Broadway Phenomenon

Museum Without Walls
Poster for Nazimova in "Hedda Gabler" on Broadway, 1907
Poster for Nazimova in “Hedda Gabler” on Broadway, 1907

On November 13, 1906, just six months after she’d signed with Shubert, Nazimova opened on Broadway in “Hedda Gabler,” in English. She was, as they say, an overnight sensation and suddenly the toast of Broadway. The success came in part because of Nazimova’s interpretation of the play. In an earlier production in New York, the actress had played Hedda as a mousey housewife who committed suicide. But Nazimova found a different truth within the character and turned Hedda’s fatal self-inflicted gunshot as an act of triumphant revenge. Audiences loved it, and with encouragement from her producers, she rotated a production of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” into the schedule starting in January the next year.

Eugene O’Neill saw Nazimova in this production of “Hedda Gabler” when he was 18 years old. He was so awestruck he saw the show ten times. Later, after he’d become a great playwright, he described her performance as a transformative experience. “It was my first conception of a modern theatre,” he said.

In April, she opened for the Shuberts in “Comtesse Coquette,” a comedy that had been popular in Europe. Her performances sold out throughout the run. By the time she opened in Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” that September, as a reviewer had predicted two years earlier, Alla Nazimova was on her way to becoming a household name across America. She met the current president, Theodore Roosevelt, at a reception as well as former President Grover Cleveland, industrialists J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie and famous writers like Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain. (One of her cast mates in “The Master Builder,”  Gertrude Berkeley, who would become a close friend of Alla, was the mother of Busby Berkeley, the choreographer of the dance number in “We’re in the Money” and many other Depression-era movies.)

She had several affairs with men during this period, and refused an offer of marriage from a department store heir, who surely must have assumed, as most people did, that because she had been introduced to New York audiences as Madame Orlenev, she was still married to him – in fact it was her marriage to Sergei Golovin that was the encumbrance. Still, Nazimova was surprised by the provincial attitudes about sex she found among Americans, and lived in constant fear that she might be deported as a “female of bad character,” as had happened to Maxim Gorky’s mistress around the time that the Orlenev company had arrived in New York.

Brandon Tynan and Alla Nazimova in Little Eyolf, 1910
Brandon Tynan and Alla Nazimova in Little Eyolf, 1910
In December 1907, she opened in “The Comet,” a melodrama about a famous actress who returns to her hometown and falls in love with a young man who turns out to be the son of the man who was her first lover. It was panned by the critics and closed in two weeks, but there was chemistry between her leading man, Brandon Tynan, both on stage and off.

The Shubert Organization arranged a six-month national tour, commencing in February, for Nazimova and Tynan appearing in three plays by Ibsen, “Hedda Gabler, “A Doll’s House” and “The Master Builder.” It was Nazimova’s idea to cast Tynan, a popular Broadway actor who was the son of an Irish revolutionary, as her leading man. Theirs was her first real affair since she broke off with Orlenev, and one of the few men in her life who never caused her heartache.

Alla lived at Hotel des Artistes, a Gothic masterpiece at 1 West 67th Street, off Central Park. Yearning for a more pastoral setting, she used proceeds from the tour to purchase a second home, a six-acre estate in Port Chester, New York. She named it Who-Torok, which is Russian for “little farm.” She and Tynan moved out to the country and renovated the little farm into a country home.

In December, Alla received desperate news from her sister Nina. Nina’s husband, Max Hofschneider, had died, leaving her and their son and daughter penniless. Alla insisted that they come to America to live with her at Who-Torok. She paid their passage and even moved herself and Tynan into a guest house on the property so that Nina and her children could live in the main house. When they arrived, Alla enrolled the children in school — but not before Americanizing their names. Ludmilla became Lucy, Vladimir became Val and their last name, Leventon, became Lewton. (Alla’s nephew Val Lewton would grow up to be a producer of horror movies like “Cat People”  and “The Body Snatcher” for RKO Studios.)

There were long-standing tensions between the two sisters, however. Nina had always been a prude and had routinely communicated her disapproval of Alla’s extramarital relationships. She probably did not know about Alla’s affair with the married millionaire, but she knew about Alla and Orlenev and forbade them from darkening her door when they were in Yalta to visit Orlenev’s friend, the playwright Anton Chekhov. Now, at Who-Torok, she had to bite her tongue about the fact that Alla and Brandon Tynan were shacked up in the guest cottage while she and her children lived in the main house.

Just three years into her contract, Nazimova had generated $4 million in profits for the Shubert Organization. In 1910, they named their newly refurbished theatre on Thirty-Ninth Street in her honor. That was undoubtedly a thrill for Nazimova but – despite the fact that the Shuberts had given her a remarkable level of creative control – she was starting to get restless. Nonetheless, she opened Nazimova’s Thirty-Ninth Street Theatre in the role of Mrs. Rita Allmers in Ibsen’s “Little Eyolf” on April 18.  The critics were cool to it but the audiences loved it.

Bessie Marbury in costume for the Hyde Ball, 1905
Bessie Marbury in costume for the Hyde Ball, 1905
Soon, however, Nazimova secretly entered into negotiations with Charles Frohman, a producer in the theatrical syndicate whose clients included top stars like Ethel Barrymore and Billie Burke (who later played Glinda, the Good Witch, in “The Wizard of Oz”). The deal was likely engineered by Elizabeth Marbury, a prominent and successful literary agent who had become Alla’s close friend and advisor. She was the American agent for Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, Somerset Maugham and J.M. Barrie, who wrote “Peter Pan,” among others.

Bessie Marbury was also half of a lesbian power couple. Her partner was Elsie de Wolf, a former actress who’d become the hottest interior decorator in New York. Bessie helped Alla with professional connections, and, Elsie took her into their circle of interesting and wealthy friends, most of whom were women and some of whom were gay.

Elsie de Wolf at the Hyde Ball 1905
Elsie de Wolf at the Hyde Ball 1905
The trades published the announcement that she was leaving the Shuberts on February 3, 1911. Nazimova’s first show for Frohman was “The Other Mary,” in which she played Mary, an exotic temptress who competes for a the attention of a man, played by Brandon Tynan, with another character named Mary who is virtuous. Backstage, meanwhile, Alla’s affair with Tynan was coming to an end. The play was a flop and closed immediately after it opened on September 15. Brandon Tynan broke things off with Alla and returned home to his wife. The split was amicable, and they remained friendly for the rest of their lives.

Nazimova’s second play for Frohman was “The Marionettes,” which opened at the Lyceum on December 5. It was her first success on Broadway in quite a while, playing for 63 performances before closing in January. But it was her next project that would prove to be providential. “Bella Donna” showcased her talents as a vamp — she played Mrs. Cheptow, the wife of an Egyptologist who schemes to poison him after she falls for an Egyptian. Audiences loved her over-the-top performance. The show had a successful tour and then opened on Broadway on November 11, 1912. It ran for 72 performances before closing in January.

The Marriage Lie

Alla Nazimova and Charles Bryant
Alla Nazimova and Charles Bryant

“Bella Donna” was based on a novel by Robert Smythe Hitchens, the author of The Garden of Allah , with adaptation by James Bernard Fagan. Fagan was the brother-in-law of a British actor in the show named Charles Bryant, a holdover from the original production in London. Handsome and six-foot-four – a full foot taller than Alla – he would become the next significant man in her life.

Charles grew up in relative comfort. His father was a lawyer, and in college Charles had studied economics. Before going onto the stage, he’d worked in banking in the City of London. Unlike Orlenev and Branon Tynan, he was a mediocre actor and not intellectual. In fact, Alla and Charles had next to nothing in common. Nazimova’s friend Patsy Ruth Miller said she found Charles to be a “very pompous, ultra-British [and] extremely good-looking, or so people thought at the time.”

And yet, something sparked between them. In December, just months after they met, an item appeared in the trades announcing that Alla and Charles had gotten married. Their wedding day, it said, was December 5, 1912.

But that was a lie.

Alla was not yet having affairs with women, so she didn’t need a beard. Maybe her motive was simple and obvious: She thought she loved Charles and wanted to marry him but couldn’t because she was still legally married to Sergei Golovin. That explanation is hard to square with how badly things will turn out.

It’s often suggested that it was a “lavender marriage,” that they were both bisexual, but there’s no evidence Charles was anything but straight. One friend said he “had a way with the women.” Some friends believed the “marriage” was never consummated, that they both had relationships on the side. The first part seems unlikely, but the second part is true.

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