It’s the whole history of Los Angeles encapsulated,” remarks author Gavin Lambert, gesturing around the tacky strip mall at the intersection of Sunset and Crescent Heights. “From the Garden of Allah . . . to this.”
Once upon a time, on this corner stood a lovely California Spanish mansion, featuring a swimming pool described famously--and inaccurately--as in the shape of the Black Sea. First the home of theater star turned silent movie actress Alla Nazimova and then a celebrated residential hotel, in both incarnations the building attracted the cream of Hollywood and the literary establishment of the time. Writer Alexander Woollcott described the hotel as “the kind of village you might look for down a rabbit hole.”
Now it’s a strip mall that’s ugly even by strip mall standards, a gray concrete rectangle replete with chain fast-food joints. No glamour, no style, no substance.
Its former owner’s life is a symbol for fame of the Hollywood brand. A stage career of considerable triumph was followed by a successful run in movies--and then a turn downhill so fast and sudden that by the time of Nazimova’s death, her true accomplishments were already almost forgotten. Her name lived on, not precisely factually, only as a bit part in scandal books like “Hollywood Babylon” as the center of a circle of Hollywood lesbians and the woman who “brokered” Rudolph Valentino’s two disastrous marriages.
“The fact is that she had been forgotten,” says Lambert, who has just published “Nazimova” (Knopf), a meticulously detailed biography. “Nobody had written about her at all. It’s very rare that someone that famous sinks into such obscurity.”
The author of a number of Hollywood biographies, such as “Norma Shearer” and “On Cukor,” plus several novels (“Inside Daisy Clover”) and screenplays (“I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”), Lambert had little awareness of Nazimova until his editor suggested her as a subject. After correcting his pronunciation (say Nah-ZEE-moe-vah), she told him there was an archive of Nazimova’s papers in Columbus, Ga.
In the archive, Lambert found Nazimova’s own unfinished 800-page autobiography and her longtime companion’s 900-page attempt to finish same, along with a treasure trove of clippings, diaries and photographs. He was hooked.
In addition to the tons of papers in the archives (donated by Nazimova’s last companion, Glesca Marshall, who had moved to Georgia with her next lover), Lambert also used his extensive Hollywood contacts to talk to Nazimova’s surviving peers. These included Nazimova’s goddaughter, Nancy Davis, who went on to marry Ronald Reagan. Nancy Reagan gave Lambert her mother’s voluminous correspondence with her friend Nazimova, and Lambert reports that the former first lady seemed “very thrilled she had this famous godmother.”
Born in czarist Russia in 1879, Mariam Edez Adelaida Leventon endured a brutal childhood filled with abuse before changing her name and working in theater. She followed a lover to America, where she starred in the first successful productions of Ibsen staged in this country. Her Nora and Hedda Gabler became definitive versions for years to come, even though the original productions were in Russian. Nazimova learned English in five months so she could perform English-language versions of her notable roles.
Visually and theatrically innovative, hyper-attuned to the tiniest details of human character, Nazimova was able to inhabit her characters to such an extent that she became one of most famous and lauded women in theater at the time.
She is credited with inspiring Tennessee Williams to become a playwright, and Eugene O’Neill said she gave him “my first conception of modern theater.” Nazimova created the role of Christine Mannon in the first production of O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra,” though she originally described herself as “disappointed” when she first read the play.
In Hollywood, Nazimova’s star continued to shine in at least a dozen highly successful silent films, despite beginning her film career at the rather advanced age of 39. Lambert says she “was not a great beauty, but she was a compelling actress with personality.”
Alone among actresses at the time, Nazimova wrote, directed and produced many of her films, though she did so under a pseudonym, that of actor Charles Bryant. Lambert’s book discusses one of the strangest events in Nazimova’s life. She and Bryant claimed to be married for more than 10 years, when in fact they were not. By then Nazimova was carrying on affairs with a succession of prominent women. Her actions and motivations are quite complicated, but ultimately Nazimova did what she wanted, hang the consequences, social conventions or lack of precedent for women.
It was during this time that she purchased the mansion at 8080 Sunset Blvd. and christened it the Garden of Alla. (The H was added when it became a hotel.)
“It was the first thing built--nothing was built east of her house for quite a way,” says Lambert, gesturing at the now busy and noisy intersection. It is difficult to imagine the area as the farmland seen in the photos from Nazimova’s time.
“It was dirt track all the way to Paramount,” Lambert says. “When Valentino was working at Paramount, he used to ride over on a horse. This was countrified, undeveloped area. Nazimova was considered quite extraordinary to [move] here. At that time, it was sort of a pioneering thing.”
Lambert himself lives in the area, in a vaguely Moroccan 1922 building that in style and charm resembles the Garden of Alla. He came to Hollywood in 1957 as the assistant to director Nicholas Ray, who was staying in the Chateau Marmont--in Bungalow No. 2, where in later years John Belushi passed into his own Hollywood legend.
The Chateau is the closest Los Angeles still has to the Garden of Allah, and it is visible from the strip mall. This adds to the melancholy felt on a perfect Los Angeles summer afternoon. It is just the sort of day, as Garden resident Harpo Marx wrote, when “Hollywood bachelors, actresses between marriages and transients from the East like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley [engaged in the activity] in and around the miniature Black Sea that kept the scandal writers supplied with more juicy items than they could use.”
Nazimova’s home became a hotel when she had to sell it because of increasing financial woes. She funded two movies--a film of her renowned “A Doll’s House” and a visually spectacular version of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome"--with her own money. They were huge failures and led to the end of her silent movie career.
“Other people have made it and then made a few flops, but then had not been almost run out of town,” Lambert says. “I think it really was because she was a woman. And because she was supposed to be lesbian or bisexual, and the male establishment did not like that. It was a sort of ganging up, I think.""
Nazimova eventually returned to Hollywood with Marshall, and even took an apartment in her former home, where she ended her days. By all accounts, she did not complain about her reversal of fortune and enjoyed being in the Garden again, even under those circumstances.
Because few of her silent movies survive, Lambert cites a couple of bit roles in later movies as a place to check out Nazimova’s talent.
“Her best performance is in ‘Since You Went Away,’ ” he says. “It’s only five minutes, but it’s extraordinary. It’s about women on the home front during World War II. Nazimova is a Polish refugee working in a factory. She tells how she got to America and the hopes she had. She actually has to recite the inscription from the Statue of Liberty. Fairly embarrassing stuff, but she’s marvelous. She’s so real.”
Finishing up the Nazimova tour, Lambert shows the former Cahuenga Boulevard location of the Metro studio (later MGM), where she made most of her movies, including “Camille” with co-star Valentino. Demonstrating Los Angeles’ usual concern for its history, the place is now a parking lot.
“Fantastic to think,” Lambert says, “that asphalt--once there were Nazimova and Valentino.”
And what can today’s supernovas learn from Nazimova’s story?
“They won’t learn anything,” Lambert says.