Museum Without Walls
Alla Nazimova photographed with the poster for the controversial play, 'Collusion,' 1923
Alla Nazimova photographed with the poster for the controversial play, ‘Collusion,’ 1923

The Real Divorce

On May 11, 1923, Alla secretly divorced her real husband, Sergei Golovin, in Russia. She kept it from Charles, her fake husband. She intended to go to Europe and then pretend to have divorced Charles in Paris. A fake divorce to end her fake marriage.

But going abroad had to wait. She was strapped for cash. Instead of a trip to Paris, she returned to the vaudeville circuit, opening in “Collusion” at the Orpheum in San Francisco on August 25. She played a prostitute caught en flagrante with a customer, who, it develops, set the trap himself as a gambit to secure a divorce from his faithless wife.

Considered racy for its time, the tour played to sold-out houses. It also received nonstop criticism from moralists as it moved eastward. The name was changed to “The Unknown Lady” prior to it New York debut. Tickets sold out on opening night at the Palace on October 23, 1923. Nazimova took 12 curtain calls. But after three days of protests by Catholic groups and others, the Orpheum Circuit shuttered the show and paid Nazimova $15,000 for the cancelled bookings in New York, Washington and Philadelphia.

Two months later, Nazimova opened at Orpheum’s Palace in Chicago in a play with a decidedly different take on divorce. In “That Sort,” she played a woman driven to drug abuse after losing custody of her children in her divorce from her abusive husband. In the end, through sheer force of will, she redeems herself by tossing out the drugs. The tour ran for two months, ending the last week in February 1924, in San Francisco.

Charles Moves Out

Nazimova received word in San Francisco from Charles Bryant that he was leaving her. It can’t have been a surprise. Things had grown icy between them. Alla later told her sister that they hadn’t had sex in four years, but it likely had been longer than that. Charles may have grown tired of playing second fiddle to Paul Ivano, her boyfriend, the much younger French cinematographer, and to Alla’s fleeting dalliances with women.

He was well aware that she was out of money and that her financial prospects were grim. She was one of the highest-paid actors on the vaudeville circuit, but her income was far from enough to support her lavish movie-star lifestyle. Charles moved to the Athletic Club in Los Angeles and then decamped to Alla’s apartment at the Hotel des Artistes in New York.

Alla returned to Los Angeles after Charles had gone. She’d made the difficult decision to put Hayvenhurst on the market. There were no takers. As the weeks passed, she must have remembered that when she leased the estate in 1918, it had been on the market for three or four years.

In a change of plans, she built a smaller house at the south end of the property. She would live in the new house and lease the estate until she found a buyer. The new house – at 1438 Hayvenhurst – was a three-story concrete structure with 15 rooms. Noting that Alla had had a hand in the design, The Los Angeles Times described it as a “harmonious composite of Spanish, Russian and Italian architecture.” The effect she was going for, Nazimova said, was “an unmodern look.”

There was a guest suite on the ground floor, along with the garage. The spacious living room and bedroom suites were on the second floor with servants’ quarters on the third floor. There was more than enough room for Nazimova’s two dogs and many birds. “As attractive as the structure is,” the Times said, “its main charm lies in the unique and daring color scheme of the interior. Mme. Nazimova’s own suite is in soft Chinese yellow with touches of black and jade green, and opening from her bedroom is a bathroom that reminds one of the Arabian Nights’ descriptions of magic palaces. This bathroom has a black marble floor, a black marble bathtub and jade green walls above black tile.”

About the interior design, Nazimova said, “No other people except the Chinese know the occult secret of color combinations. With moderns it is a lost art. There I have gone back to the race which has preserved some of its mystical teachings in its theories of color vibration. For color, you see, has a tremendous effect on our lives and emotions.” As a finishing touch, Nazimova erected a wrought-iron fence around the perimeter and topped the driveway gate on Hayvenhurst Avenue with a large, ornate “N.”

Separation No Secret

By the spring of 1925 Alla’s separation from Charles had become an open secret in Hollywood. The New York press noted when she arrived in April on her way to Europe that she checked into a hotel rather than staying with Charles in her apartment at Hotel des Artistes.

Charles Bryant
Charles Bryant

Alla and Charles met while she was in town to discuss making their separation permanent. Charles clearly felt he had the upper hand – he knew that if word got out they’d never really been married, the ensuing scandal would damage her career, perhaps irrevocably. He insisted she pay the IRS penalties for lying that they were married on 12 years of joint returns. He also demanded title to the apartment as well as half the cash she had in the bank. Alla relented on all his demands.

On April 27, Alla sailed for France on the Aquitania. She spent the next two-and-a-half months in Paris and in Carlsbad, taking the cure. When she returned in July, she was greeted in New York by the press. They peppered her with questions about the status of her marriage to Charles. She’d planned on telling them that she’d divorced him in Paris, but chose instead to say nothing.

Asked about her plans for the coming season, Nazimova said: “I am going to start at once for Hollywood to play in a new motion-picture.” She added, “I am so glad to get back to America.”

On November 16, 1925, Charles surprised her – and the rest of the world – by getting married. The announcement appeared in the New Milford Connecticut Gazette. Charles Bryant, 43, had married Marjorie Gilhooley, 23, at the First Congregational Church. Reporters rushed to New Milford to track down the story. They found it on Charles’ marriage license. On the line that asked his current status – single, divorced or widowed – Nazimova’s supposed husband of 12 years checked “single.”

Alla had been dreading the scandal that erupted. She had repeated the lie that they were married in interview after interview over the years – and not just in words. She’d stage-managed publicity photographs so that she was seen leaning against him lovingly or staring up at him adoringly, all to depict an untruth: that they were a happily devoted couple. Now he had exposed all her lies.

Alla went into seclusion New York, waiting for the scandal to die down. She did not emerge for a very long time.

Richard Yates
Charles Bryant’s son-in-law, novelist Richard Yates

As Sheilah Graham put it, Hollywood already had a reputation as a godless, depraved city, and the press was conditioned to believe the worst. In an interview with Graham, Paul Ivano, then 72, said, “Everyone assumed they were married, but with Alla preferring her women friends, of which she had a great many, and Bryant being a cold Englishman, I doubt whether they even had an affair.”

Marjorie Gilhooley, the new Mrs. Bryant, had recently attended Vassar, and was the daughter of a New Jersey Supreme Court justice. Her mother was a Kendrick, a descendant of an old, pedigreed New York family. Her marriage to Charles produced two children, Sheila and Charles Jr. Marjorie and Charles were distant parents, uninvolved in their children’s lives – and with each other after a while. Their divorce proceedings revealed that Charles had mismanaged Marjorie’s inheritance as badly as he’d squandered Nazimova’s fortune.

Charles continued to perform on Broadway occasionally over the next several years. He died on August 7, 1948, in Mount Kisco, New York. That same year his daughter Sheila married the novelist Richard Yates, whose best-known work was Revolutionary Road, published in 1961 and made into a movie starring Leonardo di Caprio in 2008.

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