HE DIRECTOR'S CUT - A Theda Bara Mystery

“What a wonderful book! Three-dimensional characters, an exciting plot that keeps you guessing, and DiGrazia has really done his homework – he brings to life the world of 1914 movie-making. I hope this is the first in a long series!”
– Eve Golden, author of
Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara

“Blurs the line between fact and fiction to create a ‘reel’ adventure into the machinations of the early days of movie making. You can almost hear the clickety-clack of the projector in this fast-paced adventure of murder and mayhem. Here’s a Theda Bara as we never knew her!”
– Andi Hicks, Producer,
Theda Bara: The Woman with the Hungry Eyes

“I wanted a job. I got a murder.”

When makeup artist Toby Swanson joined the Fox Film Corporation in 1914, he hoped to sneak a kiss from the studio’s newest star, the seductive vamp Theda Bara. But when a scene goes horribly wrong, Bara’s film is cancelled and her dreams of stardom crushed. Unless…
…she can prove what looked like an accident was really murder. So together, Theda and Toby dive into showbiz New York, from dancing with the young Rudy Valentino to sharing the vaudeville stage with Sophie Tucker and learning lockpicking secrets from Harry Houdini, all leading up to a long-forgotten church crypt holding a desperate secret.

It’s New York at the dawn of the twentieth century, a time of big bridges, big skyscrapers and big money. And it’s a time when movies - the biggest new business of them all - joins hands with the oldest.



I wanted a job. I got a murder.

Let me set the scene. It was New York in the late spring of 1914, just before the war, and I was in a funk. I’d been in the movie business for two years, slapping makeup on actors for a few lousy shekels a week. I was bored stiff. Every outfit in town was in a rut – girls tied to railroad tracks, fat men getting pies in the face, little match girls dying in the snow – studios were pumping out everything and anything to make a buck.

California was the future. Every time I picked up one of the trade papers, all I saw were breathless stories about the brash hotshots out there like Laemmle, Ince and DeMille, so I decided to try my luck out west. I was good at what I did, and I figured out there I’d find people worth working for.

And, of course, there were the fringe benefits. I wasn’t a monk, believe me, and from what I could see, even the plainest Hollywood actress made a Ziegfeld Girl look like Marie Dressler.

There was only one problem. I was broke. I’d just paid off my bar tab at Dinty Moore’s and I barely had enough money for my rent. So I did what any desperate man would do who needed quick money. I gambled.

Back then I played in a regular Friday night card game with a few old chums from the Edison studio. If I couldn’t win enough or borrow enough for a train ticket, I figured one of them might be able to fix me up with a quick job.

That night I ran into my friend Bobby Nixon. I’d first met him when I was an errand boy back at the old Vitagraph studio on Nassau Street. He thought he saw me petting an actress and walked over.

“Now that’s the job for me,” he laughed. “Make love to a pretty girl and get paid for it.”

I looked up to see a stocky man with a mop of frizzy blond hair and a crooked grin, like a pocket Francis X. Bushman. I didn’t know him from Adam, but his smile was so good-natured, I couldn’t help but laugh.

“It’s just business,” I said, smiling at the blushing actress next to me. “I’m doing her makeup.”

“Her what?”

“Makeup,” I repeated. “For the camera. I’m just practicing now, but it’s what I want to do.”

Bobby frowned. “I never heard of anybody wanting to do that. Who needs it?”

“We will,” I answered. “Everybody will.” I waved an arm around the set, gesturing to all the actors got up in greasepaint and white chalk. “You can’t make up for movies the way you do for the stage. The lights are stronger, the sight lines are different – look.” I dug in my pocket for the little leather notebook I carried everywhere.

“I’ve been keeping notes. Lights, cameras, film – what looks right and what doesn’t. Movies are getting better all the time, and makeup’s going to have to get better, too.”

Bobby flipped through my book, his eyes going back and forth between my notes and the girl next to me. Finally he gave me that crooked smile again and handed it back.

“If you say so, chief. Good luck.”

“It’s not luck,” I snapped as he walked away. “The Wishing Well. Look for it. You’ll see.” And I guess he did, because a week after it opened, he sent me a letter of introduction to the big man himself – D.W. Griffith.

So I hustled over to East 14th and worked for a few months with Griffith. Then Bobby bet me I couldn’t double-date the Gish sisters.

I won the bet and told him to pay up.

Instead, the Gishes told Griffith and I got booted out on my keister.

I ended up in New Jersey on the Kalem lot in Cliffside – you remember, Marguerite Courtot’s old studio – and found Bobby almost next door as an assistant director at the Fox Film Corporation in Fort Lee. He always had a racy story about the latest actress he’d bedded or a brag about the newest deluxe release the studio was churning out, but I usually let that kind of stuff slide. He owed me five dollars that I was counting on for my week’s ration of scotch and cigars, but when I pressed him, he shook his head.

“Sorry, Toby, I’m all tapped out,” he said as he signaled to be dealt in. “But I’m feeling lucky tonight. Carry me and I’ll make it worth your while.”

I slapped his hand away as he reached for my stack of coins. “Are you kidding? I’ve carried you longer than your mother did.”

Bobby clucked his tongue. “That’s no way to talk to the man who’s going to make your dreams come true.”

I gave him a sidelong look. “I’ve got plenty of dreams. But the last time I checked, you didn’t look anything like the Dolly Sisters.”

He crossed his arms. “You need a job. I’ve got one. How’d you like to be makeup man for Theda Bara?”

The table erupted in whoops. Bara was Fox’s newest star, a seductive French actress who’d been burning up the columns in Photoplay and Motion Picture Magazine. Her debut movie was an over-the-top melodrama called A Fool There Was, and the studio was selling it like it was the Second Coming. They hadn’t even started shooting, but you couldn’t turn around without hearing about the picture - or about Theda Bara, the irresistible vampire woman.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Your own people not good enough?”

Bobby shook his head. “We don’t have any people. Oh, she’s got style, but her look’s wrong. Her tests aren’t that great and Fox is thinking about scrapping the thing. Maybe you can help him see the light.”

“I don’t know,” I hesitated. “I don’t like stepping on people’s toes - ”

Bobby started plucking coins from my pile. “Hey, you’re the one who’s always flapping his gums about how you’re going to save the movies. ‘Greasepaint’s good enough for pie-throwers like Sennett, but not for artists like Griffith or DeMille,’” he whined in a nasal burlesque of my voice. “So put up or shut up.”

Then he went for my weak spot. “It’s Theda Bara, Toby! Just think of it - you and her. Alone in the dressing room. That smooth, soft skin. . .those kisses that scorch like fire. . .a body built for - ”

“Toby, I’ve got real money riding on this hand,” our buddy Arch huffed. “For God’s sake, will you just take the damn job?”

“OK, OK,” I laughed, throwing up my hand in surrender. “You win.”

Bobby slapped me on the shoulder. “That’s my boy. Come on over to the lot about eight tomorrow.” He rubbed his hands. “Deal me in, boys.”

“You might want to ante up, first, Slick,” Arch drawled.

Bobby gestured to me. “Talk to my banker.”

I threw in my cards and pushed him my stack. “Bet the house, Diamond Jim.”

“Don’t forget to get a good night’s sleep, Toby,” Arch snorted as I headed for the door. “Vampires eat little boys like you!”

They all burst out laughing, and my face was red as I waved goodbye.