Clara Bow Expert Unpacks Taylor Swift’s ‘Profound’ Allegory

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Getty

While Swifties were determined to stay up till midnight to find out which of the 16 (or is it 31?!) songs on The Tortured Poets Department were about Joe Alwyn, historian David Stenn was focused on what the singer had to say about another star: Clara Bow. One lyric in particular left him speechless.

“‘Beauty is a beast that roars down on all fours,’” he remarks, “That’s poetry, that’s profound.”

The author and historian, who wrote the Clara Bow biography Runnin’ Wild in 2000, jumped on a midnight call to discuss his thoughts on the song as well as the parallels between Bow and Taylor Swift’s careers.

“Clara Bow,” the final track on the first half of Swift’s new album, further expands on the fears that apparently plague the singer’s mind—themes she had previously touched on in songs like Red’s “Nothing New” and Midnights’ “Anti-Hero.” In a series of verses from the points-of-view of women looking up to past stars, including Clara Bow and Stevie Nicks, the track drips of existential dread. Swift tortures herself with the idea that being larger-than-life popular, or the “It Girl” of her time, is not enough.

Without touching on specifics of the actress’ life and career, Clara Bow is name-dropped as an allegory for the prices and trappings of fame. And it’s no wonder Swift selected the silent film starlet to write poetry about. As Stenn puts it, “It’s a cautionary tale.”

Swift’s lyrics, including one about being picked like a rose, certainly bring to mind the silent film star, who beat all odds when she won a Motion Picture magazine contest that launched her film career. If going to the movies was Bow’s escape from a life weighed down by poverty and abuse at the hands of both parents, then stardom was her ticket out—or so she thought.

“I was so thrilled that [Taylor] drew a line from Clara Bow to Stevie Nicks to herself,” Stenn says. “The idea that you’re plucked like a rose, and then you’re told all of these things, but in the end, you’re used up and spit out unless you’re careful.” He adds, “They build you up, and the only result of being built up is to be torn down.”

It didn’t take long for the pressures of fame to burden Clara Bow, who was never one to shy away from being candid about her struggles in the fan magazines. “Work, work, work. Go home at night. Can’t sleep. Think too much,” she told Photoplay reporter Lois Shirley in 1929, according to Stenn’s book. “Think ‘bout my life, ‘bout the new picture, ‘bout my lines… Really, my nerves is shot.”

The advent of talkies only pushed her over the edge. She found herself shaking on set for her first talking comedy, knowing she didn’t have the same amount of time and preparation given to other stars, including Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson. Bow, still at the peak of her career and receiving tens of thousands of fan letters a month, believed the “war machines” at Paramount Pictures had a target on her back.

“She made four films a year when she was the number one box office draw in America,” Stenn notes, “And [at the studio] they were internally called Summer Bow, Winter Bow, Fall Bow, and Spring Bow.” Bow often pushed Paramount executive B.P. Schulberg for more serious roles, desiring the same transition from comedies granted to stars like Swanson. “It was the most short-sighted career management,” he says.

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Watching her films, it’s difficult to find the pain. You could say Bow was a mastermind of the screen, tragically camouflaging her pain and insecurity with winks and smiles. To quote Swift, she fulfilled her “promise to be dazzling.”

“She took her pain and sublimated it into joy,” Stenn notes, “It’s a beautiful thing to do.”

In comparing the two stars, Stenn highlights the fact that Swift has harnessed a creative control that Bow never had, describing her career as “nothing short of brilliant.”

After experiencing “astonishment and delight” when he first heard that Clara Bow would be the star of The Tortured Poets Department’s final track, another good piece of news fell in Stenn’s lap a few weeks later. A print of one of Bow’s earliest short films The Pill Pounder, previously thought to be lost, was discovered at an Omaha auction—a priceless treasure purchased for just $20 by a local filmmaker.

Stenn, who recently returned home from San Francisco after screening The Pill Pounder at the city’s annual silent film festival, is at a loss for words to describe his feelings about the two recent additions to her legacy. “To have two dreams come true within weeks of each other,” he says, has been the highlight of his year.

Ultimately, the historian’s hope is that Swift’s song will make listeners fall in love with Bow’s films and appreciate her on-screen artistry. “I always know people will respond to her,” he says with confidence. “A great artist is someone whose work transcends their own time.”

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