Saturday, August 9, 2014

Theda Bara, "The Wickedest Woman in the World," Reportedly Hated Diamonds

Theda Bara in Carmen, 1915
Public Domain
by Angela Magnotti Andrews

Taking her cues from the alluring stage actresses Mata Hari and Sarah Bernhardt, Ms. Bara brought America's favorite bad girl to the silver screen--"a sultry, exotic, erotic woman who went through the world leaving broken men in her wake {3}. Having made her debut in film in her thirties, this late bloomer appears to have come into her own at just the right time. 

The age of advertising was dawning, and her keen study of some of the stage's most alluring seductresses, coupled with a talented group of publicists, allowed Ms. Bara to enter stage left out of nowhere. Her stage career was mediocre at best, but her embodiment, both on and offscreen, of the ever-popular vampiress launched her into stardom.

Her kohl-lined eyes simmered on screen and off, and her publicists made sure that even those who knew they were being conned believed she was a "deadly...crystal gazing seeress of profoundly occult powers, wicked as fresh red paint and poisonous as dried spiders" {7}. According to Terry Ramsaye, the escalating rumors (all manufactured by Fox's best publicists) of her nefarious background caused little girls to swallow "their gum with excitement," while big movie men to balk at the thought of meeting her in private {7}.

So pervasive were these stories about her that even today, rumors abound about her. One such rumor involves jewelry. In searching for information on Ms. Bara's engagement ring, this writer came across a statement made by a contender in the diamond industry. They wrote as fact that Ms. Bara disliked diamonds and said so on many occasions. Instead, she opted to wear only an ancient emerald ring and a talismanic turquoise ring.

This reported hatred for diamonds rings true for The Vamp, a role Ms. Bara threw herself into with abandon for four years. The story of her "odd ornaments" is found in a Toledo newspaper dated April 7, 1916 {1}. Even at the time, it was largely understood that anything written in the newspapers about "The Wickedest Woman in the World" was generated in part, or in whole, by Fox's publicists Al Selig and Johnny Goldfrap. 

Her emerald ring, they wrote, was a gift she received from a blind sheikh she encountered in the Orient. He supposedly gave her the ring, an heirloom which had been in his family for 2,000 years, on the condition that she would pass it on to her first-born son. By accepting the auspicious gift, she was honor-bound to teach this future son Arabic.

The turquoise ring, said to have been oval-shaped, is even harder to pin down. Supposedly, she wore it in every one of her movies, either on her finger or concealed in her clothing {7}, but even when she wore rings on her fingers in photos, they were rarely oval-shaped turquoises.

Oddly, no mention of these important jewels was mentioned in the papers in 1957, the year her jewelry collection, valued at $100,000, was sold at auction. The United Press reported that the top bid of $9,250 
was paid for a platinum bracelet set with 30 carats of diamonds and six carats of emeralds. That's a lot of diamonds for a woman who hated them! 

In truth, the Theda Bara of the Silver Screen was a complete fabrication. Indeed, a deeper look at her history demonstrates that these jewels were as real as the persona for which they were manufactured.

Bibliography
  1. Bernstein, Matthew and Gaylyn Studlar. Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film. London: I. B. Tauris and Co. Ltd., 1997.
  2. Bonhams. "A Century of Movie Magic at Auction as curated by Turner Classic Movies." November, 2013.
  3. DiGrazia, Christopher. "Theda Bara: An essay to accompany the Tambakos Silent Film Series: A Fool There Was (1915)," Kiss Me My Fool website, October 24, 2007.
  4. Genini, Ronald. Theda Bara: A Biography of the Silent Screen Vamp, with a Filmography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1996.
  5. IMDb. "Theda Bara, Biography." Accessed August 7, 2014. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000847/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm.
  6. Petersen, Anne Helen. "Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Most Wicked Face of Theda Bara," The Hairpin, January 8, 2013.
  7. Proddow, Penny and Debra Healy and Marion Fasel. Hollywood Jewels: Movies, Jewelry, Stars. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1992.
  8. Ramsaye, Terry. A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture. Abingdon, Oxon: Frank Cass & Co., Ltd., 2012.
  9. Silentmoviequeen. "Theda Bara Biography," YouTube video, published July 11, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8ejQVRW0ts.
  10. "Theda Bara Jewelry Goes to Highest Bidder," Eugene Register-Guard, May 2, 1957, p. 4D.

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