June 26, 2002, By Susan King, L.A. Times Staff Writer
At the Butterfield auction house in Los Angeles, a woman's voice is heard on a cassette recording pleading with her bird, Feisty, to talk. In her strong Brooklyn accent, she implores her pet to say something: "Pretty baaaby. Come on, pretty baaaby"
The woman's voice is etched with pain and heartache, and the recording plays like a scene from Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard." But the woman on the recording is not Norma Desmond; it's Clara Bow, the kewpie doll silent-screen siren, the epitome of the '20s flapper, who was known to her legion of fans as the "It Girl."
The Feisty clip, which was recorded in the mid-'50s, is one of many rarities from Bow's estate that are being auctioned by Butterfields Thursday in San Francisco. The collection, which includes rare sets of still photos from her movies as well as a heavy bronze urn that holds the ashes of her beloved cocker spaniel, Diablo, offers insight into the troubled life and career of the actress.
Recently, the items were previewed at Butterfields in Los Angeles, where David Stenn, who wrote the acclaimed Bow biography, "Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild," acted as a tour guide through the memorabilia.
Her oldest son, former Las Vegas district attorney Rex Bell Jr., had kept his mother's belongings in his house since her death in 1965. "It was stuff I wouldn't throw away like some people would," Bell says. "When David came into our lives, that's when I showed him all the stuff, and then he took a lot of time out and categorized the whole works for me. So it has been sitting there ever since."
Bow was the top box office draw at Paramount in the late '20s. She starred in such hits as "It" and "Wings" until sex scandals, sound and a family history of mental illness--her mother and grandmother ended up in asylums--finished her career.
She retired from films in 1933 at the age of 28, married western star Rex Bell and moved to Searchlight, their 300,000-acre ranch in Nevada.
She returned briefly to the spotlight in 1947 to play a mystery guest, Mrs. Hush, on the NBC radio show "Truth or Consequences." After that stint, she suffered a mental collapse, was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and lived in seclusion until her death at 60.
Bell says his two grown children have taken the items they wanted to keep and he took what he wanted. "But there is enough there to cover all the walls, so I said it's time to get rid of it."
He decided against donating the items to an archive like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences because, Bell says, "everybody will take everything if you donate it to them. Then there is the question if they would even take care of it. It is real easy to have their hands out to donate. I donated a lot of stuff already of hers and Dad's, so it is time for the estate to make her money."
Butterfield's estimates on items from the Bow estate are pricey. A silver gelatin, hand-tinted print of Bow inscribed by the actress to her father is estimated at $1,500 to $2,500. A collection of 94 stills from her 1930 movie, "The Wedding Night," is estimated at $3,000 to $5,000.
Bow scrupulously organized her collection. On envelopes and backs of photographs, she wrote notes of explanations to her sons, such as: "Mom--as Mrs. 'Hush' of 1948" and "To my sons, Tony and George--To be shared between you. Large photographs of Clara--during her years at Paramount Studios 1925-1931 as their top box office star."
Perusing the case containing most of her items, Stenn comes across two ornate gold candlesticks.
"Those were the candlesticks that went into the "Chinese room" of her house, he explains. Displayed prominently in the case are several large-format stills of Bow dressed up in a nun's habit holding rosary beads from 1930.
"The studio saw these and said we'll never release these because it would be a joke," Stenn says. "So these are the only prints of her. But at the time of these photos, she had been in enough scandals, she decided she wanted to help her image. It was ill-advised."
On another shelf in the case is a beautiful large-format photo of silent screen star Rudolph Valentino taken in 1925, a year before he died. Bow had inscribed on the photo: "Rudolph in his greatest role being his own charming self. I bow my head in tribute."
The collection also features numerous scrapbooks, mostly compiled by fans and sent to her. They're filled with photos and newspaper clippings dating to 1923. One scrapbook features a 1940 photo of Bow's birthplace in Brooklyn. The house has since been torn down. Another scrapbook has a newspaper clipping that actually states the day she left New York for Hollywood. "This is the only source that gave the date she left New York for Hollywood," Stenn says.
A red binder filled with rare photos and correspondence that Stenn compiled is the real find of the collection.
"This is like the greatest hits," says Stenn, including the earliest known photo, circa 1925, of Gary Cooper, and a very early picture of Bela Lugosi. There are several pictures of Bow with one of her beaus, singer Harry Richmond--"he was a big blowhard," Stenn says--and a portrait of her husband before his teeth were capped.
The binder also features photos of her father, Robert Bow, who changed his name to King Bow after his daughter married Bell. Bow accompanied his daughter to Hollywood, where he embarrassed her in front of friends and co-workers.
She kept trying to set him up in business, but each venture failed. During her hospitalization at the Institute of Living, she claimed that he had raped her. Nevertheless, she kept him close throughout the years, and they even lived together until his death in the mid-'50s.
Bell says he is surprised at his mother's enduring popularity. "If she were alive today, I think she would be really excited about all the people who remember her ... people who are interested in purchasing this stuff are going to take care of it."
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