Nazimova, Alla (1879–1945)

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Nazimova, Alla (1879–1945)

Russian actress who enjoyed a varied career as silentfilm star, director, producer, and as one of the most brilliant theater actresses of her era. Pronunciation: Allah Naz-IM-ohvah. Born Mariam Adelaida Leventon on June 4, 1879, in Yalta, Russia; died on July 13, 1945, in Hollywood, California; attended boarding school in Odessa during her teens; attended the Dramatic School in Moscow, 1896–98; upon graduation, out of 5,000 students, was awarded the highest honor, a gold medal that allowed her an internship at Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theater; for two years, studied acting under the world-famous director Constantin Stanislavski; married Paul Orlenev also seen as Orlenieff (a prominent Russian actor), around 1902 (separated 1905); married Charles Bryant (under common law), around 1914 (separated after ten years).

Entered acting school at age 17; married Paul Orlenieff (c. 1902) and embarked on joint productions of plays; after Russian officials forbade production of their early Zionist play, The Chosen People (1904), they presented the play in Berlin, London, and after moving permanently, in New York; enjoyed significant success on the stage, specializing in Ibsen plays (1906–16); made 17 movies, becoming one of the reigning silent-film stars (1916–25); returned to the stage (1925), acting, directing and taking occasional movie and radio roles until her death from heart disease at age 66 (1945).

Selected filmography:

War Brides (1916); Toys of Fate (1918); Revelation (1918); (also executive producer) An Eye for an Eye (1919); (also exec. prod. and co-screenwriter) Out of the Fog (1919); (also exec. prod. and co-screenwriter) The Brat (1919); The Red Lantern (1919); (also exec. prod.) Stronger Than Death (1920); (also prod.) The Heart of a Child (1920); Madame Peacock (1920); (also prod. titles, art dir., co-editor) Billions (1920); (also prod. and dir.) Camille (1921); (also prod.) The Doll's House (1922); (also prod.) Salome (1922); Madonna of the Streets (1924); The Redeeming Sin (1925); My Son, My Son (1925); Escape (1940); Blood and Sand (1941); In Our Time (1944); (as the Marquesa) The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944); Since You Went Away (1945).

Alla Nazimova, whose life was one of genius and influence, had an intriguing impact on the lives and careers of those with whom she came in contact. She was born Mariam Adelaida Leventon in 1879 in Yalta, Russia, the daughter of a successful chemist. Over the next few years, the family would live in Yalta, Odessa, and Switzerland. "We had all the conventional reserves and prejudices of the average Russian middle-class family," she said. Initially, she showed little promise with schooling: "I was dull and slow. I could never understand mathematics, I wouldn't even try…. I was practically always at the foot of the class." Music was her one talent; with lessons, she learned to play the violin "quite well" and subsequently taught herself to play piano. "But on the whole, I was stupid when it came to learning anything. And up to the time I was sixteen I hadn't a single dream, or ambition, that might have made me want to learn."

Then Nazimova had occasion to meet two women who belonged to an amateur dramatic company. Working with them while they memorized their lines, she read the other parts, later claiming, "As a result, before my visit ended, I had determined that I would become an actress." In reality, the reason was more mundane. At that time in Russia, Nazimova felt that her only options were to marry, become a teacher, or go on the stage. Turning down the first two as unsatisfactory, she found that "the only thing left was the stage." Acting, however, was considered disreputable by the middle class. After a year of trying to gain support from her family, her brother grudgingly yielded to her plan, although he insisted on one thing: instead of joining a theater group directly, she must study at the Dramatic Academy in Moscow. Said Nazimova, "I have never ceased to be grateful to him."

To gain entry to the academy, each applicant had to recite a poem. Nazimova's peripatetic childhood had left her with a confusing accent, a mixture of Russian, German, and French. At the end of her recital, the professor admitted he had not understood a word. Nonetheless, to her surprise, she was accepted into the academy.

While in later years Nazimova would embody the glamorous ideal that surrounded film stars when the "star system" reigned supreme, she once described her teen-aged self as dull and overweight. "I know how I must have appeared: a self-satisfied, fat awkward girl. They called me 'the barrel.' I was the kind of child that was always running into the furniture; partly because I was awkward." The academy tackled this problem immediately. To develop quickness and grace, all students had rigid training in ballet and fencing. Nazimova slimmed down to a weight acceptable for leading ladies, and later came to be known for the infinite physical mutations she took on to make each part believable. Alexander Kirkland noted: "Few dancers have had more perfect control of their bodies and their faces."

Alla Nazimova">

My heart was born in a deep shadow, and I can never stay out in the sun very long, because it blinds me.

—Alla Nazimova

Under the tutelage of the academy professors, Nazimova began to stand out from other students. Her creative performance in the play Magda caused her bitterness and frustration, for the teacher refused to believe that Alla had not seen, and mimicked, another actress playing the role. She was later vindicated when the same professor handed the class an unproduced play to read; her performance so amazed him that he complimented her "marvelous quickness of perception." Nazimova considered this a turning point: "Before that, I had thought very little about myself. I had been absorbed in my work, but in an objective way. I hadn't speculated much over my own possibilities. But when he said that to me, before the whole class, something woke up in my mind—or my soul. From that time, I knew what ambition was. It put into me the one thing I had lacked before—a burning purpose."

After three years at the academy, Nazimova finished at the head of her class and was awarded a coveted medal that allowed her to intern with the country's most famous theater company, the Moscow Art Theater. Constantin Stanislavski, a co-director of the theater, now considered one of the greatest directors in history, worked with a world-class acting company. While this was truly a valuable opportunity for the young actress, Nazimova spent most of her year with the theater studying acting and learning stage management techniques with the other director, Vladimir Nemirovish-Danchenko. Only once did she get to perform with the company, speaking one line in the play Ivan the Terrible.

At the end of her internship, Nazimova had to choose between working with the company or going elsewhere. "I could go into the company there, taking minor parts at first … or I could turn my back on Moscow, go away to the provinces, and be at least temporarily forgotten. I chose to be forgotten." For the next three years, she worked in small towns in the provinces. In the first, Kostroma, she had to learn two new plays each week while giving two performances a night. "It is true that I had little time to spare for studying … [but] I was training my memory. I was acquiring a repertoire. And I was learning to think quickly." Her dedicated work, and her decision to learn in the provinces, allowed her to take on the lead role in numerous plays.

Around 1902, Nazimova was employed by a "theater for working people" in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). There she met Paul Orlenieff, whom she called "the greatest actor in Russia." They married and formed a team to co-produce plays. "Then came the step which has controlled my life ever since," said Nazimova. Orlenieff was alarmed at the warm reception given to an anti-Jewish play, The Contrabandists, and decided to stage The Chosen People, to represent an opposing viewpoint. The imperial government under Tsar Nicholas II, newly threatened by the fear of a nihilist revolt, censored the Orlenieff-Nazimova production. Expressing outrage, Orlenieff convinced Nazimova to help gather a company and tour The Chosen People outside Russia. The drama had a successful run before Russian audiences in Berlin and London before the couple moved the play, and their lives, to New York City.

The New York Russian theater community did not prove as satisfying to the newcomers as they had expected. Most Russian immigrants were poor. While the theater was an important part of their lives, they could ill afford the token admission and the actors received little more than a starvation-level salary. Nazimova asked her family to send her a return ticket to Moscow. But after returning home, she found herself curiously dissatisfied. "I saw things that hurt me to the very depths of my soul: students driven to the police station by Cossacks, who whipped them as if they were cattle. … And I felt that

America had made it impossible for me ever again to live in such a country." Although she was offered a contract at one Moscow's best theaters, Nazimova chose instead to return to America, where Orlenieff promised to build a theater to house their company.

When Orlenieff's optimistic plans fell through, he and Nazimova found themselves performing in a small room at the back of a saloon, with Emma Goldman , the noted anarchist, as their press agent. Though critics praised their work while noting their unfortunate financial difficulties, Orlenieff soon tired of performing on stages so drastically poorer than those he had worked on in Russia; he urged Nazimova to return there with him. She resisted, determined to learn English and become accepted by a wider audience in New York.

"Uptown" people had heard of the little theater that was on the verge of being closed for lack of funds. As word circulated of Nazimova's skill, friends arranged an interview for her with producer Lee Shubert. Speaking through an interpreter, Shubert offered Nazimova a five-year contract—if she could learn to speak English. Determined, Nazimova took her first English lesson in June 1906. A scant five months later, she appeared in her first English-language play, in the title role of Hedda Gabler. According to Kirkland: "Their applause shook the city. The notices scarcely mentioned the play, they were so filled with acclaim for the actress." Critic Arthur Ruhl compared the formerly clumsy Alla to "a leopard."

Nazimova solidified her standing in her next English-language play, where her transformation into another character made her initially unrecognizable to the audience. She soon earned a reputation for her versatility, exotic beauty, and glamour. Over the next few years, she experimented with different types of theater, ultimately realizing that her forte lay with the classics. In time, she would come to be known as the premier Ibsen actress.

Entertainment in the United States was then in transition. Though vaudeville and theater dominated, silent motion pictures were beginning to be shown nationwide. Ultimately, the movies would mark the end of vaudeville but during the early 1900s there was an interesting mix of the three mediums, two well-established institutions and the newcomer that was going to dwarf them both. Acting in any medium was considered a barely reputable profession. Many hotels displayed signs saying, "No Actors or Dogs Allowed."

In 1914, during the run of the successful play Bella Donna, Nazimova announced her marriage to her leading man, Charles Bryant. Newspapers carried the story but noted their inability to find any information on when Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bryant had acquired their marriage certificate. In truth, they had not, because it was a common-law marriage; Nazimova had been unable to obtain a divorce from Orlenieff in Russia. This would later cause her great distress when, upon her breakup with Bryant, the facts became public.

The following January, Nazimova toured in the pacifist one-act War Brides. With war looming, the public responded well to the piece, making it one of vaudeville's biggest successes and a significant financial triumph for Nazimova. "I believe profoundly in the power of thought," she said, "and it seemed to me that if I could stir millions of people to thinking against the horror of war it might accomplish something…. It was a tremendous experience. Everywhere I went, the theaters were decorated with flags; not by the owners, but by the people of the town itself." But the mood changed abruptly as the United States entered World War I. "People did not want to think of its horrors then. They shrank from its ghastliness. And where people had stood up and cheered the play—the audiences sat silent." In 1916, as Nazimova attempted to turn the piece into a motion picture, she encountered her first of several experiences with American censorship; the government shut down filming. In order to proceed, Nazimova changed the setting of the play to Germany, and realized her first motion-picture success.

In 1917, Nazimova signed a contract with the Metro Picture Corporation (later Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) for a series of motion pictures. An astute entrepreneur, she negotiated an unprecedented contract, guaranteeing her a significant salary, her own production crew, and final approval on all actors, cast, and the director. During this period, Nazimova was leading a dual personal life. While openly married to Bryant, she also was involved with women, a fact well known in the industry. When she produced the 1917 play 'Ception Shoals, she gave her close friend Edith Davis a small part. Davis and Nazimova (affectionately called "Zim") were close friends and rumored lovers. Though Davis eventually married, they continued their warm relationship, and in 1920, Davis would shock her family by naming Nazimova the godmother of her newborn child, Nancy Robbins. Nancy, strongly influenced by the many actors her mother knew, considered Nazimova to be one of her favorites. As she grew older, she followed her mother and godmother into acting, and a variety of small parts came her way. Her fame, however, came in later years, for Nancy Robbins (who used the name Nancy Davis for the stage) eventually married another actor, Ronald Reagan. When he was elected president of the United States in 1980, Nancy Reagan became the nation's first lady.

In 1918, Nazimova signed a 99-year lease for a large piece of property at 8080 Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. To complement the large house and numerous fruit trees, she added a pool that was said to be shaped like the Baltic Sea. The pool was to become a gathering place for the writers, actors, and directors who were shaping movies in the 1920s. Dorothy Parker , Somerset Maugham, Lillian Hellman , and later Katharine Hepburn , F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Clark Gable, were all frequent visitors to what became known as the Garden of Alla. Later, after it was turned into a hotel, a young Norma Jeane Baker would come to stay there, hoping to be discovered. She would use the name Marilyn Monroe .

Nazimova had an affinity for discovering talent. In 1919, she spotted an extra in a movie and offered him the male lead in her next movie, Camille, based on the life of Alphonsine Plessis , with a screenplay by June Mathis . The actor was Rudolph Valentino; the movie, released in 1921, was a triumph. From this chance happening, Nazimova and Valentino developed a close and mutually beneficial friendship. Dorothy Arzner also got her first break, working on continuity for Nazimova's production company, during the shooting of 1920's Stronger than Death.

Now openly gay, Nazimova developed a significant reputation for flamboyance. An ardent vegetarian and frequent host of seances, she was a character even by Hollywood standards. Around her she gathered a host of prominent stars who were also homosexual. While not hiding their sexual orientation from the movie community, they offered carefully groomed appearances for public and media consumption. During much of this time, Nazimova was still married to Charles Bryant. Though Valentino, the dream lover of millions of American women, married twice to foster his public persona as a heterosexual, each marriage was arranged by Nazimova to one of her gay friends. (His second wife was Nazimova's lover, Natacha Rambova .) Nazimova once remarked that Valentino had a greater interest in foreign motorcars than in women. Historical records rarely portray anything but the carefully cultivated façades of celebrities of this era, however, which effectively obscures and minimizes Hollywood's extensive gay and lesbian community and their contributions to filmdom's early days.

By 1922, Nazimova, often known only by her last name, had become Metro's top moneymaker. That year she separated from the studio and staked her savings on an ambitious project, producing and directing Oscar Wilde's Salome. In tribute to the playwright, the entire cast was to be homosexual. When the movie was released, she "gave away the directing credit to her husband, Charles Bryant," writes Ally Acker . The movie met with disastrous reviews. It also

embroiled Nazimova in the middle of a heated argument about the merit of establishing a rating or censorship system for Hollywood movies. By 1922, 32 state legislatures were considering bills for censorship. The country was engaged in a battle between conservatives pushing for censorship and liberals balking at the idea of restricting free speech. In 1923, when Salome was shown to the New York Censorship board, the examining censor wrote: "This picture is in no way religious in theme or interpretation. In my judgment, it is a story of depravity and immorality made worse because of its biblical background." Censors demanded that several scenes be removed before they would allow the film to be shown. Worse for Nazimova, the movie was a box-office failure which stripped her of her assets. Her extravagant lifestyle was over. The houses in Paris and Switzerland were sold to cover debts. Notes Vito Russo: "The posturing and highly stylized exaggeration were alien to the broader general public unable to find a frame of reference for the excesses in visual style that such films presented." Truly avant-garde, Nazimova's excesses and bold conceptions were historic. (In a roundabout tribute, pop singer Cindy Lauper would use Nazimova's unorthodox style and penchant for wild headresses as the basis for her 1988 music video, "True Colors.") After Salome, Nazimova would work in Hollywood only a few more years. Talking films replaced silent films and, as happened to many other actors, her accent did not carry well into the new medium.

In 1926, when Nazimova sold her property on Sunset Boulevard, the new owners turned it into a hotel, the Garden of Allah, and built 25 bungalows around the pool. Nazimova arranged to live on the property in one of the bungalows. The Garden of Allah would continue its reign as a social center until it was sold and then destroyed in 1959.

Some contemporaries viewed Nazimova's exit from motion pictures as a blessing, since her movies appealed to increasingly smaller audiences. But her talent as an actress in the theater was appreciated universally, and in 1925 she returned to the American and European stage. Her difficult days were put to rest in 1928 with her appearance in Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. According to Kirkland, "It was the rebirth of a great star, and as such was celebrated by the press and public alike." With only a few exceptions, every one of her subsequent works was strongly received. Notes Kirkland, "The critics of this generation bestowed accolades on her art as generously as had their forerunners in 1906." Nazimova would not return to film until 1940 in Escape. Through the early 1940s, she continued to take small parts in movies, explored the occasional radio show, but relied on theater for her main support. On June 13, 1945, at age 66, Alla Nazimova died in Hollywood of coronary thrombosis.


Acker, Ally. Reel Women. NY: Continuum, 1991.

"Exit Alla—With Flowers," in Newsweek. July 23, 1945, p. 83.

Howes, Keith. Broadcasting It: An Encyclopedia of Homosexuality on Film Radio and TV in the UK 1923–1993. London: Mackays, 1993.

Kanin, Garson. "Tales from the Garden of Allah," in Architectural Digest. April 1990, p. 54.

Kelley, Kitty. Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Kirkland, Alexander. "The Woman from Yalta," in Theatre Arts. December 1949, p. 28.

Mullett, Mary B. "How a Dull, Fat Little Girl Became a Great Actress," in American Magazine. April 1922, p. 19.

Murray, Raymond. Images In The Dark. Philadelphia, PA: TLA Publications, 1995, p. 230.

"The Russian Theatre Comes in Waves," in Theatre Arts. August 1944, p. 476.

Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. NY: Harper & Row, 1987, p. 161.

Vanity Fair. February 1988, p. 61.

suggested reading:

Lambert, Gavin. Nazimova: A Biography. NY: Knopf, 1997.

Scout , freelance writer, Washington, D.C.