Nazimova: A Biography, by Gavin Lambert

bookshot-nazimova-lambertThere are so few biographies of Alla Nazimova that it is easy to cast this one by Gavin Lambert, the screenwriter for “Inside Daisy Clover” as well as a biographer of Norma Shearer, as “definitive.” It is without a doubt required reading for anyone who is interested in Madame and her life as well as for all fans of Hollywood in the days of the Movie Colony and the silent film era.

From the New York Times review of Nazimova published not long after the book was released in 1997:

How in four years she went from being an unknown actress who spoke no English to an American star for whom the Shuberts named a theater is an amazing tale, and Gavin Lambert, in ”Nazimova,” a gracefully written, highly entertaining, surprisingly poignant biography, makes the most of it. The author of a biography of Norma Shearer (among many other works of fact and fiction set in Hollywood), Mr. Lambert charts Nazimova’s up-and-down career and squishy private life. Having jettisoned a casually acquired Russian husband when she emigrated, she lived for many years with a British actor, Charles Bryant, who piggybacked on her acting successes and soaked her for money but otherwise appears to have performed few husbandly functions. Still, he was publicly identified as her husband, and when he left her for another woman the truth emerged that she had lived with him out of wedlock, causing something of a scandal. She survived it. The secret she felt most compelled to guard was that most of her romances were with women, one of whom, Glesca Marshall, shared her final years, from 1929 to 1945. (Among the more incredible facts of this stranger-than-fiction story: Nazimova was Nancy Reagan’s godmother.)

Nazimova comes most alive in this biography — and perhaps in her life — on stage. The descriptions of her American debut performance as Hedda Gabler and her comeback triumph (Ibsen again) in ”Ghosts” evoke the thrill that her audiences felt. Like most stars of her era, Nazimova made some silent films, but her genius was in theater. Those performances have vanished, as has another of her celebrated achievements, the Sunset Boulevard estate she called the Garden of Alla. It became a center of Hollywood’s bohemian high life, but in 1926, engulfed by one of her recurring financial crises, Nazimova embarked on a real estate scheme to develop it as a hotel. Unfortunately, her partners were swindlers, so she saw no profits from the rechristened Garden of Allah. However, she elected to live her last years in one of the 24 bungalows that were built on the grounds. The Garden of Allah, itself a landmark of the Hollywood glamour of the 30’s, was torn down long ago. In the Hollywood of the 90’s, it has been replaced by a mini-shopping center.

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