Hollywood’ s first femme fatale, Theda Bara was born Theodosia Goodman in Cincinnati, Ohio, on July 20, 1890. The daughter of a prosperous garment factory owner, she spent two years at the University of Cincinnati before her family moved to New York City in 1905. There, she began pursuing an acting career with limited success. In addition to working as a film extra, she made her Broadway debut in The Devil (1908), billed (using her mother’s maiden name) as Theodosia de Coppet. Though undistinguished, her early work brought her to the attention of film director Frank Powell, who cast her as the lead in A Fool There Was (1915). Based on a play inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Vampire, the silent movie told the story of a seductress’s destruction of an upstanding married man who falls under her spell. Fool was an enormous success, and Goodman, now acting under the stage name Theda Bara, became an instant star. Her new acclaim was largely due to a publicity campaign orchestrated by the Fox Film Company. With her name, Bara was given a new personality and history by studio’s publicity machine. The press was told that she was born in an oasis in the Sahara Desert, the product of an illicit relationship between a French artist and his Egyptian mistress. “Theda Bara” was said to be an anagram for “Arab Death,” a claim seemingly supported by publicity stills that showed a heavily made-up Bara dressed in exotic costumes and surrounded by skulls and skeletons. As overblown as Bara’s public persona was, it struck a chord with her mostly female audience. Some female moviegoers were so appalled by Bara’s man-destroying “vamp” that they destroyed posters bearing her image and spearheaded church-spon-sored campaigns to ban her films.
More, however, found a guilty pleasure in Bara’s screen image, which offered an exciting alternative to the pure and virtuous female characters that then dominated films. Her more adventurous female fans copied her dark makeup and made a catchphrase of her famous line, “Kiss me, my fool.” Others sought her advice about love and sex in the hundreds of fan letters she received each week. Signed to a contract with Fox, Bara made some 40 more films. In most, she played a variation of the “vamp” while playing well-known characters such as Cleopatra, Salome, and Mata Hari. A quiet, refined woman, Bara sought to broaden her range in less sensational roles, such as the female lead in an early film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (1916). Her public, however, was only interested in seeing Bara as an evil woman, and their enthusiasm for even that persona was short-lived. By 1919, when her Fox contract expired, Bara had become a frequent subject of parody. Although her over-the-top screen image seemed liberating at first, film audiences came to see its inherent ridiculousness. While changing popular tastes following the horror of World War I probably contributed to the public’s rejection of Bara, she herself believed that filmgoers had merely become more sophisticated. She once explained that early in her career her fans “thought that the stars of the screen were the way they saw them. Now they know it is all make-believe.”
Bara tried to revive her vamp character on Broadway in The Blue Flame (1920) but was laughed off the stage. She made a few more attempts at a comeback before retiring in 1926. Her last film was Madame Mystery (1926), a comedy short directed by Stan Laurel, in which Bara herself lampooned the roles that had made her famous. She spent the rest of her life out of the limelight, sharing a Beverly Hills home with one of her film directors, Charles J. Brabin, whom she married in 1921. On April 7, 1955, Bara died of cancer at the age of 69.
With the exception of A Fool There Was, Bara’s films are all now lost. Still, the screen’s original vamp has had a long-lasting influence. Through her phenomenal success, she was the first to show Hollywood the popular appeal of the “bad girl”—a lesson the film world has well remembered ever since.
Bodeen, DeWitt. From Hollywood: The Careers of 15 Great American Stars. South Brunswick, N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1976.
Genini, Ronald. Theda Bara. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 1996.
Golden, Eve. Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara. Vestal, N.Y.: Emprise, 1996.