The History of Hollywood's 'It Girls' (And Their Tragic Downfalls)
Heavy is the head that wears the "It Girl" tiara.
History has no dearth of young women who burst onto the scene, captivating audiences and artists alike with their vim and vigor, only to crumble just as suddenly under the pressures of their newfound fame. From extremely public and scandalous affairs to drug addiction to homelessness, It Girls through the ages have been there, done that—and few have lived to tell the tale.
The Original "It Girl"
The "It Girl" title was born with silent film star Clara Bow. Bow, who exuded a glamorous air of barely-concealed sexual voracity, became one of film's first sex symbols after being discovered while still in her teens, growing up in Coney Island. Bow's breakout role was in a film unsurprisingly called It. Not, of course, the one about the scary clown, but a 1926 silent film based loosely on a provocative novelette by contemporary tastemaker Elinor Glyn. Just to clinch the title for their very bankable new star, Bow's studio paid Glyn $50,000 to declare publicly that Clara Bow had It.
Bow's fame grew exponentially after It, and later Bow vehicles tended to stick to a prescribed formula: Insert Bow into some plot about a poor girl trying to make her way in the world and let her take off as much clothing as censors would allow.
As Bow became the first real sex symbol of silent film, tall tales of her supposed sexual appetite outside of her films piled up. The fledgling celebrity media followed with strict attention Bow's real extracurricular activities, which included public affairs with leading men and a string of engagements. More salacious rumors churned around Bow, claiming she had a threesome with two Mexican prostitutes, bedded the entire starting lineup of the 1927 USC Trojans football team, and knew both her Great Dane and pet koala bear on extremely intimate terms. And you thought TMZ was bad...
In Hollywood, Bow came to be treated as a kind of pariah—a dirty-joke-telling, hard-drinking outsider with a thick Brooklyn accent—but to the public following her exploits in the papers, she was fascinating.
In truth, Bow's personal life, which began with a dark and difficult childhood, was unraveling quickly. She had been sexually abused as a teenager by the father who later lived off and squandered her earnings in Hollywood, and when she was a young girl, her schizophrenic and sometime prostitute mother had tried to slit her throat. Later, Bow found herself feeling betrayed by friends and family alike, from the best friend who married her father to avoid deportation to the cousin who lived with her and regularly stole money from her. Under intense strain, Bow suffered a severe nervous breakdown in 1931, causing her studio, Paramount, to fire her.
Out of the spotlight, Bow married and had two children before beginning to display signs of mental illness. She became withdrawn and developed severe depression and hypochondria. She attempted suicide in 1944 and checked into The Institute of Living, a residential psychiatric facility in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1949, where she underwent electro-shock therapy and was diagnosised with schizophrenia.
"A sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt and bewildered," Bow wrote once, near the end of her life. She died a recluse in 1965, 32 years after her last film appearance.
The Not-So-Lucky In Love Blonde Bombshell
Platinum blonde Jean Harlow succeeded Clara Bow as the silver screen's sexual It (and id) Girl.
Born in 1911, Harlow escaped her weird and controlling mother, known as Mother Jean, by getting hitched at age 16 and moving to Beverly Hills, only to find that Mother Jean's own lifelong ambition to become an actress had followed her. Her mother pressured her into finding work as an extra in films and, soon after, Harlow starred in the curiously named Why Is a Plumber? Not long after, Harlow was discovered by producers and consummate weirdo Howard Hughes, who cast her in his film Hell's Angels. The role catapulted Harlow into the sex symbol stratosphere.
As befitting a sex symbol, especially one barely 19 years old, Harlow stumbled through a well-publicized series of husbands, affairs, and strange tragedies. Her second husband (there were three in total), producer and director Paul Bern, was found naked and dead in the bathroom of their Hollywood home in 1932. A coroner's inquiry determined that he had shot himself in the head. At first, Harlow was widely suspected of being responsible for or at least connected to his death. But, in the hopes of sidestepping what would surely be a scandal, MGM, Harlow's studio, spread the totally unscandalous story that he had killed himself because he was impotent.
In 1937 and at only 26 years old, Harlow died from renal failure after the onset of severe kidney disease. She was buried in the negligee she'd worn in the last film she made, Saratoga.
The Ultimate Blonde Bombshell
Before she died, Clara Bow wrote to several gossip columnists to bequeath her It Girl crown to perhaps the best-known blonde bombshell, Marilyn Monroe. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson and christened Norma Jeane Baker, Monroe's childhood was first spent with her mentally ill mother. After her mother was institutionalized, Monroe grew up in foster care and state homes, before marrying out of the system at age 16.
While her young husband was off serving as a Merchant Marine in World War II, Monroe found work as a model. That led to a contract with a major studio, which led to a name change—Norma Jean became Marilyn—and a divorce from her first husband, but no real film work. Small parts in good and bad films alike made her a recognizable face, but her real ascent into stardom came with her 1953 role in Niagara. Monroe's now-classic films followed: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven-Year Itch.
Throughout, Monroe's personal life mirrored Bow's: she was often taken advantage of by those close to her, developed a series of high profile romances (Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller), and developed a dependence on alcohol and prescription drugs. In addition, Monroe was rumored to be involved with the mafia as well as the Kennedy family. By 1960, Monroe was also no longer entirely bankable as an actress—her last two completed films, Let's Make Love and The Misfits, were failures, and she was dropped from what would have been her final film, Something's Gotta Give, in 1962 after missing too many days of filming.
Not long after that, at the age of 36, Monroe died at home in her Los Angeles bungalow, an empty bottle of sleeping pills found next to her body. While rumors circulated—and continue to circulate—that she was murdered, the official ruling was of an overdose.
The Factory Girl
Edie Sedgwick was an erstwhile actress and socialite who found her 15 minutes of fame in the originator himself, Andy Warhol, after he discovered her at a party in 1964. For nearly a year and a half, the two were practically inseparable—Sedgwick, 21, tall, slim, and provocative, even tinted her short hair silver to match Warhol's wigs. As part of his gang and in her own right, Sedgwick was all over the Page Sixes of the day and, in August 1965, Vogue dubbed her, along with other such trendsetters as Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, as a leader of the "Youthquaker" movement.
As Warhol's muse du jour, Sedgwick also appeared in a number of his films, including Restaurant, Kitchen, and Poor Little Rich Girl. The latter seemed to be an avant garde interpretation of Sedgwick's own life—in it, a sometimes out-of-focus Sedgwick wanders around her apartment and talks about how she spent her inheritance. Sedgwick was an actual heiress—she came from good Northeastern stock (her great-grandfather was the Rev. Endicott Peabody, founder of the Groton School), was raised in California, and grew up attending private schools. At the age of 21, she had moved to New York to become an actress and a model.
But her success didn't last long. Warhol, who had a habit of making "superstars" out of attractive young women and then replacing them after a little while, soon dropped Sedgwick. By that time, her life was unraveling at the edges—drugs, eating disorders, and self-destructive relationships propelled her through stays in psychiatric wards and hospitals and to her eventual death. Sedgwick died of an overdose—"acute barbitual intoxication," the Santa Barbara Coroner's Office declared—at 28 years of age.
Interestingly, Edie Sedgwick's cousin is Kyra Sedgwick, who is married to Kevin Bacon, thereby proving that the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is indeed gospel.
The Rolling Stones' Muse
Marianne Faithfull was still in school—a convent, actually—when she met the Rolling Stones' manager Andrew Loog Oldham at a party in 1964. Faithfull was an aspiring singer-songwriter with real talent, and with Oldham's help, as well as a little from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, her first hit, "As Tears Go By," made a respectable showing on both the American and British charts. Of course, at the time, Oldham, Jagger and possibly even Richards seemed a bit more interested in Faithfull's 17-year-old breasts than her music—according to one story, Jagger actually poured a glass of champagne between them to get the girl's attention.
But while her career seemed to have a promising trajectory, tales of sex and drugs began to eclipse those of rock 'n' roll. Though she married in 1965 and had a child about six months after that, she quickly returned to the London rock, folk, and drug scene, dropping her son off with her mother in a bit of very extended daycare. By 1966, she was divorced and Jagger's fulltime lady—meaning that virtually everything she did ended up in the papers. She made headlines in 1967, for example, when Richards' London home was raided by the cops during a night of partying. Faithfull was found stark naked under a fur, which she conveniently let fall as soon as the cops burst in. Both Jagger and Richards were arrested, but the verdict was later overturned, reinforcing the gang's sense of invincibility.
Time passed, more drugs were consumed, and Faithfull became pregnant with Jagger's child. When she had a miscarriage—one day before Yoko Ono, carrying John Lennon's baby, also miscarried—both she and Jagger were destroyed. She began using drugs with a vengeance. Before, it had been recreational, but now it was personal. The summer of 1969, Faithfull swallowed a bottle full of barbiturates in a suicide attempt that left her in a coma for six days.
Their relationship staggered on for another year or so, and Faithfull did too, drinking, throwing herself wholeheartedly into the pursuit of a stupefying drug addiction: From passing out face-first into bowls of soup at the homes of English gentry to arrests for drunken and disorderly conduct at Indian restaurants, Faithfull was in rough shape. Bouts of homelessness and hospitalization ruled the better part of the '70s for her, until her transcendent 1979 punk-inspired album, Broken English, seemed to put her back on the map.
Still, it took the better part of another decade before Faithfull could kick her drug habit for good. Faithfull has actually managed to recover from the swinging sixties (and seventies and eighties, really), although her career hasn't exactly hit the same heights of notoriety as it did when she was party-hopping with Mick Jagger. As the surviving matriarch of the '60s rock-drug-folk scene, Faithfull continues to make genre-pushing music as well as act, in films like Marie Antoinette and Gus Van Sant's Paris, I love you.