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The Founding Mother of Sapphic Hollywood

Crimea-born actress Alla Nazimova was once the highest-paid film actress in the world. After a series of scandals and box-office flops, her name is mostly lost to history.

by
Samantha Shokin
June 01, 2022
Ullstein bild via Getty Images
Ullstein bild via Getty Images

In the late 1910s, Crimea-born theater star Alla Nazimova became the highest-paid movie actress in the world, earning a staggering $13,000 a week with Metro Pictures, the forerunner of today’s MGM. Billed as “The World’s Greatest Actress” and associated with some of the most noteworthy (and notorious) celebrities of her time, Alla was poised to go down in history among the most revered movie icons of the 20th century. And yet, despite her tantalizing life story, vampy looks, and unparalleled talent—and even despite achieving posthumous cult status as the “founding mother of Sapphic Hollywood,” coining the phrase “sewing circles” to describe her secret society of lesbian and bisexual actresses—today she is all but forgotten.

How is it that a world-class actress who befriended the likes of Emma Goldman, studied under Stanislavski, cast a pre-famous Valentino in her movies, and built an estate that became home to Hollywood’s nascent LGBTQ community is a mere historical footnote today?

According to her unpublished memoirs, painstakingly detailed in the definitive biography Nazimova by the Hollywood screenwriter Gavin Lambert, the early years of Alla’s life were marked by extreme physical and sexual violence. Alla was born Adelaida Leventon to parents Yakov and Sonya in Yalta, Crimea, in 1879. Her father Yakov, a poor Jewish pharmacist from Ukraine, regularly subjected both her and her mother to lashings and verbal abuse. After her parents divorced, Yakov forbade Alla from ever speaking about her beloved mother, traumatizing her for life.

In 1882, Yakov relocated his family to Switzerland, fearing pogroms that had been sweeping from Kyiv to Odesa. Because he never revealed to his children that they were Jewish, it would be years until Alla would understand the true impetus for this move. In 1888, at age 10, Alla rejoined her remarried father in Yalta. Newly well-to-do after earning the endorsement of the tsar, he enrolled Alla in violin lessons but forbade her from performing as Adelaida Leventon lest she disgrace the family name. Determined to perform, Alla assumed the stage name Nazimova, inspired by a heroine from a Russian novel. Her scheme worked and the name stuck.

Alla used performance as a means of escape and showed a natural talent for acting from an early age. At age 17, she moved to Moscow to study acting under director and dramaturg Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, who founded the Moscow Art Theatre with his colleague, the famed Konstantin Stanislavski, in 1898. As a student, Alla was introduced to Stanislavski’s famous acting method when it was still in its early stages of development, and she would draw from it throughout her career.

Alla soon fell upon hard times and resorted to prostitution to make ends meet, becoming the mistress of a wealthy admirer whose generosity enabled her to focus on her acting. After leaving the Moscow Art Theatre in 1899, she began acting in the provinces and rushed into a marriage with a penniless actor named Sergius de Golovin, only to begin an affair with Pavel Orlenev, a legendary theater actor and director, a year later. Alla steered Orlenev to great personal success by bringing the play Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen to his attention. To return the favor, Orlenev cast her in Evgeny Chirikov’s The Chosen People (also translated as The Jews), a daring production that served as a counterattack to the government-backed, virulently antisemitic play The Swindlers, then in the second year of its Moscow run.

Though starring in Chirikov’s play ultimately set Alla on a path toward stardom, by doing so she risked not only outing herself ethnically but also being accused of promoting “audacious conduct”—then a criminal offense for Jews. Just a few hours before opening night, Cossacks arrived at the theater with an order from the tsar forbidding the performance. After the incident, Orlenev took his friend Maxim Gorky’s advice to stage only government-approved productions from then on, putting him in good enough standing to take the company on a European tour. This was a wise move: The tour’s success eventually brought the company to New York, where Orlenev debuted The Chosen People with the newly self-proclaimed “Madame Nazimova” as his leading lady.

With thousands of immigrants arriving in New York, Broadway was fertile ground for ethnic theater, and The Chosen People became a hit with multinational Jewish audiences—among them, the radical anarchist Emma Goldman. Goldman was so taken by Orlenev that she became the troupe’s PR manager and fundraiser. Meanwhile, Alla returned to Russia, ostensibly to recruit more actors, though she soon dashed off to Paris to begin another affair, this time with artist Maurice Sterne. Still technically married and knowing accusations of infidelity could ruin her career, Alla returned to the United States with her marital status tightly under wraps.

After returning from Europe, an impatient Orlenev pushed Alla to her limits sewing costumes, translating, and stage managing on top of acting. Hollywood historian Jon Ponder writes that by that point, Alla’s relationship with Orlenev was strained and that he was a “serial philanderer,” “alcoholic binger,” and possibly bipolar. His newly founded theater company Lyceum was on the brink of bankruptcy but opened with enough critical praise to convince his backers to organize a relief fund that enabled the company to go on tour. But just as Alla was gaining critical acclaim, Orlenev was arrested for grand larceny, charged with diverting relief funds to his own pocket. Released on bail and publicly humiliated, he returned with his company to Russia without Alla, marking a major turning point in her career.

On May 14, 1906, just days after Orelenev sailed back to Russia, Alla signed a five-year acting contract with the Shubert family, founders of the Broadway district, ensuring her financial security and a promising career. Staking her future on her English-language debut, she began intensive language lessons and demanded to play the title role in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, about a woman trapped in a loveless marriage. Despite Lee Shubert’s protests that “Ibsen is not a money-maker,” Alla had the final say and even convinced him to allow her to direct her own debut—unheard of for an actress at the time.

Again, Alla’s intuition was spot-on. Critics hailed her startlingly imaginative performance. An 18-year-old Eugene O’Neill saw the production 10 times, recalling later how the experience opened “an entire new world of drama for me … of a modern theater where truth may live.” Two months later Alla debuted in A Doll’s House and, in 1907, The Master Builder, both by Henrik Ibsen, whose work was becoming popular in the States, thanks to her. By 1910 Alla’s name was officially appended to the Thirty-Ninth Street Theater.

Audiences were obsessed with the dangerous, seductive siren image that Alla’s producers had cultivated—but according to theater scholar Robert A. Schanke, the image was merely a front intended to dispel rumors of Alla’s bisexuality. Tired of the Shuberts’ patronizing, Alla turned down their offer to renew her contract and signed on instead with star-maker Charles Frohman. From there, she went on tour as the exotic vixen in Bella Donna. Writes Schanke in Passing Performances, “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.”

Frustrated with the direction of her career and left with no other options, Alla broke the Frohman contract and decided to break out on her own, taking to the vaudeville circuit with Marion Craig Wentworth’s bold pacifist drama War Brides. The play was a smash success and won Alla her first movie deal in its silent film adaptation, which paid $30,000 for a month of work, plus another thousand for every day the production went over schedule. The film raked in more than $300,000 in profits, cementing Alla’s place as a screen starlet.

After War Brides, Alla entered a relationship with her co-star Charles Bryant, an English actor who served as her partner and business manager for the next 10 years. Though still legally wed to her former classmate Golovin in Russia, Alla fabricated her marriage to Bryant, intending once again to conceal her private life from her adoring public. It is often suggested that they had a ‘lavender marriage’—whether Bryant was gay or bisexual remains unclear. Despite Alla’s professed love for Bryant, Lambert asserts that by the zenith of her career, Bryant remained useful to her merely as a “convenient but expensive beard.”

A 1908 portrait of Nazimova

A 1908 portrait of Nazimova

After two years with Bryant, Alla met writer Mercedes de Acosta and, according to Lambert, had her first known lesbian affair—“which is not to say that it was her first.” De Acosta was known for her romances with celebrated stage and screen personalities, counting Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo among her most famous reputed lovers. Unabashedly uncloseted, De Acosta famously walked the streets of New York in trousers, cape, and a tricorn hat, once boasting that she “can get any woman from a man.” After De Acosta, Alla became predominantly interested in women.

Alla’s commercial success afforded her a lavish new lifestyle that also nourished her burgeoning community of queer Hollywood actors. In 1918, she purchased a 3.5-acre estate on Sunset Boulevard that she jokingly called “The Garden of Alla”—a reference to her own name and the best-selling 1905 novel The Garden Of Allah by Robert S. Hichens. After spending today’s equivalent of half a million dollars on renovations, including on a swimming pool allegedly constructed in the shape of the Black Sea, the estate became a gathering spot for Hollywood elites—or, as one reporter put it, “the best dressed and best undressed in the land.”

In 1921, shortly before The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse catapulted Rudolph Valentino to stardom, Alla cast the then-obscure Italian actor in her production of Camille, an avant-garde adaptation of the novel by Alexandre Dumas. She soon became embroiled in a high-profile scandal involving Valentino, her protégé Jean Acker, and production designer Natasha Rambova (Rambova, who had her own Hollywood-worthy biography, had narrowly escaped death by shotgun from her ex, a Russian ballet dancer). Valentino had been previously married to Acker and became involved with Rambova on the set of Camille. After the couple married in Mexico, Valentino was arrested on bigamy charges in California, where Alla had attempted to skip town. Instead of flying under the radar as intended, she was slapped with a subpoena and forced to testify at his trial.

On top of that, Camille was a financial failure and resulted in Metro Pictures terminating its contract with Alla. Shortly before the break, Alla and Rambova had planned to collaborate on two more projects: a film adaptation of A Doll’s House and a wildly experimental art deco film titled Salomé, based on the Oscar Wilde play of the same name. Unable to secure financial backing for either, Alla decided to fund both films out of pocket.

Of the 18 silent films that Alla made throughout her career, Salomé is one of three to have survived—despite bombing at the box office and being labeled “vulgar” and “sacriligeous” by critics, all but destroying Alla’s reputation. The plot loosely follows the story of King Herod and his execution of John the Baptist at the request of Herod’s 14-year-old stepdaughter Salomé (played by Alla, who was then 42). Salomé is often referred to as one of the first American art films, and its elaborate set and costume design (again by Rambova), allegedly all-gay cast, and Alla’s famous “dance of seven veils” have cemented the film as a cult favorite and legend of LGBTQ cinema. When asked about her motivation behind the making of Salomé and Camille—two very expensive flops—Alla coyly remarked, “I made them to please myself.”

Meanwhile, Alla’s relationship with Bryant was in shambles. In 1923 she filed for divorce from Golovin, who was still in Russia, in order to legally marry and subsequently divorce Bryant. But before she could go through with her unorthodox plan, Bryant ensured that in the event of an IRS audit, Alla would be forced to pay penalties for their 12 years of false joint returns. Possessing information that could lead to her deportation if leaked, Bryant had the upper hand, leaving Alla no choice but to give in to his demands. After their much-publicized split, Bryant settled for Alla’s New York apartment and half of her remaining cash. She applied for American citizenship shortly thereafter.

Her funds depleted, Alla returned to the vaudeville circuit and in 1926 signed an agreement giving power of attorney over her Sunset Boulevard estate to her manager, Jean Adams, who—after repeatedly begging Alla for cash—converted the property into a hotel called The Garden of Allah, complete with two-dozen newly built villas. Ultimately, Adams and her husband made off with the hotel’s proceeds, bankrupting Alla and forcing her to sell the property to a real estate developer. Shortly thereafter, The Garden of Allah became famous, attracting the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others—including, eventually, Alla herself.

In a period that Lambert refers to as the third act of Alla’s life, she enjoyed a number of screen credits and renewed success on Broadway. In 1928 she opened in a critically acclaimed production of The Cherry Orchard for the Civic Repertory Theatre in Greenwich Village, co-starring with its founding director Eva Le Gallienne, with whom she’d had an affair 10 years prior. Le Gallienne’s commitment to low ticket prices laid the groundwork for off-Broadway theater and saved Alla’s career. At the Rep, Alla met a 19-year-old Nazimova superfan named Glesca Marshall who became her most enduring lover and close companion for life.

Alla was now in her fifties, and though her career was making a comeback, her health was on the decline. In 1936, less than a year after taking 31 curtain calls for Hedda Gabler on Broadway, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a life-saving mastectomy. Three years later, she moved with Glesca into a bungalow (“Villa 24”) at The Garden of Allah, where she counted Frank Sinatra, Orson Welles, and Sergei Rachmaninov among her more famous neighbors and where she was also paid a visit by her goddaughter, the future Nancy Reagan. Nancy, herself the daughter of a Broadway actress, would later recall her impressions of the visit: “It was so small, nicely furnished but … how terrible it must [have been for Alla] after all that fame and glamour.”

By now, perhaps sensing the sunset on her life, Alla had finished writing her autobiography and was quietly reflecting on her fall from grace. Just a few months before her death, she told an interviewer, “I’ve reached the heights, but it’s a puny success. I could have done so much more.” Lambert writes:

“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.”

On her 66th birthday, Alla drove with Glesca to actor Franklin Pangborn’s house in the Valley. By now, Glesca was involved with another woman, but she and Alla were still extremely close. A few weeks later, Alla suffered from a series of heart attacks, and Glesca was by her bedside when she was pronounced dead on July 13, 1945.

Though far from being a household name today, Alla left a legacy that lives on among devoted fans like Martin Turnbull, a novelist and Hollywood historian who founded the Alla Nazimova Society with Jon Ponder. The society is devoted to the promotion and preservation of the memory of Alla, whose estate also inspired Turnbull’s Garden of Allah book series. (The hotel was eventually leveled and turned into a parking lot.)

Turnbull has his own ideas about why Alla, whom he endearingly calls “Nazzy,” faded into obscurity. “I think it’s a case of ‘you’re only as good as your last movie,’” he writes. “Her last handful of movies were notorious flops, so she retreated to the theater, where fame is far more fleeting … Plus, her openly fluid sexuality made her a controversial and rather scandalous figure at the time.”

With such a captivating life story, it’s hard to believe that Hollywood has yet to honor Alla with a biopic. For actress Romy Nordlinger, who wrote and stars in the one-woman show Garden of Alla, playing at New York’s Theaterlab from June 17 to 26 this year, setting the record straight about Alla has become a calling: “We are all the stories we tell, and as Nazimova said, ‘An artist is only dead when the last person to remember them dies.’”

In that case, long live Alla Nazimova.

Samantha Shokin is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn.

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