theda-baraOn this day in 1890, silent-film star Theda Bara, one of cinema’s first sex symbols, is born in Cincinnati.

Bara was born Theodosia Goodman, the daughter of a Cincinnati tailor. She attended the University of Cincinnati and worked as a stage actress in New York. She went to Hollywood in 1915 and worked for William Fox, founder of Fox Film Corp. (later 20th Century Fox). Her first major film, A Fool There Was (1915), established her as a femme fatale that led men to their downfall. The script was based on a Rudyard Kipling poem, “The Vampire,” and Bara henceforth became known as a “vamp,” starring in movies with overtly sexual themes.

Her film studio purposely created a mystique around the girl from Cincinnati, giving her a new name they publicized as “an anagram for Arab death.” She was rumored to be the daughter of a French artist father and an Egyptian mother. Cultivating the mystique, she surrounded herself with symbols of death and the underworld, giving interviews while stroking a pet snake. From 1914 to 1919, she made 40 silent pictures, including Camille (1917), Cleopatra (1917), and Salome (1918).

As movie audiences became more sophisticated, Bara’s gothic image appeared increasingly silly. She appeared in only one film after 1919: Madame Mystery (1926), a short parody of her silent-film persona, which was co-directed by Stan Laurel.

Bara died of cancer in Los Angeles, Calif., on April 7, 1955.

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