COVER: American actress Clara Bow in a 1927 promotional photo for Paramount Pictures. PUBLIC DOMAIN PHOTO
This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
The femme fatale of silent films entered a Los Angeles hospital for an appendectomy in February 1928. On the day of her discharge, Clara’s constant companion Tui Lorraine walked in on the famous patient and a handsome intern “locked in a passionate embrace.” The embarrassed doctor turned beet red and ran out of the room.
“I think he’s gorgeous,” Clara giggled.
“He made a pass at me first, and I gave him the brush,” snapped Lorraine, who married her meal ticket’s father seven months later to avoid deportation to New Zealand.
“You ain’t interested in Earl are you, Tui?” the movie goddess teased. Lorraine’s emphatic “no” evoked an all too familiar sigh. “Good, ’cause I think I’ve flipped for him.”
The latest man in Clara Bow’s life was William Earl Pearson, a 26 year old Dallasite from a well-to-do family who had gone to California for his urology residency. With his good looks and athletic build, he looked more like an actor than a physician.
The tall Texan just happened to come into the picture at the peak of Clara’s phenomenal popularity. The 23 year old redhead from the tenements of Brooklyn was not only Paramount’s hottest property, she was the brightest star in Hollywood.
Next to ticket sales, fan mail was the yardstick used by motion picture studios to measure their performers’ standing with movie-goers. According to the postmaster, Clara received 33,727 letters — many simply addressed to “The ‘It Girl,’ Hollywood, USA” — in May 1928 to set a record for the most mail in a single month.
It was the title of the box-office smash that in 1926 made Clara Bow the real-life symbol of the free-spirited flapper. Overnight she was the celebrated “It Girl,” not because she had the leading role in the silent film of the same name, but because she had “It,” which as everyone knew in the Roaring Twenties was sex appeal.
Clara had a strict rule against dating married men, but in Dr. Pearson’s case she was willing to make an exception. Besides, her dreamboat’s unhappy marriage had produced no children, and he swore it was only a matter of time until his wife filed for divorce.
Hoping for reconciliation, Elizabeth Pearson paid her husband a surprise visit in October 1928. He picked her up at the train station in Clara’s new Cadillac limousine. When she asked how an underpaid intern could afford such expensive transportation, he claimed it belonged to “a friend.”
At first Clara kept her relationship with Pearson under wraps, but encouraged by his promise of divorce she started talking about him in interviews. Sounding like a giddy schoolgirl, she gushed, “I have found the one man who brings me complete happiness.”
After reading such juicy quotes and listening to Hollywood gossip, Mrs. Pearson confronted her unfaithful spouse. Earl declared his love for the beautiful actress thinking that would finally rid him of the old ball-and-chain. But instead of running home to mother, Elizabeth announced she was filing for divorce in a local court and planned to sue the “It Girl” for “alienation of affections” to the tune of $150,000.
“I don’t want no publicity!” Clara cried when she heard the news, and neither did Paramount. A studio executive wired instructions to her Malibu retreat, where she had gone into hiding with her beau: “Give Bill (sic) railroad ticket to his home and such expense money as he actually needs.” That same day Earl was on a train back to Texas.
Clara’s violation of the “morals clause” in her contract forbidding “public scandal” resulted in the forfeiture of a $26,000 trust fund. Paramount also took $30,000 in bonuses from her last three pictures and offered it all to Elizabeth Pearson to keep Clara’s name out of the divorce. She agreed, and the deal was done.
On a hot Sunday night in June 1930, Clara registered at the Baker Hotel as “Daisy Hamilton.” Having learned the previous week that Earl’s wife never received the five-figure payoff, she had come to Dallas to find out what had happened to the hush money.
Bright and early Tuesday morning, Clara rang the doorbell at the Pearson residence. The woman of the house slammed the door in her face without saying a word.
Later that day, a sly reporter caught Clara off-guard with a loaded question: “Aren’t you here to pay Earl Pearson’s wife $150,000?” She took the bait. “That bitch! I already gave her thirty grand, and I ain’t paying another cent.”
In no time flat, Clara Bow’s dirty little secret was common knowledge across the country. Her shocking affair with a married man was the last straw even for the fan magazines that had defended her through thick and thin. The “It Girl” made her final movie in 1933 and spent her last 32 years far from the bright lights of Tinsel Town.
As for Earl Pearson, he patched things up with his wife, fathered two sons and practiced medicine in Dallas before eventually walking out. According to a Bow biographer, he died a homeless drunk in 1970.
And what happened to the missing hush money? Why, Earl kept it, of course.
Syndicated columnist BARTEE HAILE has written about Texas history for the San Marcos Mercury since 2011. Haile welcomes your comments or questions by mail at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.