War Brides

Museum Without Walls
Alla Nazimova in 'Bella Donna' wearing a dress she designed
Alla Nazimova in ‘Bella Donna’ wearing a dress she designed

Bella Donna

After a successful run with “Bella Donna” in New York, in late 1913 Nazimova, Bryant and company took the show on tour for Frohman. When the tour ended in June, Alla went to England with Charles to meet his family. Military confrontations escalated in Europe while they were there. Germany invaded France and Belgium. Britain declared war on Germany. The Great War had begun.

The majority of Americans were dismayed by this development, and antiwar sentiment was high in the States. Alla was against U.S. intervention, too, but she and Charles were torn. They had friends and family in the war zone, including Alla’s brother Volodya, and his family in Berlin, and their estranged mother.

They returned to New York in September, and Nazimova set about negotiating with Charles Frohman over the next role she would play. In theory, the dealmaking should have been one-sided. Frohman had the absolute say over plays that would be produced and who would appear in what. He had a preference for commercial fare – he was a big fan, for example, of J.M. Barrie, a prolific novelist and playwright best known for his hit play, “Peter Pan.” But Nazimova wanted challenging dramas that were about ideas. When it became clear they would were at a stalemate, Alla asked to be released from her contract. Frohman agreed, and they parted amicably enough.

Nazimova found what she believed to be a suitable drama, titled “That Sort,” for Liebler & Company. It opened in November 1914, with Alla playing Diana Laska, a famous dancer whose devil-may-care approach to life led to a divorce from her surgeon husband and the loss of custody of her child – a separation that drives her to the brink of insanity. The New York Times reviewer noted that Nazimova is “always interesting enough to reward a visit to the theatre,” but he was lukewarm about her performance. “That Sort” closed after a few performances.

Nazimova (second from left) in "War Brides" on stage
Nazimova (second from left) in “War Brides” on stage

War Brides

For her next project Nazimova chose “War Brides,” an one-act one act play. It was Nazimova’s first independent production. It opened in New York and then toured the vaudeville circuit nationwide. In a sense, with “War Brides,” she return to her roots. Like “The Chosen Ones,” a play about Jewish oppression that was the catalyst that brought her to fame and fortune in United States, “War Brides'” was political and it too would have a profound effect on the course of her life.

“War Brides” opened at B.F. Keith’s Palace Theatre, a top New York vaudeville house, on January 25, 1915. With World War I  entering its second year overseas, its antiwar message resonated with the prevailing isolationist sentiments.  “A better offer could not have been selected by the star,” wrote a reviewer in the New York Clipper, “as the story of the sketch has to do with war and women’s rights, and principally on account of the great peace movement now prevailing in this country … The ovation that greeted the star and her company at the conclusion of the sketch that held the audience in spellbound attention for fully 40 minutes was the largest ever recorded at the [Palace].”

Mercedes de Acosta
Mercedes de Acosta

In the audience for an early performance of “War Brides” was Mercedes de Acosta, the daughter of Spanish aristocrats, who was 22 years old and an out lesbian, to use today’s term. Alla’s performance left de Acosta spellbound, and through friends, she arranged to meet Nazimova. Something sparked between the two women. The affair that resulted was the first of Nazimova’s romances with the group of powerful gay women. There would be men in her life, but after her affair with Mercedes de Acosta, Nazimova’s romantic life became increasingly fluid.

“War Brides” toured for six months on the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit. When the tour opened in Washington, D.C., 13-year-old Talullah Bankhead – native Alabamian and daughter of a future speaker of the House of Representatives – ditched class at Holy Cross Academy to see the show. She would later say that watching Nazimova’s performance that day was her “only theatrical training.”

Also in the audience one night was Lewis Selznick, a former jewelry salesman turned movie producer. Nazimova had recently refused a few film offers, but Selznick made an offer that suited her ideally: A one-picture deal to produce a 35-minute film version of “War Brides.” In return, he would pay her $30,000 – roughly $700,000 today.

Selznick was a second-tier producer in those early years. His son Myron, future powerhouse Hollywood agent, was 18 then. His brother David O., future producer of “Gone with the Wind” and many other movies, was 14. Lewis Selznick was a gambler. He wagered that audiences would flock to see Nazimova, the great lady of the stage, on film for the first time. He agreed that audiences would connect with the antiwar theme.

Nazimova, right, and director Herbert Brennon on the set for "War Brides" in 1916
Nazimova, right, and director Herbert Brennon on the set for “War Brides” in 1916

The war in Europe dominated the news. But even after the loss of American lives on the Luisitania – including that of Alla’s producer, Charles Frohman — there was little support for going to war. The mood in the United States was solidly isolationist. In the end, Selznick’s gamble paid off. “War Brides” generated $300,000, roughly $7 million today, in profits.

Nazimova returned to Broadway in January 1917 after a two year absence in oddity titled “‘Ception Shoals.” It was staged by Walter Wanger, future A-list movie producer, then 22 years old. The reviewer for the New York Times wrote that the play “was just as eerie as ‘Wuthering Heights,’ and just about as long.” The saving grace,  he suggested, was that the production brought back “one of the most interesting women in the American theatre” who was “quite successful with the simplicity, the stirring wonder of poor Eve.”

Eva Le Gallienne
Eva Le Gallienne

Alla’s affair with Mercedes de Acosta had fizzled after a few months, although they would remain friends and would correspond for decades. Backstage one night after a performance of “‘Ception Shoals,” she met 19-year-old Eva LeGallienne.  LeGailliene’s parents were both writers — her father Richard, a theatre critic, was an admirer of Nazimova. In fact, in a review of Alla’s breakthrough performance in “Hedda Gabler,” Richard LeGalliene had described Nazimova as “the greatest virtuoso on the American stage today.” Despite the 20-year age difference, Alla and Eva began an affair that would continue for the next four years, albeit with many lengthy work-related interruptions and separations.

Many of the interruptions were caused by Nazimova’s decision to abandon the stage for the silver screen. In the spring of 1917, she signed a lucrative, five-year, multi-picture deal with Metro Pictures, a precursor to MGM, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The studio was looking for an actress with real talent who could play vamps —  exotic, sexually aggressive and independent women, like so many of the characters Nazimova had played on the stage. Metro hired her to bring characters like that to the screen.

Others would follow, but “Nazimova was the first to cultivate an image of the ‘foreign’ sexual sophisticate,” her biographer Gavin Lambert wrote. “She supplied the original theme on which Pola Negri, Garbo and Dietrich created variations. Offscreen all four actresses were bisexual, Nazimova and Negri ending their lives with female companions, Garbo and Dietrich preferring solitude. Onscreen all four represented dangerously seductive women who not only pursued sexual pleasure as openly as men, but betrayed men as ruthlessly as men betrayed women.”

Lucky

Edith 'Lucky' Luckett
Edith ‘Lucky’ Luckett
Alla formed a friendship during the production of “‘Ception Shoals” that would prove to be one of her most durable relationships. Edith Luckett, known as Lucky, who had a small role in the play, was an immensely likable young woman. Like Alla, she was a fervent feminist – a strong believer that women should have the right to vote, for example. Lucky had recently married Kenneth Robbins, a New England aristocrat whose family had fallen on hard times.

There is no suggestion Alla and Edith were lovers. Edith was in awe of Nazimova’s stardom and earned her confidence with her remarkable acceptance of Alla’s relationships outside her fake marriage. Based on what Alla wrote in her diaries, Lucky was one of Alla’s closest confidants. But Lucky will have her own place in history. In 1921, she will become the mother of a baby girl who will grow up to be the late first lady, Nancy Reagan.

 

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