Alla Nazimova (1879 – 1945)
“Acting is sometimes considered impulsive and spontaneous, and the more it partakes of these qualities, the more it is real acting; but an effect seemingly natural is oftentimes the result of long and careful thought, and even then it might seem wrong or uncompleted if we could see it ourselves.“
She wasn’t in therapy, didn’t wear a fanny pack, had never sang along with the Indigo Girls, she didn’t even play on a softball league, but Alla Nazimova was still one luscious lesbian.
Nazimova was born Miriam Edez Adelaida Leventon, in the Ukraine. She studied with the famous Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Arts Theatre. Nazimova was a major star in Moscow, Berlin and London by the time she arrived in NYC in 1905. She became an acclaimed actor in America, the toast of Broadway in the first decade of the 20th Century with solid success performing in the works of Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen. She became extremely popular, so popular that a theater was named after her.
In 1917, she was discovered by Lewis Selznick who summoned her to Hollywood where she became the prototype for the exotic screen vamp. She had two husbands, both gay, and she converted her West Hollywood compound into a playground for the rich, the famous, and the promiscuous. Nazimova began producing, writing, and starring in film versions of her stage triumphs. Her film adaptations, her own filmmaking techniques, and her acting style were considered daring during her era.
In 1920s Hollywood, she counted as her many lovers: actors Eva Le Gallienne, Patsy Ruth Miller, and Anna Mae Wong; both of Rudolph Valentino‘s former actor wives: Jean Acker and Natacha Rambova; film director Dorothy Azner; and writer Mercedes de Acosta. She helped coined the term “sewing circle” as a code word for her secret lesbian group of gal pals.
When her career started to wane and audiences began to lose interest, she became bolder about her gayness in her films and she made them more provocative. She produced, wrote, and starred in the film Salomé (1923) which was directed by her gay husband Charles Bryant. It was one of the first art films in Hollywood with its insane costumes, empty sets, and outlandish over-the-top acting. Based on Oscar Wilde‘s play, Nazimova demanded an all-gay cast for the film. It was critically panned and a commercial failure at the time, it has become a film festival favorite for years.
Salomé ran only 70 minutes in length and had no real action, but it cost over $350,000 to make. It was shot to match the illustrations done by Aubrey Beardsley in the printed edition of Wilde’s play. The costumes were designed by her girlfriend Natacha Rambova, made from material from Maison Lewis of Paris, such as the real silver lamé loincloths worn by the guards, played to be obviously gay. The female courtiers were played by men in drag.
No major studio would have anything to do with Salomé, and it went two years after its completion before it was released by a minor independent distributor. I caught it at a LGBTQ film festival in the 1980s. It is worth seeing for its considerable weirdness and it is really something to watch Nazimova move while balancing her Christmas-tree headdress.
Her private lifestyle was the topic of widespread rumors of decadent and debauched parties at her mansion on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood known as The Garden Of Alla. It was originally a 3.5 acre estate called Hayvenhurst that was built in 1913 by Los Angeles real estate developer William H. Hay as his private residence. Nazimova had the Moorish style rebuilt to her specs in 1919, the height of her fame. Nazimova jokingly called her new home “The Garden Of Alla”, a reference to her own name and the bestselling novel The Garden Of Allah (1905) by British writer Robert S. Hichens. The novel was adapted in to three films, one of which starred Marlene Dietrich, who once lived on the property.
In 1925, her screen career tanked and she was faced with financial ruin, so the inventive Nazimova put her property to work generating an income by building a complex of 25 rental “villas” around the original house. The opening party for The Garden of Alla Hotel was held on January 9, 1927.
Nazimova had converted the place into a semi-tropical trysting resort. She retained her own private apartment upstairs in her former mansion, while the bottom story was converted into a swank café and bar. The property became a complicated colorful collection of Spanish style bungalows and detached apartments. Those 25 villas were constructed around the pool, designed with drama and dash, the pool was shaped like the Black Sea.
Among those who chose to live at The Garden Of Alla were: Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Clara Bow, Buster Keaton, Ramon Navarro, Harpo Marx, Ava Gardner, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Ernest Hemingway, Lillian Hellman, Joe E. Lewis, Artie Shaw, George Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Laurence Olivier.
Nazimova found that she was not cut out for her role as a hotel manager and it was revealed that her unscrupulous business partners had absconded with her money, so in 1928, she sold out her remaining interest in the hotel, auctioned off her belongings, and returned to the Broadway stage. In 1930, the new owners normalized the spelling in the hotel’s name back to ‘Allah’.
F. Scott Fitzgerald lived there in 1937-38 at the beginning of his final stay in Hollywood. He wrote himself a postcard while there: ‘Dear Scott… How are you? Have been meaning to come in and see you. I am living at the Garden Of Allah. Yours, Scott Fitzgerald’. Fitzgerald’s biographer and lover Sheilah Graham later wrote a book about the place, titled simply The Garden Of Allah (1970).
Nazimova’s Broadway success ended abruptly because illness in 1938, and she returned to Hollywood and rented Villa 24, where she lived with her very patient, long-time lover, actor Glesca Marshall, until her final credits rolled in 1945. Nazimova was 66 years old when she taken by hard living. She is buried at Forest Lawn.
In 1959, Bart Lytton, president of Lytton Savings And Loan, purchased the Garden Of Allah Hotel for $755,000. He decided to tear it down to make way for a new main branch for his bank. Lytton hosted a farewell party on the grounds of the hotel. Among the guests was silent film star Francis X. Bushman, who had been at the opening party in 1927. Guests came costumed as silent film stars. Salomé was shown on a large poolside screen.
Sham marriages, fights, feuds, egos, illegal liquor, spoiled celebrities, recreational sex, drugs, drunken rages, forbidden liaisons, writer’s block, orgies, money problems, sudden changes of plans, the Garden Of Allah was just my sort of spot. I would have liked to have lived there, I’m sure. In the 1970s, I sometimes spent time misbehaving at the nearby Chateau Marmont Hotel.
At the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights, The Garden Of Allah is now a big gaping fenced off hole where a parking lot recently existed. Joni Mitchell‘s song, Big Yellow Taxi is said to be about the destruction of the famous place; I don’t know, we would have to ask Joni.
For fun, check out Gavin Lambert‘s Nazimova: A Biography (1997), and talented Martin Turnbull’s series of nine Garden of Allah novels, including The Garden On Sunset, The Trouble With Scarlett, and Citizen Hollywood.
In the film Valentino (1977), she was portrayed by Leslie Caron opposite Rudolf Nureyev in the title role. But her own story deserves to be made into a fabulous biopic. How about Jennifer Lawrence directed by Sofia Coppola?