On this day in 1885, cinema’s first sex symbol, Theda Bara, was born. One of cinema’s most notorious beauties, and one of its most mysterious characters, Theodosia Burr Goodman (her stage name Theda Bara) was one of the biggest stars of the silent film era. At that time, the only actors with a higher profile were Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. However, she is not as famous nowadays, mostly because contemporary audiences have not seen many of her movies; of every actor with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, none has a higher percentage of lost films than her.
Bara was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a wealthy Jewish tailor named Bernard Goodman, from Poland, and Pauline Louise de Coppett, from Switzerland. It’s unclear exactly why she changed her surname—some have suggested that it was an intentional anagram of “Arab Death” selected by her press agents—but it was part of a wider attempt to portray her as mysterious and exotic, which was common practice among movie stars of the time.
As part of her studio’s publicity campaign, it was suggested that Bara was born in Egypt to an Italian sculptor father and a French actress mother, and that she had spent her formative years in the shadow of the Sphinx in the Sahara Desert. She was nicknamed the “Serpent of the Nile,” and encouraged to talk about mysticism and the occult to the press. Of course this was all a fabrication, as in her youth she was actually studying at Walnut Hills High School and then the University of Cincinnati in Midwestern America.
As well as the “Serpent of the Nile,” Bara was also known as the “Vamp” because of her on-screen sexuality and frequent roles as a femme fatale. She played this type of character in films including Cleopatra, The Devil’s Daughter and Salome, although she occasionally took on traditionally romantic roles such as the heroine in Romeo and Juliet.
Bara often wore such revealing outfits—such as a sheer, transparent dress with embroidery over only the most private parts, in 1917’s Cleopatra—that would still be considered risqué today. This striking look, aligned with her salacious choice of roles, has earned her a reputation as cinema’s first ever sex symbol. And so, in a popular song of the time, “Louisville Lou,” an entranced Jack Yellen sung, “They call the lady Louisville Lou. Oh, what that vampin’ baby can do! She got the meanest pair o’ eyes, Theda Bara eyes, that the world ever knew.”
Caption: Actress Theda Bara in costume for the film “Cleopatra.”