Nazimova Returns

Museum Without Walls

Alla Nazimova in promotional photo for the radio drama, 'This Lonely Heart, ' 1940
Alla Nazimova in promotional photo for the radio drama, ‘This Lonely Heart, ‘ 1940
Alla Nazimova returned to the Garden of Allah in 1941, 11 years after she’d moved to New York to resume her Broadway career. She had a good run during this third act of her professional life – act one was her years on the stage; the second act was her silent-film career. During her return to Broadway, she’d appeared in 11 plays in as many years.

Nazimova had recently begun a fourth act. She had returned to the movies. She would appear in five films – not as the lead, but in scene stealing supporting roles.

There was also a new arrangement in her personal life. She was accompanied by her partner of 13 years, Glesca Marshall. They’d met at the Civic Theatre in the Village during rehearsals for “The Cherry Orchard.” Nazimova was playing Madame Ranevskaya, the lead role, and Glesca was an apprentice. Dinner after rehearsals became a regular thing. Things progressed quickly. Glesca had moved in with Alla before the show opened, and they had been together ever since.

They took Villa 24, a second floor unit by the pool. Nazimova paid to have a deck built on the front so that she could sit in the son and watch young people swimming and sunbathing by the oddly shaped pool she had designed 20 years earlier.

Alla Nazimova-as Madame Ranevsky in 'The Cherry Orchard'
Alla Nazimova-as Madame Ranevsky in ‘The Cherry Orchard’
Nazimova’s return to the legitimate stage in 1928 in “The Cherry Orchard” was a successful start to her comeback. Her performance was “moving and real,” one reviewer wrote, “and filled with “subtlety of gesture and grace of movement.” She played to packed houses during the entire run.

Nazimova would later say that working on “The Cherry Orchard” had moved her personally. Ranevskaya was a Russian aristocrat who’s forced to sell the family’s estate, including its prized cherry orchard. In a climactic scene the family listens in silence as the new owners chop away at the cherry trees. When she played that scene, Nazimova said, she she imagined hearing her own creditors chopping away at the Garden of Alla. “The moment was very personal, very intimate,” she said.

In 1932, Nazimova appeared in the premiere production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra.” The casting was poignant for the playwright. In 1906, at age 18, he’d seen Nazimova’s “Hedda Gabler” ten times. He described it as “my first conception of modern theatre.”

The production was well-received. The review in the New York Times said it was “a universal tragedy of tremendous stature … played by Mme. Nazimova with consummate artistry and passion.” Robert Benchley, home from Hollywood to cover the new theatre season in the New Yorker, wrote that “the drama lost much when [Nazimova] withdrew into the shades of the House of Mannon never to return.”

For a magazine article during her performance (with Claude Rains) in the original production of “The Good Earth” at the Guild Theatre, Nazimova opened up about what she’d lost.

“I had a beautiful home in Hollywood,” Nazimova said. “For a long time I had dreamed of how happy I should be when I could have all the things that I wanted around me. One morning I was awakened by my maid saying the houses on the hill opposite were burning, and the fire would soon reach my house,” she said. I realized I must save whatever I wanted most.” Nazimova went through her house from room to room but couldn’t find anything she urgently needed to take with her. She stopped in her library and thought about saving her books, but there wasn’t time. Finally she returned to her bedroom. “There were snapshots on the bed. I took them in my pocketbook and left.”

After Nazimova got the all clear and returned to her house. “I went back, but I did not like my house anymore,” she remembered. “I had discovered that when it came to the last test, there was nothing there that really mattered to me today. Today I have not so many things and I am happier.”

Alla Nazimova and Claude Rains in the original Broadway production of The Good Earth, 1932
Alla Nazimova and Claude Rains in the original Broadway production of ‘The Good Earth,’ 1932

“The Good Earth” ran for 56 performances. Things were going well at home too. Glesca Marshall had assumed Charles Bryant’s role as Alla’s manager. She took business courses and soon had finances under control. She also negotiated Nazimova’s contract, ensuring in most cases that she was paid more than other cast members. An actor friend remarked that it was “ironic that an insignificant understudy in a repertory company should guide a celebrated though bankrupt film star back to solvency and a new career surpassing in brilliance anything she’d known before.”

In 1935, she directed Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts.” She also played the lead, Mrs. Alving. After the opening in Philadelphia, the Inquirer reviewer said her Mrs. Alving “should live as one of the great performances of our age.” The show opened at the Empire Theatre on Broadway on December 12, 1935. It was another triumph. At the end, the audience stood for the ovation, and there were shouts of “Bravo!”

When “Ghosts” went on tour, at its stop in St. Louis, Tennessee Williams, then 24, was in the audience one night. He remembered the final scene as “so fabulous, so terrifyingly exciting” that he leapt to his feet and fled to the peanut gallery in the back of theatre, pacing up and down as the scene played out.

Nazimova staged “Hedda Gabler” in 1936 for the third and what would prove to be the last time. She received 31 curtain calls on opening night. Many of the reviews were good, but others tended to focus on the fact that she was a bit of “an old shoe,” as she put it, playing 29-year-old Hedda at age 57.

In 1938 she appeared in the title role in “The Mother” with 19-year-old Montgomery Clift as the son. It was wildly received on opening night. The audience stood for eight curtain calls and then left their seats and swarmed the foot of the stage. One of the actors in the cast remembered it as “hysteria — a cult audience.” Gratifying, perhaps, but not the sort of appreciation of her performance that Alla was seeking.

At the end of May in 1937, around the time of her 58th birthday, Alla discovered a lump under her arm. The biopsy found cancer, and Alla underwent a mastectomy on June 4. The procedure was a disturbing experience, especially for someone who viewed herself as indestructible. It was meant to be a secret. Alla hadn’t even told her sister. But one of the doctors told his wife, the actress Helen Menken – who happened to have been Humphrey Bogart’s first wife – and the word quickly spread throughout the theatre community.

Promotional still of Alla Nazimova in 'Escape'
Promotional photo of Alla Nazimova in ‘Escape’

During her recuperation, Nazimova came to a decision. She would return to Hollywood and make what she could out of a movie career in late middle age. With Glesca, she moved west. At first, they lived in rented homes in Hollywood and Pacific Palisades. In “Escape,” in 1940, Alla played a famous actress scheduled for execution in a Nazi concentration camp. The next year she played bullfighter Tyrone Power’s mother in a color third remake of “Blood and Sand.”

Later that year, Alla and Glesca moved into Villa 24 at the Garden of Allah.

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