On November 13, 1906, just six months after she’d signed with Shubert, Nazimova opened on Broadway in “Hedda Gabler,” in English. Audiences were electrified by her performance. Hedda Gabler was usually played as a mousey housewife who committed suicide. Nazimova found a different truth within Hedda’s character and turned her fatal self-inflicted gunshot into an act of triumph and revenge. With encouragement from her producers, she rotated a production of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” into the schedule.
Eugene O’Neill saw Nazimova in this production of “Hedda Gabler” when he was 18 years old. He was so awestruck he saw the show ten times. Later, after he’d become a great playwright, he described her performance as a transformative experience. “It was my first conception of a modern theatre,” he said.
In April, she opened for the Shuberts in “Comtesse Coquette,” a popular comedy in Europe. Her performances sold out throughout the run. Her next show was Ibsen’s “The Master Builder,” which opened in September. In the cast was Gertrude Berkeley, who became a lifelong friend. Her son Busby Berkeley would become a choreographer for the movie studios. Audiences loved his elaborately synchronized routines featuring dozens of dancers, such as numbers like “We’re in the Money” from “The Gold Diggers of 1933” and many other Depression-era movies.
As the reviewer had predicted two years earlier Alla Nazimova was becoming a household name in America. She met the current president, Theodore Roosevelt, at a reception. She also met former President Grover Cleveland and famous writers like Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain.
She had several affairs with men during this period and refused an offer of marriage from a department store heir. Still, Nazimova was surprised by the provincial attitudes about sex she found among Americans, and lived in constant fear that she might be deported as a “female of bad character,” as had happened to Maxim Gorky’s mistress around the time that the Orlenev company had arrived in New York.
In December 1907, she opened in “The Comet,” a melodrama about a famous actress who returns to her hometown and falls in love with a young man who turns out to be the son of the man who was her first lover. It was panned by the critics and closed in two weeks, but there was chemistry between Alla and her leading man, Brandon Tynan, both on stage and off.
The Shubert Organization arranged a six-month national tour for Nazimova performing three plays by Ibsen, “Hedda Gabler, “A Doll’s House” and “The Master Builder.” Nazimova suggested Tynan for the tour. He was a popular Broadway actor and happened to be the son of an Irish revolutionary. Theirs was her first real affair since she broke off with Orlenev. Like Alla, Brandon was married, a fact that may have tempered both their expectations. He was one of the few men in her life who never caused her heartache.
Alla’s home was the Hotel des Artistes, a Gothic masterpiece at 1 West 67th Street, off Central Park. Yearning for a more pastoral setting, she used proceeds from the tour to purchase a second home, a six-acre estate in Port Chester, New York. She named it Who-Torok, Russian for “little farm.” She and Tynan moved out to the country and renovated the little farm into a proper country home.
In December, Alla received desperate news from her sister Nina. Nina’s husband, Max Hofschneider, had died, leaving her and their son and daughter penniless. Alla insisted that they come to America to live with her at Who-Torok. She paid their passage and even moved herself and Tynan into a guest house on the property so that Nina and her children could live in the main house. When they arrived, Alla enrolled the children in school — but not before Americanizing their names. The last name, Leventon, became Lewton. Ludmilla became Lucy Lewton, Vladimir became Val Lewton – the future producer of horror movies like “Cat People” and “The Body Snatcher” for RKO Studios.
There were long-standing tensions between the two sisters, however. Nina, who had always been a prude, disapproved of Alla’s extramarital relationships. She probably did not know about the affair with the married millionaire, but she knew about Alla and Orlenev. Nina had refused to see them when they came to Yalta to visit Orlenev’s friend, the playwright Anton Chekov. Now, as Alla’s guest at Who-Torok, she had to swallow her disapproval about Alla and Brandon Tynan shacking up in the guest cottage.
The Nazimova Theatre on Broadway
In 1909, Alla was three years into her contract with the Shubert Organization and had generated $4 million in profits for the company. They showed their gratitude by naming their newly refurbished Thirty-Ninth Street theatre in her honor. She opened the newly named Nazimova’s Thirty-Ninth Street Theatre on April 18, 1910, playing Mrs. Rita Allmers in in Ibsen’s “Little Eyolf.” The critics were cool to it but the audiences loved it.
Nazimova had become restless. She was happy about the success but wanted more creative freedom. She secretly entered into negotiations with Charles Frohman, a producer in the theatrical syndicate whose clients included top stars like Ethel Barrymore and Billie Burke (who later played Glinda, the Good Witch, in “The Wizard of Oz”) A deal was struck, and the announcement that she was leaving the Shuberts ran in the trade papers on February 3, 1911.
The deal was likely engineered by Elizabeth Marbury, a prominent and successful literary agent who had become Alla’s close friend and advisor. She was the American agent for Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, Somerset Maugham and J.M. Barrie, who wrote “Peter Pan,” among others. Bessie Marbury was also half of a lesbian power couple. Her partner was Elsie de Wolf, a former actress who’d become the hottest interior decorator in New York. Bessie helped Alla with professional connections, and, Elsie took her into their circle of interesting and wealthy friends, most of whom were women, some of whom were gay.
Nazimova’s first show for Frohman was “The Other Mary,” in which she played Mary, an exotic temptress who competes for a the attention of a man, played by Brandon Tynan, with another character named Mary who is virtuous. The play was a flop and closed immediately after it opened.
Backstage, Alla’s affair with Tynan was coming to an end. He broke things off with Alla and returned home to his wife. The split was amicable, and they remained friendly for the rest of their lives.
Nazimova’s second play for Frohman was “The Marionettes.” It was a success on Broadway, playing 63 performances before closing in January. But it was her next project that would prove to be providential. “Bella Donna” showcased her talents as a vamp – exotic, sexually aggressive and independent women. She played Mrs. Cheptow, the wife of an Egyptologist who schemes to poison him so she can pursue a dashing but exotic Egyptian. Audiences loved her over-the-top performance. The show had a successful tour and then opened on Broadway on November 11, 1912. It ran for 72 performances before closing in January.
The Marriage Lie
“Bella Donna” was based on a novel by Robert Smythe Hitchens, the author of the bestselling British novel, The Garden of Allah. Bella Donna had been adapted for the stage by James Bernard Fagan. Fagan’s brother-in-law was a British actor named Charles Bryant. A holdover from the original production in London, he was handsome and six-foot-four – a full foot taller than Alla. He would become the next significant man in her life and, with the exception of her father, the most consequential and destructive.
Charles grew up in relative comfort. His father was a lawyer, and Charles had studied economics in college. He’d worked in banking in the City of London before pursuing an acting career. Unlike Orlenev and Branon Tynan, Charles was a mediocre actor. He also had few intellectual interests. In fact, Alla and Charles had next to nothing in common. Nazimova’s friend Patsy Ruth Miller would say many years later that Charles was “very pompous, ultra-British [and] extremely good-looking, or so people thought at the time.”
And yet, something sparked between them. In December, just months after they met, an item appeared in the trades announcing that Alla and Charles had gotten married. Their wedding day, it said, was December 5, 1912.
But that was a lie.
Why did they create this fiction? It’s often suggested that it was a “lavender marriage,” that Alla and Charles were both bisexual. There’s no evidence Charles was anything but straight. One friend said he “had a way with the women.” Alla was not yet acting upon her bisexuality. She did not need a beard in 1912. Perhaps she thought she loved Charles and wanted to marry him but was thwarted by her legal status as married to Sergei Golovin. Some friends believed the “marriage” was never consummated, that they both had relationships on the side. The first part seems unlikely, but the second part is true.