Monday, March 7, 2011

Cincinnati Celebrities: Theda Bara, Vamp

Dear George,

If I’d grown up in the 1920’s, I definitely would have had a crush on Theda Bara. I think I only saw one of her films on late night TV many years ago, but she’s always been an intriguing pop culture icon. She was born Theodosia Burr Goodman in Cincinnati’s West End in 1885. Her father was Bernard Goodman, a prosperous Jewish tailor from Chorsei, Poland, and her mother, Pauline Louise Francoise de Coppet, was Swiss of French descent. Bara grew up in Cincinnati’s Avondale neighborhood, going to see the silent movies after her classes ended at Walnut Hills High School (J’s alma mater). She studied for two years at the University of Cincinnati, then dropped out and moved to New York in 1908 to become an actor.

Bara’s breakthrough movie role was the sultry vampire in A Fool There Was, a 1915 silent film inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Vampire.” She was paid $150 a week. She got her stage name with this film; publicists claimed it was an anagram for “Arab death.” At the end of the film she leaned over her dead lover’s corpse and said, “Kiss me, my fool!” Her performance generated the nickname “vamp”, i.e., a woman who seduced and ruined honorable, middle-aged men who became slaves crawling at her feet. Theda Bara starred in forty films between 1915 and 1919 as a deadly seductress, movies with titles like Sin, Destruction, The Serpent, and Salome. Her films were considered shocking to the public, but they made her the movies’ original sex idol. She frequently appeared in see-through costumes that were barred by the Hays Code and would still be considered risqué today. Bara said in an interview, “The reason good women like me and flock to my pictures is that there is a little bit of vampire instinct in every woman.”

Despite her movies scandalizing the middle classes, Theda Bara’s popularity was unstoppable. The studio billed her as the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor who had spent her early years in the Sahara Desert under the shadow of the sphinx. She received over two hundred letters a day and got over a thousand marriage proposals. Thousands of fans named their babies after her. One criminal defendant claimed he murdered his mother-in-law after watching one of Theda Bara’s films. Her movies ran repeatedly, sometimes playing six times a day. In response to public criticism, 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.”

At the height of her career Theda Bara was one of the most popular movie stars, superseded only by Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. She made $4,000 a week. She relocated from New York to Los Angeles in 1917 to film Cleopatra, one of her greatest hits. However, tired of vamp roles, she let her contract with Fox lapse in 1919. By 1920 Cecil B. DeMille had cleaned up the vamp image for a wider audience, and new stars like Clara Bow and Louise Brooks conveyed a cleaner image of sex and sexuality. Theda Bara married director Charles Brabin in 1921 and, despite his disapproval of a married woman working, starred in two more films in 1925 and 1926. In the 1920s she built a white Spanish villa in Cincinnati on Victory Parkway near Dana Avenue, a duplicate of her Hollywood home. Once the honors villa at Xavier University, it was razed in the 1980s. Theda Bara is famous for having a higher percentage of lost films than any actor on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A 1937 fire at Fox Studio’s storage vaults in New Jersey destroyed nearly their entire collection of silent films, and only six of Bara’s movies remain. Theda Bara died of cancer in L.A. in 1955, and she is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery. We think it ironic that prudish Cincinnati gets credit for conceiving one of America’s most famous and sensuous sex symbols. Go Theda!



SOURCES: Cincinnati Enquirer, 2-15-11; Jewish Women Encyclopedia (; Wikipedia; Internet Movie Data-Base;

G-Mail Comments

-Donna D (2-7): interesting.... donna

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