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If you’re in the know, the name Alla Nazimova makes the blood rush a bit hotter and quicker. She was a fascinating and fabulous celebrity, a great actress, and an icon of both film and theater. I wrote a little about her already in this space when I published photos of a house she lived in late in the 1930s. (Thanks to a response to the blog from Jon Ponder of the wonderful Alla Nazimova Society website, many of my speculative claims there were put into a firmer factual context.) Nazimova (1879-1945) studied under Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater, and became one of the great luminaries of early Hollywood.
Nazimova was born into a Jewish family that fell apart when she was still a young girl. She bounced around among relatives and friends in the Crimea until she made her way to Moscow. She was a restless, rebellious spirit, and, despite her success in Moscow and St. Petersburg, she headed off looking for more in the United States in 1905, long before the famed wave of Russian emigres who would have such an impact on Hollywood. With her companion, actor Pavel Orlyonov, she founded a Russian theater in New York. It quickly went bust and Orlyonov headed back to Moscow. Nazimova stayed and hit it big thanks to her tour de force performance of Hedda Gabler in 1906. It made her a star in New York. She made her film debut in 1916, and the next year she signed a deal in Hollywood for $13,000 a week. According to Saving.org, that would be over a quarter of a million dollars per week today.
We have moved on terribly far from the world that Nazimova inhabited. Who sees her films today? And yet, the lure is still strong. Actress Chloë Sevigny acknowledged both the plus and minus sides of what I just suggested in an interview, “I’d love to do a film about Alla Nazimova, the Russian silent film star.” However, she then immediately added, “but I doubt people would want to see it.”
In 2016 and 2017 New York actress Romy Nordlinger wrote, mounted and performed a piece called Places, which told the story of Nazimova, as the promo material claims, the “most famous star you never heard of.”
A recent article in Italian (thank you Google translator) discusses the story of Salome on screen and stage and adds this interesting tidbit that was new to me: “[Salome] is a character you hate. It is she, in fact, at the center of Oscar Wilde’s homonymous drama, which in 1923 Charles Bryant brought to the big screen with the striking Alla Nazimova, in what – legend has it – was one of the first films with a cast entirely composed of homosexual or bisexual actors.”
Nazimova was a lesbian in an age when it was relatively easy and desirable to hide one’s sexual preference behind a marriage of convenience. She did that, in fact, by marrying the actor Sergei Golovin at the end of the 19th century and – although they soon parted – she never divorced him. In the 1920s, her sprawling Garden of Alla home, later the Garden of Alla Hotel, was – if legends are to believed – the site of wild, semi-public sexual shenanigans involving half of Hollywood’s A-list of the time. The sexual stuff naturally continues to feed Nazimova’s fame, usually, if not always, to the detriment of her art.
Nazimova was enthusiastic about the new form of cinematic art that she became involved in. A wonderful site called Bizarre Los Angeles posts a myriad of quotes, in which, over and over again, Nazimova extols the importance of film and her excitement about it.
“If the actor or actress hopes to live beyond the little span of years in which they appear on the stage, they must place their art upon the screen. It is the only way that we can be saved from oblivion” (1916).
“[French actress Gabrielle} Rejane, too, has glimpsed the future, and several of her most famous impersonations have been preserved to posterity by the celluloid films” (1912).
“It will not be long until the individual Moving Picture machine will be found in as many home as the phonograph is today” (1912).
She had plenty to say about the art of acting as well. One of my favorite comments is this one, undated and copied from Brainy Quotes:
“The actor should not play a part. Like the Aeolian harps that used to be hung in the trees to be played only by the breeze, the actor should be an instrument played upon by the character he depicts.”
Nazimova died at her home on Sunset Boulevard in 1945, slightly less than two months after the end of World War II. She was buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale. Even with the added aid of my sister Margie and a helpful administrative staff, I had a hell of a time finding the grave marker. It was the first grave we went looking for that day, but was the last we found, almost on a lark, as we were already on our way out and decided to give it one more try. But we did finally come upon it. As were so many of the great Russian actresses in Hollywood, she is honored on this plate as Madame Alla Nazimova. For some reason she was given two plots adjacent to each other: 1689-4 and 3. One of them, as you can see in the photos, remains empty to this day. The grave is located on the western downslope of a hill that rises gently on the northern section of the cemetery’s Whispering Pines section.