Runnin' Wild

By David Stenn

Doubleday. 338 pp. $18.95

It is one of the ironies of movie stardom that the price it exacts is invariably demanded of those least able to pay. Clara Bow, as David Stenn's biography takes pains to point out, is very much a case in point. Though its subtitle is "Runnin' Wild," it could just as well have been "Woe Is Me."

If Clara Bow is remembered at all today, it is often for all the wrong reasons. She was the legendary Girl Who Couldn't Say No, the hard-living hoyden who -- or so Kenneth Anger claimed in his gossipy "Hollywood Babylon" -- took on the entire USC football team without even breathing hard.

Often forgotten in this welter of innuendo is the fact that Bow was one of the biggest movie stars of her time, with an appeal that cut across all audience lines. In May of 1928 she received 33,727 fan letters, a record for any star, and presumably any member of the human race, up to that time. Yes, she was the "It" Girl, the epitome of Jazz Age screen sexuality, but it was a title hard-earned and fairly won, the product of 37 movies in five years. "This girl was the real thing," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, who ought to know, "someone to stir every pulse in the nation."

While the reasons for the erstwhile popularity of many silent film stars often escape modern audiences, the basis of Bow's appeal is very much apparent. To see the Elinor Glyn-inspired "It," or "Wings," the first film to win an Academy Award for best picture, today is to come into immediate contact with an astonishingly vital screen personality, someone whose energy and incandescent vivacity, not to mention what The New York Times called "an elfin sensuousness," still burn up the screen six decades later.

Given all this, it is shocking to discover the hard, dismal facts of Bow's Brooklyn gothic background. Her father was next door to a bum and probably raped her as a teen-ager. Not to be outdone, her mother, a mentally unstable woman who, when an earlier child died, simply threw her in the trash, attempted to kill Bow with a butcher knife.

Bow sought refuge in moviegoing and in the hope, shared by millions, that if only she could become a movie star she'd have all the love and affection she needed. The first part of that equation, unfortunately, proved easier to achieve than the second.

With a stunning face and a presence that made one awed onlooker remember that "it was like a shot of dope when you looked at this girl," Bow made her entry into Hollywood via a contest sponsored by a fan magazine publishing company. She was signed by proto-mogul B.P. Schulberg, who proved only the first of a long line of executives to exploit her callously. He put her in a series of largely forgettable films, usually playing what one critic called "a sort of Northwest Mounted Policeman of sex, who gets her man even if she has to bludgeon him."

Still, if Bow's talent ensured that her rise to stardom was only a matter of time, no such inevitability attached to her personal life. Like a starving urchin turned loose in a high-toned restaurant, she had affairs, often simultaneously, with some of Hollywood's most desirable men: from stars Gilbert Roland and Gary Cooper to man's man director Victor Fleming. Ferociously immature (though the fabled USC incident never even came close to happening) and heavily penalized by a stuffy, image-conscious Hollywood establishment that felt, in her own words, "I'm a big freak because I'm myself," Bow got further and further from happiness the more celebrated she became.

Bow did finally find and marry the man of her dreams, cowboy star Rex Bell. Neither matrimony nor motherhood, however, could keep her life from unraveling. Though her voice was more than adequate for sound, the technology involved in talking pictures traumatized her enough to end her career. Always more naive than streetwise, she got involved in one messy scandal after another, until the public tired of her and her troubles. And the mental illness she may have inherited from her mother turned her into a timid recluse who feared even the most casual contact with strangers.

Writer David Stenn has certainly done his homework here. His book is thoroughly researched and he's talked not only to members of Bow's family but to seemingly every one of her surviving costars except Thunder the Dog. His writing style is clear and readable, although one wishes he hadn't decided to transcribe Bow's quotes in her native New Yorkese, which makes her sound like one of the Bowery Boys, and that he had been able to be more the dispassionate biographer and less the impassioned defender.

Still, reading the wrenching tale of this woman who lived long enough to read Marilyn Monroe's obituary, it is easy to see how one would become her unashamed partisan. "I never met M.M., but if I had, I would have tried very hard to help her," she wrote a friend; "a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt, and bewildered."

The reviewer is film critic for GQ.