Theda Bara was born in 1890—or maybe it was really 1885. Anyway, she was the daughter of an Italian sculptor and a French actress in a love tryst, and she was born in Egypt in the shadow of the Sphinx. As a child she was reportedly weaned on serpent’s blood, fought over by Bedouins, given in mystical marriage to the Sphinx before moving to Europe to become an actress in the Grand Guignol and to wreak havoc on European males. Theda Bara, it was reported, had ‘deceived fifty men with her wiles, made one hundred families suffer, caused fifty children and one hundred wives to beg her to give back to them their daddies and their husbands,’ before being contracted by Fox Films and went to New York to appear in her first American film, A Fool There Was, playing—what else—'The Vampire' a femme fatale who seduces and destroys men for fun and profit. She continued playing what would be known as 'vamps' in a series of films for Fox. The first movie actress promoted as a sex symbol, Theda Bara was the silver screen’s original love goddess. But the promotion went further than that. Bara was ballyhooed in newspapers across the country as 'Hell’s Handmaiden,' a 'Love Pirate,' and the 'High Priestess of Sin.'
It was all a hoax. Bara was in fact Theodosia Goodman from Cincinnati, Ohio. She was the daughter of immigrants, but her upbringing was purely midwestern middle class. Her theatrical aspirations drove her to New York, where she struggled as an actress before being cast as the Vampire in A Fool There Was. The film was a hit, and Fox as continued casting her in 'bad girl' roles, Fox publicity men continued her promoted her as being a wicked as the women she played, calling her 'the Devil’s Maidservant' and ‘The Reddest Rose in Hell.’ Bara played along with the increasingly bizarre publicity campaign, partly because she had an active imagination and reveled in the tomfoolery, but also because it made her rich and famous overnight. The real Theda Bara was described as highly intelligent and cultured, charming and good-natured. Most of all, she was hard working, and William Fox worked her hard, cranking out a Bara movie every couple of months.
In the 1917, however, Bara was awarded the plum role of Cleopatra. Yes, it was another vamp part, but Bara threw herself into the project, consulting with the scriptwriter Adrian Johnson, doing research at the Egyptology department Metropolitan Museum in New York, commissioning jeweler Adolph Fell to make Cleopatra's jewelry, having Fox hire choreographer Ruth St. Denis and costume designer Clare West for the movie, having seen their work on D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), and helped design her own costumes. She worked closely with director J. Gordon Edwards modifying the script, and when the shooting wrapped and Edwards took a short vacation, he left Bara in charge of preliminary editing of Cleopatra. (Seriously, how many directors would leave their leading ladies in charge of editing their picture?). The Fox publicity machine had Bara claim that she was the reincarnation of an Egyptian princess, and later had her claim that she was actually Cleopatra reincarnated. This, along with the scandalously revealing nature of her costumes, and overt sexuality of the role, Bara may be regarded as a something of a joke, an over the top vamp, but Bara herself was a serious actress and filmmaker. However, her later films failed to achieve the heights of Cleopatra, and when she left Fox in 1919, Bara found both the vamp phenomenon and her star faded. Nevertheless, she achieved the happy ending denied most of her characters (and most movie stars) when she met director Charles Brabin. True love found, they married and lived happily ever after.