Prominently displayed in each of his homes from when it was painted in 1929 until his death in 1956, Bela Lugosi’s nude oil painting of actress Clara Bow sold at Bonhams in New York for $30,000 on November 25th, 2013.
Until being announced as lot 138W in Bonhams’ “What Dreams Are Made Of: A Century of Movie Magic at Auction as Curated by TCM” auction, the whereabouts of the 37 3/4 x 33 1/2 inch canvas had remained a mystery since being sold by Lugosi’s widow, the former Hope Lininger, to an undisclosed art dealer before she moved to Hawaii in 1976. It is now known to have passed through at least two private collections during its “lost” years.
Lugosi commissioned his friend and fellow-Hungarian Geza Kende to paint the portrait as a memento of his brief affair with Bow, who kept a signed photo of Lugosi until her death. Despite their relationship making headlines in November 1929 when Lugosi’s third wife, Beatrice Weeks, told a reporter about it after filing suit for divorce, very few details of it are actually known.
This photo from Lugosi’s estate sold for $1,000 at the Icons of Hollywood auction at Profiles in History on December 16th, 2011. The catalogue described Kende’s portrait as the “infamous nude painting of Clara Bow.”
Lugosi and Bow first met backstage after a performance of Dracula during its eight-week run at the Biltmore Theatre in Los Angeles sometime between June 24 and 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.
Is it? Isn’t it? Despite disagreement on the identity of the model in Geza Kende’s painting, she bears a striking resemblance to Clara Bow as seen in this publicity still for Dancing Mothers, 1926
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.’
Neither the depth nor the length of their relationship is known. Lugosi is said to have shown off scratches on his body which he bragged were inflicted by Bow during their lovemaking. Beatrice Weeks, whose disastrous marriage to Lugosi 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 no evidence to support Lugosi’s alleged claims.
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.
A willow nude? Clara Bow in the flesh.
Despite the fact that 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 the early 1930s. There is also nothing to suggest that she was even aware of the existence of the portrait, which was painted after whatever relationship they may have had was over. 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 compel his next two wives to live under its gaze for the duration of their marriages.
What could have driven him to have kept this memento of a distant brief affair on open display when married to other women? Maybe 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, like Dracula’s grip on his life and career, never ended. (Andi Brooks)