After dinner with Glesca in their villa on June 30, 1945, Alla Nazimova suffered a coronary thrombosis – a heart attack. She was rushed to the hospital. She remained there for the next two weeks, during which time her condition deteriorated. When her nephew Val Lewton, the producer of “Cat People” and other horror films for RKO, visited her in the hospital, Alla did not recognize him. She died the next morning, July 13, 1945. She was 66.
Alla had made three films since “Blood and Sand” in 1941, all three were filmed in 1944. In “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” she played Marquesa Dona Maria. In “In Our Time,” which starred Ida Lupino and Paul Heinreid, she played Zofia Orwid, a Polish aristocrat facing the Nazi invasion.
Alla’s final film was “Since You Went Away.” It had an all-star cast: Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, teenaged Shirley Temple and Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel. Nazimova played Zofia Koslowska, World War II Polish refugee working in an American factory. It neatly bookended her film career. Like her first film, “War Brides,” focused on the lives of women on the home front during wartime.
Also fittingly, “Since You Went Away” was produced by David O. Selznick, the son of Lewis Selznick, who had produced “War Brides” in 1916. The younger Selznick had intended “Since You Went Away” to be a follow-up – thematically, at least – to his 1939 megahit, “Gone with the Wind,” which depicted the lives of women on the home front during the Civil War. (It made $7 million on a budget of $3.25 million, which was not bad, but couldn’t compete with “Gone with the Wind,” which remains the highest-grossing film of all time, when revenue is adjusted for inflation.)
Alla and her friend Lucky Luckett had kept up a correspondence over the years. Now known by her given name Edith, she had retired from the stage when she married Dr. Loyal Davis of Chicago. In 1938, when the national tour of Nazimova’s production of Ibsen’s Ghost stopped in Chicago, Edith hosted a reception for her. Prominent women clamored for an invitation to meet the great Nazimova.
In April 1945 Lucky’s daughter Nancy Davis visited Alla at the Garden. At age 23, Nancy still called her godmother “Zim,” a childhood mispronunciation of “Nazimova.” The future Nancy Reagan would remember Villa 24 as “so small, nicely furnished but … how terrible it must be for her after all that fame and glamour. Nazimova had no self-pity, bore her situation very gracefully, but I don’t think I could have ended living that way.”
It’s unlikely Alla and Nancy talked about politics, but Nazimova was an ardent liberal, registered Democrat and a supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt. The future first lady’s views may have been shaped by her stepfather, Dr. Loyal Davis, a rock-ribbed Republican, who’s often credited with convincing her future husband Ronald Reagan to switch parties from Democrat to Republican. Whatever it was they talked about, when the visit was over Alla and Nancy had what would be their last embrace.
Writing in the early 1990s, Gavin Lambert starts his biography of Nazimova: “To have been famous for 40 years, then forgotten for 50, is better than simply being famous for 15 minutes; but fame as intense and prolonged as Alla Nazimova’s is rarely followed by almost total eclipse.” Change 50 years to 70 years, and his assessment is still true.
Lambert suggests that the resurgence of interest in Nazimova is a byproduct of the gay civil rights movement and renewed interest in early 20th century celebrities who were sexually fluid. She has erroneously assigned the role of godmother to a group of women she supposedly called “a sewing circle” that included Eva LeGallienne, Talulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, among others. And while there is some truth to this — Nazimova had many affairs with both women and men — she was not out of the closet as it’s thought of today.
She was also tremendously influential, especially among young people with theatrical aspirations. Eugene O’Neill saw Nazimova’s premiere run in “Hedda Gabler” on Broadway in 1906 ten times. He was 18 years old, and later said it was his “first conception of modern theatre.” Tennessee Williams was 24 when had a similar experience when he saw her perform in St. Louis, in 1935. “The first time I wanted to become a playwright, was when I saw Alla Nazimova in “Ghosts,” he wrote later.” She was so shatteringly powerful that I couldn’t stay in my seat.” Thornton Wilder, Noel Coward and Clifford Odets all cited the influence of Nazimova on their writing for the stage.
Nazimova feared obscurity. “I am vain, and afraid that I’ll leave nothing of myself behind when I die, nothing to be remembered by,” she wrote in her diary. “An actress is dead when the last person to remember her dies! And that is not enough for me!”
Host of Hosts
In April 1945, Berlin fell to the Allies. In August, the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Japan. Their surrender brought an end to World War II. Three months later, on November 21, Robert Benchley was felled by a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 56.
Nazimova had mostly kept to herself during her time at the Garden. Her passing was noted, but her absence had no impact on the hotel’s raucous social scene. In retrospect, however, Benchley’s death was a harbinger of things to come at the Garden of Allah.
Benchley appeared in 48 short films. He won the Oscar for Best Short Subject in 1935 for “How to Sleep.” Benchley played both the narrator and the subject of the piece, a man dealing with four aspects of sleeplessness: Causes, methods, avoiding sleep and waking up. Benchley quipped that his performance was “not much of a strain, as I am in bed most of the time.”
The Oscar bolstered the acting career he’d never sought. He graduated from bit parts to featured roles in A-list pictures, most notably appearing in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent,” with Joel McRae, in 1940.
Dorothy Parker is better remembered today, but Benchley was, as Sheilah Graham put it, not only the hotel’s “host of hosts,” he was “the reflection and the heart of the Garden of Allah.”
Bob’s son Nat Benchley, the writer, often visited his father at the Garden in the early years. He returned to the hotel years later and found that nothing was the same. “I didn’t stay there,” he told Sheilah Graham. “I was at the Chateau Marmont, but I went over the Garden and took a lonesome sad walk around it. There were drunks at the bar and no sign of the old joy.”
Nat’s son also grew up to be writer. Peter Benchley, Robert Benchley’s grandson, wrote the novel, Jaws.
Seven months after Robert Benchley died, on June 13, 1946, his friend Charles Butterworth left a nightclub on the Sunset Strip, put the top down on his MG Magnette and sped away. He hadn’t gone far when he lost control of the car. It skidded 180 feet and crashed into a utility pole at Sunset and La Cienega boulevards. Charlie was thrown from the car. His head hit the pavement, fracturing his skull. He died without regaining consciousness. His blood alcohol level was .25%, well over the baseline for inebriation. Charles Butterworth was 46.
Dottie Is Out
When Dorothy Parker returned to Hollywood in the late 1940s, she abandoned the Garden and moved across the street to the Chateau Marmont. With her was her little dog. but not by Alan Campbell, her cowriter and now ex-husband. They had recently divorced after 14 years.
Robert Benchley had introduced her to Alan in 1932. She was immediately impressed. He struck her as a young Scott Fitzgerald. He was 28 and she was 39. They found that they each had something the other needed. He was a screenwriter whose career had stalled after a three-month contract with MGM. Dottie needed someone to take care of her, and that was something Alan was happy to do.
They moved in together in New York. Alan took care of domestic chores. He shopped, cooked, washed dishes, did odd jobs around the house, walked the dogs and fixed cocktails. All Dottie had to do was write. When the opportunity arose, he helped her with the writing and soon they became a writing team.
They signed a ten-week contract with Paramount in 1934. On their way to Hollywood they got married in Raton, New Mexico. It’s likely they lived at the Garden for at least part of the time. They worked on five screenplays, including “Suzy,” a vehicle for Jean Harlow, the Blonde Bombshell, in 1936. The following year they worked on “A Star Is Born,” which would earn them an Academy Award nomination. They returned in 1938 to work on the script for a Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy picture, “Sweethearts.” Along the way they put in a stint writing for Columbia Pictures.
By this time they were living in a Beverly Hills mansion with a butler and a cook. They also bought a country home, Fox House Farm, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Back in Beverly Hills in 1940, Dorothy experienced suicidal thoughts and so Alan moved her back to the Garden of Allah. She had attempted suicide at least twice, and in 1926 wrote a poem about it titled, “Resume”:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
In 1943, Dottie contributed to the script for “Watch on the Rhine,” based on a play about the Resistance in World War II by her friend Lillian Hellman. In She received her second Oscar nomination for best-screenplay in 1947 for “Smash Up: The Story of a Woman.” She was having an affair then with Ross Evans, a young actor and aspiring writer. Dottie and Allan Campbell divorced a few months later. “Oh, don’t worry about Alan,” she once said. “He will always land on somebody’s feet.”
During the time she stayed at the Marmont, Dottie and Ross Evans worked on the script for “Lady Windemere’s Fan,” based on the Oscar Wilde film, directed by Otto Preminger and released as “The Fan” in 1949. She also wrote a play with Ross that opened later that year and promptly folded.
Ross broke up with her after the play bombed. Dottie told a friend that he dropped her because he’d found out she was “half a Jew.”
Dottie and Alan remarried in 1950. “He wanted to help take care of her,” a friend said. “Alan was so wonderful for her, and she would crucify him, but she relied on him and he was lovely to her.”
Dottie moved into a small house he bought on Norma Avenue in West Hollywood. Alan died there in 1963 under unusual circumstances. He took a large number of sedatives, wrapped his head in a plastic dry-cleaning bag and suffocated to death. The cause of death was listed as “accidental.”
A neighbor from the tightknit group on Norma Avenue asked Dottie if she needed anything. The grieving widow replied, “Get me another husband.“ This was something the woman couldn’t do, of course. “Then run down to the corner,” Dottie said, “and get me a ham and cheese on rye. And tell them to hold the mayo.”
With nothing to keep her in California, Dorothy Parker returned to New York. She died there in 1967.
Algonquins Gone Hip
When Benchley, Parker and the others left the Garden of Allah, a trace of the Algonquins’ spirit – its blend of wit, sophistication and booze – continued on with Humphrey Bogart. He’d met them in New York and reconnected with them when he moved to the Garden. By the late 1950s, Bogart and Bacall were settled in in Holmby Hills, an exclusive area of West Los Angeles. Around them coalesced a group of Hollywood friends whose wit, sophistication and, certainly, boozing rivaled the Algonquins. They called themselves the Holmby Hills Rat Pack. Like the Round Table, it had no charter or official membership. Yyou were either in or you weren’t. The members were all A-listers – Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, her husband Sid Luft, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, George Cukor, Cary Grant, Rex Harrison, David Niven, Robert Benchley’s son Nathaniel, agent Swifty Lazar, and others.
After Bogart’s death a new Rat Pack gathered around Frank Sinatra, Holmby Hills Rat Pack member and, like Bogart, a Garden of Allah alumnus. They were all performers – Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, Angie Dickinson and Shirley MacLaine. With the exception of MacLaine, they lacked anything close to the Algonquins’ intellectual heft. The Alongquins called themselves the Vicious Circle. …dissolution was part of the identity…
When gambling left the Sunset Strip and moved to Las Vegas in the early 1960s, Sinatra and crew went with it. They performed in the top clubs in the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip to sold-out crowds. They also made a series of movies, including particularly, “Ocean’s 11,” that put their new cool vibe on display.
But by the 1970s, their brand of cool was already passé. It was then, in the smoky nightclubs of Sin City, that the cycle ended.