Alla Nazimova

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Alla Nazimova
Alla Nazimova - Jan 1919 MPW.jpg
Born Marem-Ides (Adelaida Yakovlevna) Leventon[1]
(1879-06-03)June 3, 1879 [O.S. May 22]
Yalta, Crimea, Russian Empire
Died July 13, 1945(1945-07-13) (aged 66)[2]
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death Coronary thrombosis
Resting place Forest Lawn Glendale
Other names Nazimova
Alia Nasimoff
Occupation Actress, screenwriter, producer
Years active 1903–1944
Spouse(s) Sergei Golovin (m. 1899–1923)
Partner(s) Charles Bryant (1912-1925)
Glesca Marshall (1929–1945, Nazimova's death)

Alla Nazimova (Russian: Алла Назимова; June 3 [O.S. May 22] , 1879 – July 13, 1945) was a Russian actress, who emigrated to the United States in 1905.

On Broadway, she was much acclaimed for her work in the classic plays of Ibsen, Chekhov and Turgenev. Her efforts at silent film production were less successful, but a few sound-film performances survive as a record of her art.

Nazimova openly conducted relationships with women, and her mansion on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard was believed to be the scene of outlandish parties. She is credited with having originated the phrase ‘sewing circle’ as a discreet code for lesbian or bisexual actresses.

Early life[edit]

She was born Marem-Ides Leventon (Russian name Adelaida Yakovlevna Leventon) in Yalta, Crimea, Russian Empire.[2] Her stage name Alla Nazimova was a combination of Alla (a diminutive of Adelaida) and the surname of Nadezhda Nazimova, the heroine of the Russian novel Children of the Streets).[3] She was widely known as just Nazimova, and also went under the name Alia Nasimoff.[4]

She was the youngest of three children of Jewish parents Yakov Abramovich Leventon, a pharmacist, and Sofia (Sara) Lvovna Horowitz, who moved to Yalta in 1870 from Kishinev.[5] She grew up in a dysfunctional family; her parents divorced when she was 8. After her parents separated, she was shuffled among boarding schools, foster homes and relatives.

As a teenager she began to pursue an interest in the theatre and took acting lessons at the Academy of Acting in Moscow. She joined Constantin Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theatre using the name of Alla Nazimova for the first time.


Nazimova in the 1911 Broadway play The Marionettes

Nazimova's theater career blossomed early; and by 1903 she was a major star in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. She toured Europe, including London and Berlin, with her boyfriend Pavel Orlenev,[3] a flamboyant actor and producer. In 1905 they moved to New York City and founded a Russian-language theater on the Lower East Side. The venture was unsuccessful; and Orlenev returned to Russia while Nazimova stayed in New York.[citation needed]

She was signed up by the American producer Henry Miller and made her Broadway debut in New York City in 1906 to critical and popular success. Her English-language premiere in November 1906 was in the title role of Hedda Gabler.[6] She quickly became extremely popular (a theater was named after her) and remained a major Broadway star for years, often acting in the plays of Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov.[7] Dorothy Parker described her as the finest Hedda Gabler she had ever seen.

Due to her notoriety in a 35-minute 1915 play entitled War Brides, Nazimova made her silent film debut in 1916 in the filmed version of the play, which was produced by Lewis J. Selznick. A young actor with a bit part in the movie was Richard Barthelmess, whose mother taught Nazimova English. Nazimova had encouraged him to try out for movies and he later became a star.[8] In 1917, she negotiated a contract with Metro Pictures, a precursor to MGM, that included a weekly salary of $13,000. She moved from New York to Hollywood, where she made a number of highly successful films for Metro that earned her considerable money. In 1927, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

Nazimova soon felt confident enough in her abilities to begin producing and writing films in which she also starred. In her film adaptations of works by such notable writers as Oscar Wilde and Ibsen, she developed her own filmmaking techniques, which were considered daring at the time. Her projects, including A Doll's House (1922), based on Ibsen, and Salomé (1923), based on Wilde's play, were critical and commercial failures.

By 1925 Nazimova could no longer afford to invest in more films; and financial backers withdrew their support. Left with few options, she gave up on the film industry, returning to perform on Broadway, notably starring as Natalya Petrovna in Rouben Mamoulian's 1930 New York production of Turgenev's A Month in the Country and an acclaimed performance as Mrs. Alving in Ibsen's Ghosts, which the critic Pauline Kael later described as the greatest performance she had ever seen on the American stage. In the early 1940s, she appeared in a few more films, playing Robert Taylor's mother in Escape (1940) and Tyrone Power's mother in Blood and Sand (1941). This late return to motion pictures fortunately preserves Nazimova and her art on sound film.

Private life[edit]

Jackie Coogan "Nazimova" (actress) Gloria Swanson Hollywood Boulevard Picture taken in 1907 of this junction Harold Lloyd Will Rogers Elinor Glyn (Writer) "Buster" Keaton William S. Hart (Two-Gun Bill) Rupert Hughes (Novelist) Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle Wallace Reid Douglas Fairbanks Bebe Daniels "Bull" Montana Rex Ingram Peter the hermit Charlie Chaplin Alice Terry (Actress) Mary Pickford William C. DeMille Cecil Blount DeMille Use button to enlarge or cursor to investigate
This 1921 Vanity Fair caricature by Ralph Barton[9] shows the famous people who, he imagined, left work each day in Hollywood; use cursor to identify individual figures.

Marriages and children[edit]

In 1899 she married Sergei Golovin, a fellow actor.[3] While still in Russia and before coming to America in 1905, Nazimova may have given birth to a child. The father has been speculated to be either her husband Golovin or her lover Orlenev.[citation needed]

From 1912 to 1925 Nazimova maintained a "lavender marriage" with Charles Bryant (1879–1948),[10] a British-born actor.[3][11] In order to bolster this arrangement with Bryant, Nazimova kept her marriage to Golovin secret from the press, her fans and even her friends. In 1923, she arranged to divorce Golovin without traveling to the Soviet Union. Her divorce papers, which arrived in the United States that summer, stated that on May 11, 1923, the marriage of "citizeness Leventon Alla Alexandrovna" and Sergius Arkadyevitch Golovin, "consummated between them in the City Church of Boruysk June 20, 1899," had been officially dissolved. A little over two years later, on November 16, 1925, Charles Bryant, then 43, surprised the press, Nazimova's fans and Nazimova herself by marrying Marjorie Gilhooley, 23, in Connecticut. When the press uncovered the fact that Charles had listed his current marital status as "single" on his marriage license, the revelation that the marriage between Alla and Charles had been a sham from the beginning embroiled Nazimova in a scandal that damaged her career.[12]

Relationships with women[edit]

Between the years of 1917 and 1922 Nazimova wielded considerable influence and power in Hollywood.[3] By all accounts she was extremely generous to young actresses in whom she saw talent and became involved with at least some of them romantically. For instance, after meeting a young Patsy Ruth Miller at a Hollywood party, Nazimova assisted in getting Miller's career launched. (Miller got her first break with a small role in Camille.)[13] Another noteworthy example was Anna May Wong, whose first film role at age 14 was as an extra in The Red Lantern.

Nazimova helped start the careers of both of Rudolph Valentino's wives, Jean Acker and Natacha Rambova. Although she was involved in an affair with Acker,[14] it is debated as to whether her connection with Rambova ever developed into a sexual affair. Nevertheless, there were rumors that Nazimova and Rambova were involved in a lesbian affair (they are discussed at length in Dark Lover, Emily Leider's biography of Rudolph Valentino) but those rumors have never been definitely confirmed. She was very impressed by Rambova's skills as an art director, and Rambova designed the innovative sets for Nazimova's film productions of Camille and Salomé.[citation needed]

Of those Nazimova is confirmed to have been involved with romantically, the list includes actress Eva Le Gallienne, director Dorothy Arzner, writer Mercedes de Acosta, and Oscar Wilde's niece, Dolly Wilde.[15] Bridget Bate Tichenor, a Magic Realist artist and Surrealist painter, was also rumored to be one of Nazimova's favored lovers in Hollywood during the World War II years of 1940 to 1942.[16] The two had been introduced by the poet and art collector Edward James, and according to Tichenor, their intimate relationship angered Nazimova's longtime companion, Glesca Marshall.[16] However, the fact that Tichenor was pregnant most of 1940, giving birth to her son on Dec. 21, 1940, along with the 40-year age gap between the two women, casts some doubt on this rumor.

It is believed that Nazimova coined the phrase "sewing circle" as code to refer to lesbian or bisexual actresses of her day who concealed their true sexuality.[17][18]

Nazimova lived with Glesca Marshall from 1929 until her death in 1945.[19]

Garden of Alla[edit]

Alla Nazimova with Herbert Brenon, August 9, 1916.
Alla Nazimova photographed by Arthur Rice as Marguerite Gautier in Camille

Nazimova's private lifestyle gave rise to widespread rumors of outlandish and allegedly debauched parties at her mansion on Sunset Boulevard, in Hollywood, California, known as "The Garden of Alla," which she leased in 1918 and bought outright the next year. Facing near-bankruptcy in 1926, she converted the 2.5 acre estate into a hotel by building 25 villas on the property. The Garden of Alla Hotel opened in January 1927. But Nazimova was ill equipped to run a hotel and eventually sold it and returned to Broadway and theatrical tours. By 1930 the hotel had been purchased by Central Holding Corporation which changed the name to the Garden of Allah Hotel. When Nazimova moved back to Hollywood in 1938, she rented Villa 24 at the hotel and lived there until she died.[20]

Friends and relations[edit]

Edith Luckett, a stage actress and the mother of future U.S. First Lady Nancy Reagan, was a friend of Nazimova, having acted with her onstage. Edith married Kenneth Seymour Robbins, and following the birth of their daughter Nancy in 1921, Nazimova became her godmother. Nazimova continued to be friends with Edith and her second husband, neurosurgeon Loyal Davis until her death.[21] She was also the aunt of American film producer Val Lewton.[11]

Death and memorials[edit]

On July 13, 1945 Nazimova died of a coronary thrombosis, age 66,[2] in the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles.[11] Her ashes were interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Her contributions to the film industry have been recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


Nazimova has been portrayed in film three times. The first two were biographical films about Rudolph Valentino: 1975's The Legend of Valentino, in which she was portrayed by Alicia Bond; and 1977's Valentino, in which she was portrayed by Leslie Caron. She will be featured in two upcoming silent films about Hollywood's silent movie era: Return to Babylon in which she is played by Laura Harring[citation needed] and Silent Life (Vlad Kozlov, Isabella Rossellini et al.) based on the life of Rudolph Valentino, where she is played by Galina Jovovich.[22]

The character of Nazimova also appears in Dominick Argento's opera Dream of Valentino,[23] in which she also plays the violin.

Nazimova was also featured in make-up artist Kevyn Aucoin's 2004 book Face Forward, in which he made up Isabella Rossellini to resemble her, particularly as posed in a certain photograph.[24]

Actress Romy Nordlinger portrayed Alla Nazimova in The Society for the Preservation of Theatrical History production of “STAGE STRUCK: From Kemble to Kate” staged at the Snapple Theater Center in New York City in December 2013.[25][26]


Year Film Role Notes
1915 War Brides Joan
1918 Revelation Joline
Toys of Fate Zorah/Hagah
A Woman of France
Eye for Eye Hassouna Also producer and co-director
1919 Out of the Fog Faith & Eve
The Red Lantern Mahlee & Blanche Sackville
The Brat The Brat Also producer and writer
1920 Stronger Than Death Sigrid Fersen Also producer
The Heart of a Child Sally Snape Also producer
Madame Peacock Jane Gloring/Gloria Cromwell Also producer and writer (adaptation)
Billions Princess Triloff Also writer (titles) and editor
1921 Camille Marguerite Gautier/Manon Lescaut in Daydream
1922 A Doll's House Nora Helmer Also producer and writer
1923 Salomé Salomé Also producer
1924 Madonna of the Streets Mary Carlson/Mary Ainsleigh
1925 The Redeeming Sin Joan
My Son Ana Silva
1940 Escape Emmy Ritter
1941 Blood and Sand Señora Augustias Gallardo
1944 In Our Time Zofya Orvid
The Bridge of San Luis Rey Doña Maria – The Marquesa
Since You Went Away Zofia Koslowska

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Banham, Martin (1995). The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. p. 782. 
  2. ^ a b c "Alla Nazimova". Retrieved September 27, 2006. Her death on July 13, 1945 was attributed to coronary thrombosis. 
  3. ^ a b c d e )Mavromatis, Kally; Pringle, Glen (1999). "Alla Nazimova – Silent Star". Archived from the original on September 20, 2006. Retrieved September 27, 2006. 
  4. ^ "Alla Nazimova" (in German). Retrieved September 27, 2006. auch: Alia Nasimoff (also: Alia Nasimoff) 
  5. ^ "Алла Назимова — Звезда Голливуда Из Ялты". Old Yalta. Retrieved 29 July 2015. 
  6. ^ Untitled article, p. SMA2, New York Times, 1906-11-11. Accessed online 2015-08-04.
  7. ^ Horowitz, Joseph (2008). "Delayed Reaction: Stanislavsky, Total Theater, and Broadway". Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth-Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts (1st ed.). New York: HarperCollins Publishers. p. 332. ISBN 978-0-06-074846-3. 
  8. ^ Blum, Daniel (c. 1953). A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen p. 111
  9. ^ Vanity Fair magazine September 1921, accessed 2009[dead link]
  10. ^ Harbin, Billy J.; Marra, Kim; Schanke, Robert A. (2005). The Gay and Lesbian Theatrical Legacy. University of Michigan Press. p. 299. ISBN 0-472-09858-6. 
  11. ^ a b c "Alla Nazimova Dies at 66" (JPG). 1945. Retrieved September 27, 2006. 
  12. ^ Lambert, Gavin (1997). Nazimova: A Biography. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. pp. 265–266; 285. ISBN 0-679-40721-9. 
  13. ^ Patsy Ruth Miller,
  14. ^ Fleming, E. J. (2004). The Fixers – Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling, and the MGM Publicity Machine. McFarland & Company. p. 56. ISBN 0-7864-2027-8. 
  15. ^ Theophano, Teresa (2002). "Film Actors: Lesbian". Archived from the original on December 15, 2007. Retrieved December 14, 2007. 
  16. ^ a b "Bridget Bate Tichenor". 
  17. ^ Film Actors: Lesbian,
  18. ^ Harbin, Billy J.; Marra, Kim; Schanke, Robert A., eds. (2005). The Gay & Lesbian Theatrical Legacy. University of Michigan. p. 297. ISBN 0-472-09858-6. Munson was a member of 'the sewing circle,' a term originated by Alla Nazimova for a clique of lesbians and bisexuals who socialized in Hollywood. 
  19. ^ Lambert, Gavin (1997). Nazimova: A Biography, Knopf, ISBN 0-679-40721-9, p. 389.
  20. ^ Lambert, Gavin (1997). Nazimova: A Biography, Knopf, ISBN 0-679-40721-9.
  21. ^ "First Lady Biography – Nancy Reagan". The National First Ladies Library. 2005. Retrieved September 27, 2006. Her godmother was the famous actress Alla Nazimova 
  22. ^ Silent Life (2013),
  23. ^ Davis, Peter G. (February 7, 1994). "Radical Sheik". New York Magazine: 68–69. Retrieved December 12, 2012. 
  24. ^ Look-alike makeups | stars, starlets & actresses | the 1920s | various portrayals | themakeupgallery at
  25. ^ BWW News Desk. "STAGE STRUCK: FROM KEMBLE TO KATE Plays Tonight at the Snapple Theater Center". 
  26. ^ Nazimova Excerpts - Romy Nordlinger from on Vimeo. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Golden, Eve (2001). Golden Images: 41 Essays on Silent Film Stars. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-7864-0834-0.
  • Lambert, Gavin (1997). Nazimova: A Biography, Knopf, ISBN 0-679-40721-9.
  • Lewton, Lucy Olga (1988). Alla Nazimova, My Aunt, Tragedienne: A Personal Memoir. Minuteman Press.
  • Mennefee, David W. (2004). The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era. Connecticut: Praeger. ISBN 0-275-98259-9.
  • Smith, Frederick James (September 1918). "Those Nazimova Eyes!" in Picture Play.

External links[edit]