One of the great actresses of the early twentieth century, Nazimova was also one of vaudeville’s great sensationalists.
She was born Mariam Edez Adelaida “Alla” Leventon in Yalta in 1879. As a child she had studied the violin, but fear of her stern father prevented her from formal dramatic study until the age of 17. She was accepted to Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko’s Philharmonic School in Moscow, which merged with Stanislawski’s newborn Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. She struggled on in minor roles and as a stage manager with the theatre for a few years, and then split off the work with the Kostroma stock company. While acting there, she met met Pavel Orlenev, a friend of Chekhov and Gorky. The two became collaborators and lovers. From touring the Russian provinces, in 1904 they went on to success in Berlin and London. In 1905, they were a hit in New York, where the Shuberts were so impressed, they offered to produce her if she would stay in the U.S. and learn English. She did.
Her 1906 performance as Hedda Gabler was such a hit that she went on to star in most of Ibsen’s major plays over the next few years. She almost always did “important” realistic plays, usually with progressive political themes. A gorgeous woman, with enormous eyes and a sensuous mouth, she reinforced the sensationalism of her feminist forays by giving them sex appeal. This is what made her a hit in vaudeville.
In 1914 she debuted a one act at the Palace called An Unknown Woman which pleaded for more sensible divorce laws. A querulous Edward Albee cancelled the act at the urging of a Roman Catholic clergyman, although Nazimova was paid in full for her services. In 1915, she returned with the pacifist playlet War Brides, which was especially timely given the conflict overseas. This turn was such a hit she toured the Orpheum Circuit with it, and then turned it into a 1916 movie. The film version was a major success, resulting in Metro offering her a 5 year, $13,000 a week contract in 1917—a deal better than even Mary Pickford’s. For the next several years, she was a major movie star and the mansion she built “The Garden of Alla”, one of the centers of the Hollywood social scene. Her contract her total creative control, and unfortunately, as time went on her use of it alienated both critics and audiences. Her exotic sexuality was often exploited, which critics found “lurid” and “preposterous.” She lost audiences by indulging her artistic impulses. She began to allow free reign to experimental set designer Natacha Rambova whom some think became her lover. Rambova became the wife of Rudolph Valentino, who was Nazimova’s co-star in Camille (1921).
Though Camille was a success Metro started becoming uncomfortable with all of this art, and cut Nazimova loose. She produced two films on her own in 1922, A Doll’s House and Salome which continued with the stylized sets and acting. They tanked at the box office unfortunately, and Nazimova was to play only small roles in Hollywood thereafter.
It is perhaps for this reason that she returned to the Palace for several vaudeville engagements through the 1920s. One of the playlets she introduced was a feminist drama called India, co-written by Edgar Allen Woolf. Major theatre roles of her late career included Christine in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), O-lan in Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1932), and the leads in major revivals of Ghosts and Hedda Gabler which she directed in 1935 and 1936 respectively. She died in 1945.
To find out more about Nazimova and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever edifying literature is sold.