Tag Archives: Alla Nazimova

Alla Nazimova grave site, Glendale, CA

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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.

 

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Alla Nazimova temporary residence, Bel Air, CA

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[Shortly after I posted the following text, a wonderful response was posted below, correcting many errors in my speculation, and adding lots of good details about Nazimova. My suggestion is that you start by reading Jon Ponder’s comment, then go to my text (or skip it!) in order to get the straight dope first.]
I’m not exactly sure where Alla Nazimova lived at 1000 Stone Canyon Rd., Bel Air, CA, but she did stay here for awhile in the 1920s. I can’t help but wonder if the guest house she occupied is what apparently is now a garage. It would make sense. All the more so, since this house, pushed up against a densely wooded hill, seems to have no other place where a guest house might fit.
This, one of Los Angeles’s most exclusive neighborhoods, has been home to dozens, if not hundreds, of famous people over the last century. Just a few include: Betty Grable, Judy Garland, Greer Garson, Howard Hughes (whom Ava Gardner once attacked and nearly killed with a bronze statue after he slapped her to the floor in his home down the street at 1120 Stone Canyon), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Steven Stills, Marvin Gaye… and we could go on seemingly forever. Most sources tell us that Nazimov stayed in a home belonging to Hollywood musical director Morris Stoloff, a three-time Oscar winner, but I wonder about that. Stoloff, who obviously had Slavic or Jewish Slavic roots, though he was born in Philadelphia, did not really achieve great success until the mid-1930s, when he became the music director at Columbia Pictures (1936, to be exact). Would he – in his early-to-mid-20s, just starting out in his career – have had the money to purchase this exclusive residence? Sure, it wasn’t as exclusive in the 1920s, but still, this somehow doesn’t add up. I can only assume that the home has now become associated primarily with Stoloff, so that mentions of Nazimova staying here are automatically connected to what would have been his later residency.
In any case, we know that Nazimova, one of those “refugees” from the Moscow Art Theater who made a career in Hollywood, stayed here at least for awhile when she was at, or close to, the peak of her career. Since she occupied a guest room, and since her famous, even notorious, Garden of Allah hotel on Sunset Strip was still being rebuilt between the years of 1918 and 1926, one can conjecture that her time on Stone Canyon Rd. was just a way station for her. It’s possible that she stayed here, waiting until she could move into her new, bigger property.
Nazimova (1879-1945) was born in Yalta with the Spanish name of Marem-Ides Leventon (her earliest-known ancestors apparently left Spain in the 16th century). Her Russian name was Adelaida Yakovlevna Leventon. She first used the stage name of Alla Nazimova when appearing at the Art Theater, on whose stages she performed from its very founding in 1898. Most of the time she played small roles under Stanislavsky and by 1903 -04 she began to feel the pull of destiny. She traveled to the Russian provinces where she played numerous leading roles and enjoyed significant success. (Legend has it she met Anton Chekhov in Yalta in 1904 and that he appreciated her talent.) She made the leap to the United States in 1905 (the year of the first, failed, Russian Revolution). She threw herself into studies of English and, by 1906, debuted on the American stage, performing the title role in Hedda Gabler in 1906. According to one Russian online biography, Eugene O’Neill was so taken by Nazimova’s performance that he attended the show ten times. Her fame grew so quickly that she was invited to visit Teddy Roosevelt in the White House during the time of his presidency.
True fame came knocking, however, when Hollywood called. She made her first film in 1915 (War Brides), but the real start to her career took place in 1918 when she appeared in three films. Her golden years as a Hollywood actress coincide with the period (apparently) when she stayed at the home pictured here. She played the leads in Camille (1921), A Doll’s House (1922) and Salome (1923), confirming her reputation as an exotic beauty and a powerful actress. It is worth noting that between 1918 and 1923 she was also a producer and writer, wearing one or both of those hats in eight of the films she made as an actress. By 1925 her film career, which lasted barely a decade, was virtually over. She performed in three films in the 1940s, but that was another era and another level of art.

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Nazimova’s legendary Garden of Allah estate and hotel (along with her swinging sexual escapades) are now more famous than Nazimova herself. The extravagant structure and beautiful grounds attracted virtually everyone in the Hollywood elite in the 1920s. The Wikipedia article on the location provides a list of some 75 A-list celebrities who lived in, or stayed at, the hotel at one time or another. Although Nazimova never returned to Russia after she left in 1905, when she had a swimming pool built at the Garden of Allah, she may have had it done as a copy of the Black Sea, alongside which she was born. I make that weak claim, however, and must immediately admit that there is still argument as to whether this is true. A lovely internet article tells the story of the pool with plenty of juicy detail (John Barrymore supposedly held the record for falling into the pool; and, “Marlene Dietrich and/or Tallulah Bankhead were said to like to swim in it at night naked except for their jewelry”).
There is virtually nothing left of the Garden of Allah these days. It was bought by a benighted banker, Bart Lytton, in 1959 and he razed it in order to build his bank’s headquarters there. I remember seeing a video on the internet a year ago, when I began researching Russian addresses in L.A., that took viewers down into a basement in one of the businesses now located there, and revealed a couple of tiles or something similar from the original Garden. I don’t  find that video now, but it’s out there. If some intrepid one among you finds it, you can post the link below.
As such, in a curious sort of way – this house at 1000 Stone Canyon Rd. is one of the closest, tangible links to Nazimova’s Garden of Allah. Because, chances are, it was while she was here that the planning and building of the Garden took place. For the record, according to the Movieland Directory, she had a total of three other L.A.-area addresses during the 1920s: 649 W. Adams Blvd. (unspecified 1920s); 1438 Hayvenhurst Dr. (1924-26); and the Garden of Allah at 8152 W. Sunset Blvd. (the address was actually 8080 at that time). The Movieland Directory suggests that Nazimova moved into the Garden of Allah in or around 1930, but I think it’s safe to say she did so earlier – probably 1926 or 1927. I am assuming that Stone Canyon was the first of those address. It would make sense that she lived here temporarily before moving into more permanent quarters, but this is just my conjecture.

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