I still feel as if I’m coming up for air after writing The Last Days of Leda Grey. It was such an immersive experience, and part of the novel’s allure for me was creating its central character. Leda Grey is her own unique fictional self, but visually I was inspired by a real-life movie star ~ and that was Theda Bara.
Often called the first celluloid sex symbol, Theda was known as a ‘vamp’ ~ with that vampire term alluding to women who sexually prey on men, rather than actual blood suckers or anything supernatural; though they often did star in spooky films and possessed an otherworldly air.
All these themes were strongly in my mind when I started to think of Leda Grey, even having my fictional character star in a film about an Egyptian queen ~ partly based on Cleopatra, and partly on H Rider Haggard’s sensational Victorian novel, She.
However, whereas my character lives in the seaside town of Brightland (very strongly based on Brighton), Theda was born and raised in New York before locating to LA. There, she was hired by Fox Studios to act in many of their films, including Cleopatra, which was one of the earliest epics and which led the way for many more based on this exotic queen ~ with actresses like Elizabeth Taylor defined by the glamour of the part.
Theda was soon a major star. She earned more than $4,000 a week. Thousands were hired to build her sets, while she herself would actively research the props and costumes worn. This was during the time when women were still campaigning for the vote and the hope for more equality. But Theda was independent and strong. A sexy dominant femme fatale who could be compared to Madonna today. A sensual and bold persona enhanced by risque stage attire; which was often so outrageous that several scenes from Theda’s films were deemed to be immoral by the public boards of censorship.
Of course this helped to enhance her fame, which only spread yet further when the studio’s publicity machine called her the ‘serpent of the Nile’, falsely claiming that Theda had been born to a beautiful French woman and a Saharan Arab sheik. More than a hint of things to come in Valentino’s desert films. However, unlike the lovers who would swoon when held in his strong arms, Theda Bara rarely played the second fiddle to her leading men. She fully understood her world and the power of the female sex, once offering this stark reply when asked about the roles she played …
‘I will continue doing vampires as long as people sin.’
Eventually, she did grow bored with playing the part of the femme fatale. When attempts at other roles then failed she married and quietly disappeared ~ and was lost to the public eye again when most of her films were destroyed in a fire at the studio warehouses.
Today, Theda’s flame is kept alight in the scraps of footage that survive, in which it’s very clear to see her confident charisma. And then, in the thousands of studio stills where we see the glory of her youth.
What would Theda have been in the present day? Visually, she reminds me of Siouxsie Sioux, a star of the British punk music scene. She was darkly attractive and dangerous too. Nothing meek in the photographic gaze which still seems to defy us when we look at the stills from Theda’s silent films. A hundred years may well have passed since she played her Cleopatra role, but her image is iconic. A legend and a goddess. As illustrious as any stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
A version of this article first appeared in Electric Sheep magazine.