Theodosia "Theda" Goodman was a nice Jewish girl, born on July 29, 1885 in Cincinnati, Ohio. She was the daughter of a prosperous local tailor and his wife. As a teenager, Theda became interested in the theatrical arts. After she finished high school, she attended the University of Cincinnati. Stagestruck, she soon dyed her blonde hair black and left her hometown in search of her dream- to become a famous and successful actress.
By 1908, she was in New York, one of countless pretty, young, aspiring actresses, hoping for her big break. That year, she made her official debut in the New York stage play The Devil. In 1911, she joined a touring company. In 1914, she appeared as an extra in the movie The Stain (she was so far in the background she was not noticed).
Later that same year, William Fox cast her the 29-year-old hopeful as the lead in an overwrought melodrama called A Fool There Was.
A Fool There Was was a film based on a famous Rudyard Kipling poem called The Vampire. It dealt with a femme fatale who, using her feminine wiles, lured men to their destruction. A huge publicity campaign was drummed up by Fox to promote his new film and star. Theda became "Theda Bara" (an anagram for "Arab Death"). Stories were circulated by Fox's press agents, telling of Theda's exotic past, and a nice girl from Cincinnati soon became a notorious "man-killer." This was to be Hollywood's first ever publicity campaign and Theda Bara became Hollywood's first studio-manufactured "star."
When A Fool There Was premiered in 1915, it was a smash and Theda Bara became the hottest movie star in the business. She was dubbed "The Vamp" (short for vampire) and almost instantly became a worldwide film celebrity -and the movies' first-ever sex symbol.
Theda not only brought her own image, but the word "vamp" was added to the common lexicon, meaning: "A sexually seductive woman who uses and exploits men to please her vanity."
Soon, as always happens with success in Hollywood, "vamp" imitators, including Valeska Suratt, Louise Glaum, and Virginia Pearson, came onto the scene, and vamp movies became a huge vogue.
Theda's effects stretched even further, as women and teenaged girls, hoping to attract men, or just to have a bit of glamour on their lives, donned dark eye shadow, heavy rouge, and lipstick, like Theda Bara. It is actually a fact that much of today's popular "goth" makeup is directly attributable to Theda Bara's original influence.
Theda herself, painted up with heavy-lidded, drooping eyes and a seductive demeanor, started churning our dozens of her trademark vamp films. Their titles: Sin (1915), The Devil's Daughter (1915), The Serpent (1916), and The Tiger Woman (1917) pretty much tell the story.
During the World War I years, Theda Bara found herself one of the most popular film stars in the world, second only to Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. She kept churning out her vamp films for an apparently insatiable public, soon earning a whopping $4,000 a week!
Stories abound of Theda being yelled at and scolded by jealous, angry woman in real life, and of her being physically assaulted by wives and girlfriends, who feared "the vamp" stealing their men from them. Theda was imitated, admired, revered, and hated the world over.
But after making over 40 films from 1915 to 1919, the vamp vogue had pretty much worn thin. Theda Bara, like so many movie stars before and since, soon found herself replaced by the new "flavor of the month."
In 1921, Theda married director Charles Brabin. She retired from film, making a brief comeback attempt in 1925's The Unchastened Woman. In 1926 she appeared in Madame Mystery, parodying her former vamp image.
Sadly, in 1937, a studio fire caused the loss of a vast majority of Theda Bara's films. Theda had her own personal collection, but unfortunately, they too were destroyed, through nitrate disintegration. Theda Bara remains the only major movie star whose almost-entire film collection has been lost to time. Only six of her films still exist, along with fragments of a few others. Theda's 1917 smash Cleopatra (her biggest hit) is now on every list of "great lost movies."
Theda and her husband led a quiet, peaceful, and mostly happy life until her death from stomach cancer at the age of 69 in 1955.
For more information about the incredible career of Theda Bara, I highly recommend Eve Golden's wonderful 1966 biography, aptly titled Vamp.