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Maneater: Theda Bara in a series of unconventional portraits. Her publicist claimed it was her lover and that not even the grave could separate them.

Theda Bara 

‘The Vamp’ of the Silent Screen

“A vampire is a good woman with a bad reputation, or rather a good woman who has had possibilities and wasted them”

 — Florenz Ziegfeld

The queen of the vamps was one of America’s most mysterious movie stars — Theda Bara. The magnetic actress, with her steely gaze and jet-black hair, was the prototype for a movie bad girl. She shook convention so dramatically that a critic called her a “flaming comet of the cinema firmament.”

Bara might be the most significant celebrity pioneer whose movies you’ve never seen. She was the movie industry’s first sex symbol; the first femme fatale; the first silent film actress to have a fictional identity invented for her by publicists and sold through a receptive media to a public who was happy to be conned; and she might have been America’s first homegrown goth.

According to the studio biography, Theda Bara (anagram of “Arab Death”) was born in the Sahara to a French artiste and his Egyptian concubine and possessed supernatural powers.

Progressive, liberated women were clearly so frightening one hundred years ago that equating them to undead, bloodthirsty creatures borne of Satan didn’t seem so unusual.

In the late 1910s, women were on the verge of winning the right to equal representation in the voting booth. Women were asserting power in unions, and, in the wake of disasters like the Triangle Factory Fire, those unions were influencing government policy. They were taking control of their destinies, their fortunes, even their sexuality (Margaret Sanger‘s first birth control clinic opened in 1916).

This surging independence came just as the entertainment industry heralded the female form as one of its primary attractions. Ziegfeld’s sassy, flesh-filled Follies — and its many imitators — defined the Broadway stage, mixing music, sex and glamour with a morality-shattering frankness.

But it was the birth of motion pictures that gave the allure of female bodies an unearthly, flickering glow, as nickelodeon shorts became feature-length films, and the first era of the movie siren was born.

Combine the power of liberation with the erotic potential of cinema, and in the late 1910s, you got the vampire (or as we would come to know, the ‘vamp’).

Theodosia Goodman grew up in Cincinnati, the child of middle-class Jewish immigrants. Her father was a tailor; her mother kept house. She went to high school, she went to two years of college. She was a middling actress with middling looks, age 30, stuck in the Yiddish theatre circuit, with a bit role in the occasional film. She was wholly unremarkable — one of the hundreds of women working toward the same end.

And then, in 1915, totally out of nowhere, she became The Biggest Sex Symbol In The World. As the star of A Fool There Was, she embodied the cinematic “vamp” — the evil, predatory woman who seduces men with her dark ways, sucks him dry, and leaves him for ruin. Her name was no longer Theodosia Goodman, but Theda Bara — an anagram, naturally, for “Arab Death.”

Her mother was a French actress, her father was an Italian sculptor, yet she had been born “in the shadow of the Sphinx.” She dabbled in the Occult; she communed with dark spirits. She had been reincarnated several times and lunched on lettuce and raw beef. The Girl even became her own verb: to pull a “ThedaBara” was to “seduce and destroy.” Offscreen, Bara was her cinematic character made flesh: an alluring, vampish creature, occupying the liminal space between this world and the next. Put differently, Bara was the most blatantly absurd and exquisite of the silent0-era studios’ creations.

Silent film actress Theda Bara (1885-1955) was one of the cinema’s earliest sex symbols, gracing the silver screen in risque costumes as femme fatale characters that earned her the nickname “The Vamp.”

Bara was born Theodosia Burr Goodman in the Avondale section of Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father was Bernard Goodman (1853–1936), a prosperous Jewish tailor/sculptor, born in Poland. Her mother, Pauline Louise Françoise (née de Coppett; 1861–1957), was born in Switzerland. Bernard and Pauline married in 1882. She had two siblings: Marque (1888–1954) and Esther (1897–1965), who also became a film actress as Lori Bara and married Francis W. Getty of London in 1920. She was named after the daughter of US Vice President Aaron Burr.

Bara attended Walnut Hills High School, graduating in 1903. After attending the University of Cincinnati for two years, she worked mainly in local theatre productions but did explore other projects. After moving to New York City in 1908, she made her Broadway debut in The Devil (1908).

In a short career, largely played out between 1914-19, Bara became a massive star, her popularity at one stage second only to Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin. But unlike Pickford (America’s fresh-faced sweetheart), Bara’s success was based on her reputation as a “vamp”, a woman so cruelly attractive that she could ensnare any man, exploit him, trample him, and walk away with an enormous grin on her face. Bara became so synonymous with the term that she is now referred to as the original on-screen vamp.

Bara’s extravagant image was the source of her fame, but it likewise shackled her to a very specific set of behaviours — and ways of appearing in public and on the screen. And like all star images, its potency, and its particular social resonance, faded with time. By 1920, Bara’s career was effectively over, and today, only a few of her major films remains intact. But for a brief moment in cinematic history, her image functioned as a volatile conduit for displaced female desire. Bara’s image was the immaculate conflation of sex and evil, and in an era still governed by rigid codes of moral, spiritual, and social behaviour, it was absolutely irresistible.

For a time, she became a victim of her own screen image. Making movies at a time when audiences thought that the character that the actor played was the person that they were in real life she often found herself ostracised publicly. Late in her career, she would tell stories of being refused service in restaurants and one nurse’s refusal to admit her husband into the hospital after an accident because the woman thought that she had caused it. Many of these stories were greatly exaggerated (some by Bara herself) but she told them to establish the kind of perception that she had given the public.

“To understand those days, you must consider that people believed what they saw on the screen. Nobody had destroyed the grand illusion. Audiences thought the stars were the way they saw them. Why women kicked my photographs as they went into the theatres where my pictures were playing. And once on the streets of New York, a woman called the police because her child spoke to me.”

-Theda Bara

Theda Bara

Her screen persona was an exotic foreign beauty who was the ultimate “vamp” who would go through men like a shark. Those who knew her claimed that she was a quiet, reserved woman that would be more likely found in a bookstore rather than a Hollywood nightclub.

From 1915-1919, she made over three dozen films, most in movie studios located in Fort Lee, New Jersey. It was here that she acquired her famous nickname, based upon her role as a home wrecker in a film inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Vampire’. During this period, Bara lived in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park with her family — at 132 E. 19th Street.

In 1918, Bara was, however briefly, the third-most popular star in America, ranking below only Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin. Of the 42 films, she made in her four-year career at Fox (she cranked out about one film per month), she was typecast as a heartless man-eating succubus in nearly all of them. Without access to the films for which she was most celebrated, such asCleopatra (1917) and Salomé (1918), it’s difficult for viewers today to understand why she was such a hot ticket back then. The films that remain most likely don’t do her justice. A Fool There Was (1915) was her very first starring role, made when she was just learning how to act on screen.

She put a face to a new sort of young lady. These were the spiritual children of the prior generation of newly empowered women who fought against the constraints of Victorian society. A few years later, as another vein of female power (the temperance movement) helped bring about Prohibition, these young women would be called flappers, carefree and fueled on the powers of jazz and illegal alcohol.

But to the established class, these ladies weren’t trend-setters. They were devils in black gowns. ‘Know a ‘Vampire’ by the Card She Plays‘, warned a New York Evening World article from March 1919, accompanied by a Theda Bara-like illustration of a snake-like monster.

The article recounts the efforts of a Newark judge attempting the rid the streets of “flirty girlies,” as he called them. “A vampire is a woman who flirts on the street with men, bleaches her hair, camouflages her face, disguises herself with clothes and gives wrong names, but is unable to change her eyes or dimples.” The article laughs off his puny efforts. “Can vamps, of whatever sort, be suppressed?”

Her image was unlike any publicity concoction ever seen. Sure, Hollywood regularly erased stars’ histories, but rarely as boldly, and with such little concern for credibility, as it did with Bara’s. Fox didn’t just give Bara a new name or a new ethnicity, it made her a creature of the underworld. Sure, part of this was just good, old-fashioned publicity playfulness, with the majority of the American public in on the joke. But part of it — namely, the conflation of ethnicity with sexuality and “otherness” — was a manifestation of the Western obsession with “Orientalism,” sometimes known as “white people fetishizing Eastern cultures to reaffirm their own whiteness.” Her success, in other words, was part of a large-scale desire to look at otherness while simultaneously disavowing it in oneself — a complicated psychic process not unlike that of watching most reality television.

Fox created an origin story for their star: she was the exotic daughter of European artists or Arabian royalty (or some combination of both), was born in the shadow of the Sphinx in Egypt, was imbued with frightening occult powers, and had been a mesmerizing theatrical figure in the Grand Guignol and Theatre Antoine of Paris. She had come to America from France to escape the oncoming German onslaught in the nascent Great War. Of course, none of this was true. Some of the movie press played along, especially the writers that were fans of Theda (like, say, at Picture-Play); other, more cynical writers poked fun at Fox’s publicity department for their over-the-top hype.

Today, Bara’s image seems crazy-weird. But she was just one in a long line of other sexual figures — a line that extends, albeit in slightly different manifestations, to the present day. And Bara was neither the first nor the last of her type.

Bara was also the first star promoted with an elaborate PR strategy, perhaps designed to efface what was a liability in turn-of-the-century America—her Jewishness. After persuading her to exchange her birth name of Theodosia Goodman for the invented “Theda Bara,” the Fox studio (which, after a merger in 1935, became known as 20th Century Fox) had its publicity agents promote her as an exotic (though apparently Christian) product of the Orient. Still, reporters soon learned that the sultry star, who according to her studio was the child of artistic European parents who had met and married in Egypt, was in fact born in 1885 into a Jewish immigrant family in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In fact, the Goodmans were well known in the local Jewish community. Theodosia, the oldest of three children, was a bookish girl and a good student. She enrolled in the University of Cincinnati after her high-school graduation in 1903, but after a couple of years, she dropped out and moved to New York to try to make it as an actress. It took a decade, but eventually, she found success when studio head William Fox offered her a contract. Ironically, she was signed precisely because of her many years of failure—and her hunger for acting work. Fox was looking for a nobody who wouldn’t ask for too much money and who would leap at the chance he was offering.

As Fox prepared to cast A Fool There Was, director Frank Powell suggested Bara, who was then going by the stage name “Theodosia De Coppet” to elide her Jewish surname.

Of course, Powell and Fox had a financial impetus for casting an unknown: Over the course of the ’10s, the “players” of the screen had become bonafide stars and, as such, could and did demand higher and higher salaries. Fox was cash-strapped — in fact, it wasn’t (yet) even a real studio. By casting an unknown, it made a wager: Maybe the name behind the film was nothing, but then again, maybe the role of the man-eating vamp would make anyone who played that role a star.

Still, even if one doesn’t need to watch the films to experience Bara’s unsubtle charms, it would be helpful if we could see them if only to understand why she, of all the women promoted as sexpots during the early years of cinema, was the most famous, beloved, and popular. Unfortunately, her films went up in flames in a notorious New Jersey film archive fire in 1937. Back then, movie studios tended to keep only one copy of every film they made; prints were difficult to store and were made of silver nitrate. As a result, early films were highly flammable and could even spontaneously combust; if a studio’s single stored copy of a film caught fire, it was most likely gone for good. (The personal copies Bara kept also weren’t stored properly, and they deteriorated beyond repair.) At the time of the fire, she was only 51 years old. She lived another 18 years, dying in 1955, or long enough later to see almost her entire film legacy disappear.

It’s hard to know how good or bad Bara’s performances were, not only because so little film evidence remains, but because critical opinion about her during her own time was so polarised. According to the reviews, she was either good or she was terrible, and there were often wildly divergent opinions about the same performance. A Boston critic called her Cleopatra “brilliant” while one in Brooklyn found Bara in that role “repulsive.” It’s hard not to think that it was the morality of the characters she played rather than her acting skill that was being judged.

1917: American actor Theda Bara (1885 – 1955) holds a peacock feather fan next to a bed in a still from director J Gordon Edwards’ film ‘Cleopatra’. Bara is wearing a costume consisting of a bustier and sarong with a long peacock feather train and a peacock feather headdress.

It was her ability to take direction which helped her gain the lead role as the “vampire” in A Fool There Was (1915). It was a well-deserved break, because Theda was almost 30 years old, a time when younger women were always considered for lead roles. She became the screen’s first fabricated star. Publicists sent out press releases that Theda was the daughter of an artist and an Arabian princess, and that “Theda Bara” was an anagram for “Arab Death”–a far cry from her humble Jewish upbringing in Cincinnati. The public became fascinated with her–how could one resist an actress who allowed herself to be photographed with snakes and skulls?

A Fool There Was is based on a variety of sources, including an 1897 painting by Philip Burne-Jones, which shows a woman looming over a man who is either dead, passed out or really very sleepy; and a hokey poem of the same title that Burne-Jones’s cousin, Rudyard Kipling, wrote for the exhibition catalogue. The film tells the story of a wealthy, married diplomat who sinks in horrific decline after submitting to the attentions of “The Vampire”, played by Bara.

Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 “The Vampire” poem, upon which her breakthrough role in A Fool There Was was based –

A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you or I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair,
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair —
(Even as you or I!)

… which was in turn inspired by Philip Burne-Jones’ painting of a vampire:

I think you can guess the general curves of the plot, but here goes:

  1. A married man is married.
  2. An unmarried woman is sexual. Also wears too much velvet, fur, and satin — the 1910s version of dressing slutty.
  3. Unmarried woman beguiles married man using her dark, sexual ways; takes all he has; leaves him in ruin.
  4. And A Fool That Married Man Was Indeed.

Those are the explicit plot points, but the implicit suggestions are even more scandalous, namely:

1) Men secretly like domination — even seek it out!

2) Women are capable of this type of sexual and psychological domination;

3) Women pleasure in this type of domination.

Imagine the disgust when people realised that male and female audiences were flocking to this film. Bara is commonly cited as the first sex symbol and the first vamp. In truth, her image was just the first to combine and codify “vampish” sexuality on the big screen.

Of course, Theda Bara’s characters were only metaphorically vampiric –  but through interviews and press releases Fox (and even Theda Bara herself) hinted that she might be in possession of eerie, otherworldly powers. Ultimately, Theda Bara’s vamp persona ended up having resonance even in the horror field, especially when it came to how future vampires of the undead sort appeared on screen: ghostly white skin, flowing raven tresses, kohl-limned eyes, and a hypnotic, alluring gaze became conventions of the character type. (This type of cinematic depiction for the undead had by no means been decided by the 1910s; the depiction of vampires as rat-like, Nosferatu-type creatures, or as shambling, decaying ghouls – these were also possible futures for the look of cinema’s undead at that time). The idea of a supernatural vampire versus an earthly home-wrecking vamp were often willfully conflated in press releases about Theda.

For moviegoers of the late 1910s, Bara’s vampy screen performances in those now-lost films apparently served as the celluloid embodiment of the dangers and pleasures of sex, and it is still possible to grasp some of her primal appeal; the memorable publicity shots from A Fool There Was ooze with unwholesomeness. In these images, the nearly naked raven-haired starlet strikes a variety of poses while lounging alongside a man’s skeleton. The images seem to suggest that modern women on the cusp of political and sexual emancipation might be up for just about anything. In the over-the-top publicity shots from Cleopatra made two years later, Bara let herself be photographed topless, save for a skimpy coiled-snake bra that looks like it was made to order for Madonna.

Theda’s vampire persona luxuriated in wickedness, smoking casually on long stemmed cigarettes while reclining languidly on a chaise lounge, delighting in her mastery over men. At least one French movie magazine cited Theda Bara as moviedom’s first dominatrix.

In 1914 she met Frank Powell who cast her as The Vampire in A Fool There Was (1915), the role of which we have the word “vamp” — a woman who saps the last sexual energies from middle-aged respectable men, no more than slaves crawling at her feet. In some of her publicity photos, all that remains of her devoured victims are their skeletons before her on the floor.

Bara was abjection manifest: that which we desire but must disavow, lest we find ourselves unable to function in the world. Dirty, sexual, blood-lusting, Eastern she sullied all that was virginal and pure.

A Fool There Was became a huge, mind-blowing success. Some historians argue that its success allowed Fox to become a full-fledged studio — which, nearly a century later, now fuels Rupert Murdoch, News Corp., and Fox News. Point is, Fox wasn’t selling subtlety. They were selling sex. And as a Columbia instructor once told Motion Picture Magazine, “most girls are good, but good girls do not want to see other good girls on the screen … through the medium of Theda Bara they can do her deeds and live her life.”

Fellow silent film legend Mary Pickford wrote, “After Theda Bara appeared in A Fool There Was, a vampire wave surged over the country. Women appeared in vampire gowns, pendant earrings, and even young girls were attempting to change from frank, open-eyed ingenues to the almond-eyed, carmine-lipped woman of subtlety and mystery.” In 1978’s Virgins, Vamps, and Flappers, Sumiko Higashi wrote, “The attraction of [Theda Bara’s] Vampire lay precisely in her ability to paralyse the male until he was left completely without will…. The desire to surrender to a sexually dominating woman was a negation of self and the resulting loss of control viewed as a spiralling descent into confusion, darkness, and death.”

When Cleopatra came out, giving women the federal right to vote was still a hotly debated topic. In 1917 Theda told a reporter, “Cleopatra, the transcendent mother of all sirens, was animated solely by the urge for authority, and that same greed is potent in every woman today. But the ballot box will put Delilahs out of the charmed circle. Education, political and economic freedom, have given women a new key to triumph. She needed no longer to depend on man’s strength – her own is rising, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of repression.” Elsewhere, Theda said, “The vampire that I play is the vengeance of my sex upon its exploiters. You see, I have the face of a vampire, but the heart of a feministe.”

Between 1915 and 1918, she appeared in thirty-three films. The Galley Slave, Sin, Destruction, The Serpent, The Tiger Woman, The Rose of Blood, The Forbidden Path, When a Woman Sins — you get the gist. The fan magazines called her “The Arch-Torpedo of Domesticity,” “The Queen of Vampires,” “The Wickedest Woman in the World,” “Purgatory’s Ivory Angel,” “The Devil’s Handmaiden,” “The Priestess of Sin,” and — my personal favourite — “The Ishmaeline of Domesticity.” Fox paid a famous illustrator to offer “expert” analysis, claiming “in her dark eyes lurks the lure of the Vamp; in her every sinuous movement there is a pantherish suggestion that is wonderfully evil.” The lunch of raw beef and lettuce, the dabblings in the occult, the faux-French-accent — it was all the product of the press agents, the gossip press, and Bara herself. So, too, were the pictures — one of at least three existing photos of Bara just hanging out with skeletons.

In an era where publicly showing ankles was racy, the controversial epic silent film saw Theda Bara bare more skin than some Americans were comfortable with (This prompted a lot of puns in the press about “Theda Bare-a”). The movie famously caused protests and led to cuts from censors. Theda Bara herself sued one of the major censors of the day to get the film shown. Cleopatra resulted in record box office sales for the Fox Film Corporation and helped build Fox into the juggernaut it later became, and is now.

Bara scandalised the mores of the middle classes. Meetings held across the country put the burgeoning film industry on trial and focused on Theda Bara—the vampire, the wickedest woman in the world, as she was billed by Fox. Of one film, a critic wrote, “Were the National Board of Censorship possessed of any judgment whatsoever, this is the kind of picture it should place the ban of its disapproval upon.” Local boards issued edicts condemning her films.

But her popularity was unstoppable. In 1915 alone, she starred in eleven pictures. Labelled “Hell’s Handmaiden,” she received two hundred letters a day, including over a thousand marriage proposals. Adoring fans named their babies after her. Her movies ran continuously, sometimes playing six times a day.

Some fans failed to distinguish Bara from her fictionalised roles. One bitter moviegoer wrote, “It is such women as you who break up happy homes.” Bara replied, “I am working for my living, dear friend, and if I were the kind of woman you seem to think I am, I wouldn’t have to.” Another, a criminal defendant, claimed that he killed his mother-in-law after viewing one of Bara’s films.

Bara defended her role: “The vampire that I play is the vengeance of my sex upon its exploiters. You see, I have the face of a vampire, but the heart of a feministe.” But she also worried about the image she perpetuated: “I try to show the world how attractive sin may be, how very beautiful so that one must be always on the lookout and know evil even in disguise.” Besides, she added, “Whenever I try to be a nice, good little thing, you all stay away from my pictures.”

Though photos still exist, most of her films were lost in a fire in 1937 at Fox’s nitrate film storage vaults. Out of the forty films she made between 1914 and 1926, only six remains.

Then there was the amazing stuff attributed to Bara:

You say I have the most wicked face of any woman. You say my hair is like the serpent locks of Medusa, that my eyes have the cruel cunning of Borgia, that my mouth is the mouth of the sinister scheming Delilah, that my hands are like the talons of a Circe or the blood-bathing Elizabeth Bathory. And then you ask me of my soul you wish to know if it is reflected in my face.

I mean, that is some great copy. And it arrived at a crucial point in Hollywood history, during the transition from “picture personalities” — whose off-screen images were exact mirrors of their on-screen images — and “stars,” whose off-screen images complemented and extended, but did not necessarily replicate the images onscreen. It was a weird, transitional time, kind of like the beginning of Twitter: Stars and their people didn’t quite know how to wield it

When Bara first became a public figure, her image had to reflect, even exaggerate, her onscreen character. But as time passed, it became less necessary for Bara to be, well, an actual vampire and more important that she resemble a creature of consumption, an object of potential romance: less supernatural, more department store.

In other words, the sort of figure the fan magazines craved.

Thus, in the midst of the vamping and skeleton-posing, the publicity department started to mobilise a second, competing valence of Bara’s star image. A 1917 article in Motion Picture Magazine reaffirmed her as “The Divine Theda,” claiming that ancient Egyptian inscriptions prophesized her arrival as a woman “who shall seem a snake to most men.” Yet this woman “shall be good and virtuous.” Still, in “Theda, Misunderstood Vampire,” the authors claimed that Bara’s greatest wish was to “play the part of a sweet, essentially feminine woman,” while a “Peek Into Their Boudoirs” showed Bara living in what amounted to an old grandma house filled with antiques — certainly no den of iniquity.

The type of role she was assigned over and over again was called “the vampire,” a woman who sapped men of their vitality. Stars during the silent era were often given nicknames. Mary Pickford, for example, was “The Girl With the Curls,” and Clara Bow was the “It Girl.” Bara was no “girl”; she was, as the actress most associated with “vampire” roles, called “the Vamp.” Still, the use of a diminutive suggests that for all the apparent panic about wanton female behaviour, the actress was an object more of fascination than fear. Even if Bara’s films are gone, her vampy image has become part of the DNA of cinema. She was cinema’s first sex symbol and its first overnight success; a complete unknown in 1914, and the release of her first film in January 1915 made her an instant celebrity.

In essence, Fox wanted fans to undergo their own weird process of belief and denial: they should watch Bara onscreen and subsume themselves in the belief that she was, in fact, her character … but simultaneously understand that she was not, in fact, a blood-sucking, man-eating, whore-monster. The obvious conflict between these images, however, bordered on the ridiculous, even at the time.

After four years, Bara’s career faltered. It may be, as her biographer Eve Golden suggests, that her popularity was already on the wane. She was getting older and had had a couple of box office flops. She wasn’t the only actress specialising in “vampire” roles, and it seems that the public was tiring of all of them. Bara asked to be cast in a popular story about an Irish peasant heroine. This choice turned out to be a major career misstep. If it was by now well known that the on-screen vamp was really just a nice girl, a homebody, and the rare movie star to have not even a hint of scandal connected to her, it’s also true that Bara’s non-vamp roles had never been her greatest successes. This one became a reputation-killer from which she would never recover.

She helped write The Soul of Buddha and did her own take on Salome. But she was sick of playing the vamp, and Fox was tired of paying her ever-growing salary, and at the end of 1919, she allowed her contract with the studio to expire. The next year, she married director Charles Brabin and neither sucked his blood nor left him in ruin. In fact, according to gossip, Brabin thought that women shouldn’t work out of the home — quite the non-vampy reversal.

Until the late 1990s, no book-length biographies had been written about Theda Bara. It was notoriously difficult for writers to disentangle the facts of her life from the wild tales spun by Fox’s highly imaginative publicity department, and new things about Theda Bara are being discovered all the time. In 1915, Fox publicists hoped to thrill audiences by painting their new star as a soul-stealing, pleasure-seeking, cold-hearted succubus. The persona and mystique that they created for Theda Bara – and which Theda herself played along with for several years – paved the way for the Hollywood femme fatale tradition.

In 1921 after she married director Charles Brabin she retired. In 1926 she made her last film, and promptly went back into retirement, permanently, at the age of 41. She tried the stage briefly in the 1930s but nothing really set the fires burning. After her retirement, Theda expressed interest in possibly returning to the stage or screen, but her husband did not consider it proper for his wife to have a career. Bara spent the remainder of her life as a hostess in Hollywood and New York, in comfort and quite wealthy.

A movie based on her life was planned in the 1950s, but nothing ever came of it. On April 7, 1955, Theda Bara died of abdominal cancer at the age of 69 in Los Angeles, California. There has been no one like her since.

Despite her vampy public persona, Theda maintained that really she was just “a nice Jewish girl from Cincinnati.”

Also in spite of her public persona, Theda’s private life was scandal-free and conservative compared to many other Hollywood figures. She married only once, for 34 years (until her death), and had no children. Her favourite hobby was reading.

Bara left the bulk of her estate to sister Lori. When she died, she left half of her estate to the Motion Picture Relief Fund in Theda’s name with the other half going to children’s hospitals. After Bara’s sensational early success at 20th Century Fox, the entire Goodman Family took the name of Bara.

Her visual impact to this day continues to be striking. She still radiates intrigue, seduction, mystery – and her image is resplendent with the Belle Epoque’s poetic romance of death. Her look seems clearly to have been an influence on the aesthetic of the punk, post-punk, and gothic rock scenes (vis-à-vis Siouxsie Sioux, Lydia Lunch, and others; the influence of silent film imagery on bands like Bauhaus and in the deathrock scenes is well known), and it’s again no little irony that she holds such a large influence on something that did not exist in her day (that is, pop music, or rock and roll, and the resulting late 20th century subcultures that those musical movements spawned

I hope she realised and understood that her image, however professionally constraining, set so much free.

At the height of her fame, Bara earned $4,000 per week (the equivalent of over $56,000 per week in 2017 adjusted dollars). She was one of the most popular movie stars, ranking behind only Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford.

In 1994, she was honoured with her image on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.

Owing to her film legacy as an assertive sexual woman, Bara’s name was adopted by fairies (homosexual men) in the 1910s.

For her contribution to the film industry, Bara has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

To be good is to be forgotten. I’m going to be so bad, I’ll always be remembered

-Theda Bara

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This Week in History: Birth of Theda Bara, the original “vamp”

This Week in History: “New York Times” profile of silent film star, Theda Bara

Blog: Moments in History: Jewish Entertainers in Film

 


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