Garden of Alla

Museum Without Walls

The luxurious house and lush gardens and the remote and rustic setting counterbalanced remoteness and rusticity, and that appealed to Alla. In Hayvenhurst she found the refinement of her apartment at Hotel des Artistes in Mahnattan in a setting as bucolic as Who-Torok. She took a lease on the house right away.

Over the next few months, Nazimova spent about $30,000 — a half-million dollars today – on improvements. She added a terrace with an aviary, a rose garden and masses of semitropicals — mimosa, birds of paradise and poinsettia — but left the orange grove, lily pond, cedars and palms as she found them.

She was fully ensconced by mid-December. Around that time she told Los Angeles Times reporter Grace Kingsley, “Yes, I’ve a wonderful home out near Laurel Canyon, where there are a swimming pool and five fireplaces and even chickens in the back yard by day and mocking birds by night. And please say that I’m tremendously happy to be in California.”

Publicity pieces for Nazimova movies, 'Out of the Fog' and 'Eye for Eye'
Publicity pieces for Nazimova movies, ‘Out of the Fog’ and ‘Eye for Eye’

Upon arriving in Hollywood, Nazimova went to work right away filming “Eye for Eye” (originally titled “L’Occident”). Set in North Africa, it was a response to the public interest in the Sahara Desert – three years later the release of “The Sheik,” starring Rudolph Valentino, will be a huge hit and make Valentino a star. In “Eye for Eye,” Nazimova played an Arab princess whose love for a Legionnaire (played by Charles Bryant) causes her to be shunned by her tribe.

Nazimova’s next project was the film version of “‘Ception Shoals,” written by June Mathis and re-titled “Out of the Fog.” Alla played dual characters, the young mother who commits suicide and, years later, her teenaged daughter.

Nazimova in The Red Lantern,' 1919
Nazimova in The Red Lantern,’ 1919, her only surviving box office hit

Her third Hollywood production was “Red Lantern.” In it, Nazimova played yet another dual role. Set against the backdrop of the Boxer Rebellion, she played half-sisters, one of whom was the illegitimate daughter of a Chinese woman and an Englishman (not played by Charles), and the other the daughter of the Englishman and his wife. Both sisters fall in love with an American diplomat. When the half-sister is spurned by the American, she joins the rebellion where she is elevated to the status of Goddess of the Red Lantern. The story reaches its tragic conclusion when the murder of the American by the rebels drives Nazimova’s character to commit suicide on her peacock throne.

Los Angeles Times writer Grace Kingsley noted that Charles was not in the movie for once, but was instead Madame’s chauffeur. “Just then in came her handsome husband, Charles Bryant, arrived to take her home,” Kingsley wrote. “He isn’t playing in the picture because the principal male roles is something of a villain and Nazimova doesn’t like her husband to play villains.”

“Eye for Eye” was another commercial success. In an introduction to its interview with Nazimova about the film, Motion Picture Classic magazine declared, “With the advent of Motion Pictures, the public and the critics, as well as our Editorial Staff, have been eagerly looking for one artist who would embody everything that the art of the silent drama should have. The search is over. In Alla Nazimova we have beauty, we have a depth of emotionalism never depicted before, and we have art with such little touches of finesse that she unconsciously stands alone.”

Nazimova can hardly be blamed for allowing praise like that to go to her head. On Broadway, she had often taken over production duties, everything from overseeing the design of sets and costumes to directing her own scenes or the entire play. Two years into her film career — about as long as it took for her to learn the techniques involved in the new medium — she began to take over in a similar fashion.

She asserted control, notably by firing crew members, including experienced, competent directors with whom she had recently produced hits. But because the level of financial risk in movies was quite different than on Broadway, Nazimova felt she had to hide her maneuvering from her bosses at Metro. One ploy was to give Charles Bryant credit as assistant director and other titles, making him both her professional and private beard.

Nazmova in 'The Brat,' 1919
Nazmova in ‘The Brat,’ 1919

Alla’s luck continued into the next year. Both “Out of the Fog,” which opened in February, and “Red Lantern,” which opened in May did well at the box office and were well-received by critics. (“Red Lantern” is one of a very few of Alla’s pictures that survive today.)

Early in the summer of 1919 she began filming a comedy titled “The Brat,” which was the first movie she secretly directed herself. Based on a recent Broadway hit, the storyline is a riff on the Pygmalion myth. A novelist is entranced by a teenaged chorus girl (a prostitute in the play) and endeavors to teach how to behave like a lady so he can introduce her to his high-class friends. The project may have been a subtle jab at Mary Pickford, who had built her career playing juvenile parts, starting when she was seventeen and continuing well into adulthood. Alla was 39 when she played the teenager role in the Brat.

Nazimova Buys Hayvenhurst

In August, Nazimova made her relocation to Hollywood official. After leasing Hayvenhurst from William Hay for about nine months, she purchased it outright. She paid $65,000 – a little less than one million dollars today, which seems low for a two-and-a-half acre property in Crescent Heights, a desirable section of western Hollywood.

Photographs of the interior of Alla Nazimova’s home published in Picture Show magazine, January 1921
Photographs of the interior of Alla Nazimova’s home published in Picture Show magazine, January 1921. (Click to enlarge.)

Alla’s biographer Gavin Lambert described it as “a classic movie star’s showplace. Its immense tiled hallway dominated by a Mexican chandelier and two massive antique chests, its vast living room with another tiled floor, beamed ceiling, couch and armchairs upholstered in purple velvet, gilded wall candelabra, baronial fireplace, a grand piano. A broad tiled stairway led to the upper floor, and in Nazimova’s bedroom the piece de resistance was a huge circular window that she installed above her bed. A photograph shows her posed below it, hazy sunlight pour through to heighten the already soft-focus effect.”  

In 1922, Photoplay published a profile of Nazimova that described her estate as having “the dignity which you would expect of Madame. A large square house with walls of yellow tint, situated among trees and hedges on the road that leads to Beverly Hills, it contrives to give the appearance of age and cloistered privacy. And that’s a great piece of histrionism for a house in Hollywood.”

Inside the house, “The drawing room has none of the severity of the modern décor,” he wrote. “In the evening the amber light from several lamps, heavily veiled in mauve and black, diffuses a charm of velvet richness: the purple of great divans, the ebony of lacquer, crystal lights reflected from a mirror laced with gold, the soft folds of velvet hangings, and over all a faint pervasive fragrance of the Orient that always hovers to the garments of Nazimova.”

She jokingly dubbed the estate “the Garden of Alla,” a humorous reference to a British novel, The Garden of Allah, written by Robert Smythe Hichens. A runaway bestseller in 1904, it’s the story of a Catholic priest in Algeria, who renounces his vows, flees to the desert – the proverbial “garden of Allah” – and falls in love with a woman whose life is soon in peril.

Cover of 'The Garden of Allah,' 1904 novel by Robert Smythe Hichens
Cover of ‘The Garden of Allah,’ 1904 novel by Robert Smythe Hichens

The novel was the basis of three movies – two silent versions, in 1916 and 1927, and a Technicolor version released in 1936. It starred Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer that was produced by David O. Selznick. It was filmed as beautifully as Selznick’s “Gone with the Wind,” filmed three years later, but as Dietrich famously said, “The script was trash.”

Nazimova quickly immersed herself in her new life. Her home became a stage where she played out the dual aspects of her nature. To showcase her intellectual side, she established one of the first salons in Hollywood, a regular formal gathering at her home that came to be known as the 8080 Club, a reference to the estate’s address, 8080 Sunset Boulevard. (It was later changed to 8152 Sunset.) The guest list was restricted to her Hollywood peers as well as visiting East Coast and European intellectuals.

Alla dressed extravagantly for the salons, sometimes in vibrant Chinese costumes or a simple shift adorned with a brilliantly colored charmeuse, and she was never without her Egyptian cigarettes which she smoked in a foot-long ebony cigarette holder.

On Sunday afternoons, however, Alla indulged the other side of her nature by hosting pool parties to which the only guests were women, particularly young starlets. Rumors at the time suggested the parties were clothing optional. This could be true – nude swimming and sun bathing was an acceptable practice in Europe, and still is.

In moving to Crescent Heights at the western border of Hollywood in 1918, Nazimova pioneered the movie colony’s migration west from Hollywood. It was a year later that Douglas Fairbanks Jr. bought a hunting lodge on Summit Drive that he and Mary Pickford would later transform into Pickfair, an estate as famous in its era as the White House. But Nazimova blazed the trail westward from Hollywood.

Alla wrote to her sister Nina about living in Hollywood that summer. “I look through my windoes [sic] upon the mountains where here and there peep out white villas like in Yalta,” she wrote, “[and upon] mimosa trees in our garden in full bloom below … Charles rides a good deal in the canyons and brings delicious honey which people living on top of mountains sell. There are thousands of beehives for the sage honey and Charles loves it.”

To make her life in Hollywood complete, Nazimova bought a Rolls Royce. It was one of the first, if not the first, Rolls purchased by a member of the movie colony. But Alla had never learned to drive, and even though she had a maid, a secretary and a butler on staff, there was no chauffer. It fell to Charles to drive her to and from work or wherever she wanted to go. 

It was the least he could do. Not only had he appeared in nearly every play and movie Alla had made since they met, including many leading roles that probably should have gone to abler actors, he had his own deal with Metro and was paid $1,000 a week during production. Charles also served as Alla’s business manager, a service for which he likely took ten percent. Despite his background in finance, however, Charles was no better than Alla at managing money. Neither of them detected any risk, for example, in falsely filing joint tax returns as a married couple.

Smitten: Jean Acker

Jean Acker
Jean Acker

In the midst of a very busy summer, Alla visited New York, where she met a 26 year old actress named Jeanne Acker. Alla must have been smitten. She quickly took Jeanne (who would soon shorten her name to Jean) into her bed and under her wing, with promises to help her find work in Hollywood.

Jean claimed to be part Cherokee. She was dark-haired and attractive, with a slightly brooding aspect. As a “type” she seemed more suitable for supporting parts than lead roles. At Nazimova’s behest, Jean was given a contract at Metro and paid two-hundred dollars a week.

Alla installed Jean at the Hollywood Hotel, a sprawling, 250 room Mission Revival establishment at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, the site today of the Chinese Theatre complex. When the hotel opened in 1902 it had catered to carriage-trade tourists. Later, it was popular with film colony elites.

Jean Acker was cast in two films that fall. Off the set, however, living in Alla’s world seemed to unnerve her. She felt out of place among the Hollywood royals and international intelligentsia at the 8080 Club, and she was wary of the competition among the young bathing beauties at the Sunday afternoon pool parties.

In late August, Alla began filming “Stronger than Death,” for which, once again, she wrote the script based on a novel but gave Charles the screenwriting credit. It was a convoluted story. Nazimova played a French woman whose career as a dancer was cut short by heart disease, which inexplicably led her to travel to India to find a rich husband. She found a poor doctor (Charles) instead. When he was falsely accused of murder, a rebellion arose among the local people that she selflessly attempted to quell with an exotic dance.

“The Brat” opened on September 1 to generally good reviews. Grace Kingsley at the Times called “elfish humor and delightful humanness.” But Nazimova’s first foray into comedy did only modestly well at the box office.

Both Jean and Alla had affairs in the early fall. Jean’s was with an actress named Grace Darmond, a 21-year-old Paramount player; Alla’s was with a 22-year-old script girl named Dorothy Arzner. Arzner would later become one of the most prolific women directors in the early studio era. Her credits included “Christopher Strong,” which starred Katherine Hepburn playing a boy, and “The Bride Wore Red,” starring Joan Crawford, among other studio productions.

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