The divine Alla Nazimova’s (1879 – 1945) life has been given the royal treatment by Gavin Lambert in his new biography Nazimova (Knopf, 1997). No finer tribute can be paid that meticulous research separating the myth from the truth and uniting the research with fine writing. Alla Nazimova was not merely “the reclusive landlady of the Garden of Allah.” Nor was she simply the godmother to Nancy Davis, later to become First Lady Mrs. Ronald Reagan. Lambert integrates the artist and the woman to form an unforgettable portrait of a Hollywood cinema original. This Russian Born actress, star of stage and screen, introduced the geniuses of Europe – Stanislavsky, Chekhov and Ibsen – to American audiences on the stage. Often times Madame Alla was imperious in her artistic and personal demands. However, she was known to be motherly toward her protégés – and there were many. When she crossed over to film, she discovered Richard Barthelmess, elevated rising star Rudolph Valentino to the strata of living legend and nurtured the careers of writer June Mathis and designer Natacha Rambova. In the process, Nazimova brought American cinema to a more sophisticated realm. Yet, these gifts, combined with her own screen dynamism could not prevent her from being all but forgotten.
The nature of Nazimova has inspired provocative commentary. Always controversial in her artistic and private pursuits, this book is not an expose to shock with schlock. Rather, the notorious life of this great performer is truthfully examined. She was at the avant-garde of bohemianism, hedonism and sensuality. She was an artist who dazzled by completely giving herself over to her craft – it was the darkest passages of her life that gave her art something that could only be felt, but not described. In the process, Nazimova attempted to reinvent the role of woman in art and society. Considered an eccentric visionary, she was ahead of her time and preferred it that way. It was simply her nature to push convention, and not surprisingly she chafed at having to conform to society’s mores. She reluctantly compromised by establishing a marriage of convenience with actor Charles Bryant for 13 years. This elaborate ruse made it possible for her to continue to pursue her art and lifestyle as she desired.