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Birth of Theda Bara, the original "vamp"

July 22, 1890
Theda Bara
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Theda Bara is known as the "original vamp." This photo is in the public domain.


Born Theodosia Goodman on July 22, 1890, Theda Bara had a brief but notable career as the star of dozens of silent films. Raised in Cincinnati, Bara moved to New York City at age eighteen to pursue acting. Only marginally successful on the stage, she became an overnight sensation when director Frank Powell cast her as the star of A Fool There Was in 1915. In the film, which was based on a stage melodrama that was in turn based on a Rudyard Kipling poem, Bara played a temptress who squeezed money, dignity, and finally life out of men. As the sensuous, cruel seductress, Bara created the original "vamp."

Over the next five years, Bara starred in forty films, almost always as a "vamp," an exotic woman luring men to ruin. Her films were considered scandalous, and at least one critic advocated censoring them. However, Bara was wildly popular with the public, who flocked to her films. She was said to have received over a thousand marriage proposals from adoring fans. Others named children after her. One critic called her "a clever actress with...a marvelously mobile and expressive face."

Despite Bara's popularity, the Fox studio refused to renew her contract after 1919. The film industry had moved on to a cleaner image of sexuality. Seductresses would abound in later Hollywood films, but without the aura of mystery and menace that had defined Bara's roles. After 1920, Bara starred in only two more films, in 1925 and 1926. She died on April 7, 1955. Today, the only surviving Bara film is A Fool There Was, her first success.

Learn more about Theda Bara in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.

See also: This Week in History for February 20, 1916, "New York Times profile of silent film star, Theda Bara"; Jewesses With Attitude "Paying Tribute to the Original Vamp" and "Vamping with Theda Bara (Who?!)"; Film Industry in the United States.

Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 118-120; New York Times, January 24, 1916.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Birth of Theda Bara, the original "vamp"." (Viewed on April 19, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/jul/22/1890/theda-bara>.