1919 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost similar to the car owned by Alla Nazimova
1919 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost similar to the car owned by Alla Nazimova

‘The Biggest Haul’

The Garden of Alla appeared to be successful in its first year. Bookings were solid from the start, and room rates were higher than most residential hotels. And yet the mortgage had not been paid and debts had piled up. It didn’t make sense.

After her extended stay in France, and having counted on funds from Jean Adams that never arrived, Alla was left with only a few hundred dollars in the bank. It had been a long time since she’d been as broke as this. Desperate for money and in a state of nervous exhaustion, she agreed to go on the road starring in “Mother India.”

Based on a popular novel, the play exposed the practice in India of desperately poor families selling their daughters as child brides. Alla, 48 years old, played the lead, a 12-year old child bride named Lotus. At the premiere on November 10, Alla was so overwrought and exhausted that she was barely able to make it to the final curtain. The rest of the tour was postponed. She went home and went to bed under a doctor’s care.

Jean Adams visited Alla in New York a few days after her collapse. Jean insisted she’d sent $2,000 to Alla in France. She couldn’t explain why it never arrived. She also claimed she had secured backing from a “$2 million dollar corporation” and showed architectural drawings for a planned expansion of the hotel. With the larger guest capacity, Jean said, Alla’s annual take from bookings would rise to $100,000. The only snag was that she needed $25,000 now.

The hotel had become a money pit. She was already owed $14,500 by the Garden of Alla Corporation. And yet it seemed foolhardy to let the hotel fail. Alla made some calls seeking loans but had no luck. She couldn’t raise the $25,000.

Jean returned to Los Angeles. The two women never saw each other again. There were telegrams back and forth. Finally Alla telephoned from New York and demanded her money. Jean sent $500.

Alla was forced to sell her Rolls-Royce. The proceeds gave her enough to live on, but then she received bad news from her attorney. The hotel was on the brink of foreclosure. He also informed her Jean Adams and her husband John had cleared out.

The attorney had learned, much too late, that the Adamses were wanted for real-estate fraud in the Midwest. One of their victims, a man in Nebraska, told Alla’s attorney that she had been the target of “a shrewd plan, hatched and manipulated by John Adams and his wife” that was probably “the biggest haul they had ever pulled off.”

A board member from the Garden of Alla Corporation proposed selling the hotel. Utterly defeated, Alla replied, “Go ahead.”

The hotel sold in less than six weeks. The buyer was William Hay, the real estate developer who built the estate 1913. He saw the hotel’s potential. It had been popular with its celebrity clientele and could be again. And then he’d sell it. On July 17, 1928, Hay bought the Garden of Alla for $80,000.

After Alla paid Jean Adams’ debts, she was left with just $7,500. It was a very poor return on the thousands she’d spent on the property in the decade she’d owned it. But Nazimova was relieved to close the Hollywood chapter of her life, for now, and return to Broadway, where, now in her fifties, she would resume her stage career.

Garden of Alla 2.0

William Hay hired an experienced hotel manager and charged him with upgrading the hotel’s decor and furnishings. He wanted to reopen in two months.

Garden of Alla 2.0 opened on September 28, 1928. The celebration was described in the Times as “an informal Spanish fiesta.” It was subdued compared with Jean Adams’ sybaritic grand opening nearly two years earlier. Celebrities and other invited guests, the reporter wrote, “enjoyed dinner following the entertainment.”
William Hay’s plan for reopening paid off. Movie people returned and bookings were strong. In March, the Times’ “Resort and Hotel Notes” column reported that young bluebloods were staying at the hotel – “polo players from the East” – with aristocratic names: A. Whitney, H. Harriman, and E. Guest.

William and Katherine Hay generated publicity of their own a few weeks later. An item in a society column noted that the Hayses entertained 30 guests in the “beautiful Italian dining room of the Garden of Alla.” The setting and the Italian cuisine were made additionally authentic with musical entertainment provided by a string trio.

'The Jazz Singer,' featuring Al Jolson performing in blackface, playing at the Warner Bros. Theatre in New York, October 1927
‘The Jazz Singer,’ featuring Al Jolson performing in blackface, in first run at the Warner Bros. Theatre in New York, October 1927

You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet

Meanwhile, a technological revolution in Hollywood would soon have a profound effect on the fortunes of the Garden of Alla. In October 1927, Warner Brothers released “The Jazz Singer,” which featured singing with synchronized sound by vaudeville star Al Jolson, who performed the hit song “Mammy” in blackface. It was the first film recorded with sound that became a big hit. Made for less than $500,000, it grossed over $2.5 million.

By the end of 1929, more than 4,000 theatres had been equipped for sound, bringing an abrupt end to the silent film era. It would also create new markets for actors, musicians and screenwriters. To fill these new positions, the studios recruited from New York, setting in motion a new wave of emigration into Los Angeles.

The new arrivals were well-paid, and needed a place to live. Many of the most interesting among them would opt to live at the House of Nazimova, the Garden of Alla.