Theodosia Burr Goodman, known to us today as Theda Bara, was born on July 29 1885. She was the daughter of Bernard Goodman, a tailor and Jewish immigrant from Poland (his name was probably “Americanized” when he arrived in the U.S.) and Pauline Louise de Coppett, who was from Switzerland. Pauline was the co-owner of Dunkelmeyer & De Coppett wigmakers before marrying Goodman, who himself was co-owner of Ochs, Weihl and Goodman, a tailoring business. Theda Bara had two younger siblings, Marque and Esther. Her family moved often, but only within the area of Cincinnati, Ohio. They mainly stayed in the Avondale district of Cincinnati, a fairly well-to-do area with a strong Jewish community. Bara had her Bat Mitzvah there in 1898.
As a teenager Bara, who had always loved to recite and sing for family and friends while growing up, developed a strong interest in the theater. Upon graduating from Walnut Hills High School in 1903 she decided to pursue an acting career. Her stage name was Theodosia de Coppett. While trying her luck in various theaters she spent two years studying at the University of Cincinnati before dropping out in 1905. In 1908 she moved to New York City in search of work in the theater. Her debut on Broadway was in the Ferenc Molnar play “The Devil,” which opened on August 18, 1908. She had a small speaking role.
After touring with a company in 1911 Bara, unsatisfied with the so-so roles she was getting onstage, decided to break into films on the East Coast. She made the rounds of casting calls until she was made an extra in the Pathe/Electric film The Stain (1914), directed by William Powell. Although her tiny role was unnoticeable it is thought that she caught the eye of Powell and that he was the one who recommended her to producer William Fox, of the newly-created Fox Studios. Fox selected Bara to become his first star with a distinctly manufactured image. She worked with Fox to create the name “Theda Bara“–“Theda” was a shortened version of “Theodosia” while “Bara” was derived from her Swiss grandfather’s name, Francois Barranger de Coppet. Studio publicists fashioned an elaborate background history for Bara, saying that she had been born in Egypt to French actress Theda de Lyse and Italian sculptor Guiseppe Bara. They said she had been raised in a tent near the Great Sphinx, and then moved to Paris where she became a theatrical sensation. In 1915 Powell directed Bara in her first starring role under the new arrangement, in the famed A Fool There Was. Her “vampire” character (as it was called at first), that of an attractive and dangerous woman who exerts a powerful influence over men, was a sensation. At age 29, without having the background of a well-known stage career like most actors had at the time, Theda Bara was the first person to become a movie star virtually overnight.
From the beginning audiences were allowed to see that Bara’s fanciful back story was faked, probably to make Bara herself endearing to audiences even while she was playing wicked “vampires.” The “vampire” character was not unique to Bara, but she quickly became identified with it. Bara gamely went along with popularizing her exotic image, appearing in public dressed in heavy velvets and furs and discussing the occult with reporters. She popularized the word “vamp” when she mentioned to a reporter that this what her film crew nicknamed her characters.
Bara made seven more films for Fox Studios in 1915 and eight in 1916. Many of the roles were variations on the “vamp” character, but some gave her the chance to play heroines and virtuous maidens, such as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (1916). That same year Bara moved to the new center of filmmaking in Hollywood, California in order to film Cleopatra. It was a lavish epic that became a big box office hit.
By 1919 Bara had made 37 films for Fox Studios and had a salary of $4000.00 a week. With the advent of the U.S. involvement in WWI she helped raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in war bonds. However, by this time WWI was also diminishing the public’s fascination with “wicked” characters. Bara’s image was beginning to lose its appeal and typecasting made it difficult for the public to accept her in more diverse roles. In 1919 she played an Irish colleen in Kathleen Mavourneen, for which she experienced a strong backlash from Irish immigrants. By this point Bara’s five-year contract with Fox Studios was up, and due to the shifting public tastes and to Bara‘s requests for a raise it was not renewed.
After going on a European cruise for a rest, Bara returned to Hollywood expecting that her past box office clout would guarantee being hired by a studio. However, her “vamp” image was so ingrained in people’s minds that studios were reluctant to take her on. She decided to try for a stage career, and in 1920 was cast in the melodramatic “The Blue Flame”, playing a woman who is killed by a lightening bolt and resurrected by her lover–to find that she has transformed into a vampire. While the play was very popular and profitable for Bara her acting was panned by critics and not taken seriously by audiences.
In 1921 Bara married Charles Brabin, to whom she would be happily married until her death. She tried to find work in films again, and finally in 1924 signed with Chadwick Studios to play in their comedy-drama The Unchastened Woman. The film, although well-made, was unsuccessful and she was let go from the studio. In 1926, now age 41, Bara signed with Hal Roach to play in a series of comedy shorts. The first (and only) one she filmed was Madame Mystery, directed by Stan Laurel. Although she proved to be a capable comedienne the film was underwhelming, and Brabin talked her out of continuing with Roach. Bara was now retired from the screen for good.
In the ‘30s Bara occasionally attempted comebacks on the stage. In 1936 she appeared in Cecil B. DeMille’s Luxe Radio Theater, playing in a broadcast version of The Thin Man. She also wrote her memoirs, although they were never published. She and Brabin resided in Beverly Hills where they became renowned hosts, entertaining friends and giving an annual banquet. They did not have children.
In 1954 Bara began to suffer from stomach issues, and was diagnosed with colon cancer. She died of the disease on April 7, 1955 in Los Angeles. She was 69.
Davis, Lon. Silent Lives: 100 Biographies of the Silent Film Era. Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media, 2008, pp. 17-20.
Di Grazia, Christopher. “Theda Bara.” 2007. http://www.kissmemyfool.com/thedaEssay.html
Golden, Eve. Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara. Maryland: Vestal Press, 1996.