“Bella Donna” had a successful Broadway run. In late 1913 Frohman sent Nazimova, Bryant and company on the road. When the tour ended in June, Alla and Charles went to London to meet his family. They were there at a time when military confrontations were escalating in Europe. Germany invaded France and Belgium. Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914. By the time Alla and Charles returned to the United States in September, the Great War had begun.
Antiwar sentiment was high in the States, and a majority of Americans were dismayed by this development. Alla was against U.S. intervention, but she and Charles were torn. They had friends and family in Europe – his parents and her brother Volodya and his family in Berlin as well as her estranged mother.
Back in New York, Nazimova set about negotiating with Charles Frohman over the next role she would play. In theory, there shouldn’t have been any dealmaking. Frohman had absolute say over plays that would be produced and who would appear in what. He had a preference for commercial fare – he was a big fan, for example, of J.M. Barrie, a prolific novelist and playwright behind the international hit, “Peter Pan.” But Nazimova wanted challenging dramas that were about ideas. When it became clear they were at a stalemate, Alla asked to be released from her contract. Frohman agreed, and they parted amicably enough.
Nazimova opened in November 1914 in a drama, titled “That Sort.” She played a famous dancer whose devil-may-care life led to divorce. Her surgeon husband won complete custody of their child – a separation that drives her to the brink of insanity. The New York Times reviewer was lukewarm about her performance but noted that Nazimova was “always interesting enough to reward a visit to the theatre.” “That Sort” closed after a few performances.
For her next project – her first independent production – Nazimova chose an antiwar one act titled “War Brides.” It was set in a wartime European village and depicted women grieving the loss of husbands, sons and brothers who are pushed to violence by pressure from the government to produce more sons for the king’s war machine. With “War Brides,” Alla returned to her roots. Like “The Chosen Ones,” a play about Jewish oppression that was the catalyst that led to fame and fortune in United States, “War Brides’” had a vibrant, resonating political theme – and its success would have a profound effect on the course of her life.
World War I was entering its second year on January 25, 1915, when “War Brides” opened at B.F. Keith’s Palace Theatre, a top New York vaudeville house. “A better offer could not have been selected by the star,” wrote a reviewer in the New York Clipper, “as the story of the sketch has to do with war and women’s rights, and principally on account of the great peace movement now prevailing in this country … The ovation that greeted the star and her company at the conclusion of the sketch that held the audience in spellbound attention for fully 40 minutes was the largest ever recorded at the [Palace].”
In the audience one night was Mercedes de Acosta, the daughter of Spanish aristocrats, 22 years old and an out lesbian, to use today’s term. She was spellbound by Alla, and through friends, she arranged to meet her. Something sparked between the two women. The affair that resulted was the first of Nazimova’s romances with women.
“War Brides” toured for six months on the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit. When the tour opened in Washington, D.C., 13-year-old Talullah Bankhead – native Alabamian and daughter of a future speaker of the House of Representatives – ditched class at Holy Cross Academy to see the show. She would later say that watching Nazimova’s performance that day was her “only theatrical training.”
Also in the audience one night was Lewis Selznick, a former jewelry salesman turned movie producer. Film production had recently evolved from Tik-Tok style clips in nickelodeons to full-fledged storytelling, albeit without audio. Nazimova had refused a few film offers, but Selznick’s proposal was ideal: A one-picture deal to produce a 35-minute film version of “War Brides.” She’d receive a flat fee of $30,000 – roughly $700,000 today.
Selznick was a second-tier producer but he was the patriarch of family of Hollywood royals. His 18-year-old son Myron was a future powerhouse Hollywood agent and his 14-year-old son David O. was the future producer of “Gone with the Wind” and many other movies. Lewis Selznick was a gambler. He wagered that audiences would flock to see Nazimova, the great lady of the stage, on film for the first time. He also believed that the antiwar theme would connect with audiences.
The war in Europe dominated the news. But even after the loss of American lives on the Luisitania – including that of Alla’s former producer, Charles Frohman — there was little support for going to war. The mood remained solidly isolationist, and Selznick’s gamble paid off. “War Brides” generated $300,000 in profits – ten times Alla’s fee – and roughly $7 million today.
Nazimova returned to Broadway in January 1917 in an oddity titled “‘Ception Shoals.” The director was Walter Wanger, future A-list movie producer, then 22 years old. The New York Times review said the play “was just as eerie as ‘Wuthering Heights,’ and just about as long.” Its saving grace was that it brought back “one of the most interesting women in the American theatre” who was “quite successful with the simplicity, the stirring wonder of poor Eve.”
Alla’s affair with Mercedes de Acosta fizzled after a few months. They would remain friends and would correspond for decades. Backstage one night after a performance of “‘Ception Shoals,” she met 19-year-old Eva LeGallienne, the daughter of a theatre critic and an admirer of Nazimova, Richard LeGallienne. In his review of Alla’s breakthrough 1906 performance in “Hedda Gabler,” LeGallienne had described Nazimova as “the greatest virtuoso on the American stage today.”
Eva became Alla’s first lasting lover, although the lengthy interruptions and work-related separations would end things four years later. Many of the interruptions were a result of Nazimova’s decision to abandon the stage for the silver screen.
In the spring of 1917, she signed a lucrative, five-year deal with scrappy Metro Pictures, a precursor to MGM, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Vamps were the hot ticket then, and Alla had made an impression playing boldly sexual women on stage. Metro hired her to bring characters like that to the screen.
Others would follow but “Nazimova was the first to cultivate an image of the ‘foreign’ sexual sophisticate,” her biographer Gavin Lambert wrote. “She supplied the original theme on which Pola Negri, Garbo and Dietrich created variations. Offscreen all four actresses were bisexual, Nazimova and Negri ending their lives with female companions, Garbo and Dietrich preferring solitude. Onscreen all four represented dangerously seductive women who not only pursued sexual pleasure as openly as men, but betrayed men as ruthlessly as men betrayed women.”
Alla formed a friendship during the production of “‘Ception Shoals” that would prove to be one of her most durable relationships. Edith Luckett, known as Lucky, had a small role in the play. She was an immensely likable, free-spirited and wise-cracking young woman. Like Alla, she was a fervent feminist – a strong believer that women should have the right to vote, for example. Lucky had recently married Kenneth Robbins, a New England aristocrat whose family had fallen on hard times.
There is no suggestion Alla and Edith were lovers. Edith was in awe of Nazimova’s stardom and earned her confidence with her remarkable acceptance of Alla’s relationships outside her fake marriage. But Lucky has her own place in history unrelated to her friendship with Nazimova. In 1921, she will become the mother of a baby girl who will grow up to be the late first lady, Nancy Reagan.