Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara by Eve Golden

Eve Golden is one of my favorite biographers, ever since I read her wonderful biography of Jean Harlow, my favorite actress, I have always eagerly awaited her next book. I cannot praise highly enough her plainspoken, no-nonsense style, she does not indulge in flights of fantasy or sensationalism. When writing about these often unjustly forgotten and long-dead stars she is both honest and respectful. If something is unknown or open to interpretation she makes that clear, just as a biographer should.
"Vamp," published in 1996, is the first full-length biography of Theda Bara, the movies' first sex symbol, who skyrocketed to overnight fame by portraying a type of femme fatale that would become known as "the vamp," a non-supernatural female vampire who drained men of their vital energies and left them wrecked and ruined, more dead than alive, while she went on to her next victim.
This brief book has lots of great photographs, and sadly it is primarily by still photographs that we know Theda Bara today. Of the 42 films she made in her brief career, which spanned less than a decade, only four survive. The rest are lost, due to neglect and the highly unstable nature of the nitrate film-stock used in the silent era, including the big-budget historical extravaganza "Cleopatra," the most famous and eagerly sought after lost silent film. "Madame DuBarry," "Salome," "Camille," "Carmen," and "Romeo and Juliet," are also amongst the missing. Sadly, with the exception of "A Fool There Was," the film that made her famous with its immortal catch-phrase "Kiss Me, My Fool!", only mediocre, low-budget, poorly scripted films survive to give modern viewers a fleeting glimpse of Theda Bara's talent.
In my opinion, this book, and the life and career of Theda Bara, also serves as a splendid example of the fleeting nature of fame, the whims of the public, and how times and tastes change. Those who see Theda Bara's picture today often laugh incredulously at the idea that this full-figured woman was the movies' first sex symbol, though personally curvy little 5'3" me finds that somewhat comforting.
Those longing to read a life story filled with excitement, tragedy, and romance, may be a tad disappointed in the real life hidden behind the veil of lurid legend, as Theda Bara was in reality a quiet, home-loving, bookworm. If she ever had a love affair before she married her British husband in 1921, a love match that lasted over thirty years, the details have not come down to us. Nor did she have the drug, alcohol, or emotional problems that bedeviled other Hollywood stars and made sex symbols such as Clara Bow, Jean Harlow, and Marilyn Monroe tragic figures. Though, like the previously mentioned actresses, she found herself trapped by an image whose shackles she never could shake. But for those hungry to know more about the woman with the hungry eyes, who personified that "devourer of men's souls," "the vamp" and to catch a glimpse of a bygone era, I highly recommend "Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara."

To learn more about the life of Theda Bara, please read my article at

To see the film that started the "vamp" phenomena and launched Theda Bara to stardom, you can purchase "A Fool There Was" on DVD.


Don said...

Fascinating! Enjoyed this article

Susan Higginbotham said...

Whoops! That was me, not my husband commenting!

Brandy Purdy said...

Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it.