticized concept of the flapper of the roaring twenties. Stenn takes his time showing his reader that Elinor Glyn manufactured this romantic notion of the flapper or “It” girl (as Clara Bow was to become known) for the sake of her own financial gain. Stenn makes the case quite effectively that Glyn’s interest in female sexual liberation was self-serving, and Clara Bow’s association with Glyn only helped to typecast and stigmatize her. In this respect Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild serves many of the same motives as Louise Brooks’ remarkable memoir Lulu In Hollywood (1982). Both Stenn and Brooks are fascinated with the hypocrisy of the major studios whose pictures promote the flapper but whose policies and press attack those same ideologies when exhibited by their stars. This more inquisitive line of investigation plants figures such as Louise Brooks and Clara Bow squarely within the camp of early feminists (a trend in biographies of actresses which seems to have begun in the late 1960s).
Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild is also a terrific amount of fun. This fun comes from Stenn’s ability to not only endear Clara Bow to his reader, but also in inviting the reader into Clara’s personal life. Often Clara Bow’s life is tragic or harrowing, but it can also be a bit silly. Two of my favorite moments are when Clara Bow out hula dances an intoxicated John Wayne and the fact that one of Clara Bow’s favorite past-times in Hollywood was to roller skate up and down her driveway. After all, it is in the little details that one truly comes to know a person and Stenn keeps them in abundance.