The incredible life of Alla Nazimova, the Jewish superstar of the 1920s, is the focus of a new one-woman play

(New York Jewish Week) — Hundreds of tourists and Midtown office workers cross the intersection of 39th Street and Broadway every day — most likely not realizing they are passing an important site in Jewish, LGBTQ and theatrical history.

This bustling corner of Manhattan was once home to Nazimova’s 39th Street Theater, named after pioneering Jewish producer, screenwriter, director, actress and one-time international sensation, Alla Nazimova.

A star of the silent film, 1923 She produced and starred in the silent film Salome, a loose retelling of the execution of John the Baptist at the request of King Herod’s teenage daughter, based on the Oscar Wilde play of the same name.

Salome is considered her most influential work and the first American art film. It was her downfall too.

While public disapproval of the daring “Salome” helped erase Nazimova’s name and legacy, clues to her unprecedented contribution to film and theater remain to this day. Nazimova, who died in 1945 at the age of 66, inspired some of the greats of American theater such as Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. And more recently, she became the subject of playwright-performer Romy Nordlinger’s one-woman play Garden of Alla, in which Nordlinger, as Nazimova, tells her life story.

Nordlinger, also a Jewish actress of Crimean descent, stumbled upon Nazimova’s story by accident and realized it was a story she could not tell.

“Nazimova’s story empowers people, especially younger people, who may be thinking about coming out or speaking out about themselves,” Nordlinger told New York Jewish Week. “Whether they come out as LGBTQ, Jewish or just proud of who they are, Nazimova made it on her own at a time of oppression for women and the LGBTQ community. It really blows your mind.”

Born in 1879 to a Jewish family in Tsarist Crimea, Nazimova survived an abusive childhood at the hands of her father and pursued a career as an actress. She was a student of Constantine Stanislavski – the father of method acting – although she eventually fled Russia to escape Jewish persecution. Nazimova made her American debut in 1905 in the Lower East Side Yiddish theater. She soon became a Broadway star before emigrating to Hollywood to work in the film industry, where she became, at times, the highest paid actress in the world.

At her home on Sunset Boulevard — known far and wide as “Alla’s Garden” — Nazimova threw one of the most famous and longest-running parties of the Roaring ’20s. Her raunchy salon attracted the most celebrated actors, artists, and influencers of the day, including writers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker. She also introduced a “sewing circle” for women — 1920s code for a lesbian meetup — which was an essential place for women and LGBTQ people when they needed to exist under the radar.

Admired by contemporary stars like Lady Gaga and heavily borrowed, “Salome” was just a little too raunchy for its time. Her career and personal life developed shortly thereafter. Between the financial losses from the film and the coming out because of her beard, actor Charles Bryant, Nazimova, soon could only afford to rent a room in her once-glamorous garden.

As Nazimova herself wrote in her diary: “I succeeded miserably, I failed triumphantly.”

New York Jewish Week caught up with Nordlinger to talk about Nazimova’s creative legacy, her Jewish identity, and why telling her story is important today.

This interview has been slightly abridged and edited.

New York Jewish Week: How did you discover this story?

Romy Nordlinger: I first learned about Nazimova from a friend, Mari Henry, the founder of the Society for the Preservation of Theatrical History. Passionate about presenting the work and life stories of forgotten female artists, Mary has summarized her research in a presentation entitled ‘Stage Struck’. She contacted me to write a monologue for this project. She brought me a number of actresses to research, but I had trouble connecting with them emotionally. I didn’t feel the spark of inspiration and just couldn’t imagine playing any of them.

Then Henry introduced me to Nazimova. I started doing a little research and was intoxicated by her story. Nazimova wrote in her diary: “Do you think that the dead are with us? Can we believe that just telling a story can have the power to revive?” Conversely, if we don’t tell our stories, those stories get lost. I knew I had to tell her.

Why did you connect with Nazimova’s story?

Her commitment to art was uncompromising. She challenged herself to rise above adversity in a way I’ve never seen before. She reminded me of my own inner voice that I’ve been trying to cultivate; the voice that guides me to believe in myself beyond what other people think. She didn’t have to create “Salome” who broke her financially, or hosted the biggest party of the 1920s and beyond. Even as a guest in her own mansion, she thrived on her inner strength.

Not to mention that she’s from Crimea, just like me. And she’s Jewish, just like me.

How did Nazimova’s Judaism influence her life and work?

Raised in Tsarist Crimea, Nazimova was persecuted as a child for being Jewish. Eventually she had to flee because of her faith and initially acted in the Yiddish theater in America. However, once established in Hollywood, Nazimoa did not particularly emphasize her Jewish identity or her bisexuality. It was just a silent part of her.

However, her Jewish identity was part of what made her feel “other,” an outsider. I think that was a big part of what prompted her to express herself and rise above the reduction she experienced earlier in life.

How did writing this play and impersonating Nazimova’s voice affect your own Jewish identity?

There are many parallels between Nazimovas and my own Jewish expression. I was never particularly “out” in my private life. Professionally, this is the first time I’ve taken on a role where Judaism is important to the character’s identity.

I feel like Nazimova helped me examine that part of me and fully inherit who I am. I see us both grappling with the different levels of identity that Jews often navigate: pride and otherness. That uneasiness I felt growing up Jewish in the South, in Richmond, Virginia, or being laid off in my area. The identification I have with the history of the Jewish people. It’s a big part of me. I’m so happy that I can finally identify myself, “out” so to speak.

Why is it important to tell Nazimova’s story now?

I actually had to ask Nazimova that myself. Why should she tell her story now? And the answer lies in the show’s title: she’s here to tell people about the Garden of Alla, her home that was downsized and then destroyed before being completely forgotten.

And that’s why I have to tell Nazimova’s story now – to rediscover Nazimova and people like her: Jewish women, LGBTQ people, women in Hollywood and the story of the immigrants. To preserve their work and their spaces. For Nazimova, that was her eponymous theater on 39th Street [in New York] and the Garden of Alla, which is now a nondescript shopping center in West Hollywood.

The Garden of Alla: The Alla Nazimova Story, written and performed by Romy Nordlinger, will be screened at Theaterlab (357 West 36th Street) June 17-26, 2022 Theaterlab website for more informations.

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