Theodosia Goodman was a tailor’s daughter from Cincinnati. People who knew her growing up said she was a “nice Jewish girl.” Then she changed her name to Theda Bara and started making movies. In 1915 she starred in A Fool There Was. Listed in the credits as simply the Vampire, occasionally shortened to the Vamp, she was a temptress who lured men to ruin, mouthing lines like “Kiss me, my fool!” The movie itself was unremarkable, but the way it was marketed was revolutionary. The fledgling Fox Film Corporation tasked its new publicity department, staffed by two former New York World reporters, with fabricating a backstory for the Polish-American starlet. At a press conference for A Fool, the assembled journalists were told that Bara was the Serpent of the Nile, born in the Sahara to a French actress mother and an Italian sculptor father, and raised “in the shadow of the Sphinx.”
Bara became one of the biggest stars of the silent era—rivaling Charlie Chaplin and that goody-two-shoes Mary Pickford. She was happy to play along with the vamp image, wearing veils and black clothing and slathering on dark eye makeup. She would laugh uproariously at the latest bit of invention printed about her in the papers—one item described a 2,000-year-old emerald ring supposedly given to her by a blind, wizened old sheik. For press events, Fox encouraged her to use an exotic accent and profess her interest in mysticism and the occult. Bara even posed with skeletons for several publicity photos; the message was that she was a supernatural siren who literally devoured men.
Bara made 39 films from 1915 to 1919, wearing outfits onscreen that even today would be considered revealing. The titles say it all: The Forbidden Path, The Vixen, The Devil’s Daughter, The Eternal Sappho, When Men Desire, and, of course, Sin. She made a few attempts to play a good girl, but those films always disappointed, proving yet again that there’s no escape from the dark side.