Who's this sound like to you?
Huge-eyed, with flaming red hair, she was effervescent, voluptuous, reckless, damaged...
Her lack of self-consciousness and even her lack of self-control made her performances emblematic...
She spoke without care to reporters and couldn't keep scandal away. She wasn't surrounded by agents or minders who protected her. She roared around L.A. in a fire-red [car], ridding herself of chauffeurs who refused to drive fast enough...[She] made movie after movie, was unfailingly generous, and felt stifled and tortured. "I always want to cry," she told [a fan magazine], "I could cry any minute. Had no childhood. worked like a dog all my life. Really my nerves are shot."
Sounds a lot like Lindsay Lohan to me.
But it's Clara Bow. It's gossip from the late 1920s, when Bow was the sexiest movie star of the day, the It Girl, who as Dorothy Parker said, "didn't need It. She had THOSE." It was pre-code Hollywood. People could go to to her movies and see It and get a good look at THOSE. Directors could still sneak in some nudity. Bow's movies were about sex. The sex wasn't explicit. But it was more than implicit.
Lohan has had to work very hard at self-destructing. She's failing miserably at it. She can't even make movies bad enough to end her career. She's box office poison these days, but she still keeps getting cast. Bow wasn't a great actress but she had IT and THOSE and she sizzled on the screen. She made some highly-regarded movies. She was box office catnip. And her career was over and done by the time she was twenty-five, ruined by a trial in which she wasn't the defendant, she was the alleged victim. But testimony revealed she was as sexy and uninhibited in real life as she played it on the screen and the hypocritical public turned on her.
So it was said. So it was thought.
I'm reading about this in a book called A Bright and Guilty Place by Richard Rayner. That's where the quote above comes from. Rayner says that what ruined Bow was that the studio executive who was one of her lovers and her protector got tired of her. He had a new girl. Sylvia Sidney. He wanted to make her a star. Bow was in the way.
The studio exec, by the way, was named Schulberg. B.P. Schulberg His son Budd just died. Budd Schulberg wrote one of the great Hollywood novels, What Makes Sammy Run? . He wrote a fine novel about boxing, The Harder They Fall . He wrote script for On the Waterfront. He wrote this about Clara Bow:
Clara couldn't act, and she wasn't exactly a quick study---of all the movie stars I've ever known, and I've known some famous birdbrains, Clara Bow was an easy winner of the Dumbell Award. A lot of stars have come up so fast that they have had no chance to learn. They flounder and flutter like wounded birds in the blinding and confusing light of their stardom...It demands intellience and/or strength of character to cope with the pressures of excessive celebrity. Clara Bow was definitely not a coper. She was simply an adorable, in fact irresistible, little know-nothing.
He wrote this about the way she used to flirt with him when he was still in grade school and visiting his father at work:
It's true that I could feel on my skin Clara Bow's gum-chewing sex appeal. Even then I sensed that she communicated sexually because she had no other vocabulary. She had to flirt with me, as she did with everyone, becaus she simply didn't know anything else to do.
And he wrote this about the cultural background of his father's affair with Bow:
Somehow sex and commerce, even innocent childhood attraction, were inextricably woven into the pattern of ambitious careerism.
Those quotes are from Budd Schulberg's memoirs, Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince . Back to Rayner's book.
The trial that ruined Clara Bow was about this.
Bow was no good with money. She had a friend, Daisy DeVoe, took it upon herself to manage Bow's finances for her. Bow wasn't grateful enough, the friend thought. DeVoe got greedy and jealous and resentful and a sticky-fingered, Bow thought. There was a man in the picture. DeVoe didn't trust the man. She thought he was after Bow's money. She decided she needed to put some of that money and some of her jewelry away for safe-keeping. That was her story anyway and she stuck to it after the cops found the money and jewelry in a safety deposit box with DeVoe's name on it. There were other things in the box. Letters. Letters Bow wrote to her lovers. Letters her lovers wrote to Bow. The Roaring Twenties equivalent of sxting. Gary Cooper, apparently, was especially graphic when he wrote to Bow about his feelings for her. Bow accused DeVoe of trying to blackmail her with these letters. DeVoe said she'd taken the letters and some telegrams so they wouldn't fall into the hands of a real blackmailer. DeVoe's story didn't completely wash with the jury. They let her off on the alleged extortion, convicted her of theft. DeVoe went to jail. Bow went into a professional and psychological tailspin.
All Bow's secrets, the ones DeVoe claimed she was trying to keep for Bow, came out in the trial. Some secrets came out that might not have been Bow's. They belonged to the fevered imaginations of gossips and reporters who knew what sells a story.
Frederic Girnau, publisher of the Pacific Coast Reporter, another "political weekly," jumped in with the "facts of the blushless love life of Clara Bow." "'IT' GIRL EXPOSED!" ran the headline. Girnau asserted that Bow had seduced her chauffeur [Editor's note: one of the ones who could drive fast enough, I guess], her cousin, and a koala bear. According to him, she'd slept with Duke, one of her dogs, a Great Dane. In Agua Caliente, she'd initiated a whorehouse orgy while another of her lovers, a Mexian croupier, watched. The croupier subsequently murdered his wife before turning a gun on himself. Girnau accused Bow of incest and lesbianism [Editor's note: Lohan again?]. She had venereal disease, drank highballs before breakfast, and was hooked on morphine. "You know, Clara, you'd be better off killing yourself," he wrote.
You'd think Grinau couldn't get away with this stuff, and he didn't.
He was prosecuted for criminal libel and sent to prison for publishing this filth.
Doesn't mean Justice was served.
By then, though, Clara Bow had checked into a mental asylum in Glendale and her Paramount contract was terminated by mutual consent. Her career was over, and she was only twenty-five.
All this is background for Rayner's main story, which is about another crime and another trial.
The prosecutor in the DeVoe trial was Dave Clark, a young, handsome, talented, and ambitious lawyer already marked for bigger and better things. The trouble was that in Los Angeles at the time the people who marked you and who saw to it that you achieved those bigger and better things were either criminal bosses or people in the pockets of criminal bosses. The boss of bosses was Charlie Crawford. In most cities, the corruption was divided. A machine ran the political corruption. Gangsters ran the rest. The two sides negotiated when their interests overlapped. In LA, Crawford ran both. He had rivals, of course. And by the time Dave Clark entered the picture Crawford's power was waning and those rivals were presenting him with some stiff competition. So it happens that Clark is running for a judgeship. One afternoon, Dave Clark goes into Crawford's office for a meeting with Crawford and one of Crawford's right hand men. When Clark leaves, the right-hand man is dead on the floor and Charlie Crawford's dying from the bullet holes in his chest.
On the face of it A Bright and Guilty Place is a pretty good true-crime story with the right mix of blood, sex, sin, and corruption by money, power, and sex along with some fine police reporting, especially considering it's being done almost 80 years after the fact, and interesting historical background. I'd recommend it just for the fun of it.
But there's more to it.
A Bright and Guilty Place is a work of literary criticism.
Literary criticism in the providing material and analysis useful in understanding a work or the work's author. Not as in criticizing.
Clark's story, Bow's story, Crawford's story, the stories of a number of other crimes and murders, the story of how Los Angeles got big and rich as an oil town before it got bigger and richer as the center of the motion picture industry, the story of how that oil money bought and paid for everything and everybody, and the story of one of Clark's colleagues at the DA's office, an investigator and self-taught forensics expert named Leslie White who, when quit the DA's office when he realized that if he could only stay if he was willing to end up like Clark, on the wrong people's payroll, and who supported himself pretty well the rest of his life as a writer of pulp mysteries and historical romances---all these stories turn out to be background to somebody else's stories and novels.
There's another character keeps popping up throughout A Bright and Guilty Place, an accountant for an oil company, good at his job but with a self-destructive streak. Drinks too much, fools around on his wife, mouths off to his boss, finds ways at work to embarrass his boss. Costs himself his job, and his self-destructive habits have left him with no money in the bank. He starts casting around for a way to make some money. He's always had an intellectual and literary bent. He decides to take up writing fiction. He reads a story in Black Mask, a magazine that routinely publishes stories by Leslie White. Decides he can do that, write about crime, write mysteries. He's right. He starts getting his stories published too. Takes him a long while to perfect what he does, but he does perfect it. It being the whole detective novel genre.
It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
Raymond Chandler, Rayner suggests, made a career out of turning the stories in A Bright and Guilty Place into something more than fiction. Into prose poems like this :
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.
Photo of Bow and unidentified costar swiped from Dr X's place.
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