Alla Nazimova

One of the most powerful women of Old Hollywood

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Alla Nazimova was once one of the most powerful women in Hollywood. She influenced the careers of women like Jean Acker and Natasha Rambova and set new standards with her eccentric and daring productions.

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Beginnings

Alla Nazimova was actually born Marem-Ides Leventon – with her Russian name being Adelaida Yakovlevna Leventon – on June 3, 1879 in Yalta, Ukraine. She was the youngest of three children of Jewish parents Abramovich Leventon, who was a pharmacist, and Sarah Leivievna Gorowitz, who originally hailed from Moldova. The family though was dysfunctional with her father regularly subjecting the mother and child to verbal abuse and lashings. They divorced when Nazimova was only eight years old. She would spend most of her childhood and teenage years in boarding schools, foster homes or with relatives. Already as a teen she had her ambitions set on becoming an actress and would take lessons at the Academy of Acting in Moscow and would join Constantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre. This is when she adopted her stage name Alla Nazimova for the first time; her father forbade her from using her real name as that would disgrace the family. It was a combination of Alla, which was a diminutive of Adelaida, her Russian first name, and Nazimova, which was taken from the surname of the heroine of the Russian novel Children of the Streets. But she would later often be referred to as only Nazimova – and everybody knew who was meant.

Start in the Theater

But acting was not providing a lot of money for Nazimova in the beginning and she resorted to become the mistress of a wealthy man, who would allow her to focus on her acting. Joining the theatre troupe of famed director and actor Pavel Orlenev, Nazimova was able to star in Ibsen’s Ghosts as well as Chirikov’s The Chosen People, the latter being a daring production for its counterattack on the government. At the age of 24, the troupe would be able to go on tour and Nazimova, after having already conquered the stages of Moscow and St. Petersburg, would find international acclaim on the stages of London. Berlin and New York. The Chosen People was well-received in the melting Pot that was New York City at that time and it became a particular hit with multinational Jewish audiences. Radical anarchist Emma Goldman for example would be so taken by Orlenev and the troupe that she would act as the public relations manager of the theater group as well as their fundraiser. When Orlenev fell into public disgrace because of diverting funding into his own pockets, he would return to Russia and leave Nazimova in New York. 

Broadway

Fortunately, she found employment with the Shubert family, the founders of the Broadway district and signed a five-year acting contract with them. She made her Englisch-language Broadway debut in 1906 at age 27 in the title role of Hedda. Iconic writer Dorothy Parker described her as the finest Hedda Gabler she had ever seen. Astonishing for that time: Nazimova was the one insisting on Hedda Gabler, although Lee Shubert protested that „Ibsen is not a money-maker“. Nazimova was even able to direct her own Broadway debut for the Shubert family – unheard of at that time. Critics and audiences loved Nazimova on stage and she would follow her success up with A Doll’s House and the Master Builder. Ibsen actually has to thank Nazimova for making him popular in the US – she brought his works to the masses. Her image was cultivated into that of a dangerous, seductive siren – but that was actually apparently just a front to mask her frivolous bisexual personality and lifestyle. 

When her contract with the Shubert family was up for renewal, Nazimova turned the offer down because of the family’s patronizing and signed with Charles Frohman instead and toured as the exotic vine in Bella Donna. Unfortunately, that role got her career as Robert Schanke writes: “Though her reputation had soared, her fame had turned to infamy … She wanted to be considered a great classic actress, but instead had become … a novelty who had lost the respect of the critics.” So, Nazimova quit her contract with Frohman and took on a role in the eponymous feminist anti-war one-act play War Brides. That got her noticed by Hollywood.

Success in Hollywood

Therefore, her first film role would be in the film version of this stage suggest. Lewis J. Selznick, the father of David O. Selznick produced the movie, Nazimova received $30,000 as well as $1,000 per production day and the movie became a huge success. One year later, Nazimova negotiated a deal with Metro Pictures that would earn her $13,000/week. She moved from the East Coast to Hollywood and made several successful movies for the studio. She actually became the highest-paid film actress in the world during that time. 

But Nazimova was not only a gifted actress, she was a creative mastermind and created Nazimova Productions under which she worked from 1917 to 1921. She actually took on all roles in film production from director and producer, editor, lighting designer and sometimes costume designer. She wrote most of the screenplays under the pseudonym Peter M. Winters and used her partner’s name „Charles Bryant“ when actually it was Nazimova directing the movie. 

She would adapt notable writers for the medium like Oscar Wilde and Ibsen and tried new and daring filmmaking techniques. Her adaptation of Camille, in which she cast a still unknown Rudolpho Valentino became a financial failure and would result in Metro terminating their contract. Thus, Nazimova was forced to finance her next projects by herself. 

Her 1923 adaptation of Wilde’s Salome, a wildly experimental art deco movie, albeit a critical and commercial failure at its time, has become a cult classic and feminist milestone in the movies. The movie is often referred to as the first American art film. It boasts an elaborate set and costume design (done by Natacha Rambova), allegedly an all-gay cast and Alla Nazimova’s famous „dance of seven veils“. It has became a cult favorite and legend of LGBTQ cinema. 

Back to Broadway

By 1925, 46 year-old Nazimova had run out of movie to produce any more eccentric and cutting-edge movies and her financial backers withdrew their support. On the brink of financial bankrupticy, she was only left with getting back to the stage and starred in several plays like in The Cherry Orchard at Eva Le Galienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre in Greenwich Village, 1930’s A Month in the Country and Ibsen’s Ghosts. 

In 1936, Nazimova would star once again as Hedda Gabler on Broadway, but would be diagnosed with breast cancer that same year. She had to undergo a mastectomy and moved back to LA a short while later. 

She would only return to the movies in 1940, when she was 61 years old, taking on the role of Robert Taylor’s mother in Escape and subsequently Tyrone Power’s mother in Blood and Sand. 

Nazimova herself was sad about the turn of events in her career and life and told an interviewer shortly before her death: “I’ve reached the heights, but it’s a puny success. I could have done so much more.” And her biographer, screenwriter Gavin Lambert wrote about Nazimova: “Above all she deplored wasting seven years of her life as a silent-movie star, the period she looked back on as ‘unbelievably horrible’ … But the real waste was not that Nazimova made movies. She made the wrong movies, ruling out … exceptional directors of the time with whom she might have worked.”

Alla Nazimova died on July 13, 1945 of a coronary thrombosis at age 66 and her ashes were subsequently interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. 

Garden of Alla

Nazimova was not only extravagant in her movies, costumes and set designs – it was also her private life that lived from exaggeration and lavishness. In 1918, Alla Nazimova had leased and subsequently purchased a mansion on Sunset Boulevard she called „Garden of Alla“. She spent roughly half a million dollars on renovations, including a swimming pool constructed in the shape of the Black Sea. It became a gathering spot for the „best dressed and best undressed in the land“. 

But when she faced bankruptcy in 1926, Nazimova signed power of attorney over her Sunset Boulevard estate to her manager Jean Adams, who would build 25 villas on the grounds of the mansion and thus converted the estate into a hotel, which would be then called „The Garden of Allah“. Unfortunately, though, Adams and her husband raided the profits and bankrupted Nazimova. She had to sell the property and return to Broadway. The hotel would become famous for attracting a lively crowd including Ernest Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joan Crawford, Nita Naldi, Elinor Glyn, Barbara Stanwack, Frank Sinatra, Artie Shaw and many others. Upon her return to Hollywood in 1938, Nazimova rented Villa 24 at the Garden of Allah Hotel and lived there until her death in 1945. Her goddaughter Nancy Reagan would remember Nazimova’s last home as follows: “It was so small, nicely furnished but … how terrible it must [have been for Alla] after all that fame and glamour.”

Relationships

Sergei Golovin – Alla Nazimova married fellow actor Sergei Golovin in 1899 in the Soviet Union. They separated and Nazimova moved on with Pavel Orlenev to Europe and the US – the pair did not legally divorced until 1923. Nazimova hid this marriage from the public, the press, her partners and basically everyone. 

Pavel Orlenev – Alla Nazimova met Pavel Orlenev when she was still a star in Russia. Orlenev was a flamboyant actor and producer and Nazimova and he travelled to continental Europe and to the US as part of their theatre troupe. Their relationship became strained when they settled in the US. He was a known philanderer, apparently an alcoholic and maybe even bipolar. He founded the Lyceum theater company but that was already on shaky ground and when it was disclosed that Orlenev had diverted backer’s money into his own pockets he was arrested, released on bail, publicly humiliated and thus returned to Russia – leaving Nazimova in New York. 

Maurice Sterne – Alla Nazimova also had an affair with famed artist Maurice Sterne when she was in Europe during her marriage to Golovin and her long-time affair with Orlenev. 

Charles Bryant – From 1912 to 1925, Alla Nazimova had a „lavender marriage“ with Charles Bryant, a fellow actor. A lavender marriage is a pretend marriage, a marriage of convenience to hide the sexual orientation of one or both partners in the relationship. Bryant and Nazimova also had a working relationship as they both worked at Nazimova Productions as directors and producers and also starred together in a couple of movies. But Nazimova and Bryant never actually got married in a courthouse, which came to light in 1923, when Nazimova was 44 years old, when Bryant married for real Marjorie Gilhooley and listed his marital status as single on the marriage license. The scandal that erupted from this sham damaged Nazimova’s image considerably. Bryant would get Nazimova’s New York apartment and half of her money. 

Alla Nazimova was openly bisexual and conducted several lesbian affairs during and after her marriage to Charles Bryant. Amongst the confirmed lovers of Nazimova are Jean Acker, Valentino’s first wife, Eva Le Gallienne, Dorothy Arzner, Mercedes de Acosta, who was the long-time lover of Greta Garbo, and Oscar Wilde’s socialite niece Dolly Wilde. Bridget Bate Tichenor, a surrealist painter was also rumored to be one of Nazimova’s lovers. 

The longest lesbian relationship of Alla Nazimova was Glesca Marshall. They met off-Broadway in New York when Nazimova starred in The Cherry Orchard at Eva Le Galienne’s Civic Repertory. Glesca was a self-proclaimed Nazimova Superman and 30 years Nazimova’s junior. They lived together from 1929 until Nazimova’s death in 1945. 

Friendships and Connections

It was Nazimova who encouraged Richard Barthelmess to become an actor. Barthelmess would go on to become a celebrated actor, starring opposite the likes of Lilian Gish in the cult movie Way Down East and The Noose. Nazimova had been taught English by Barthelmess’ mother Caroline, W. Harris and gotten to know the young handsome man. 

Edith Luckett – Edith Lucker was a stage actress and had been on stage with Nazimova. When Edith married Kenneth Seymour Robbins and gave birth to a babygirl, Nazimova became her godmother – that child was the later FLOTUS Nancy Reagan. 

Natacha Rambova – Alla Nazimova was a close friend of Valentino’s second wife Natacha Rambova and thought highly of her creative work. She hired her both as an actress as well as an art director. They both worked together on Salomé and contributed to movie history. It is not clear whether Nazimova and Rambova had conducted a lesbian affair as well. 

With all my love!

xx

Kate

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