The History of 'It' Girls (And Their Predictable Downfalls)

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Heavy is the head that wears the "It" girl tiara.

History has no dearth of young women who, once thrust into the limelight, manage to screw things up in astounding, stupefying ways. 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, whose diminutive size and glamour of barely concealed sexual voracity made her one of the first film sex symbols, was 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 not to vary from the prescribed formula: Insert Bow into some plot about 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, tales of her supposed sexual appetite outside of her films blossomed. The fledgling celebrity media followed with strict attention Bow's real extracurricular activities, which included public affairs with leading men, engagement after engagement, and more salacious rumors. Those included having a threesome with two Mexican prostitutes, bedding the entire starting lineup of the 1927 USC Trojans football team, and knowing both her Great Dane and pet koala bear on extremely intimate terms.

In Hollywood, she was 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 was a straight up mess and her eventual pattern of self-destruction seemed to set a precedent for the It girls who followed. She had been sexually abused as a teenager by the father who later lived off and squandered her earnings in Hollywood; 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. After some time off, she made a brief comeback before marrying, making babies, and gaining nearly 100 pounds. Bow's enforced retirement only got worse: A suicide attempt, severe depression and hypochondria, addiction to sleeping pills, electro-shock therapy, and finally, a diagnosis of 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 Blonde Bombshell, not so lucky in love

jean.jpgPlatinum 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 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 at their Hollywood home. 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.

Interestingly, last year Nicole Richie gave birth to a little girl she named Harlow, after the troubled sex symbol.

The Next Blond Bombshell

marilyn1.jpgBefore she died, Clara Bow wrote to several gossip columnists, bequeathing her It Girl crown to perhaps the best-known blond bombshell, Marilyn Monroe. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson and christened Norma Jeane Baker, Monroe's childhood was first spent with her psychotic mother. After her mother was institutionalized, Monroe grew up in foster care and state homes, before marrying out of the system at the age of barely 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. Classic Monroe films followed: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven-Year Itch.

Throughout, Monroe's personal life mirrored Bow's, though with some added twists: In addition to drinking, blundering from one ill-advised relationship to another (Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller), and being taken advantage of by people she trusted, 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, either "“ her last two completed films, Let's Make Love and The Misfits, were failures, and she managed to get herself fired from her last movie 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.jpgEdie 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 usually seen wearing glorified t-shirts as dresses, 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 went so far as to name her a "Youthquaker," whatever that means.

Because she was Warhol's latest superstar, Sedgwick also appeared in a number of his films including Restaurant, Kitchen and the appropriately titled, Poor Little Rich Girl. The latter seemed to be about Sedgwick being Sedgwick, in a very avante garde way, of course "“ a sometimes out of focus Sedgwick sort of 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 and actress and a model and partially succeeded.

But it 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 Coronor's Office declared "“ at 28 years old.

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 Stone's Muse

mariannefaithful.jpgMarianne Faithfull was still in school "“ a convent, actually "“ when she met Rolling Stones' manager Andrew Loog Oldham at a party in 1964. Faithfull was an aspiring singer-songwriter with real talent and with his help, as well as 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 "“ 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 popped out a kid about six months after that, she quickly returned to the London rock, folk and drug scene, dropping the child 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. It was no exception in 1967, when Faithfull and Jagger were letting the good times roll at Richards' London home and the place was raided by the cops. Faithfull was found stark naked under a fur, which she conveniently let fall as soon as the cops burst in. Somewhere into this tale fits a Mars bar, which was allegedly used in a sexual context. In any case, a healthy amount of drugs were found upstairs and both Jagger and Richards were arrested. Later, the verdict was overturned, and then sense that they were all in fact invincible was reinforced.

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. By 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 from drunken and disorderly conduct at Indian restaurants, Faithfull was truly messed up. Bouts of homelessness and hospitalization ruled the better of the "˜70s for her, until her transcendent 1979 punk-inspired album, Broken English, seemed to put her back on the map.

Still, she was a junkie and it took the better part of another decade before she could kick the habit. 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 "˜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.

January 14, 2009 - 1:30am
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