During the ten years it took me to write my nine-book Hollywood’s Garden of Allah series, I kept thinking, Alla Nazimova needs a novel of her own.
Alla Nazimova in 1921
At the peak of her film career – late 1910s to early 1920s – she was the highest-paid actress in America, and every bit as famous as her silent-cinema sisters: Mary Pickford, Pola Negri, Mabel Normand, Louise Brooks, Colleen Moore, et al. And yet, despite her towering stature in both the theater and cinema worlds, and despite having left behind her Garden of Allah Hotel legacy, “The Great Nazimova” (pronounced na-ZIM-ovuh) faded into obscurity. She was a rule-breaking, convention-defying, intellectual-salon-holding, proto-feminist filmmaker with her own production company and an aversion to accepting the status quo—in Hollywood or in life.
Someone like that deserves her own novel, doesn’t she?
Of course she does, and now she has one:
a novel of 1920s Hollywood
by Martin Turnbull
DUE FOR RELEASE IN AUGUST 2019
Alla Nazimova has reached the pinnacle of success. She is the highest-paid actress in town, with a luxurious estate, the respect of her peers, adoration of her fans, and a series of lovers that has included the first wife of her protégé, Rudolph Valentino.
But reaching the top is one thing. Staying there is an entirely different matter.
Nazimova dreams of producing a motion picture of Oscar Wilde’s infamous Salomé. It will be a new form of moviemaking: the world’s first art film.
But the same executives at Metro Pictures who hailed Nazimova as a genius when she was churning out hit after hit now turn their backs because her last few movies have flopped.
Taking matters into her own hands, Nazimova decides to shoot Salomé herself. But it means risking everything she has: her reputation, her fortune, her beautiful home, and even her lavender marriage. But will it be enough to turn her fortunes around? Or will Hollywood cut her out of the picture?
From the author of the Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novels and based on a true story, Chasing Salomé takes us inside Nazimova’s struggle to achieve a new level of stardom by raising the flickers to an art form.
Alla Nazimova opened the mahogany-and-glass doors of the Ship Café with a flourish that sent her scarlet satin opera cape swirling around her. She had long since mastered the art of making an entrance, so she knew that the light from the crystal chandelier directly above would catch the sparkle in her sapphire necklace and bring out the violet in her eyes.
The maître d’ was a rotund chap who looked like he enjoyed his brandies. “Oh, Madame!” He scurried out from behind his podium. “What an honor to have you dine with us tonight!”
“Thank you, Emile.” Alla watched him count the number in her party. “My husband is unable to join us this evening.” He didn’t need to know that Alla had no desire for Charles to be there. She had someone else in tow that night—and it wasn’t her husband.
The Ship Café was neither a ship nor a café. It was a restaurant that had been fashioned to resemble a Spanish galleon and lashed to the Venice Beach pier. It was one of those novelty places that Los Angeles architects had lately been conjuring with unfettered abandon. But with its sloping walls and its low-slung ceiling striped with wooden beams, the overall ambiance was effectively nautical.
She had chosen it for tonight’s celebration precisely because, like most things in Hollywood, it was not what it appeared to be. Adorned in their modish Paris gowns and tuxedos with black silk lapels, most people in Hollywood were not what they appeared to be, either, but in Los Angeles that was hardly a crime.
Emile collected an armful of menus and led them toward the center of the room.
As Alla zigzagged through the maze of tables, heads turned, eyes stared, mouths gaped. Earlier that day she had completed her fifth film in the twelve months since arriving in Los Angeles to commence her contract for Metro Pictures. Every one of them had been a blazing success, so now she was recognized wherever she went. She smiled regally, her right hand fluttering like a captive dove until she reached the head of the table, where she took a seat and patted the right-hand-side silver setting for her new love, Jean.
Dagmar Godowsky, a dark, sleek, swan-like actress who had appeared in Alla’s latest picture, slid onto the seat to her left. “I’m so glad you chose this place. Ever since that wretched Volstead Act started worming through Congress, it’s been getting harder and harder to find a drink around this burg. The other night, we had to drive all the way to the Vernon Country Club, and you know how far that is. Don’t get me wrong—the whiskey was terrific and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra was playing, so we had a great time. But brother, what a trek!”
“UGH!” Viola Dana exclaimed from further down the table. She was a Metro star, too, and a salt-of-the-earth type, the way girls from Brooklyn could be. “Imagine if it actually passes. Why even leave the house?”
“Of course it’ll pass.” Maxwell Karger was the studio manager at Metro. An okay sort of chap, but a little too weak-of-chin for Alla’s tastes. “More than thirty of the forty-eight states are already dry. It’s just a matter of time.”
He was right, of course. Prohibition felt like a swarm of locusts massing on the distant horizon—close enough to hear the relentless thrumming that warned of a time when alcohol would become as scarce as fresh peaches in a Russian winter.
“In that case, let us carpe diem while we may.” Alla raised her hand to attract the waiter lingering at their periphery. “Your finest champagne, please. Preferably Moët et Chandon or Veuve Clicquot.”
He cleared his throat. “Unfortunately, we’re out of both labels.”
“Had a run on them lately?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“What’s left? Taittinger? Mumm?” Alla ignored the evil eye that Karger shot her. She knew what he was thinking. These labels are expensive. If you think Metro is going to underwrite your extravagant tastes . . . She stroked his quivering cheek. “Fret not, mon cher. Madame shall be footing the bill tonight.”
Alla had never figured out how the rumor had started that she wanted to be referred to as “Madame,” but she liked the way it played into her La Grande Dame image. Broadway critics had hailed her as “this generation’s foremost interpreter of Ibsen.” And Metro had billed her as “The World’s Greatest Actress in Her Greatest Play” for her second picture, Toys of Fate. Somewhere in between Broadway’s theaters and Hollywood’s filming stages, Alla had become “Madame.” And every time someone called her that, she would quietly chuckle to herself and wonder what her monstrous, bellowing Cossack of a father would make of it.
As far as she was concerned, when you start out life as a girl from a poor family in Crimea, you can reasonably expect to spend your life scratching out a living in a half-forgotten corner of the Black Sea. But if you end up the highest-paid actress in the world, you’re entitled to be called Madame.
Karger’s shoulders melted at the news that he would not have to part with any of his precious money. In all fairness, he was already handing over thirteen grand a week to have Alla emote in his photoplays. The least she could do was buy a few bottles of Laurent-Perrier, which was the best champagne left in the Ship Café cellar.
With the matter of refreshments settled, Alla then ordered enough salmon mousse on Melba toast to feed the extras on a D.W. Griffith extravaganza. That done, she sat back and looked around the dining room.
Most of the tables were full and the patrons were ordering booze like dehydrated fish gasping for their last drink. They were all good-looking ladies and gents whose fortunes had soared from the gobs of cash the studios were willing to throw at the flickers. Gay chatter filled the long room, and a few restive souls had ventured onto the elongated dance floor that split it in two.
Alla’s gaze skipped from the glossy smiles to the glittering tiaras. Who could ask for anything more?
Almost instantly, she found herself answering: I could. I want more. The growl of her long-dead father’s voice erupted in her head. You greedy, ungrateful little worm. All this money and fame and success and you’re still not satisfied. PAH!
The waiter arrived with two bottles of Laurent-Perrier stashed in pewter wine buckets; a busboy followed him holding a tray of champagne coupes. Alla was grateful for the distraction as they buzzed around, uncorking bottles and filling glasses.
Her director, Herbert Blaché, raised his champagne coupe. He was a dapper Englishman with a French name, a painstakingly trimmed mustache, and sharp eyes. His wife, Alice Guy, had once been head of production at the Gaumont Film Company in France. Alla could scarcely imagine how a woman had become the head of a film studio—nor could the French. As soon as Herbert and Alice were married, she had been forced to resign her job. God forbid a smart, well-read woman should be in a position to tell men what to do. But France’s loss was Alla’s gain.
“A toast, if I may,” Herbert declared. “To Madame Nazimova. As ever, a joy to direct, even amid the bleakness of a cholera epidemic.”
He was referring to the outbreak that propelled the plot of Stronger Than Death, the picture they had completed filming that afternoon. Alla played a French girl with a weak heart forced to dance in order to help quash an uprising somewhere near Calcutta. She winced at his words. She had been celebrated for her Nora in A Doll’s House and for her Hedda Gabler and would happily have continued her career on the boards except that these picture people had gone and dangled a preposterously lucrative carrot in front of her. What was she supposed to do? Say no? So she hadn’t. And now she was prancing around, pretending to be a French dancer whose dicey ticker might be the end of her.
Surely we can do better than this nonsense?
Alla murmured her thanks and held her smile as though she hadn’t a care.
She cast around the room again to see if any new or interesting faces had joined the bustle and her gaze lighted on a raven-haired beauty somewhat in the Theda Bara mold. She turned to Dagmar, who knew everybody wherever she went. “Who is that?”
Dagmar only needed a swift peek. “She’s one of those Ziegfeld Follies girls who’ve come west to make it in pictures. She goes by Nita Naldi, but I doubt that’s her real name.”
“Ziegfeld?” Yet another girl who thought a pretty face was the only required asset. “So she’s not a real actress.”
“Au contraire. She’s filming Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at Famous Players-Lasky with John Barrymore. I’ve heard whisperings that she’s put in a star-making turn. I don’t know why she’s bothered, though. My friend May Robson is working on that picture, and she told me that as soon as filming is done, Nita’s returning to New York to be in a musical play called Aphrodite. It’s based on that novel by Pierre Louÿs.”
The name clutched at Alla’s throat like Jack the Ripper. Pierre Louÿs was one of her favorite writers, not least because he wrote about people who lived on the fringes of society. It also helped that he was good friends with Oscar Wilde, whose work Alla adored beyond measure.
“Aphrodite, you say?”
The novel was about courtesans in ancient Alexandria and was the sort of project Alla could sink her teeth into and relish every bite. But instead, she was supposed to be content with playing defective dancers frolicking around West Bengal while everybody in sight was dropping dead.
She let out a prolonged sigh. “How fortunate for Miss Naldi.”
Beneath the starched white tablecloth, Alla reached toward Jean’s leg. She wanted to feel the warmth of her thigh, to stroke it gently as a promise of delights to come later that evening.
Alla had met her on a recent trip to New York. At twenty-six, Jean had arrived a little late in the game to become an actress, but was attractive nonetheless. Alla had been in a tobacconist’s on 67th Street. Perfumed cigarettes had become all the rage, so she had instructed the tobacconist to imbue them with the bespoke fragrance that Caswell-Massey had concocted for her. As she waited to be served, in walked this girl, her carob-brown hair snipped into a head-turning Castle bob.
A tentative conversation over the Cuban cigar counter had grown into a more intense exchange over macarons and passionfruit tea at the French café around the corner, which soon led to passion of a different sort in Alla’s apartment at the Hotel Des Artistes. Before anybody could say “Uncle Vanya,” Miss Jean Acker had signed a $200-a-week contract with Metro Pictures and was sitting by Alla’s side in an Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railcar back to Los Angeles.
But Jean’s leg was out of reach, which did little to bolster Alla’s flagging spirits.
Nobody had said anything—not to her face, at any rate—but when viewing some of Stronger Than Death’s dailies, Alla had been galled to see that she had put on too much weight. On the way out of the screening room, she had told herself that she hadn’t been too fat to seduce that young script girl, Dorothy Arzner. She didn’t mind your fleshier carcass. But by the time she had arrived home to her mansion on Sunset Boulevard, Alla had come to her senses. The camera was unforgiving. She had to slim down before Heart of a Child started filming, because nobody was going to believe her as a hundred-and-thirty-nine-pound poverty-stricken waif.
Dagmar offered up a slice of toast she had slathered with salmon mousse. When Alla pushed it away, Dagmar harrumphed. “What’s up with you? You’ve been little Miss Down-in-the-Mouth all evening.”
Alla deflected her question with an airy shrug. “You know what I’m like at the end of filming. Drained and depleted.”
Dagmar shook her head. “That’s a load of hooey and we both know it.”
Alla lobbed back a wide-eyed look that said It most certainly isn’t, but Dagmar wasn’t buying it. “I’m pretty sure I know what it is.” She jutted her head toward Jean, who had been dragged into an earnest discussion with Herbert about how Cecil B. DeMille had used his camera on Gloria Swanson in Don’t Change Your Husband. That is to say, Herbert was lecturing and Jean was nodding.
“You do?” Alla asked.
“Viola told me all about it.”
At hearing her name, Viola extricated herself from the conversation at the other end of the table. “I told you about what?” She read their faces and dropped her voice to a whisper. “You mean Grace Darmond, huh?”
Alla could feel defensive walls rise around her. “Isn’t she with Vitagraph?”
“Was,” Viola said. “She’s now filming The Hope Diamond Mystery at some Poverty Row second-rater.”
“Oh my goodness!” Dagmar exclaimed. “I just saw someone I know.” She excused herself and scampered away.
Viola slid into Dagmar’s vacated seat. “My current paramour is filming The Great Air Robbery at Universal right now.” Ormer Locklear was an accomplished stunt pilot, who was also married. But so was Viola, and in Hollywood, marriage vows were as rubbery as a French letter. “The scenarist is poker buddies with John Clymer, who wrote The Hope Diamond Mystery, and he told George who told Ormer who told me that their leading lady is a lady lover with a lady lover of her own.” Viola drifted her movie-actress eyes past Alla and onto Jean.
Alla took great care to freeze her face. Nobody had—or could—label her a stringent moralist, especially when it came to marital fidelity. She had always seen herself as a free spirit, unconstrained by staid principles that equated “wives” with “goods and chattels.” Her intimate circle was aware that her own so-called marriage to her so-called husband was a sham. But sometimes it was expedient to play by the rules. Even if you didn’t agree with them.
So this news that Jean was sleeping with someone else shouldn’t have stung Alla like a corkscrew pressed to her flesh. If she could have been true to her moral code and waved away the news with a blasé flick of the wrist, she would have.
But she didn’t.
And that’s because you’re The Great Nazimova, so it never occurred to you that this girl fourteen years your junior would think of looking elsewhere. Let alone to an actress working on Poverty Row. You’re forty, and that’s the end of the road for leading ladies. Who do you think you are—Mary Pickford? You’re an egotistical nincompoop who deserves a slap across the face.
The ensuing silence might have grown unbearable had it not been for Dagmar’s well-meaning but ill-timed return with the man she had dragged through the restaurant with disconcerting zeal.
Alla guessed he was around Jean’s age, but those swarthy continentals with their olive complexions were hard to pin down. He was not without appeal, however, with those sleepy-lidded eyes that slanted slightly at the outside edge, giving them a distinct come-to-bed quality.
However, Alla didn’t need to be introduced to him, because she already knew who he was: an Italian taxi-dancer who’d kept himself out of the gutter by giving lessons in the Argentine tango to neglected society wives and bored divorcées. And only a fool would assume that dance lessons conducted in private homes were the only exercise going on before the hour was up.
Men like him were a dime a dozen, especially in New York, where a while ago he had met a scandal-prone divorcée, Blanca de Saulles, who had shot her ex-husband at point-blank range. This hoofer-for-hire had got caught up in the drama by testifying that the deceased had been having an affair with his exhibition dance partner. Consequently, the rumor swirled that Mrs. de Saulles had killed out of desperate love for her flashy swain. The whole affair was the stuff of turgid melodramas, not unlike the histrionic pantomimes currently boring Alla to tears.
And now Dagmar was hauling this shameless would-be Latin lover toward her.
“Madame!” she exclaimed, prodding him forward. “I would like to introduce you to—”
“I know who he is!” Alla refused to look at him and instead focused her fury on Dagmar. Deep down—though not very far down—Alla knew that she wasn’t playing fair. She was angry that she’d let herself get so pudgy. She was indignant that Jean was sleeping with another woman. And she was jealous of that Ziegfeld Follies girl across the room who got to act in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde while Metro had her playing Eurasian twins and destitute chorus girls.
Dagmar blinked. Alla’s withering tone had caught her off guard. “But Madame, he—his—this is Rodolfo di Valentini, and he’s been dying to—”
“How dare you bring that gigolo to my table?”
Dagmar and di Valentini exchanged scared-rabbit glances as every diner in a four-table radius looked up from their broiled squab and veal cutlets.
“I’m sorry, Madame.” Dagmar stammered. “It’s just that—”
If they want The Great Nazimova, I’ll give them The Great Nazimova. Alla thrust her hands toward the ceiling. “Why is he still here?” She stared past Viola to the six-man house band, which had launched into “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” Alla counted to ten. “Have they left?”
Viola nodded. “They slunk away like wounded snakes.”
“Oh, come now,” Jean said. “Surely you don’t mean that.”
After what Alla had learned about that Poverty Row hambone, Jean was the ideal victim of her residual venom. “Do you even know who Rodolfo di Valentini is?”
“I read the newspapers just like everyone else.”
If Alla had ever learned how to drive an automobile, she would have risen to her feet and swept haughtily out of the place. But she had never bothered, so now she was stuck at a table of people sitting awkwardly and studying their ashtrays. You’re the official hostess, she told herself. This unease is wholly your fault and it’s up to you to repair it.
“I think that is more than enough commotion for one night,” she said blithely. Both bottles of Laurent-Perrier were empty. Alla wriggled her fingers; their waiter appeared. “Two more, if you please, mon bon garçon. By the time you get back, we shall be ready to order dinner.” She faced her woebegone party. “Has anybody seen Broken Blossoms? I hear Lillian Gish’s performance is a revelation.”
CHASING SALOMÉ is due for release in AUGUST 2019
Alla Nazimova Society
See also: Ship Cafe, Venice Beach, California
Also by Martin Turnbull
the Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novels:
Book 1 – The Garden on Sunset
Book 2 – The Trouble with Scarlett
Book 3 – Citizen Hollywood
Book 4 – Searchlights and Shadows
Book 5 – Reds in the Beds
Book 6 – Twisted Boulevard
Book 7 – Tinseltown Confidential
Book 8 – City of Myths
Book 9 – Closing Credits
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