Lithe, elegant, and eccentric, Russian-born actress Alla Nazimova embodied a type of decadent Hollywood glamour that hasn’t been seen since the mid-1940s. Her romantic entanglements with women and her lavish private parties may have been scandalous, but she possessed a captivating acting presence and creativity as a filmmaker that made her more than just another Hollywood party girl. Nazimova’s name should be as recognizable as her contemporaries Theda Bara and Clara Bow, and yet her legacy is all too rarely discussed.
Alla Nazimova was a born performer. The product of a difficult upbringing that found her bounced between her birth home, foster care, and the households of relatives, she learned early on that flamboyant behavior would attract the attention she craved. Her conservative Jewish family looked down upon the profession of acting, but a fearless Alla threw herself into the study of performance at age 17 and never looked back.
By the time she was in her mid-20s, Alla was a bona fide stage star in her native Russia. She had been married for four years to fellow actor Sergei Golovin, but she toured Europe alongside her lover Pavel Orlanev. It was with Pavel that Alla would arrive in the United States in 1905, where the two founded a theater company in New York City. Pavel soon returned to Russia, but Alla was captivated by America and within a year of her arrival was garnering accolades for her high-profile, Broadway stage portrayal of the title character in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. The story of jealousy and self-destruction against the backdrop of bourgeois home life was an ideal platform for the actress to demonstrate her intense dramatic style.
Alla’s screen debut came in 1916 with an adaptation of the stage play War Brides. Now a lost film, War Brides found Alla in the lead role of Joan, a heartbroken war widow who leads the women of her country in a dramatic and ultimately tragic protest against the pointless cruelty of combat. Released two years into World War I, the film’s message resonated with the public. In 1917, largely due to the public’s reaction to War Brides, Alla was offered a lucrative, five-year contract with Metro Studios. The contract gave Alla remarkable control over the choice of scripts, directors, and leading men.
It was Alla’s romantic relationships that brought a whiff of scandal to her life. Though she had married in Russia and intimated that her screen co-star Charles Bryant was her husband, Alla was a lesbian. She was involved in a long-term relationship with fellow stage actress Glesca Marshall, but was rumored to have had affairs with a surrealist painter, Oscar Wilde’s niece, and both of Rudolph Valentino’s future wives. What isn’t up for debate is the fact that Alla used her influence in Hollywood to bolster the careers of a number of aspiring film professionals. Among those who Nazimova helped elevate to prominence was Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American film star.
In 1918, Alla purchased a sprawling estate on Sunset Boulevard, christening it the Garden of Allah and transforming it into a haven for the Hollywood elite. It was at the Garden of Allah that she would coin the term “Sewing Circle” to describe clandestine gatherings of her sister lesbians. As with all exclusive events that bring together influential and creative personalities, rumors of the relative wildness of the parties that took place there have circulated over the decades. These soirees were described as everything from continental-flavored salons for the discussion of intellectual matters to booze-soaked orgies featuring all manner of pansexual couplings.
Creative ambition, rather than sexual excess, was more likely the true cause of Alla’s downfall. Under contract with Metro, there was a give and take between the studio and the actress’s vision. She had pitched a violent, sexual historical epic about a Hebrew courtesan titled Aphrodite, but studio execs instead approved her Art Deco reimagining of Camille, released in 1921. Though this hyper-stylized film perplexed critics and audiences, it is noteworthy for co-starring heartthrob Rudolph Valentino on the cusp of his superstar turn in The Sheik later that year. After leaving Metro, Alla was free to form her own production company and finance the most iconoclastic of her films. Wild, visionary productions like her screen adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1923) weren’t so much ahead of their time as they were the product of a vision so unique and artistic that they was doomed from the start. Rather than concentrate on the salacious aspects of the Biblical story, Alla’s Salome adapts the Aubrey Beardsley illustrations to the silver screen with jaw-dropping Expressionistic results.*
Alas, this simply didn’t play in Peoria, and heavy losses from Salome and similarly eccentric projects put Alla in financial peril. The Garden of Allah was sold to a company that continued to run the property as a hotel and Alla returned to the stage by 1930. Her slide out of the public eye was a slow one, and while she continued to elicit praise for her acting, the heady glamour of her earlier years was fading. Perhaps seeking a taste of some of her former glory, Alla returned to Hollywood in the late 1930s, living in a rented bungalow in her former estate. A handful of small screen appearances would follow, and she passed away of heart complications in 1945, at the age of 66.
Sorting through Alla Nazimova’s legacy, one begins to get the picture of a brashly creative woman who used her wealth and fame not just to indulge her thirst for excess, but also to promote the careers of similarly unique woman artists and performers. She was a striking figure — both physically and intellectually — who occupied the spotlight at a time when audiences were eager to embrace strong, dramatic leading women.