Actress, Hollywood Star, Bisexual Pioneer

Nazimova Brought Modern Life to the Methodist-Era Palisades

By MICHAEL OLDHAM | Special to the Palisadian-Post

She always knew how to make an entrance, as well as an exit. Stage and silent film actress Alla Nazimova moved into a house on Frontera Drive in The Huntington in the mid-1930s, and the quiet Methodist village would never be the same.

She was a pioneer of the town’s celebrity culture and some of its more exotic values.

The sultry-looking actress with dark brown eyes and black hair landed in Pacific Palisades some 17 years ahead of her future famous goddaughter, then Nancy Davis, today known as Nancy Reagan.

And after that, all the A-listers had to check out the Palisades.

Nazimova, who often dropped the use of her first name, was born in the waning years of the 19th century in Yalta in Crimea—a place made famous half a century later for the meeting of Second World War leaders Theodore Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill.

She had a firmly middle-class Imperial Russian upbringing, moving from boarding school to boarding school, until she burst onto the Moscow stage in a flurry of controversial new playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen. From the start, she was a scandalous girl.

Her lifelong stream of marriages and gay romances added to her allure: She is credited with inventing the phrase “sewing circle” to refer to a discrete lesbian gathering.

In 1905, Nazimova came to America with a Russian theater company to do stage work. Living in another country had its challenges for Nazimova.

“It is not so difficult, your language,” the foreign-born actress said about America, “but your slang is impossible. Never can I understand the American humor.”

Fast forward to 1917 and Nazimova was signed to Hollywood film contract by Metro Pictures, a precursor to MGM.

“I saw then, as I see now, that 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,” she once was quoted. “It is the only way that we can be saved from oblivion.”

Nazimova’s salary at Metro was a breathtaking $13,000 per week. With this salary, Nazimova was earning more than “America’s Sweetheart” and then silent-film star sensation, Mary Pickford. Metro made Nazimova the highest paid screen actress in the world.

The studio quickly put its newly found star to work.

Nazimova played a cabaret singer in “Revelation,” a 1918 release. That same year, she took on the part of a gypsy girl in a film called “Toys of Fate.”

More memorable films would follow a few years later. She co-starred with the “Latin Lover” Rudolph Valentino in the 1921 film, “Camille.” Nazimova was also famed for playing the title role in “Salomé,” a 1923 release.

Ultimately, the decade of the Roaring Twenties didn’t end well for Nazimova. Creditors took her famous Sunset Boulevard mansion, which she acquired in 1918 and turned into a hotel in 1927, but would ultimately end up as the Garden of Allah (sic) apartment villas. She lost further financial assets in the 1929 stock market collapse.

Nazimova decided to renew her stage career, with some success—enough to fund her move to The Huntington.

Glesca Marshall, Nazimova’s partner at the time, shared the rental with the actress. She described the house as “charming” and, more helpfully, “furnished” when the couple moved in.

It was less than three miles away from Nancy and Ronald Reagan’s Palisadian starter home on Amalfi Drive, where they lived from 1952.

Nazimova was firm friends with stage actress Edith Luckett and, following the birth of her daughter, Nancy, in 1921 became her godparent. But Nazimova had left the Palisades before Nancy arrived.

Nazimova’s stay in the Palisades was part of the final, 10-year fade-to-black chapter of both her film and stage career, and her unique life of fame and onetime fortune.

Jon Ponder, co-founder of the Alla Nazimova Society, offered a glimpse of what the actress was like as a person.

“[Nazimova] was a small (5-foot-3) powerhouse of a person,” Ponder summarized for the Palisadian-Post. “A genius. She was a perfectionist and a risk-taker. On a personal level, it seems she was kind and generous. She gave many people in Hollywood encouragement and early breaks, including Dorothy Arzner, one of the early women directors.”

Ponder mentioned that Nazimova offered assistance to others, including Natacha Rambova, the artistic director on “Salomé.”

Nazimova never learned of her goddaughter Nancy’s move into the Palisades. She passed away from a coronary thrombosis in 1945, several years before Nancy became a Palisadian.

The house Nazimova rented on Frontera Drive no longer stands, having been replaced by a new house in 2010.

But she lives on in film, both in her own works and as portrayed by other actresses, such as David Lynch’s favorites Laura Haring and Isabella Rossellini.

This month she will be played by Romy Nordlinger in a multimedia show called “PLACES” at the Edinburgh Festival in Europe.

For a long-gone silent actress, this Palisadian trailblazer still has a voice in the modern world.

Oldham, author of the novel “The Valentino Formula,” can be reached at hollywoodlandings@sbcglobal.net.