New book about
Interview by Patricia Nolan Stein
August 10, 2016
Silent film star Theda Bara, who found fame 100 years ago for her vampish image and risqué screen roles, is being remembered in a new biography titled “Theda Bara, My Mentor: Under the Wings of Hollywood’s First Femme Fatale” by Joan Craig.
When Joan was five years old and walking to school, accompanied by her nanny, she met a neighbor named Charles Brabin. He was cutting the roses on his front lawn. He handed a rose to Joan to give to her teacher. Soon after, she met Brabin’s wife—-actress Theda Bara, who was then semi-retired and enjoying domestic life in
Theda was known in the 1910’s and early 1920’s as
It could be said that Theda was the “anti-Mary Pickford.” While Mary found fame as the sweet all-American girl, Theda was busy seducing and destroying men with her magical sensuality…..on-screen only, that is.
In real life, Theda was from a close-knit Jewish family in
“Theda’s family was supportive of her career,” remembers Joan.
“She and her mother and sisters were very close. But Theda always did what she wanted to do when she was young. She started out with theater as her training ground. As a child, nobody could stop her. Theda was very rebellious. Theda’s mother owned a wig shop where Theda was able to observe customers arriving with a desire to change their image. She learned about costumes by visiting museums and art galleries.
“She had no mentors as a young actress, so she had to break stereotypes and create her own on-screen personality. (Theda’s idol was a famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt.)
“Theda made all the decisions on what she would wear and how she would look on-screen. She even created her own makeup. She designed costumes. She had a wonderful imagination which showed in every film she appeared in.”
Theda starred in a variety of silent films with provocative titles, including “The She-Devil,” “When A Woman Sins,” “A Fool There Was,” “Destruction,” “When Men Desire,” “Madame Mystery,” “Salome,” “Cleopatra” and “The Unchastened Woman.” For many years, she was one of the most popular actresses in
“In Theda’s films, right and wrong were always emphasized,” says Joan.
“Theda showed a different side of womanhood, of humanity. That was unique for her time. She didn’t believe in wearing corsets, when other women were pinching themselves in and fainting. She didn’t wear those. And her long beautiful hair was all natural. No hair extensions back in those days! She was tiny….5’2 or 5’4.”
But when Joan became friends with Theda, the actress had ended her acting career and was happily married to director-producer Charles Brabin.
“I grew up in a community surrounded by movie stars and people with incredible talent. Fred Astaire was also a neighbor and a friend,” recalls Joan.
“But when I met Theda and Charlie, they immediately became like my extended family. As a little girl, I was sophisticated enough to get along with the fascinating adults in my neighborhood. But Theda and Charlie were really special. Their door was always open to me. They had no children of their own, so I became like their adopted daughter. They were wonderful people who enjoyed being with creative and innovative friends. And I was fortunate to be included in their circle of special people, even though I was just a little girl at the time.”
Joan, whose childhood friends included Judy Garland’s daughter Liza Minelli and Fred Astaire’s daughter Ava, says the love and friendship she received from Theda Bara made her growing-up years extremely magical.
“At the time, I didn’t know that Theda had been a famous actress,” she says.
“Theda married Charlie shortly after her contract with Fox ended. Her film roles did shock people. She smoked and drank on-screen. She was often semi-nude in film scenes. As the ‘vamp,’ she created a new persona for film actresses which was previously unheard of. But she was typecast as a silent star. With the advance of color and sound in films, she was unable to make a comeback as an actress.”
“Still, Theda wasn’t stuck in the past. She changed with the times and she was always interested in other people. She and Charlie were very active behind the scenes with many big films. Producers and directors were always at their house, wanting their ideas and opinions.
Joan says Theda had a magical aura surrounding her.
“It was like a golden aura, complete with empathy and kindness,” she recalls.
“Theda had the most haunting, penetrating brown eyes and a very sweet smile. It always seemed there was magic surrounding her.
“She was the nicest and kindest woman I ever met. She had a charisma and aura which attracted people. There was something special about her that everyone loved. You immediately felt she knew more than you did. She was a wise and wonderful woman.”
As a child, Joan attended many parties and gatherings at Theda’s house. And she sometimes visited film sets with Theda and Charles.
“We would drive with my Mom to different film locations around
Theda and her husband even taught Joan how to play the stock market….!!!
“Every afternoon, soon as I came home from school, I’d go over to Theda’s house,” she recalls.
“She always had cookies or caramel custard waiting for me. I wanted a bicycle, but my Dad wouldn’t let me have one. My friends all had bikes. Charlie told me about the stock market. With his help, I bought shares of Decca Records for $4 a share. Four months later, my stock was worth $100. So I used that money to buy my own bicycle.”
And Joan never thought of Theda as a former “movie star.”
Fox Film Corporation stipulated that Theda Bara always appear in public wearing veils and white make-up, and marriage was forbidden during the term of her contract with the studio.
“She taught me to memorize poems, including ‘The Song of Hiawatha.’ We would read Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems together,” recalls Joan.
“She introduced me to wonderful writers and literature.
“She and Charlie often took me to see her old film locations, including
“Theda often visited my parents. Everyone in the neighborhood loved her. Actor Larry Parks lived nearby, and so did Jack Benny’s scriptwriter. Theda loved to give parties. She would have ‘event’ parties at her house, with over 100 people.
“Theda would decorate her house with some of her old movie props—-including her crystal ball, her tarot cards and her skeleton. At her parties, she often hung the skeleton in the bathroom to surprise her guests and make them laugh. She loved all her film props and kept them on display.
“I met everyone in those days. Growing up in
With her newly published biography, Joan thinks the time is right for renewed appreciation and recognition of Theda Bara’s contribution to silent films.
Although her films are no longer available, Theda IS enjoying a resurgence of popularity around the world, thanks to the abundance of photos and information about her on the internet.
“Younger generations are discovering Theda. She was like the first ‘goth.’ She believed in being yourself, doing what you want to do, and believing in yourself. She was a non-conformist and a very special woman, ahead of her time.”
Theda Bara by Patricia Nolan Stein
Statement article by Robert Birchard
Theda Bara by Marilyn Slater