Vamp: The rise and Fall of Theda Bara

At last, somebody has done justice to the silver screen’s very first sex symbol – Theda Bara! It’s only about 75 year overdue, but as the old cliché goes: “Better late than never!” It has been well worth the wait, as this is among the best silent screen player biographies ever written.

Vamp, an illuminating and enlightening book, tells us the full story of the young girl, Theodosia Goodman, who worked her way to stardom as the pre-eminent “vamp” of the silent screen (vamp, slang from the word vampire – a beautiful, but unscrupulous woman, who seduces men and leads them to their ruin. From the 1979 Webster New 20th Century Dictionary). In this account, we are given background on Miss Bara’s early childhood, stage career, movie career and post-career years. We read about her early days of struggling in stage roles as Theodosia de Copet, to her first work in films. Also relayed is a candid account of Miss Bara’s frustration with the sub-standard films that William Fox put her in. We see how she longed to break away from the “vamp” image and did so on a few occasions – only to have the non-vamp films inadequately promoted by the Fox Company. Eve Golden also provides detailed information of what happened behind the scenes during the production of many of the Bara films. Then there were the imitators of Theda Bara and her quintessential vamp character. She single-handedly established the vamp movie craze. Actresses like Virginia Pearson, Louise Glaum, Valeska Suratt and later even Bebe Daniels are a few of the ladies who gave it their best seductive shot, only to fall short of the great Theda Bara. Finally included is an account of Bara’s post-movie life. Ms. Golden tells us about the planned comebacks that never were, as well as her long, happy marriage to Charles Brabin, director and writer, and her untimely death at age 69.

One thing I especially liked about Eve Golden’s presentation of the life of this great star was her exploration into why nobody had attempted a full-length biography on Theda Bara until now. She brings out the point that Bara did not die in her prime like Valentino did. On the other hand, she did not live quite long enough to see the day when her illustrious career in films would be revived, as stars like Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Blanche Sweet, Colleen Moore and many others did. Her death came in 1955 – a few years before the American public finally started re-discovering the great silents of yesteryear. For Theda Bara it was too late. She was dead, and almost all of her significant films were irretrievably lost forever. This was mostly due to a devastating fire at the warehouse where a vast number of the Fox productions before 1935 were stored.

In addition to an engrossing and informative narrative text, Eve Golden’s Vamp is also enhanced with rare photos and a complete filmography. For the first time, we can see Theda Bara’s baby pictures, high school yearbook photos and photos taken later in her life. Ms. Golden even included photographs of her various homes – including one that she lived in with her parents from 1899 to 1905.

Knowing the scattered and rare information that Ms. Golden had to hunt down and work with, it is a miracle that anybody could produce such an excellent and comprehensive Bara biography. Golden gives credence to the statement that anything labeled as impossible simply hasn’t yet been tried. Eve Golden has succeeded in producing a biography that future biographies will be measured against. Very highly recommended.

Madison Morrison