The Broadway actress Blyth Daly was born on this day in 1901. Despite being a regular of the stage and also appearing in several early films, Blyth is most well-known for her connection to the underground lesbian scene of early 20th century New York City.
Most of Blyth’s film roles are as unnamed background characters from the early days of silent film (x).
Blyth Daly was born on December 5, 1901 in London, England. Her father was the successful stage actor Arnold Daly, whcih introduced her to the entertainment world from a very early age. Her father and mother, Mary Blyth for whom she is named, had a very volatile relationship and would divorce and then remarry over the course of Blyth’s childhood. Her mother would eventually remarry Frank Craven in 1915, a popular actor in Broadway circles of the day most well-known for his role in the original production of “Our Town.” It was Craven who encouraged Blyth to pursue an acting career of her own.
Although she began her career in Hollywood, Blyth eventually moved to New York City. She made a name for herself as a member of the “Algonquin Round Table,” a group of writers, actors, and artists who met regularly at Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel. The meetings began taking place in 1919 and were led by the Algonquin Hotel manager Frank Case. Blyth was known for tagging along to meetings with her friends Tallulah Bankhead, Harpo Marx, and Edna Ferber and the four became known as "The Four Riders of the Algonquin.“ Outside of her stage work, Blyth is also credited with roles in over 6 films including A Star is Born, Her Man, and That’s Gratitude.
Blyth’s sexuality has long been a point of contention; it is not clear if she would have identified as lesbian or bisexual, but it is known that she spent her life loving women. She was close friends with the actresses Tallulah Bankhead and Eva Le Gallienne for many years and it was even rumored that she and Eve had an affair at some point. Despite the three’s tight knit bond, Blyth’s career was the only on out the three to never fully take off. She would pass away relatively unknown on October 6, 1965 in Los Angeles.
Actress and Broadway star, Maude Adams,
was born on this day in 1872. During her run as Broadway’s Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,
Maude was the highest paid performer in the country and raked in an annual
income of one million dollars.
Maude Adams photographed by an unnamed photographer in 1900 (x).
Maude Ewing Adams Kiskadden was
born on November 11, 1872 in Salt Lake City, Utah. She was raised in a
hardworking Mormon family; her father worked two jobs for a bank and
for a local mine before passing away when Maude was a child. Her very first
stage appearance happened when she was only 2 months old, starring in The Lost Baby at Brigham Young Theatre. Her mother Annie
Kiskadden had a penchant for the theater and would star in several productions
with her infant daughter on her hip as well. This paved the way for Maude’s
theater career to start in earnest when she joined a traveling theater troupe
as a small child.
Her life became consumed by
performing and she would work steadily as an actress for many years. Maude’s
big break came, however, when her path crossed with that of English writer J.M.
Barrie. Barrie had been being pressured to make his novel The Little Minister
into a play, but he had resisted for fear that no actress could accurately
capture the role of Lady Babbie. After attending a performance of Rosemary in
which Maude starred, Barrie decided immediately that she was the perfect choice
for Lady Babbie. The two’s working relationship would culminate in Maude receiving
the role of a lifetime – Peter Pan in the very first Broadway adaptation of the
iconic novel in 1905.
Maude Adams: Fashion icon and America’s first Peter Pan (x).
The public’s reception of Maude
was as eternally-virginal and virtuous, but the truth of the matter was that
Maude avoided relationships with men not because she was childlike, but because
she was a lesbian. She had two serious relationships throughout her lifetime. Her
first partner was a woman named Lillie Florence, whom she was with from the
1890s to the early 1900s. She met a woman named Louise Boynton in 1905 and the
two stayed together until Louise’s death in 1951. In her later years, Maude became
known as a renowned drama teacher and served as the head of the drama
department at Stephens College. She would pass away at the age of 80 on July
17, 1953. She is buried next to Louise in New York.
Film icon Lilyan Tashman was born
on this day in 1896. The bisexual American actress who rocked Vaudeville,
Broadway, and the silver screen throughout her lifetime is most well-known
today for her roles in Millie, Girls About Town, and So This is Paris.
Publicity photo of Lilyan Tashman from Stars of the Photoplay (x).
Lilyan Tashman was born to a
working-class Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York on October 23, 1896. She was
the tenth and youngest child to be born to her immigrant mother and father, who
had been born in Germany and Poland respectively. She attended Girl’s High
School and worked as a fashion and figure drawing model throughout her teen
years to help support the family. Her modeling career eventually blossomed into
a Vaudeville career and by 1914 she was a part of a successful travelling
troupe. Performing became cemented as Lilyan’s career when she was picked up to
join the Ziegfeld Follies in 1916.
Her stint with the Ziegfeld
Follies, although only lasting two years, allowed Lilyan to get a supporting
role in the hit musical The Gold Diggers.
She made her film debut in 1921 with the small film Experience, but after her attempt at leaping from the stage to the
silver screen wasn’t going the way she planned, Lilyan moved across the county
to California. Finally in Hollywood, her career took off; she appeared in five
films in just the course of one year and eventually signed a contract with
Paramount Pictures. Starring in over 66 films during her career, she became
known to audiences for her roles as the “other woman” or the seductive “villainess.”
Today, many consider Lilyan to
have been a bisexual figure. Her first husband was a colleague from her
Vaudeville days named Al Lee. The two were married in 1914, but soon divorced
in 1921. Her second husband was longtime friend and fellow actor Edmund Lowe.
The two lived together in their lavish Beverly Hills mansion called Lilowe,
threw extravagant parties, and were touted by the media as being Hollywood’s
new darling “it” couple; however, Edmund was a gay man and many believe their
marriage to have been one of convenience. Lilyan herself was rumored to have
had several trysts with women and even an intense relationship with Greta
Garbo, which left Lilyan heartbroken after Greta called it off. There is even a legend that Lilyan was almost charged with assault (for the SECOND time) after she
caught the actress Constance Bennett in a compromising position with her
girlfriend at the time.
Despite her vitality and
scrappiness, Lilyan tragically contracted abdominal cancer at the young age of
36. She would film five more films during the last years of her life, Frankie and Johnny being the last time
America would ever see her on film. After entering Doctor’s Hospital on March 21,
1934, Lilyan passed away from cancer at the age of 37. Her funeral at the New
York City synagogue Temple Emanu-El saw over 10,000 mourners, fans, and fellow
Hollywood elite in attendance.
The famous actress and one of America’s first “sweethearts,” Janet Gaynor, was born on this day in 1906! She is most well-known for being the very first winner
of the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1929.
Walt Disney specifically asked his animators to model the titular princess of Snow White after Janet Gaynor (x).
Laura Augusta Gainor was born on
October 6, 1906 in Germantown, Pennsylvania. She was the youngest in the family
and had an older sister who nicknamed her “Lolly” as a child. Her father worked
as a theatrical painter and began encouraging Janet to sing and dance when she
was just a toddler, which led to her joining school plays as soon as she was
old enough. When her parents divorced in 1914, she, her sister, and her mother
moved to Chicago and then later to San Francisco. She graduated from San
Francisco Polytechnic High School in 1923. Soon after, the family
moved to Los Angeles so that Janet could be closer to the entertainment industry
action and could hopefully succeed in her acting career. Her first role was as
an extra in a small comedy short and she eventually worked her way up to a
supporting role in the 1926 film The
Johnstown Flood. That same year, her career really took off after she was
named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars alongside Joan Crawford and Mary Astor.
As Janet’s star grew, her image
became that of the sweet, wholesome woman in contrast to many of the famous
movie star “vamps” of the day. Her performance in 7th Heaven earned her the Best Actress award at the first ever
Academy Award Ceremony in 1929. Throughout the 1930s, she was one of the few
actresses who was able to make the leap into sound films with hits such as Daddy Long Legs (1931), A Star is Born (1937), and The Young in Heart (1938). Janet retired
from acting when she was at the top of her game in 1939.
Janet photographed enjoying a day at the pool with her fellow actress friend and close “gal pal,” Margaret Lindsay. Today, it is known that the two were actually romantically involved for a time (x).
Many have speculated about whether
Janet was a lesbian or was bisexual, but there is no denying that she had
relationships with other women. She was married to men three times throughout
her life and had a son named Robin with her second husband, Adrian. In the 2001
book Behind the Screen: How Gays and
Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910-1969, author William J. Mann asserts that
Janet was a lesbian who entered into “lavender marriages” with gay or bisexual men; it was a well-known “secret” in the theater community that her second husband Adrian Greenberg was a gay man. Janet is known to have had at least two serious relationships with women – fellow actresses Margaret
Lindsay and Mary Martin. Janet and Mary’s relationship was the longest of
the two and they often traveled to a vacation home in the Brazilian town of Goiás
together throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Actor Robert Cumming is famous for
having quipped, “Janet Gaynor’s husband was Adrian, the MGM fashion designer.
But her wife was Mary Martin.”
On September 5, 1982, Janet, her
third husband Paul, her lover Mary, and their friend Ben Washer were hit by a
drunk driver while riding in a taxi cab in San Francisco. Washer was killed,
while Janet and the other passenger sustained serious injuries. Janet would
never fully recover from her injuries and would eventually pass away on September 14, 1984. She is buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery
One of the most iconic actresses
of the 20th century, Greta Garbo, was born on this day in 1905.
Despite her image in the American imagination as the eternally heterosexual
romantic lead and starlet, Greta lived a lonely, closeted life.
Greta Garbo first traveled to the United States at the age of 19 and not two years later she would be one of the most well-known actresses in the country (x).
Greta Lovisa Gustafsson was born
in the slum of Södermalm in Stockholm, Sweden on September 18, 1905. She was
the third and the youngest child born to a working class family – her mother
worked at a jam factory and her father was a janitor. Poverty haunted her
childhood and she is remembered as having been a shy, daydreaming child who was
interested in theater and performance from an early age; a former classmate remembered
a 10-year-old Greta declaring that she wanted to be an actress when she grew up
“because it’s posh.” After leaving school at the age of 13, she began working
as a cleaner girl in a barber shop, but eventually took a job at the PUB
Department Story. It was there where Greta was picked out for her beauty and
chosen to model women’s hats. Modeling gigs turned into commercial gigs, which
eventually lead her to starring in short films.
In 1922, the director Erik Arthur
Petschler spotted one of Greta’s commercials and invited her to star in his
small comedy film Peter the Tramp.
Seeing a real future in acting, she studied at the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s
Acting School for two years before getting shipped off to America on the request of
MGM Vice President Louis B. Mayer. After the studio forced her to straighten
her teeth, lose 30 pounds, and lean English, Greta became a superstar and
starred in over 20 silent films. In 1929, she became one of the few stars who
was able to make the jump over to “talkies” with the film Anna Christie. Over the next decade, she would star in hits such as Grand Hotel, Camille, and Anna Karenina
and would receive three Oscar nominations.
Video footage of Greta arriving at Gothenburg Harbor in 1935 overplayed with words from one of her loves, Mercedes de Acosta.
Closely associated with the line
from Grand Hotel, “I want to be alone; I just want to be alone,” Greta hated
publicity and was a recluse later in life. Many historians have theorized that Greta’s social
anxiety and depression were results of her lesbianism and the pressure placed
on her to hide that part of her life from the world. Actresses Lilyan Tashman, Mercedes de Acosta, and Louise Brooks have all admitted to having sexual
relationships with Greta, but if she had an ultimate love it had to have been
Mimi Pollack. Mimi was a Swedish actress who Greta met during her time at
the Royal Dramatic Theater and the two maintained a close correspondence for
the rest of their lives. The romantic tone of their letters is undeniable;
“’The letter from you has aroused a storm of longing within me,” “’I
dream of seeing you and discovering whether you still care as much about your
old bachelor. I love you, little Mimosa,” “’We cannot help our nature, as God
has created it. But I have always thought you and I belonged together.”
Mimi’s son was born, Greta even wrote that she was “incredibly proud to be a
Greta’s relationship with Mimi
would not become known to the mainstream public until 2005 with the publication of the
Swedish book Djävla Älskade Unge by Tin Andersen Axell. At the time of Greta’s
death on April 14, 1990, it would be over ten years before the
public who claimed to adore her would know a sliver of who the actress truly
America’s first “It Girl,” Clara Bow, was born on this day
in 1905. The possibly bisexual actress was one of the world’s first silent film
stars and, in her heyday, received over 45,000 fan letters a month!
It was Clara’s appearance in the 1927 film It that led to the creation of the title “It Girl” for which she is so famously remembered (x).
Clara Gordon Bow was born in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn on
July 29, 1905 in the thick of a summer heat wave that almost led to the death
of both newborn Clara and her mother Sarah. The Bows were a poor family who lived
in a working class English-Irish community; Clara’s father was frequently
out of work and her mother suffered from mental illness – diagnosed as “psychosis
due to epilepsy” at the time. Clara recalled her home life as being “miserable”
and found solace in athletics at school and by going to the cinema. By the age
of 16, she was already dreaming about becoming an actress. Her dream became a
reality in January of 1922 when a 17-year-old Clara entered and won Brewster
Magazine’s annual “Fame and Fortune Contest.”
After winning the “Fame and Fortune Contest,” Clara was cast
in her very first – albeit small – motion picture, Beyond the Rainbow. She wouldn’t strike it big until 1923 when she
was cast in her very first big Hollywood production, Maytime. It was with films like Maytime
and later Black Oxen that Clara came
to personify the popular archetype of “the flapper girl.” She later struggled
to tone down her Brooklyn accent with the rise of “talkies,” but was able to
land the hurdle with films such as The Saturday
Night Kid and Dangerous Curves.
Having dominated theater screens and gossip magazines alike during two
different film eras, Clara cemented her status as queen of Hollywood.
Clara Bow is photographed sitting on the lap of out lesbian director Dorothy Arzner, who eased American audiences into hearing Clara’s thick Brooklyn accent for the first time in her first ever sound film, The Wild Party (x).
Clara eventually married a fellow actor named Rex Bell,
retired from acting, and settled down at a Nevada ranch with her husband and
two sons. However, before she left Hollywood for the simply life, Clara was known
as a free-wheeling party girl who danced naked on tables and enjoyed sex with both men and
women. It was also rumored that Clara had a fling with director Dorothy Arzner,
who directed Clara in the famously lesbian-themed The Wild Party (which you can read more about here). Would Clara have identified
with the contemporary label bisexual? – the world may never know. After having
lived out both the glamorous acting career and happy home life she had always
dreamed about, Clara passed away on September 27, 1965 at the age of 60.
Having passed away on this day in 1990, Jill Esmond is
mostly remembered as the first wife of the legendary Laurence Olivier, but the
lesbian actress also enjoyed a thriving career of her own and led a deeply
A publicity shot published in Picture Play Magazine in June 1932 shows Jill gracefully leaning her head on the back of a chair (x).
Jill Esmond Moore was born in London on January 26, 1908. Her
parents were both actors who constantly toured with theater troupes while Jill
was away at boarding schools. However, she eventually dropped out and made her
own stage debut in a production of Peter
Pan in 1922. After studying for a time at the Royal
Academy of Dramatic Arts, Jill got her big break on London’s West End with the
play Outward Bound. In 1928, Jill
would meet Laurence Olivier as her cast mate in the production of Bird in the Hand and he would become her husband
on July 25, 1930.
Jill Esmond and Laurence Olivier pose with their wedding party in 1930 (x).
Although Jill migrated to America and enjoyed
a successful career for many years starring in films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Skin Game and Thirteen Women, it was her connection to
her more famous husband that would eventually make the name Jill Esmond go
down in history. Legend has it that both Jill and Laurence regretted their
marriage just weeks after the ceremony, but it wasn’t until the couple’s dual performance in
the Broadway hit The Green Bay Tree that really saw the beginning of the end of their marriage.
The play featured multiple gay
characters and a former lover of Jill’s, Phyllis Konstam, would later say, “Night
after night they were speaking lines and creating characters that mirrored
their own private lives. She preferred women to men. He was, at the very least,
bisexual. They must have known that the marriage could never last.” Despite putting on a happy face for the public, Jill and Laurence’s marriage was deeply unhappy and riddled with extramarital affairs. With the
birth of her son Tarquin in 1936 and her inevitable divorce from Laurence in
1940, Jill’s acting career became sporadic. She had begun to turn down roles
that her husband disapproved of, which were many, and by the time they had
separated it was too late to reclaim her former stardom.
Jill’s very last acting role was as Eleanor of Aquitaine in
the 1955 television series The Adventures
of Robin Hood. Despite the barrage of bad press and celebrity gossip that
followed her divorce and Laurence’s subsequent Hollywood affairs, Jill remained
on good terms with her ex-husband for the rest of his life and was in
attendance at his 1989 funeral. She would pass away herself just a year later
on July 28, 1990 at her home in Wandsworth, London.
American screen legend Barbara Stanwyck was
born on this day in 1907. The lesbian starlet spent many years of her life as
the highest paid woman in the U.S. and as an icon for the LGBT community.
In her heyday, Barbara Stanwyck was famous for her film noirs, and in her later years, she rose to prominence once again for her western films (x).
Barbara was born as Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907
in Brooklyn, New York. She was the fifth child born to working-class
parents and would experience a traumatic childhood after the death of her
mother and the mysterious disappearance of her father – two weeks after Barbara’s
mother died from complications from a miscarriage, her father took a job digging
the Panama Canal and was never seen again. Barbara’s older sister Mildred did
her best to raise her younger siblings, but Barbara and her brother Byron were
eventually placed into foster care. Barbara ran away from the foster care system at the age of 14 and joined her sister Mildred
working as a showgirl.
Her big break came to Barbara just two years later; when she was 16-years-old, she auditioned for and was given a part with
the Ziegfeld Follies, one of New York’s premier theater groups of the 1910s and
1920s. Later in life, Barbara would say, “I just wanted to survive and
eat and have a nice coat,” but it was with the Ziegfeld Follies that she
made a name for herself choreographing dance numbers at the Texas Guinan gay
and lesbian speakeasy and where she met the famous director Willard Mack. Willard cast
Barbara in his play The Noose, which
was a breakout success and eventually found its way onto Broadway. It was also
Willard who gave her the idea to change her name from Ruby Stevens to Barbara
Stanwyck – Barbara for the name of her character in The Noose, and Stanwyck
was stolen from another actress who was in the production. And just like that,
the Barbara Stanwyck we know today was born.
Between her starring roles in films such as Breakfast for Two (1937) and A Message to Garcia (1936), Barbara earned a reputation as a more masculine leading lady compared to many of her contemporaries (x)(x).
The 1927 silent film Broadway
Nights was Barbara’s very first film role; although she played a minor
role, she would go on to star in over 40 films and 4 television series throughout
her career! Some of her most iconic films include Double Indemnity, The
Lady Eve, and Night Nurse,
and she was awarded two Emmys, a Golden Globe, and three different Lifetime
Achievement Awards before her death. One role that secured Barbara’s legacy in
film history was that of the very first out lesbian to be shown in American
cinema – Jo Courtney in Walk on the Wild Side. Despite the film’s portrayal
of Jo Courtney being far from progressive, the film did earn Barbara a huge
lesbian following and piqued the media to her own not-so-secret lesbian past.
was married twice, the rumors of the day said that they were both “lavender
marriages” – a term coined in the theater community to mean a gay man and
lesbian who married each other to avoid media speculation into their sexuality.
When a journalist named Boze Hadleigh famously asked Barbara about these
speculations in 1962, she reportedly kicked him
out of her house. There are stories about Barbara sleeping with almost every other
popular actress in her day; from Greta Garbo to Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead. However, in Barbara’s later years, her
serious partner was her live-in publicist Helen Ferguson, whose “friendship”
with Barbara lasted almost 30 years.
Barbara and her longtime “gal pal” and publicist, Helen Ferguson (x).
died on January 20, 1990 due to congestive heart failure.
According to her will, no funeral service was given and instead her ashes were
scattered over Lone Pine, California, her favorite destination which she had
come across while filming several of her western films. In the book Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Popular Culture by Luca Prono, Barbara’s legacy
and importance to the LGBT community is summed up with: “Stanwyck acquired the
status of icon within lesbian communities…Stanwyck was a woman…whose screen
persona challenged respectability because of the strong and independent women
she embodied in the 1940s.”
Today is the fourteenth anniversary of Katharine Hepburn’s death, who passed away on June 29, 2003. Although she is
most well-known for her Oscar-winning turns in films such as Morning Glory and Bringing Up Baby, the not-so-straight icon actually got her start
in acting by chopping off all her hair with fingernail scissors and becoming “an
engaging boy, roguish and merry” for the play The Truth About Blayds.
One of the most famous actresses in American history, Katharine Hepburn was known to be deeply involved in the process of filmmaking, having had opinions on everything from costumes to camerawork (x).
Katharine was born on May 29, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut
as the sixth child of a very progressive family; her father was a urologist
and her mother was a feminist activist who campaigned enthusiastically for
women’s suffrage and the right to birth control. As a child, Katharine was a
tomboy who liked to keep her hair cut short, put on shows for the neighborhood
children, and play golf – at one point she even made it all the way to the
semi-final of the Connecticut Young Women’s Golf Championship. Her idyllic
childhood was interrupted when she discovered the dead body of her brother Tom, who
had hanged himself in the attic of a family friend’s home. The trauma Katharine
suffered from that experience resulted in her dropping out of school, only
returning in 1924 when she was accepted in to Bryn Mawr College. At Bryn Mawr,
Katharine was able to find some semblance of her old self back when she
discovered a passion for acting. In her first stage play, The Truth About Blayds, she played the role of a man named Oliver and received astounding reviews. After graduating with degrees in
history and philosophy in 1928, Katharine began a career in theater.
Famously unglamorous, Katharine preferred pants and suits to the usual dresses Hollywood starlets were known for. In a 1981 interview, she recalled, “I put on pants 50 years ago and declared a sort of middle road. I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I’ve just done what I damn well wanted” (x).
After several years making a name for herself on Broadway, Hollywood agent Leland Hayward eventually scooped her out of her breakout
role in The Warrior’s Husband and set
out to make Katharine Hepburn a household name. When Katharine starred in the
film A Bill of Divorcement with heavy
hitter John Barrymore, Leland achieved just that. Just two years later in 1934 she would receive her first Oscar nomination and win for the film Morning Glory; throughout her career, Katharine
would receive twelve Oscar nominations and four wins. The 1930s and
early 1940s would prove to be Katharine’s heyday, but her career also saw a revival
in the 1960s and 1970s and she worked steadily in film, television, and theater
throughout her lifetime.
Katharine (right) sits in her a car with one of her many lady loves from throughout the years, Laura Harding (x).
Nicknamed “Katharine of Arrogance” and notorious for her
reluctance to welcome the public into her personal life, Katharine Hepburn was
a disliked and moody figure in the press. This reluctance could possibly be
linked to the fact that she had multiple relationships with women. Although she was briefly married to the socialite Ludlow Ogden
Smith, by the time her Hollywood career took off they were divorced and she was
free to romp around with the likes of Laura Harding, Nancy Hamilton, Frances Rich, and Phyllis Wilbourn. Phyllis
was perhaps her greatest love, having stayed together with Katharine for nearly
thirty years and being described by Katharine as “my Alice B. Toklas,” who was a lesbian icon and lifelong wife of Gertrude Stein! Katharine also had a twenty-year-long
relationship with the actor Spencer Tracy, but the validity of that relationship
has come into question in recent years, with even gay icon and AIDS activist
Larry Kramer proclaiming in 2015 that “Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were both gay…they
were publicly paired together by the studio. Everyone in Hollywood knows this
epitomizes the Lesbian Grandma aesthetic by holding a bouquet of flowers and standing next to ‘Please Go Away’ and ‘Keep Out’ signs at her home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut (x).
Katharine lived an incredibly long and fruitful life. She eventually passed away at the age of 95 at her family home in Fenwick,
Connecticut. Although she had requested that there be no memorial service, the
nation mourned the loss of a stage and screen icon. Upon her passing, the White
House issued a statement which said Katharine “will be remembered as one of the
nation’s artistic treasures.“
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.