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Dracula and the It Girl: Rondo Hatton Classic Awards Article of the Year 2017

The very first genre article I wrote was a piece on the 1962 science fiction film The Day of the Triffids for the American magazine Scary Monsters in 1991. I wrote for the magazine for several years until I became too busy with my work on the Bela Lugosi biography Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain with Frank J Dello Stritto. Over the years I received many invitations to write for magazines, websites and blogs, but turned them all down as I was too involved with other projects. However, when I received an invitation from Scary Monsters Magazine to contribute to its 100th issue to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2016 I couldn’t refuse. I decided to write a piece on the short-lived love affair between the actors Bela Lugosi and Clara Bow. Not much was known about their relationship, so I dug deep to uncover as much information as I could. Although I was pleased with the article, it came as a total surprise when it was chosen as the “Article of the Year” award by the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards in 2017. So, here for the first time since 2016, is a reprint of the article.

“Dracula and the It Girl”


Andi Brooks

They seemed an unlikely couple, the 45-year-old Hungarian actor enjoying the first fruits of success on the stage of his adopted homeland and the 23-year-old Brooklyn-born box office sensation. Quite literally from another time and place, Bela Lugosi was cloaked in old world charm and perceived as being every bit as mysterious and exotic as the undead aristocrat he portrayed on stage. Clara Bow, on the other hand, exuded a carefree, self-assured independence that made her not just a role model for a generation of modern young women, but the living personification of the Roaring Twenties.
It seems difficult to imagine two more different people, but they did have one thing in common – magnetic sex appeal! Perhaps it was inevitable that they would find each other irresistible.
In 1928 Clara Bow was on top of the world. Six years after making her first faltering steps into the motion picture industry as the winner of an acting contest, the 23-year-old was Paramounts’ biggest star. The four movies she made that year, now all sadly lost, would make her the top box office draw for the first of two consecutive years.
By contrast, Bela Lugosi’s film career appeared to be going nowhere. The 45-year-old veteran of the Hungarian and German motion picture industries had appeared in supporting roles in only five full length movies and one short since making America his home in late 1920. Bow had starred in that many films in 1927 alone, including Wings, the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture and It, the film which give her the nickname of “The It Girl.”
While Lugosi struggled to establish himself in the American film industry, he had more success in the theatre. Although the plays he had appeared in since making his English language debut in The Red Poppy in 1922 enjoyed mixed critical and financial fortunes, the actor himself received mostly positive reviews. Ironically, when he appeared on Broadway in his biggest success in October 1927, Dracula earned him the worst reviews of his career to date from the New York critics. Despite the poor critical reaction to both the star and the play itself, audiences loved Dracula. It became a sensation and made Lugosi into a star. When the production moved to Los Angeles the following June, Dracula became the hottest show in town and Lugosi found himself feted like visiting royalty.
It was backstage after a performance of Dracula at Los Angeles’ Biltmore Theatre that Bela Lugosi and Clara Bow first met. Although the exact date is unknown, the play ran from June 24 to August 18th, 1928, the meeting was recalled by Bow’s friend, the actor Jack Oakie, in his autobiography, Jack Oakie’s Double Takes. 
‘Suddenly she came running out (to her swimming pool, where she had left friends to take a phone call). “Come on everybody! We’ve got tickets!” she said. “We’re going down to the Biltmore to see Dracula.” She was so excited she didn’t stop to dress. She just threw a great long mink coat over her swimsuit, and we all got into her chauffeur-driven black Packard limousine. Bela Lugosi was starring in Dracula on the stage of the Biltmore Theatre downtown.
Bow had read about it. “I want to meet that man,” she said. “Do you know he doesn’t know how to speak English?” She couldn’t get over the fact that he was on stage for two hours performing in a language he couldn’t speak. Bow kept her mink coat on, and we watched Bela Lugosi in his monstrous makeup with his teeth sticking out, chewing on gals’ necks all evening. Then we went backstage.
He couldn’t speak English, but no language barrier could hide his thrill at meeting Clara Bow. He was overwhelmed with the redhead. “How do you know your lines?” Bow asked him immediately. We finally understood the Hungarian’s explanation. He told us that he memorized each word from a cue and, if by mistake another actor should ever give him a wrong line, he would be lost for the rest of the night. Bow invited him to her home, and they became very good friends.’
Rather than just “very good friends,” the two actors became lovers, throwing themselves into a brief, but passionate affair. Lugosi is said to have shown off scratches on his body which he bragged were inflicted by Bow during their lovemaking.
The only account we have of Lugosi and Bow together after their first meeting comes from Bow biographer David Stenn in his biography Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, in which he writes of Lugosi being invited to stay at Bow’s Malibu cottage one weekend. Upon his arrival, it was discovered that every bedroom was already occupied by other guests. One of the female guests gave up her room to him and moved in with Bow. In whose room Bow actually spent the night is unrecorded.
Their relationship made headlines in November 1929 when Lugosi’s third wife, wealthy San Francisco socialite Beatrice Weeks, whose disastrous marriage to Lugosi in July of that year effectively ended after only four and a half days, told a reporter from The Daily Mirror that Lugosi had confided that he and Bow had become engaged during their relationship, but had decided to spend a year apart to test the strength of their relationship and would marry after the divorce was finalized. There is, however, no evidence to support Lugosi’s alleged claims.
Although the true details of the relationship between Lugosi and Bow will probably never be known, it does appear to have had a lasting impact on Lugosi. He commissioned his friend and fellow-Hungarian Geza Kende to paint a nude portrait of Bow as a memento of their affair.
Although Bow had previously posed nude for photographs and had appeared semi-nude on screen, it is not thought that she posed for Kend, who also painted an impressive full-length painting of Lugosi in full Dracula costume in the early 1930s. There is actually nothing to suggest that she was even aware of the existence of the portrait, which is believed to have been painted after their love affair had ended. It has been suggested that the image was in fact conjured up from Lugosi’s memory, which may explain why several commentators have stated that it is not a painting of Bow and actually looks nothing like her.
Whatever the truth of the identity of the model, described as “a willow nude” by reporter Bob Thomas when he interviewed Lugosi at his home in October 1953, the memories Lugosi associated with the painting remained potent enough for him to have it prominently displayed in each of his homes until his death in 1956.
What could have driven him to have kept this memento of a distant brief affair on open display, compelling two of his wives to live under its gaze for the duration of their marriages? Perhaps writer Adele Rogers St. John had the answer when she wrote of Bow’s effect on men, “When men fall in love with Clara Bow, they go a bit mad.” Perhaps Lugosi’s madness for Bow, who kept a signed photo of him until her death, like Dracula’s grip on his life and career, never ended.


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