Last month Clara Bow told how her
mother, who was of French descent, married
her father, the youngest of a neighboring
Scotch-English family of fourteen. The newly
married couple moved to a small place in
Brooklyn. Clara's father had difficulty making
a place for himself. Troubled days came. Their
first two children died almost at birth. Clara
was the third. She grew up to be the tomboy of
the neighborhood. She never had a doll in her
life - but she had a place on the street corner
At school Clara read of a motion picture
contest. She went to a photographer and had two
pictures made for a dollar. They were terrible,
but she sent them to the contest judges
* * * * * * * * * *
Hope is a funny and wonderful thing. Every bit of reason I had, every logical thought process I followed, told me I had no chance to win any contest to enter motion pictures. It was silly to even dream of it. There wasn't a single person who knew me, except my Dad, who wouldn't have laughed long and loud at the mere idea. Why, the contest was open to everyone in the United States. The world was full of beautiful girls, girls with clothes and education and advantages of every kind, who wanted to go into pictures. They would enter such a contest.
What chance would I have?
I lay awake night after night telling myself all these things, preparing myself for what I felt was an inevitable disappointment.
Yet hope went on singing in my breast. Sometimes I think that is why hope was included with faith and charity by St. Paul, as the greatest thing to possess. Hope is the thing that enables us to try to accomplish the impossible, that urges us on to heights that, without the encouragement of its music, we would never dare attempt.
Finally, a letter came. My hands were cold as I opened it. I don't think I breathed for several minutes. I was afraid to look. At last I did. It told me to come to the magazine offices.
That didn't mean anything. The judges in this contest were Howard Chandler Christy, Harrison Fisher and Neysa McMein. Judges of beauty, all right. No fooling them. Still, it was one tiny step nearer.
My school work was going all to pieces under the strain. I couldn't keep my mind on it for a second. I was just one big pulse of hope and excitement. Every teacher I had - I was in my third year - was sour at me. But I couldn't help it.
On the day set, I went to the contest offices. I sat rigid all the way. It seemed that ages passed. I had a fantastic idea that my hair would have turned from red to white by the time I arrived.
The office was full of girls and my heart just flopped when I saw them. Every bit of hope and assurance oozed right out through my boots. Oh, they were pretty girls. To me, they seemed the most beautiful girls in all the world. Blondes and brunettes, no vulgar little redheads. They were elegantly dressed, perfectly groomed, with lovely manicured hands and slim, delicate legs in sheer stockings. They had poise.
I hadn't dressed up because I had nothing to dress up in. I had never had a manicure nor a pair of chiffon stockings in my life. I had never even been close to the scent of such perfumes as filled that room. I wore the one and only thing I owned. A little plain wool dress, a sweater and a woolly red tam. I hadn't thought much of that angle. I had only looked at my face, and that was disappointment enough.
But now, in this gathering, I was painfully aware of how I was dressed. I felt presumptuous to be there at all. Shame and humiliation overcame me.
Those girls didn't leave me much room for doubt that the impression I made was as bad as I thought it would be. Eyebrows went up, noses elevated, there were snickers here and there. At first I wilted. Tears came up and choked me, but I beat them back somehow. I had learned not to cry in a hard school - on the pavement of Brooklyn with a gang of boys.
But slowly rage began to well up in me. Why should they look at me like that? Why need they be so unkind? I wasn't much, but I knew I wouldn't be as cruel as that to anyone that was worse off than I was. Suffering had taught me how bitter suffering can be, and I never, never wanted to inflict it on anybody else.
So I managed to keep my chin up and my eyes began to blaze and for a moment I reverted back to the little street tomboy and wanted to sail into those pretty, painted, perfumed girls.
Just then the door opened and some men and a couple of ladies came out. They walked around the room, looking everybody over, very carefully, as though they had been so many statues. I tried to keep out of sight, I didn't know who the people were and I was too busy trying to keep from crying to have an idea of posing or making an impression.
Suddenly one of the men said, "There's an interesting face - that kid with the red tam and the gorgeous eyes."
I looked around. I was the only girl with a red tam. The blood came singing up and nearly suffocated me. The words kept ringing in my ears. "Interesting face." "Gorgeous eyes." Me-Me-little Clara Bow.
They went back in. Several girls went in, came out. Pretty soon, I was called. A few minutes before I thought of how I'd ritz those girls, if I should happen to get a summons. But when they called me I was too excited to remember a detail like that. They talked to me. What made me think I could act?
Well, I couldn't exactly tell them. I don't know why I can act - if I can. Only, in the many hours I had spent in motion picture theaters I had always watched intently and I had always had a queer feeling about actors and actresses on the screen. Sometimes what they did seemed just right. Again, I felt they were doing it wrong. I knew I would have done it differently. I couldn't analyze it, but I could always feel it. It just threw me right out of the feeling of reality about a picture when an actress made a gesture of used an expression that seemed wrong to me.
I tried to explain, and they all laughed a little, but kindly. And said I should wait for a test.
I think there were about twelve girls who had made tests that day.
They all wanted to do it first. I didn't. So I never said a word. I sat there, though, through every one of those tests and watched everything that was done, everything they were told, every mistake they made. They all had to do the same thing - walk in, pick up a telephone, laugh, look worried, then terrified. I got it finally so I knew how I was going to do it and just what I was going to think about while I was doing it.
Gradually, little by little, the tests narrowed down. I went back and forth, making new ones as more and more were eliminated. Each time I expected to be the next one to go - but I didn't. It was tough getting the carfare and I had only the one dress.
I had been out of school a lot, going over to New York, and the teachers had been complaining and telling me I was sure to flunk. What did it matter? If I failed in this, I'd go to work somewhere.
The day I went to the offices - it had in some marvelous fashion narrowed down to a statuesque blonde beauty and me - I got home about five o'clock.
Mother was sitting motionless in the dining room. Her face was white and I had never seen her eyes look like that, even when she had her worst spells.
She said, "Where have you been?"
Just that in the most awful, cold tone.
It seems that one of the teachers from high school had been there to tell her how much I was absent and that I would fail if something wasn't done about it.
Well, I told her where I had been and what I was doing. I told her it looked as though I had a chance to win this contest and if I did it meant a job in the pictures and a chance to make good and I could do a lot of things for her.
She fainted dead away, not one of her choking fits, but just a dead faint. I was so scared I hardly knew what to do. I ran and tried to lift her up and threw water on her. She didn't come to for a long time and when she did she just cried and cried.
"You are going straight to hell," she said. "I would rather see you dead."
I had never dreamed she would feel like that. I hadn't told her because I didn't want to disappoint her and put her through the strain of waiting, she was so nervous. Besides, I was ashamed. I knew she didn't think I was pretty or clever, and I thought she'd say I was a fool.
Dad came in just then and we tried to soothe her, but she just sat and stared at me, with those awful, burning eyes, and her face was so white and still.
So I cried, too, and promised her I'd give it up right away.
But Dad told her she had no right to ask such a promise of me. He said he knew I had talent. He said I might not be pretty, but I was different, I was a type. He said I had a chance for a real success, with a big future and that outside that the best I could hope for was a job in a store or an office with long, hard hours and little pay and no future. He said pictures weren't any more dangerous for a girl, they weren't as dangerous as working in stores and offices and that I had always been a good girl and she had no right to feel that way about me.
For a long time she didn't answer, just sitting there white and still, her hands hanging down. At last she said, "All right."
Three days later they sent for me and told me I had won the contest and would have a good part in a picture and all the publicity that had been promised and everything.