Sunday, June 5, 2022

Alla Nazimova

Djuna Barnes (1892–1982)
From The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner

Elliot Cabot as Rakitin and Alla Nazimova as Natalia Petrovna in the 1930 Theatre Guild production of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. Publicity photo by Vandamm Studio for the May 1930 issue of Theatre Magazine. (Wikimedia Commons)
“I don’t know if the Wall St. crash ruined everyone, but everyone thinks they are ruined, so the effect is all the same,” Djuna Barnes wrote to her friend Mina Loy in the summer of 1930. Two years earlier Barnes had published a surprise bestseller, Ryder, and she was now working on early drafts of her eventual masterpiece, Nightwood, while scrapping together a post-Crash income as a freelance journalist and as a columnist for Theatre Guild Magazine. She had recently separated from Thelma Wood, her lover for most of the 1920s, and she was gradually becoming a reclusive and ornery presence in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, where she would later reduce Carson McCullers to tears and worry her neighbor, e. e. cummings, with her silence. In the letter to Loy, Barnes emphasized her increasing need for isolation: “I’ve gotten cranky & old-maid like—I don’t even like to have an animal looking at me, & when I lay a thing down I want to find it exactly where I put it—it’s as bad as that!”

Across the continent, in West Hollywood, the famous Russian-born American actress Alla Nazimova was one of the many people “ruined” (or nearly so) by the Wall Street crash; she lost much of the meager amount that remained of her savings. In reality, though, her decline was a decade in the making. During a successful stage career from 1906 to the mid-1910s, she wowed audiences and critics alike in various revivals of Henrik Ibsen’s plays. In 1916–7, she decamped for Hollywood, became the industry’s highest paid actress with a salary of $13,000 a week from Metro Pictures, and starred in more than a dozen blockbuster films that too often featured her in stereotypically vampish roles. During the 1920s, she lost most of her fortune—over half a million dollars—on two ventures. The first was her 1923 film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, with costumes and sets inspired by Aubrey Beardsley’s infamously risqué illustrations. The major studios wouldn’t touch it, so Nazimova sank more than $350,000 of her own money into the project. The result—now considered a pioneering art film classic—was minimally promoted by the independent distribution company that had agreed to shop it to theaters, and the movie’s commercial failure virtually ended her career in Hollywood.

The second venture was an $80,000 mansion she purchased in 1918 and, eight years later, converted into the Garden of Alla Hotel. Twenty-five guest bungalows were added to the main house and, to finance the expansion, the estate was mortgaged to the hilt, with Nazimova providing tens of thousands of dollars more in additional funding. The hotel quickly became the getaway of choice for celebrities and industry bigwigs; unfortunately, two years after its opening, both the business manager and the money vanished from the scene, leaving Nazimova heavily in debt. She sold the estate to pay off the loans and later learned that the husband-and-wife team who had convinced her to join them in the hotel deal had scammed previous victims in similar real estate rackets in the Midwest.

By the time of the Crash, Nazimova had been working the vaudeville circuit for several years. She briefly returned to the New York stage to costar with Eva Le Gallienne in the acclaimed 1928 Civic Repertory revival of Chekhov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard. In 1930 she went back again to Manhattan in the hope of resuscitating her Broadway career. She immediately landed the role of Natalia in the first American production of the Ivan Turgenev play, A Month in the Country. And that is when she met—and was interviewed by—Djuna Barnes.

Nazimova, Le Gallienne, and Barnes were linked to an informal network of lesbian and bisexual actresses and artists known as the “Sewing Circle”—an affectionate name Nazimova is credited with coining. Yet biographer Gavin Lambert is certain Nazimova was unaware that Barnes was the author of Ladies Almanack, a privately circulated roman à clef about lesbian expatriates in Paris—including “Doll Furious,” whose real name was Dolly Wilde (Oscar’s niece), a woman with whom Nazimova had an intense affair while in France at the end of her Hollywood career. For that matter, Nazimova was probably also unaware that she and Barnes had each had an affair with Maurice Sterne, the painter and sculptor. In any case, whatever the two women knew about each other’s overlapping personal relationships—they would never meet again—Barnes’s Theatre Guild Magazine profile about the highs and lows of Nazimova’s highbrow/lowbrow career is offbeat, respectful, and perhaps more than a little star-struck.

With rave reviews and a respectable box office, A Month in the Country proved to be the beginning of Alla Nazimova’s comeback. Twenty-two-year-old Katharine Hepburn, who had a bit part as a maid, remembered how she would stand in the wings “to watch her—she had great concentration—total—fascinating—couldn't take my eyes off her.” Nazimova next created the role of Christine Mannon in Eugene O’Neill’s play Mourning Becomes Electra. Thirty years earlier, in 1906, O’Neill had seen Nazimova in Hedda Gabler, her Broadway debut: “I went again and again for ten successive nights. The experience discovered an entire new world for me. It gave me my first conception of a modern theatre where truth might live.”

The pinnacle of her later career came in 1935, when she made her Broadway debut as a director, causing Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times to exclaim, “Probably Ibsen wrote Ghosts for Nazimova. . . . [She] has flooded the whole performance with the light of exalted acting.” Tennessee Williams, who saw the production on tour in St. Louis, recalled, “The first time I wanted to become a playwright was when I saw Alla Nazimova in Ghosts. She was so shatteringly powerful that I couldn't stay in my seat.” The future film critic Pauline Kael also saw the production and later remembered, “Nazimova gave the greatest performance I have ever seen on the stage, and my parents, who had seen her thirty years earlier, said that even then she was the finest actress they had ever seen.”

Notes: Nora Helmer, Hilda Wangel, and Rita Allmers are the lead characters in Ibsen’s A Doll's House, The Master Builder, and Little Eyolf, respectively. Natacha Rambova, the costume and set designer for Salomé, was the wife of Rudolph Valentino from 1923 to 1925. Nazimova costarred with Valentino in the 1921 adaptation of Dumas’s Camille, her last movie for Metro Pictures.

In 1923, George Bernard Shaw wrote to the Theatre Guild in New York, which was producing his latest play, Saint Joan, and recommended Nazimova for the lead role of Joan of Arc. The producers were dubious, given Nazimova’s recent forays in movies and music halls, but Guild directors Lawrence Langner and Theresa Helburn met with her to discuss the project, only to learn that she was unavailable because she had signed a contract for the vaudeville circuit. Barnes confuses the order of events and implies that Nazimova was nervous about signing a contract with Metro Pictures because of the missed opportunity to star in Shaw’s play, but Nazimova’s three-year arrangement with Metro had in fact concluded in 1921. Nazimova might have instead told Barnes that the incident made her nervous about signing a new movie contract, such as one that Paramount Pictures tentatively offered her in 1929.

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