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Diva Supreme

NAZIMOVA A Biography By Gavin Lambert; Alfred A. Knopf: 420 pp., $32.50

July 13, 1997|ERIC LAX | Eric Lax is the author, along with A.M. Sperber, of "Bogart" (William Morrow)

The half-century that Alla Nazimova has languished in obscurity is a decade longer than the time she basked in fame. The Russian-born actress transformed the theater of her time with her natural approach to her craft, and her independent life mirrored the New Woman she introduced to America in her electrifying interpretations of Ibsen, beginning in 1906 with Hedda Gabler. Besides the five major Ibsen roles she made her own, she also gave life to Chekhov's Madame Ranevskaya ("The Cherry Orchard"), Turgenev's Natalya Petrovna ("A Month in the Country") and O'Neill's Christine Mannon ("Mourning Becomes Electra"). Her talent was such that she is a strand of the DNA in the evolution of acting.

As Gavin Lambert points out in his lively and engaging biography "Nazimova," "a line, not straight but unbroken, runs from Stanislavsky to Nazimova to the Lunts to the Group Theatre to the Actors Studio, which was founded two years after Nazimova died" in 1945 at the age of 66. In addition, she inspired the cream of American playwrights. Eugene O'Neill saw "Hedda Gabler" 10 times and later said it gave him "my first conception of modern theater." Tennessee Williams recalled that "the first time I wanted to become a playwright was when I saw Alla Nazimova in [Ibsen's] 'Ghosts.' . . . She was so shatteringly powerful that I couldn't stay in my seat." Thornton Wilder, Noel Coward, Don Marquis and Clifford Odets were equally enamored.

The first female mogul in Hollywood, she wrote, directed, produced and starred in her own silent films: "Billions" (1920), "Salome" (1923) and "Revelation" (1918). She not only gave Rudolph Valentino one of his earliest roles, she introduced him to two of her former lovers, Jean Acker and Natacha Rambova, who both became his wives. And she was the godmother of Nancy Davis Reagan.

Yet if Alla Nazimova's name comes to mind today at all, it is generally misspelled with an added "h," as in the deity. Also as in the Garden of Allah, the sophisticated hotel at 8080 Sunset Blvd. that was once her home but which we associate with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Benchley, Louise Brooks, Humphrey Bogart and a generation of other literati and actors to whom history and memory have been kinder. Nazimova, who was making $13,000 a week at the time she bought the property in 1918 for $65,000, spent half as much again remodeling the interior, building a swimming pool more or less shaped like the Black Sea, and planting trees and flowers on the three-plus acres of land. She called it the Garden of Alla and lived there with a personal maid, secretary, gardener, cook, housemaid and butler. In residence as well was the British actor Charles Bryant, to whom she was ostensibly married and with whom she starred in several plays and films. Although the couple enjoyed a period of romance, Bryant was more a beard than a mate. He seemed to vanish on the many Sundays Nazimova hosted parties for young girls only, which helped to make her, in Lambert's words, "the godmother [of the] so-called Broadway and Hollywood lesbians."

By 1930, the estate had been turned into a hotel with 24 added bungalows (and renamed the Garden of Allah after Robert Hitchens' best-selling novel), after an enterprising pair of swindlers named John and Jean Adams relieved Alla of almost all her ready cash. The Adamses were only the latest characters in the cast of monsters, geniuses, madmen, opportunists, sexual ambivalents and great names of show business who populated the operatic mis en scene of Nazimova's life, an undertaking she early on surmised was and would remain a rocky one when she wrote in her diary, "If I haven't lived beautifully, I must act beautifully!"

There was certainly nothing beautiful about the beginnings of Mariam Edez Adelaida Leventon, born in Yalta on June 4, 1879, and called Adel for short until her mother, Sonya, thought Alla was prettier. Sonya had tried at least twice to escape from her pharmacist and wife-beater husband, Yakov, and was ready to attempt it again, this time with Yakov's sympathetic assistant, until she discovered she was pregnant with their third child. "Without telling her husband or her lover, she tried all the peasant formulas for miscarriage: steam baths, bitter and nauseous herbal concoctions, jumping up and down the stairs to the roof." In part from guilt, Alla became her mother's favorite. When Alla was 5, Yakov divorced Sonya and turned her out of the house. (Mother and daughter would see each other only once again.) When Alla asked what had happened to her mother, Yakov slapped her in the face. Something as minor as dirty fingernails would trigger the countless beatings she endured; her horrific childhood reads like a particularly imaginative Dickens novel, complete with Yakov dropping off Nazimova and her siblings to be raised for a few years by a peasant family the children had never met.

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