She got her stage name of Bara from a relative's name of Barranger. The family all changed their name to Bara in 1917.
She moved to New York City in 1908, making her Broadway debut that same year.
Her first film role was in 1914's The Stain. But she was only an extra, and was barely seen onscreen.
Theda's appearance in 1915's A Fool There Was as a vamp, marked the beginning of her stardom.
They started the story that her name Theda Bara was an anagram for "Arab Death." That her mother was an Arabian princess and her father was a French artist and that she was born in a shadow of the Sphinx. She also was photographed with skulls and snakes, in dark rooms, to enhance her mysterious vampire persona.
She appeared the first film adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra, and Camille.
Theda was seen as a man stealing vamp, but she only married once, to Charles Brabin from 1921 until her death. She had retired from the screen, but had thought about making a comeback. Brabin didn't think it was proper for a wife to work, so the comeback never came about.
The sad part about Theda is that only four of her 40+ films survive. This is due in large part to the fact that silver nitrate in the film dissolved very easily if not kept properly. Also, her films were stored at a Fox Studios warehouse and were lost after a fire broke out in 1937. Only about 40 seconds of Cleopatra exists, and it is kept at the George Eastman House.
It would be amazing if more of her films turned up somewhere. I mean, its not impossible, right? Bits and pieces are found every now and then. I think it would be amazing to see her as Juliet and as Cleopatra. She lives on though in the photographs that have survived (thank goodness!) And, by having people remembering her as the fabulous, original vamp.
** 10/23/10 ** Oh man, this 1910 Census record is so hard to read! Someone did a horrible job of scanning it...but this is what I could make out. Bernard Goodman (Theda's father) was born in Poland and her mother Pauline was born in Switzerland.