Author Joan Craig Shares Her Memories of Theda Bara in New Book

Theda Bara, My Mentor: Under the Wing of Hollywood’s First Femme Fatale by Joan Craig, with Beverly E. Stout, is the book that I have been waiting for. They don’t come along everyday, these intimate and personal recollections of someone who actually knew the silent film greats, but when they do, they have my attention.

I was delighted that Joan agreed to talk with me about her new book. Read on . . .

From the back cover of Theda Bara, My Mentor:

As movie patrons sat in darkened theaters in January 1914, they were mesmerized by an alluring temptress with long sable hair and kohl-rimmed eyes. Theda Bara—“the vamp,” as she would come to be known—would soon be one of the highest paid film stars of the 1910s, earning an unheard of $4,000 per week, before retiring from the screen in 1926.

In 1946, the author met Bara-then 61-at her Beverly Hills home and the actress became her mentor. This memoir is the story of their friendship.

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Michael: First of all, tell me a little about yourself.

Joan: I attended Westlake School for Girls (now Harvard-Westlake School) in Holmby Hills. I graduated from Marymount High School, West Los Angeles. I attended Marymount-Loyola and UCLA. I raised my daughter in Newport Beach, California. We moved to New York City while my daughter attended The Professional Children’s School. I am currently retired and living with my husband Kurt Ruch.

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Joan Craig

Michael: Set the stage for us. Tell me about your childhood and how you got to Beverly Hills.

Joan: I was the only child of my parents’ marriage. I was born during World War II. My father was starting his own oil company on the West Coast at that time. My father had built one of the first gas stations in Las Vegas. During that time I grew up in the back seat of a car and staying at the finest hotels such as El Rancho Vegas, Mark Hopkins, Fairmount, Bel-Air Hotel, The Beverly Hills Hotel and others. My parents settled in Beverly Hills, when my father decided to build the largest gas station in the world with 24 pumps on Wilshire Boulevard in Miracle Mile in 1946.

Michael: How did you come to live on  Alpine Drive, Theda’s street?

Joan: My parents first rented a house owned by Adolf Spreckels II, the sugar king heir, located at 729 North Alpine Drive across the street from Theda. I was on my way to my first day at school with my nanny, when Charles Brabin (Theda’s husband) cut a rose from his garden to take to my teacher that day.

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Theda’s home in earlier days

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Theda’s home today. Joan lived in the house across the street. In this photo, Joan’s house is just above the stop sign.

Michael: What was the address of her house?

Joan: Theda’s house was 632 North Alpine Drive. Ours was 702 North Alpine Drive, Beverly Hills, which was directly across the street from Theda.

Michael: Who were some of your other neighbors? Anyone we might know?

Joan: Ben Hecht who was known as the Shakespeare of Hollywood lived directly behind us. Harold Adamson, a song writer, who was known for writing Around the World for Eighty DaysI Love Lucy, Frank Sinatra’s first Academy Award nomination I Couldn’t Sleep a Wink Last Night and others.  Dean Martin moved into 729 N. Alpine Drive after we vacated it, then Jerry Lewis. The dance team Veloz and Yolanda lived in a house in the middle of the block behind us on Foothill Drive. Across the way from that house lived Thurston Hall who played Antony in Cleopatra. In the 600 block on North Alpine lived Norma Talmadge.

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Theda and her crystal ball

Michael: Do you remember the first time you met Theda.  Tell me about it.

Joan:  I was on my way to school and in passing Mr. Brabin in his garden, I was told that the lady in the house would like to meet me. Upon entering the house I was ushered into the living room. Theda Bara entered the room and asked me to sit down. She sat on a sofa with a crystal ball covered with a cloth in front of her on the table. She asked me many questions while she looked under the cloth at the crystal ball. After meeting her, I felt that I had met someone with a very special gift! She told me to be very good because she could see everything.

Michael: What did you call her? Mrs. Brabin? 

Joan: No, I called her Aunt Theda.

Michael: Incidentally, how do you remember her name being pronounced? Like “Theeda”? 

Joan: Some called her that but she preferred like “Thayda”.

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Michael:  What was her physical appearance like? She actually kept her hair rather long, didn’t she? We think of Theda with white face powder and black kohl  around her eyes.

Joan: Yes, she kept her hair long. Theda processed her makeup in her kitchen. However, at that time in her life, she did not wear very much makeup.

Michael: As I understand it, she became a gourmet cook.  Did you ever dine with her?

Joan: I dined with Theda many times. She liked to cook. She also had a British cook.

Michael: Did she talk about her days in silent film and making movies?

Joan:  Yes. Sometimes we would go to the location where a film had been made. She and Charles would re-enact a special scene from that film as I read the story.

Michael: What were her general impressions of her image and work in Hollywood?

Joan: One of Theda’s favorite subjects was psychology. She was proud of her films since many of them exposed character personalities that may be devious. She felt the insight was beneficial to the public at that time.

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Theda in later years

Michael: How did that impact her work in films, do you believe? 

Joan: Theda was so good at portraying her characters, people really believed that that likeness was her in real life. This was a sensitive issue for Theda. She was not anything like the characters that she portrayed.

Michael:  We think of Theda as very dramatic, over the top, perhaps a Norma Desmond type. Did she come across as being eccentric or egotistical?

Joan: Theda was neither eccentric nor egotistical. She liked having many of the props from her movies around her in her house. Some of them were unusual. She had many friends, mostly celebrities. She loved to entertain and had many parties. She was very sweet, always concerned about the other person.

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Theda and Charles Brabin

Michael: Tell me about Charles Brabin, her director husband.

Joan: Charles Brabin was a highly principled man. He and Theda had a very happy marriage. They shared much of the film industry together.

Michael: Do you remember what he called Theda? 

Joan: They called each other “Moody”.

Michael: You gave me a insightful anecdote about Theda and Mae Murray for my biography on Mae.  Do you remember seeing others visit her from her era?  Who were they?

Joan: Most Hollywood stars came to her, too many to list here! Her close friends were from her era. Marion Davies adored Theda. They would have lots of laughs together.

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Theda and Mae Murray

Michael: Theda took a real interest in you as a child. What was her relationship to other children in the neighborhood? 

Joan: She seemed to like children very much, but didn’t have any of her own. Very interesting! Neither did her sister have children. I think that I was the only child allowed in her house. She and I had a very special relationship. I wanted to move into their house and told them that I could eat across the street so that I wouldn’t cost very much.

Michael: You mention she was a mentor. How was that?

Joan: Theda oversaw most of my lessons. She attended my school functions. I learned math quite quickly. She told me that I could read my fortune in the newspaper providing I could add up my numbers correctly! Both Theda and Charles taught me that it was important to have obtainable goals and good principles.

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From the collection of Michael G. Ankerich

Michael: Did she have a lot of photographs of herself around the house?

Joan: A few photos that were more portrait type.

Michael: Did she give you any autographed photographs of herself? 

Joan: No, she gave me her personal photo album and some of her costumes.

Michael: Is it true that Theda didn’t like candid photographs taken?

Joan: Candid photos of Theda were not allowed. During the forties and fifties, celebrities only allowed professional photos of themselves. If photos were taken they were torn up so that they could not be used in an unfavorable manner.

Michael: You mother didn’t mind that we went over to the Brabin house, but she didn’t want you to have your photograph taken with Theda.

Even in the late forties, some people shunned Theda Bara. Women were still afraid that she might take their husband! My mother told me that a photo with Theda Bara might affect my future life.

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Theda and her prey

Michael: From what I gather, she was someone who lived in the present, interested in present day events, not one to live in the past. Am I correct? 

Joan: Yes. While they didn’t live in the past, Theda and Charles enjoyed sharing their life experiences with me.

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An older Theda Bara

Michael: Do you remember the last time you saw her? Was she ill at that point?

Joan: The last time that I saw her was a few days before she died.

Michael: Did you ever meet Theda’s mother. I believe her name was Pauline.   

Joan: Yes, I meet her many times. She was an elegant appearing woman. She declined to learn English. She spoke several other languages. She and Theda would speak conversational Latin with me at the dining room table. Her native language was Francoprovencal French. This was a native dialect of Switzerland.

Michael: She outlived Theda by two years.

Joan: After Theda passed away, she moved into Westwood, in West Los Angeles, with her daughter Lori. She developed Alzheimers and soon passed away.

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An autographed photograph of Theda Bara. Collection of Michael G. Ankerich

Michael: Did you see much of Charles Brabin after Theda’s death?

Joan: My Mother and I oversaw the care and burial arrangements of Theda’s mother and Lori, her sister. We frequently looked after Charles Brabin and made his funeral and burial arrangements. This left me with a deep sorrow in my heart. The loss still brings me tears.

Michael: What do you want readers of your book to come away with?

Joan: An understanding of Theda in her personal life. Although she was retired, she was very much a part of Hollywood all during her life.

For more information, refer to Theda Bara: My Mentor and the McFarland website.

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Who’s That Girl?

One of the questions I get most often has to do with the cover of Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels.  Who’s that girl?

Who’s on the cover?

I selected this photograph of actress Gladys Walton for the cover of Dangerous Curves. My publisher agreed. It was the perfect image to represent a group of actresses whose lives and careers took a variety of twists and turns–I called them dangerous curves–in their journeys through Hollywood.

It is also my favorite Gladys Walton photograph. Gladys gave me the photo when I spent an afternoon with her in Morro Bay in the early 1990s. My interview with her is featured in my first book, Broken Silence: Conversations with 23 Silent Film Stars.

The original photo used for the cover of Dangerous Curves.

She called her home Glad’s Castle. “You can’t miss it,” she told me before I left Los Angeles for Morro Bay. It was one of the oldest waterfront homes in the seaside village. Inside her domain, there was no doubt that Gladys reigned in Glad’s Castle.

Gladys designed and made the door that welcomed guests into Glad’s Castle.

There were wall-to-wall antiques from her travels around the world, sea shells, memorabilia, and exotic birds, one of which called her name over and over. She was even raising a brood of  baby chicks in one corner of the living room. Let’s have a look.

Gladys with her feathered friend.

Gladys’ other feathered friends.

A vast collection of treasures suggested that the woman of the house had lived a rich and full life.

With so much to talk about, it took a while to get around to talking about her stint in the movies, which only lasted from 1919 to 1925 and consisted of almost 40 films.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Gladys was proud of her work in Hollywood. She poses with a screen she had made from some of her portraits.

Gladys with framed ads from her films.

Gladys and her mother were visiting relatives in Los Angeles in the summer of 1919. During their stay, Gladys’  uncle asked the 16-year-old if she would like to tour a movie studio. They visited the William S. Hart studio. Then a talent agent asked Gladys, who had no particular interest in the movies,  if she would like to make some films while she was in town. Gladys’ mother gave her approval.

A classic Gladys Walton pose.

She was taken to Fox Studios, where she was given a screen test. From there, she appeared in a couple of Sunshine Comedies with Slim Summerville. When not working, she would slip over to Theda Bara’s set and watch the vamp at work.

During one of her visits to the Bara set, Gladys met cinematographer and director Harry B. Harris. He’d had his eye on her during the summer. Would she be interested in going to Universal Studios, where they were preparing to birth a new star. Although it was the end of summer, and the Waltons would soon be returning home to Oregon, Gladys’ mom agreed for her teenager to stay in Los Angeles and see how she progressed in the movies.

As it turned out, a star was born. Gladys never returned to Oregon — or the classroom.

Gladys received star billing almost from the start.

Gladys was as green as they came. “I have never understood why they made me a star,” Gladys told me. “I had no experience at all. They made a big deal over me, but I was still a little girl.”

Gladys runs wild.

She made several films with the circus as their settings. In some movies, it seemed she was running from some situation in life and taking refuge to change its course.

A lobby card from one of Gladys Walton’s first films, Pink Tights.

While she made friends with the likes of Lon Chaney and Priscilla Dean, she never fit into the Hollywood crowd.  She was rather direct and usually spoke her mind. One day, a man wearing a straw hat and “potbelly” walked onto her set just as she was getting into a rather emotional scene.  Her mood music wasn’t doing much for her. She asked the director to please ask the man to leave. He was distracting her.

“Do you know who the man was?” Gladys asked me.  “It was William Randolph Hearst. He never forgave me, and I never was invited to the Hearst Castle. Other stars were, but not Gladys.”

By 1923, she had grown tired of the monotonous work and the lack of creativity being given her films. She felt overworked and was bitter over being denied a vacation. When The Untameable wrapped, Gladys took her vacation. She sailed to Hawaii and enjoyed three glorious weeks in paradise.

When she returned to Hollywood, the studio had docked her pay. Gladys turned on her heel and walked out of the studio and her contract. She sent word to a man she had been courting that she was ready to settle down. She married Henry Herbel, a district sales manager for the studio, in 1923.

She made some independent films in the mid-1920s, but realized the role she most wanted to play was that of a mother. She retired for good without ever making a talkie.

Gladys became a mother six times over the years. She led a happy and fulfilling life.

Gladys with one of her paintings, her rendition of Glad’s Castle.

She studied portrait art at the Chicago Art Institute and sculpting at UCLA. When I spoke with her, she was out dancing four times a week and spending time with friends. It was all much more dazzling that her few years in films.

The ever-glamorous Gladys Walton.

“They [the studio] worked me too hard, and it was not very glamorous,” Gladys said. “People thought it was, but it wasn’t.”

Gladys Walton’s 1993 obituary from the New York Times.