Pho­to cour­tesy of the author

Pho­to cour­tesy of the author



1879 – 1945


The next time you flip through the tabloids, spare a thought for Alla Naz­i­mo­va. She ulti­mate­ly sac­ri­ficed her celes­tial career by reject­ing the sex­u­al and social mores gos­sip mags still try to define.

After a tough child­hood in Crimea, teenage Ade­lai­da Lev­en­ton escaped her abu­sive father to study act­ing in Moscow with the great Stanislavsky. She arrived in New York in 1905, changed her name to the more exot­ic Naz­i­mo­va, and began thrilling Broad­way with a series of the­atri­cal victories.

As a bisex­u­al Jew­ish immi­grant and out­spo­ken fem­inist, Naz­i­mo­va court­ed con­tro­ver­sy sim­ply by exist­ing. The bold­ly paci­fist stance of her first movie, 1916’s War Brides, only increased her noto­ri­ety. Nat­u­ral­ly, audi­ences were fas­ci­nat­ed by her.

She chan­neled her fame and ambi­tion into a rad­ically avant-garde adap­ta­tion of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, which she not only starred in but also wrote, pro­duced, and direct­ed. It failed mis­er­ably, in part because of the aston­ished (though unsub­stantiated) whis­pers that she’d hired only gay men in homage to Wilde.

Indeed, dan­ger­ous rumors had long been grow­ing around Naz­i­mo­va and her Gar­den of Alla,” the estate she owned on Sun­set Boule­vard. Though she pre­tend­ed to mar­ry Salomé col­lab­o­ra­tor Charles Bryant for custom’s sake, she bare­ly both­ered to hide her les­bian rela­tion­ships (with trail­blaz­ers Dol­ly Wilde, Eva Le Gal­li­enne, and Dorothy Arzn­er, among others).

Her famous friends often came to stay at the Gar­den for months, and word had it that half of Hol­ly­wood was indulging in out­ra­geous­ly hedo­nis­tic excess on her prop­er­ty. She also host­ed the industry’s Sewing Cir­cle,” a group of famous gay and bisex­u­al women. A few, like Tal­lu­lah Bankhead, were open about their per­son­al lives. But most, includ­ing Gre­ta Gar­bo and Mar­lene Diet­rich, knew they had too much to lose.

Indeed, Naz­i­mo­va paid a heavy price for her inde­pen­dence. The expens­es of Salomé near­ly bank­rupt­ed her, and her scan­dalous rep­u­ta­tion lim­it­ed her options. But she found a warmer embrace in the the­ater, where crit­ics and audi­ences remained awed by her tal­ent. And today, Salomé is con­sid­ered an essen­tial work of ear­ly exper­i­men­tal and LGBTQ cin­e­ma — an out­come nobody would have pre­dict­ed in 1923 Peoria.

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Reprint­ed from Rene­gade Women in Film and TV. Copy­right © 2019 by Eliz­a­beth Weitz­man. Illus­tra­tions by Austen Claire Clements. Pub­lished by Clark­son Potter/​Publishers, an imprint of Pen­guin Ran­dom House LLC.

Eliz­a­beth Weitz­man is a jour­nal­ist, film crit­ic, and the author of more than two dozen books for chil­dren and young adults. She cur­rent­ly cov­ers movies for The Wrap, and was a crit­ic for the New York Dai­ly News for 15 years. In 2015, she was named one of the top crit­ics in New York by the Hol­ly­wood Reporter.