As the first “vamp” of the silver screen, studios made sure Theda Bara’s private life was Hollywood’s best-kept secret. She rose to stardom under a shroud of mystery, mesmerized audiences with her dark looks, and then disappeared. So who was the woman behind the femme fatale? If we don’t know her name today, maybe that’s because of her utterly tragic fate.
1. She Had An Exotic Backstory
If you were alive during the golden age of silent film, it probably seemed like Theda Bara emerged from the mist to hypnotize you from the big screen. The studios claimed the exotic Bara was born in Egypt and then grew up in France before coming over stateside to dominate Hollywood. The truth, however, was much different.
2. She Played A Scandalous Woman
To this day, Bara is most famous for her 1917 portrayal of Cleopatra—and for the intense scandal it caused. Bara was notorious for wearing next to nothing in her film roles, but Cleopatra took it to the next level, dressing Bara in a glorified, transparent doily and calling it a day. And that was far from her last controversy…
3. She Bared It All For Her Fans
Bara could be eerily devoted to her fans and her fame—and one day she took it way too far. In August 1929, the starlet had Photoplay magazine print her private home address in its pages, along with an open invitation for people to write to her there. Even at the time, people considered the ploy an unorthodox and unhinged move.
4. She Had Occult Interests
Whenever Theda Bara sat down for interviews, you were in for a wild ride, and she’d frequently launch into the properties of the occult. But Bara wasn’t some wide-eyed Professor Trelawney type; this was actually a calculated move. Bara often played mystic in order to preserve her mysterious persona…if people knew who she really was, she’d be ruined.
5. She Hid Her True Past
Bara’s real past would have raised eyebrows if the public ever found it out. Far from being an exotic émigré, Bara was born Theodosia Burr Goodman in good old Cincinnati, Ohio on July 29, 1885. That’s right, she was American bred through and through. Which isn’t to say Bara’s life was mundane. Not in the slightest…
6. She Was The First Vamp
Theda Bara is the reason we have the word “vamp” today. The newspapers gave her the moniker as a short for “vampire” because of her knack for playing wanton man-eaters on film. It proved to be a lasting type. Femme fatale characters soon defined the 1920s, and Bara was leading the charge. In other words: She was dang iconic.
7. She Had A Torrid Affair
Just as Bara reached the height of her fame, she made a nasty career move…she fell in love with her boss, director Charles Brabin. But the scandal didn’t end there. When they met, likely on the film set of 1919’s La Belle Russe, Brabin was already married to actress and socialite Susan Mosher. And that was just the beginning.
8. Her Husband Was Notorious
True to her public persona, Bara apparently liked bad boys—because Brabin was one of the most notorious directors in Hollywood. In 1925, he was fired from the set of the original Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ after several performers actually died under his watch. Yet it was his relationship with Bara that made him truly infamous.
9. She Was One Half Of A Famous Couple
After meeting Bara, Brabin was utterly entranced with the vamp, and soon gave up everything to be with her. He divorced his wife in 1920 and tied the knot with his new starlet Theda on July 2, 1921. Their marriage was an instant sensation, and they were toasted throughout Tinseltown. But behind bedroom doors was a different story.
10. Her Stage Name Had Dark Roots
Even Bara’s stage name is full of mystery. The studios claimed “Theda Bara” was an anagram of “Arab Death,” going hand-in-hand with her exotic persona. Yet one of her directors, Frank Powell, had a different story. He claimed he made it by combining her nickname “Theda” with the last name of her relative, “Barranger.”
11. She Had Strange Appetites
There’s no accounting for taste, but Theda Bara had some especially bizarre attractions. Though her beau Brabin was whip-smart, he was never the most handsome man on the studio lot. Except that wasn’t what Theda liked about him. When asked, she confessed that, “It was the way he walked…He stalked in and in two strides crossed the room.”
12. Her Husband Forced Her To Retire
For all that Bara and Brabin made for a glamorous Hollywood couple, their love came at an incredibly high cost. After their marriage, Brabin didn’t think it was proper for his wife to go gallivanting about in see-through Cleopatra robes anymore. Despite Bara’s desire to return to the screen, he rarely let her act, instead urging her to settle down and become a kept woman.
13. She Hid A Secret Behind Bedroom Doors
Throughout Bara’s decades-long marriage to Charles Brabin, dark rumors persisted about the couple. Brabin kept Bara in stifling comfort as the perfect party hostess and wife, while all the while newspapers accused him of cheating on her with sultry playwright Frederica Sagor Maas. So much for the perfect life…
14. She Told Shameless Lies
Theda Bara wasn’t above lying to rise to the top in Hollywood. While promoting Cleopatra, she told any journalist who would listen to her that she was a Capricorn, likely the same star sign as the famous pharaoh. Well, wishing it doesn’t make it so—Theda was actually a Leo by birth. Yeah, a Leo would do that.
15. She Inspired A Well-Known Character
Bara not only hypnotized audiences from her own time, she continued to have influence long after her tragic end. No less than Marilyn Monroe impersonated the actress for a famous 1958 photoshoot in Life magazine, and Neil Gaiman reportedly based his character Death in the Sandman comics after the one and only Vamp.
16. The Public Hated Her
Bara’s vampy screen presence might have been a hit with crowds—but it demanded a great sacrifice. Bara once admitted the torment she went through when she went out in public. Unable to distinguish fact from her villainous fiction, people would accost Bara in the streets and refuse her service in restaurants. And it didn’t end there…
17. She Had A Famous Namesake
Even in her normie life as a child, Bara was destined for greatness. The starlet’s parents named her “Theodosia Burr” after Vice President Aaron Burr’s daughter. Although they were probably expecting her to rise to fame in a more established, respectable arena than film, Hollywood Boulevard would just have to do.
18. She Liked To Sin
Bara was unapologetic about the vamps she played on screen, famously saying she would keep “doing vampires as long as people sin.” But few people know the truth behind this quotation. Bara actually thought she was doing a public service by playing loose women who met horrific ends, continuing, “I believe that humanity needs the moral lesson.”
19. She Faked It
The sultry Theda Bara hid a big secret in plain sight: She was actually a blonde. Though she gained fame for her vampish looks, she didn’t come by them naturally. She only went over to the dark side after high school, when she decided that she needed a definitive “look” to make it in Hollywood. Well, she got one all right.
20. She Was A Scandalous Style Icon
At the height of her fame, Theda Bara popularized the most witchy ways of dressing. Besides rimming her eyes in dark kohl, she also liked to wear veils and large hoop earrings, and was often spotted with an elegant golden cigarette holder. In a time where America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford ruled the roost, this was decidedly risqué fare.
21. She Had A Hollywood Feud
There was one woman in Hollywood Bara who absolutely couldn’t stand—Joan Crawford. Bara declared that Crawford was a déclassé upstart, and didn’t believe the infamous starlet’s good girl image for one second. Given Crawford’s dark reputation in tell-alls like Mommie Dearest, it seems like Theda knew what she was talking about.
22. She Had One Famous Line
When Theda Bara acted in her first film A Fool There Was, she became an overnight sensation—and she did it with just four words. In one of her scenes in the film, her vampiric character seduces a man—naturally—and then purrs out, “Kiss me, my fool.” It quickly became one of the most iconic and quoted lines around Old Hollywood.
23. She Had The Perfect Comeback
When people accosted Bara in the street, she didn’t always play nice. An angry cinema-goer once went up to her and called her a home-wrecker. This time, Bara came up with the perfect reply. She sniped back, “I am working for my living, my friend, and if I were the kind of woman you seem to think I am, I wouldn’t have to.” Snap.
24. Someone Killed For Her
Theda Bara was so notorious as a vamp, she was once even connected to a murder. During the throes of her stardom, a man slew his mother-in-law. The authorities duly brought him in for questioning—and he immediately confessed that he’d done the dirty deed after watching one of Bara’s vampy films. This didn’t exactly help her reputation.
25. She Gave A Horrific Makeover
Bara was a beauty hound, but sometimes she went overboard. Actress Leatrice Joy once recalled asking Bara to do her up for a night out. Bara complied, ringing her eyes with kohl and then bizarrely dabbing rouge on her earlobes with a rabbit’s foot. The results? Um…When Bara was done, Joy’s mother commented that she looked like a street walker.
26. She Had A Major “Flaw”
Though you wouldn’t have known it from her big, dark eyes, Bara was actually near-sighted. No problem, she just wore glasses, right? Wrong. Old Hollywood was even more image-conscious than Tinsel Town is today, and glasses were just not done. So rather than be seen bespectacled, Bara came up with a much more ridiculous solution to her problem…
27. She Worked Herself To The Bone
Because of her poor eyesight, Bara had to memorize every placement of the set down to the last detail so she wouldn’t stumble over a prop or miss her mark. She spent much of her time on location just walking around the set and rehearsing her part with punishing precision. It doesn’t have to be this way, Theda!
28. She Was Outlawed
Decades after her star-making turn in Cleopatra, Theda Bara became illegal. No, really. The infamous Hays decency code came down like a hammer on Hollywood, outlawing a host of “immoral” actions and outfits on screen, and taking direct aim at Bara’s oeuvre. Sadly, that’s not the worst thing that would happen to Bara.
29. She Had One Of The First Hollywood Mansions
Bara loved glamour, which is probably why her Tudor-style mansion in downtown Los Angeles has such a storied history. After Bara was through with the palatial party pad, she sold it to ultimate Hollywood bad boy Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Arbuckle was a legendary carouser, and he immediately did something super creepy.
30. Her Bedroom Became A Creepy Shrine
When the boisterous, notorious Fatty Arbuckle moved into Theda Bara’s Hollywood home—and he made one disturbing request. He wanted the sultry starlet’s bedroom décor left “just as it is,” presumably so he could fantasize about her still in it. Okay, I’m going to move on so I don’t have to think about this one too much.
31. She Was Much Different In Private
In truth, Bara’s public and private images were very different things. People who were closest to her said that although she did enjoy the finer things in life, she had no problem curling up in her satin settee with a book in hand rather than a French 75. Granted, this didn’t stop her from having a diva attitude at all the right moments.
32. She Lied About Her Age
Theda Bara had a late start, especially considering Old Hollywood’s strenuous beauty standards and appetite for young ingénues. Bara didn’t land her first lead film gig, in 1915’s A Fool There Was, until she was almost 30 years old. So in order to fool the youth-obsessed producers, she wasn’t above lowering her age a bit on casting calls.
33. She Made Her Own Costumes
Theda Bara was a jack-of-all-trades as well as a queen of spades. She actually made most of her film costumes herself, including her famous “outfit” in Cleopatra. All T no shade Theda, but I bet costume design and construction is a whole lot easier when you don’t have to take things like “opaqueness” and “decency” into account.
34. She Called Herself A Feminist
Modern feminists, we can count Theda Bara as one of our own. The naughty starlet once said in an interview, “I have the face of a vampire, but the heart of a feminist.”
35. She Had A Huge Failure
In 1919, right around the time Bara met her future husband Charles Brabin, she decided she was done with being typecast and wanted to give more wholesome roles a try. This backfired horribly. Her goody-goody film, Kathleen Mavourneen, flopped as hard as a film can flop. Worst of all, the failure lost her a contract with Fox.
36. She Scared Children
The harassment Bara faced just for playing beautiful vamps didn’t stop at frustrating hospital visits or rude comments. At one point, Bara confessed that a woman had once called the authorities on her just because her child had spoken to the dark starlet. Yep, Theda Bara reached “Hide your kids, hide your husbands” territory.
37. She Turned Down Multiple Marriage Proposals
It’s hard to overstate just how much Theda Mania overtook America at the time. After starring in over 10 films just in the year 1915, the public went wild. She got 200 letters of fan mail each day, most of them desperate marriage proposals, and pretty soon even happy couples were naming their babies “Theda.”
38. She Resembled Another Starlet
Theda Bara could take one mean photo, which is probably why British newspaper International Times decided to use one of her images as their logo. Except, well, this was actually a horrible mistake. The founders had originally intended to use a picture of another silent film star, Clara Bow, and accidentally wound up with Bara instead.
39. There Was One Thing She Couldn’t Do
Although she resented giving up acting after her marriage, Bara took on the role of hostess like a vampire to a coffin. Her dinner parties were legendary and included Beverly Hills’ biggest stars like Mary Pickford and A Star Is Born director George Cukor. Bara did draw the line somewhere, though: As a relative once quipped, “she would rather die of starvation than cook.”
40. She Liked Younger Men
41. She Had A Broadway Flop
In 1931, Theda Bara was itching for the spotlight again and, against the advice of her husband, tried to make a return to her stage roots. It all fell apart in a humiliating way. She played the lead in the production of Fata Morgana, but audiences were decidedly disappointed—and cruel. One critic called her “hesitant” and “unintentionally amusing.” Ouch.
42. She Had A “Wild” Side
Bara was so attached to her reputation as Cleopatra, the studio even marketed her as “The Serpent of the Nile.” This actually ended up being a prophecy: Unlike most squeamish actresses at the time, Bara quickly gained notoriety for being willing to pose with snakes and other exotic animals for magazine photoshoots.
43. She Invented The Publicity Stunt
In many ways, Bara was one of the first modern Hollywood stars. Not only was her exotic back-story one of the very first examples of studios trying to orchestrate publicity stunts for their actors, but Bara’s sinfully good looks also made her potentially the very first Hollywood sex symbol. Nobody does it like legends do it.
44. She Had Punishing Beauty Standards
Theda Bara believed firmly in the traditional Old Hollywood view that stars should be distant, glamorous figures. Not only was she careful never to reveal her true self in interviews, she always made sure she was dressed to the nines whenever she appeared in public. As she once said, “it takes showmanship” to hold the public’s attention.
45. Her Reputation Almost Turned Fatal
The studios made Theda Bara out to be a mysterious temptress and a dark villain. However, when the illusion soon spun out of control, the consequences were utterly disturbing. One day, Bara’s husband Charles Brabin got into an accident and needed to go to the hospital. Worried sick and seeking immediate attention, Bara brought him to the nurse on call…and received a rude awakening.
Thinking she was the immoral vamp she played on screen, the nurse refused to admit Brabin. But that’s not even the worst part.
46. She Was Accused Of Dark Deeds
The nurse that day didn’t just refuse to treat Bara’s husband, she also had a much crueler accusation up her sleeve. Since Bara was apparently so “immoral,” the attendant thought Theda had actually caused the injuries, and was coming into the hospital to try to cover it up. Yeah, still not a good enough reason to refuse a patient.
47. Her Work Was Destroyed
If Theda Bara isn’t well-known today, maybe that’s because of her tragic fate—on film stock, anyway. In 1937, one of Old Hollywood’s most infamous events happened. There was a ravaging fire in the Fox Studios vault, and the blaze destroyed nearly all of Bara’s hard-won work, including her legendary turn as Cleopatra. But the tragedy doesn’t end there.
48. She Tried For A Career Revival
Bara was likely devastated at the loss of her work, but she had something up her sleeve: Her own personal collection of her films. In her later years, she was even angling to have a biopic of her career made, and she wanted one of the girls from her neighborhood play her. But when Bara brought her mentee down to the collection, she was in for a nasty surprise.
49. She Suffered A Grave Disappointment
As Bara proudly opened up one of her film canisters, she saw a horrific sight. The old film had completely disintegrated—something that was common to nitrate, the material that film was printed on back then. Bara was left literally empty-handed. In short, her doom was complete. With the 1937 fire and now the destruction of her personal archive, all but the barest sliver of her work was lost to history. It remains one of Hollywood’s greatest losses.
50. She Was Gone Too Soon
Theda Bara’s legacy may have suffered a tragic and untimely end, but so did Bara herself. When she was in her late 60s, Bara received the unsettling news that she had stomach cancer. Though she battled for life as hard as she battled for fame, she passed on April 1955, leaving behind her husband and most members of her family. RIP to a legend.