Alla Nazimova’s performances, punctuated with the poignant theatrical poses that created her mystique in movies as well as in real life, are often forgotten, though she is considered to be the founding mother of Sapphic Hollywood…
Alla Nazimova, real name Miriam-Edez Adelaida
Leventon was born in 1879 in Yalta, Crimea, which was then par of the former
After a difficult childhood disrupted by her
parents’ divorce and spent in boarding schools or foster homes, she took an
interest in theatre early on, moving to Moscow where she took lessons at the
Academy of Acting, and joined the Moscow Art Theatre company under the name
Alla Nazimova (combining the diminutive for Adelaide and the last name of the
heroine of a Russian novel)
Her success on stage came early on, in Moscow
and St Petersburg first, then spread to the old continent and its major capital
cities as she toured Europe. Her companion then was actor Pavel Orlenev, with
whom she migrated to the United States in 1905, and founded a Russian-language
theatre in NYC.
She first conquered the American stage on
Broadway in 1906, playing the leading role in Henry Miller’s production of Hedda
Gabler, which was acclaimed by the critics as well as the audience. She
remained on the stage for quite a few years afterwards, often starring in Ibsen
or Chekhov plays. In 1915 the success of the play entitled War Brides led the following year to its film adaptation, in which
she reprised her role as a suffragette and made her silent film debut,
appearing as a strong voice for women and feminism.
By 1917 she was moving to
Hollywood and had obtained a contract with Metro Pictures Corporation, which
allowed her to have a career in motion pictures but also still perform in the
live theatre. She also soon started writing her own movies and starring in them
– her own company (Nazimova Productions) produced nine largely profitable
feature-length films while under contract with the Metro.
With these successes Nazimova was then able to buy an estate on Sunset
Boulevard, better known as the ‘Garden of Alla,’ where she would hold wild,
outlandish parties, and which she converted into a hotel in 1926.
While her first marriage to Sergei Golovin (with whom she supposedly had a
child) remained little known, her second with Charles Bryant from 1912 to 1925 was
an arrangement, a sham- a ‘lavender wedding’ to cover for her relationships
Indeed Nazimova was at the heart of Hollywood’s queer community. She even
coined the term “Sewing Circle” referring the lesbian, bisexual or bi-curious Hollywood
ladies, a code for them to conceal their true sexuality.
Alla herself was not shy about her preferences. Among the women
with whom she was involved, were actresses Jean Acker and Eva Le Gallienne, writer Mercedes De Acosta,
Dolly Wilde (Oscar’s niece!) and director` Dorothy Arzner. She was also
rumoured to have had affairs with painter Bridget Bate Tichenor and actress Natacha
Her love for women appeared in most of her
movies – not only did Nazimova often hint at lesbian affection, kissing her female co-stars (in character),
but she also hired many members of her sewing circle behind the camera. She also
helped launch the careers of actresses Jean Acker and Natacha Rambova (who,
incidentally, were both married to Rudolph Valentino).
But as her popularity waned, she became bolder,
and began to take aesthetic risks and to embody a gay sensibility beyond the
taste of her mainstream audience, damaging her career further.
Alla Nazimova performs the Dance of teh Seven Veils in Salomé (1923)
The movie that is now remembered as her
most significant, was Salome. It was a surreal, expressionistic production with
an all-gay cast, which attempted to produce a “female movie modernism.” Though at the time it was a commercial failure, which further indebted her.
In 1938 she underwent major surgery for breast cancer – and afterwards, trying to make a comeback, she soon realised Hollywood had no room for an actress in her sixties. She ended up accepting small parts, and living on a small, spartan apartment above the garage in her old Sunset Boulevard mansion, and lived there with her partner of 17 years Glesca Marshall until her death in 1945.