Silent-film star Bara’s mysterious beginnings

Q: While cleaning out an attic, I came across some movie studio promotional material on Theda Bara. It claimed she was the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and Italian sculptor — an Arabian princess. The material went on to proclaim that she spent her early years living in the Sahara Desert under the shadow of the Sphinx. She later moved to France to become an actress. She was given the nickname “Serpent of the Nile,” and her stage name was an anagram for “Arab Death.” Is there any truth to any of this?

S.W.W., Avondale, Arizona

A: Long ago, movie studios were in the business to sell dreams and fantasies; facts were not part of the criteria. According to biographers, Bara never visited Egypt or France. As a matter of fact, her humble beginnings were a far cry from the stories told about her. She was born near Cincinnati, as Theodosia Burr Goodman on July 29, 1885. She was the daughter of a local tailor and his wife. While in high school, the acting bug bit her. After graduation and two years at the University of Cincinnati, she dyed her hair black and went to New York City to pursue a career as an actress. She made 40 films; unfortunately, a fire at Fox Studios destroyed all but three of them.

In 1921, Bara married director Charles Brabin and retired. On April 7, 1955, Theda Bara died of abdominal cancer at age 69 in Los Angeles. As one biographer put it, there has been no one like her since.

Oh, about her stage name: It’s easy to see where she got Theda — her first name is Theodosia. Bara was shortened from her maternal grandfather’s last name, Baranger. In 1917, her family legally changed its surname to Bara.

Q: A chap at a party was telling us all about the history of gin. I think he was sniffing the bottle a few times too many — what he had to say was interesting, but I’m not sure if it was factual. So, I ask you, what is the origin of the liquor? The guy referred to gin as “mother’s ruin”; he didn’t know why. Do you?

E.K., New York City

A: Gin is a spirit that gets its predominant flavor from juniper berries. It has its origins in the mid-17th century as a medicine to cure gout and indigestion, and it was created in the Netherlands and Belgium, going by the name jenever. It later became wildly popular in Great Britain when William of Orange, leader of the Dutch Republic, took the English throne with his wife Mary I in 1689. I assume that because of its popularity and price -- it was cheaper than beer and ale — gin became known as mother’s milk. Later, it was called mother’s ruin, as more women would leave home to hang out at the gin joint, and many turned to prostitution to afford the drink.

Today jenever is available in liquor stores; it remains the traditional drink of the founding countries.

Q: I was reading some old wills, and one fellow inherited six pipes of wine. That is something I’ve never heard of. What is a pipe?

D.K., Quincy, Florida

A: A “pipe” or “butt” is a wine cask with a capacity of 126 gallons.

Send your questions to Mr. Know-It-All at or c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.

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