Inventors of Gay: Alla Nazimova
June 3. 1879 – July 13, 1945
This revered Russian actress made it to the Great White Way, where she was discovered by Hollywood and became the prototype of the exotic screen vamp. After two husbands — one a “lavender” marriage — she converted her West Hollywood compound into a playground for the rich, famous, and sexually promiscuous. From then on it was women only. She bedded the famous, the powerful, and merely mercenary — including a rumored affair with Valentino’s wife.
She was born Miriam Edez Adelaida Leventon, but like many people with a hard-scrabble childhood, she reinvented herself many times over before she became a leading silent film star in Hollywood. With her first husband, flamboyant actor and producer Pavel Orlenev, she opened a Russian language theater on the lower east side of New York. 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.
Brought to Hollywood by Lewis Selznik, she became extremely successful, earning $13,000 per week by 1917. She began writing and producing her own extremely stylized and often daring films. Most notable was her production of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé with art direction and costumes by Valentino’s wife Natacha Rambova, with whom she is presumed to have had an affair. She had already bedded Valentino’s first wife Jean Acker.
Nazimova’s mansion, the Garden of Alla (right, and below), was a hot spot on the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights that hosted many of the wilder parties for the 1920s film world folk. There were a series of villas and cabins, and it is said that once inside the “Garden” all lips were sealed as to who spent the night in whose bed. It was converted to apartments and a hotel in 1927, and Nazimova continued to live in one of the villas there.
Of those others Nazimova is confirmed to have been involved with romantically, the list includes actress Eva Le Gallienne, director Dorothy Arzner, writer Mercedes de Acosta, Oscar Wilde's niece Dolly Wilde, and actress Anna May Wong. Nazimova lived with her very patient, long-time companion Glesca Marshall from 1929 until her death in 1945.
Valentino — silent film idol
Anton Chekov — Russian playwright
Gloria Swanson — screen star
Elinor Glynn — inventor of the romance novel and image shaper for Hollywood stars
Why we care:
• She is the vamp ne plus ultra that inspired many from Theda Bara to Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Natasha to Lady Gaga.
• Her Salomé is possibly the gayest, campiest movie ever made, using both Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley as inspirations.
• She coined the phrase “Sewing Circle” to indicate lesbian or bisexual actresses that mingled, but stayed under the radar sexually.
"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.