The half-century that Alla Nazimova has languished in obscurity is a decade longer than the time she basked in fame. The Russian-born actress transformed the theater of her time with her natural approach to her craft, and her independent life mirrored the New Woman she introduced to America in her electrifying interpretations of Ibsen, beginning in 1906 with Hedda Gabler. Besides the five major Ibsen roles she made her own, she also gave life to Chekhov’s Madame Ranevskaya (“The Cherry Orchard”), Turgenev’s Natalya Petrovna (“A Month in the Country”) and O’Neill’s Christine Mannon (“Mourning Becomes Electra”). Her talent was such that she is a strand of the DNA in the evolution of acting.
As Gavin Lambert points out in his lively and engaging biography “Nazimova,” “a line, not straight but unbroken, runs from Stanislavsky to Nazimova to the Lunts to the Group Theatre to the Actors Studio, which was founded two years after Nazimova died” in 1945 at the age of 66. In addition, she inspired the cream of American playwrights. Eugene O’Neill saw “Hedda Gabler” 10 times and later said it gave him “my first conception of modern theater.” Tennessee Williams recalled that “the first time I wanted to become a playwright was when I saw Alla Nazimova in [Ibsen’s] ‘Ghosts.’ . . . She was so shatteringly powerful that I couldn’t stay in my seat.” Thornton Wilder, Noel Coward, Don Marquis and Clifford Odets were equally enamored.
The first female mogul in Hollywood, she wrote, directed, produced and starred in her own silent films: “Billions” (1920), “Salome” (1923) and “Revelation” (1918). She not only gave Rudolph Valentino one of his earliest roles, she introduced him to two of her former lovers, Jean Acker and Natacha Rambova, who both became his wives. And she was the godmother of Nancy Davis Reagan.
Yet if Alla Nazimova’s name comes to mind today at all, it is generally misspelled with an added “h,” as in the deity. Also as in the Garden of Allah, the sophisticated hotel at 8080 Sunset Blvd. that was once her home but which we associate with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Benchley, Louise Brooks, Humphrey Bogart and a generation of other literati and actors to whom history and memory have been kinder. Nazimova, who was making $13,000 a week at the time she bought the property in 1918 for $65,000, spent half as much again remodeling the interior, building a swimming pool more or less shaped like the Black Sea, and planting trees and flowers on the three-plus acres of land. She called it the Garden of Alla and lived there with a personal maid, secretary, gardener, cook, housemaid and butler. In residence as well was the British actor Charles Bryant, to whom she was ostensibly married and with whom she starred in several plays and films. Although the couple enjoyed a period of romance, Bryant was more a beard than a mate. He seemed to vanish on the many Sundays Nazimova hosted parties for young girls only, which helped to make her, in Lambert’s words, “the godmother [of the] so-called Broadway and Hollywood lesbians.”
By 1930, the estate had been turned into a hotel with 24 added bungalows (and renamed the Garden of Allah after Robert Hitchens’ best-selling novel), after an enterprising pair of swindlers named John and Jean Adams relieved Alla of almost all her ready cash. The Adamses were only the latest characters in the cast of monsters, geniuses, madmen, opportunists, sexual ambivalents and great names of show business who populated the operatic mis en scene of Nazimova’s life, an undertaking she early on surmised was and would remain a rocky one when she wrote in her diary, “If I haven’t lived beautifully, I must act beautifully!”
There was certainly nothing beautiful about the beginnings of Mariam Edez Adelaida Leventon, born in Yalta on June 4, 1879, and called Adel for short until her mother, Sonya, thought Alla was prettier. Sonya had tried at least twice to escape from her pharmacist and wife-beater husband, Yakov, and was ready to attempt it again, this time with Yakov’s sympathetic assistant, until she discovered she was pregnant with their third child. “Without telling her husband or her lover, she tried all the peasant formulas for miscarriage: steam baths, bitter and nauseous herbal concoctions, jumping up and down the stairs to the roof.” In part from guilt, Alla became her mother’s favorite. When Alla was 5, Yakov divorced Sonya and turned her out of the house. (Mother and daughter would see each other only once again.) When Alla asked what had happened to her mother, Yakov slapped her in the face. Something as minor as dirty fingernails would trigger the countless beatings she endured; her horrific childhood reads like a particularly imaginative Dickens novel, complete with Yakov dropping off Nazimova and her siblings to be raised for a few years by a peasant family the children had never met.
Alla’s first performances were impersonations of her father and others for his assistants and a cousin, who enthusiastically called out, “Bravo, Sarah Bernhardtochka!” At 11, she took her stage name from the heroine in a novel called “Children of the Streets” because she liked the way Nazimova sounded. Her father had reluctantly permitted her to play in a violin recital, but only if she did not call herself Leventon: “Everyone will know she’s my daughter and I can’t have her bringing disgrace on the family.” Despite Yakov’s fears that she would perform badly, she played well and drew great applause. Even so, he whisked her away from the appreciative audience at the reception and when they got home he snarled, “Just because a few provincial fools applaud you, don’t imagine you’re Paganini.” Then he grabbed the box of chocolates she had been given, threw them out the window and beat her with his cane, breaking her arm. He called her “stupid, ugly, untalented, the black sheep of the family.”
As Nazimova, Adelaida Leventon could forget who she was. At the following year’s recital she was sick to her stomach as she walked on stage and saw Yakov sitting in the front row. But then she realized, “I know you’ll beat me for something or other afterward, but while I’m here this isn’t your black sheep, this is Adelaida Nazimova and you can’t touch her!” After reminding herself to “stop thinking of yourself or you won’t play well. You’re somebody else, now let her do it,” she played beautifully and thought as she acknowledged the applause, “Isn’t Nazimova good today? I’m so happy for her!” But once offstage, post-performance depression set in, as it would throughout her career. In her autobiography she wrote, “Even after 38 recorded curtain calls for being Mrs. Alving and for directing Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’ at the Empire Theatre, New York, December 12, 1935 . . . I felt like biting everybody and wishing I could hide somewhere out of sight.”
Lambert aptly compares Nazimova to Martha Graham. “Both women were artists of the extreme, hurt, aggressive, and fearlessly theatrical.” Nazimova was relentlessly theatrical whether on the stage or off; her life was one of theatrical ups and downs. As a starving young actress in Moscow, she dabbled in prostitution to survive. After she conquered the theater in her homeland, she came to America and learned English in five months. Between 1907 and 1910, she toured the country with a repertory of three Ibsen plays and earned her manager Lee Shubert over $5 million. In September 1917, at 38, the quintessential stage actress signed a contract to make films for Metro Pictures Corp. for $13,000 a week, $3,000 more than Mary Pickford. She was the highest-paid movie actress of the time, entitled to approval of director, script and leading man. In 1922, she began her own production company and was soon almost broke.
While making her first picture, “War Brides” (1916), she learned the difference between acting before an audience and acting in front of a camera. She wrote in her diary that having trained herself “never to act for the audience, never to look at the audience . . . I find it almost unbearable to say or act out things ‘to the front.’ ” Being nearsighted helped, however, as “I can’t even see the camera or the people around it.”
“Nazimova was never beautiful,” Lambert writes. “Nor were most of her popular contemporaries, such as Mary Pickford, Colleen Moore, Lillian Gish.” Instead, she had a “splendid physical ability to look ‘dangerous’ and inexact, that look that is necessary to the popular conception of a thoroughly able adventurist.” Darryl Zanuck was more direct. He called her “the quintessential Queen of the Movie Whores,” though Lambert says Zanuck was less likely thinking of her more famous roles as “the over stylized, nonorgasmic” Salome and Camille than he was of some of her now lost, more sultry films, among them “Toys of Fate,” (1918) “Madonna of the Streets” (1924) and “The Redeeming Sin” (1925).
Nazimova, along with Glesca Marshall, her lover and companion for nearly 20 years, lived the latter part of her life as the tenant in bungalow 24 at the Garden of Allah. (The hotel was razed in 1959 to make room for a bank and strip mall.) Their relationship, as well as Nazimova’s with many other men and women--women especially--was publicly unacknowledged though widely known by friends. Nazimova may have blazed many new trails and flouted many conventions, but some of those trails, such as her sexuality, were best left obscured to the public eye. “Employment depended on keeping your nose clean,” a friend of hers commented. “And Hollywood, the dirtiest place in America, was the most eager to keep everything clean.”
Lambert is a screenwriter (“Inside Daisy Clover,” from his novel; " The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone,” from Tennessee William’s novella), biographer (“Norma Shearer”) and novelist (“The Slide Area,” a collection of related stories set in Hollywood that wonderfully capture the strange characters who tramp through the movie business). All his talents are evident in “Nazimova.” He had access to Nazimova’s private papers, and his thorough research and easy style recreate 19th century Russia and the vitality of Moscow theater life in the age of Chekhov and Stanislavsky as well as the exuberance of Los Angeles in the 1920s and ‘30s. He has taken a seminal yet largely forgotten actress and brought her back to life, a feat Alla Nazimova would most earnestly have desired.