Essie Fox is Theda Bara

Theda Bara in Cleopatra (1917)

Before Essie Fox turned her hand to writing, she worked as an illustrator, designing cards, wrapping paper and decorative ceramics. Always keen on the quirks of the past, her first three novels were Victorian Gothic, but her fourth, The Last Days of Leda Grey, steps into the Edwardian era and the world of silent film. She also explores the ‘facts, fancies and fabrications’ of history on her blogs The Virtual Victorian and The Eclectic Edwardian. The research for her latest novel has informed her choice of a filmic alter ego. Eithne Farry

Having just come up for air after writing my latest novel set during the dawn of cinema, I know at once who I would choose as my flickering alter ego on screen – and that is Theda Bara.

Often called the first celluloid sex symbol, Theda Bara was a ‘vamp’, with that vampire term alluding to those women who sexually prey on men, rather than actual bloodsuckers or anything supernatural. But her looks were otherworldly, and were very strongly in my mind when imagining my Leda Grey – another star of the silent screen, albeit entirely fictional. And whereas my Leda spends her life in the seaside town of Brighton (as did a great many pioneers involved with Edwardian silent films), the woman of real flesh and blood was born and raised around New York, before locating to LA when hired by Fox Studios to act in many of their films, including the Cleopatra role in one of the earliest epics, for which she was as popular as Liz Taylor became in later years.

Theda was a major star. She could earn $4000 a week. Thousands were hired to build her sets while she herself would actively research the props and costumes worn. When women were still campaigning for the vote and for equality, Theda was a role model. A sexy dominant female. She could be compared to Madonna now, with her sensual and bold persona enhanced by risqué stage attire – and often so outrageous that the scenes in which she wore them would be later deemed immoral by the censorship panels.

Her mystery spread further when the studio’s publicity machine called her the ‘Serpent of the Nile’, also falsely claiming that Theda had been the daughter of a beautiful French woman and a Saharan Arab Sheik. An exotic 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 continually playing the femme fatale. But attempts to take on other parts were never so successful. After marrying, she gradually departed from the limelight’s glare, and was lost to her public yet again when most of the films she’d made with Fox were destroyed during a warehouse fire. But Theda’s flame is kept alight in those scraps of footage that survived, in which her grace and confident charisma can be clearly seen. And then, in the thousands of studio stills, we can see the glory of her youth. Such an astonishing bold allure that reminds me now of Siouxsie Sioux, the punk star of a later age.

What would Theda have been in modern times? She was dangerous and sensual, with nothing meek about that hungry photographic gaze of hers – the gaze which to this very day still threatens to defy our own. A hundred years may well have passed since she played Cleopatra, but her image is iconic. A legend and a goddess, as illustrious as any stars from the golden age of Hollywood.

Essie Fox

Watch Theda Bara in her only surviving film footage from the 1917 epic movie Cleopatra: