Bow was born in a tenement in Brooklyn, New York in 1907, the only surviving child of a family afflicted with mental illness and Dickensian poverty and physical and emotional abuse. Her mother, Sarah Gordon, who was mentally ill as well as an epileptic, was noted for her public and frequent affairs with local firemen. Her father, Robert Bow, was rarely present and may have been mentally retarded; he reportedly raped Clara when she was a young girl. The couple's eldest child, a daughter, died two days after birth, and the body was dumped in a trash can.
She was working as an actress by her mid-teens, having dropped out of school at the age of 7. She won the Fame and Fortune contest in 1921 and began making motion pictures the following year. This being the Roaring 20s, all of her early movies were on the Silent Screen. The movie through which she broke out into cinematic stardom was The Plastic Age, written by feminist Silent-era screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas. She soon became known for her expressiveness, spontaneity, and ability to project sexuality and self-mocking humor. She made an astonishing 57 motion pictures in 11 years.
Bow was dubbed "The IT Girl"—"It" being a euphemism for sex-appeal, as defined by the British novelist Elinor Glyn. This image was enhanced by various off-screen love affairs publicized by the tabloid press. Some Hollywood insiders considered her socially undesirable, especially in light of rumored sexual escapades (Bela Lugosi, Gary Cooper, Gilbert Roland, and John Gilbert were among her lovers), alcoholism, and drug abuse. Budd Schulberg, a producer's son, said, "Clara Bow, no matter how great her popularity, was a low life and disgrace to the community."
Her acting, however, was finer than her good-time-girl reputation implied. She was praised for her vitality and enthusiasm -- Adolph Zukor said that "She danced even when her feet weren't moving" -- though her roles rarely allowed her to show much range. At least one important film writer, Adela Rogers St. John, felt that Bow had enormous promise that was never tapped by the studios. Documentation indicates that as Bow developed a reputation as "Crisis-a-Day Clara," Paramount went out of its way to humiliate the increasingly emotionally frail actress by cancelling her films, docking her pay, charging her for unreturned costumes, and insisting that she pay for her publicity photographs. Her contract also included a morality clause offering her a bonus of $500,000 for behaving like a lady and staying out of the papers.
After movies such as Wings (1927), Bow's career continued with some success into the early sound film era, with notable success as a singer, until she retired in 1933 to raise her children with her husband, cowboy actor Rex Bell (actually George F. Beldon), later a lieutenant governor of Nevada. They married in 1932 and had two sons, Tony Beldon (born 1934, changed name to Rex Anthony Bell Jr.) and George Beldon Jr. (born 1938).