Announcing an exciting discovery of costumes and trunks once owned by Alla Nazimova

Once upon a time…there was a great dramatic actress by the name of Alla Nazimova. She took Broadway by storm in the 1910s, earning a well-deserved reputation as being one of the great interpreters of Ibsen. Inevitably, Hollywood called, waving a huge contract at her–reputedly worth $13,000 a week–luring her westward. Madame Nazimova heeded the call, and at first she was very successful. But in time she saw the real money was to be made in producing movies, so she set up her own production company. However she found that producing a financially successful movie was harder than it looked. She made two high profile movies — Camille (1921) and Salome (1923) — but they both flopped so badly, Nazimova was all washed up in the movies and she returned to the stage.

Once upon another, much later time…I came across Alla Nazimova when I started doing research for my novels set around the Garden of Allah Hotel built around what was once Nazimova’s movie star mansion on Sunset Boulevard. Hardly any of her films are now available, and ironically, the only two viewable online are the two that sunk her financially, Camille and Salome.

It was Salome that particularly caught my eye. It’s years ahead of its time, especially in terms of production design, sets and costumes. It’s far-out stuff today, let alone to the audiences of the early 1920s, and it’s no great mystery why the expensive film flopped.

And what particularly caught my eye in Salome was the striking headdress she wore: a wig of short dreadlocks topped with beads made out of some sort of luminous material designed to reflect the light. Or perhaps glow in the dark.

salome nazimova 3 salome nazimova 2 salome nazimova 1But Salome was made in 1923 and by the time I discovered her (around 2005) Alla Nazimova’s name and career had all but completely faded from public consciousness. But I continued to research her and admire her for her accomplishments.

I started publishing my Garden of Allah novels, and created my Facebook page, and this blog. Eventually my path led me to Jon Ponder and his website, Playground to the Stars, which covers the history of the Sunset Strip. We discovered in each other a mutual admiration for “Madame” (as she liked to be called) which led to our establishing the Alla Nazimova Society dedicated to preserving and promoting the memory of an unjustly forgotten woman.

We launched the Society in 2013, a full 90 years after the release of Salome, and as much as we wished and hoped and prayed we’d somehow somewhere find artifacts associated with her, we knew the chances were slim-next-to-nothing-okay-we’ll-admit-it-virtually zero-just-ain’t-never-gonna-happen.

Yeah. Well. So much for ‘never’…

I should have learned my lesson back in October 2013 when Jon and I tracked down something I never thought I had a hope in Hades of seeing: the scale model of the Garden of Allah Hotel built after the hotel’s demolition in 1959 and displayed in the mini-mall bank that replaced it (see my blog post here).

In the Fall of 2014, the Alla Nazimova Society was contacted by a Jack Raines, from Columbus, Georgia. He wrote to say that his family was cleaning out his grandmother’s house and came across five steamer traveling trunks, each with the name “NAZIMOVA” stenciled across them.

“What’s in them?” we asked.

He said that they hadn’t opened any of the trunks yet. They just saw the unusual name on the top, googled it and found us.

“Can you open one of the trunks and send us some photos of whatever you find inside?” we asked, now getting a teensy bit excited.

So he and his family did that, took some photographs of the contents, and sent them to us.

We opened the files and just about fainted. The very first one we looked at was this:

nazimova salome wigIn the Nazimova world, this is akin to finding another pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers or Charles Foster Kane’s sled, Rosebud. If anybody had ever asked me, “If you could have just one of any of Alla’s possessions, costumes, props, or memorabilia, what would it be?” I wouldn’t have even hesitated to reply: “The beaded headdress from her 1923 production of Salome.” But never–NEVER–did it occur to me that it could possibly–POSSIBLY–still exist. Let alone in a forgotten traveling trunk stored in a backyard shed in Georgia.

As it happened, four of the five trunks were empty, but one of them was filled with all sorts of costumes and clothes which once belonged to Alla Nazimova. They were packed away by Nazimova’s long-term partner, Glesca Marshall, and taken with her to Columbus, GA when Glesca moved in with her new partner, Emily Woodruff, a Columbus native and relative of Coca-Cola Company president, Robert W. Woodruff.

So the lesson here is: never–BUT NEVER–assume anything is lost forever. I never thought I’d find the Garden of Allah model, and I certainly never thought Nazimova’s most iconic costume would rise to the surface. Never give up hope, and never assume that the one thing you’d sell your soul to find again isn’t hidden away in a forgotten 100-year-old steamer trunk down in the back yard of a nice house once owned by the grandmother of an inquisitive college student from a town you’ve never heard of sitting on the western border of a state you’ve never been to.

The Alla Nazimova Society has put together a complete inventory of the contents of the Nazimova trunks the Raines family discovered. You can view (and download) the inventory: Click Here for PDF.

~oOo~

Hollywood's Garden of Allah novels, by Martin Turnbull~oOo~

SignMeUpArt~oOo~

About martinturnbull

The Hollywood's Garden of Allah novels blog is by Martin Turnbull, a Los Angeles based historical fiction author writing about the golden era of Hollywood in his series of novels set at the Garden of Allah Hotel, which stood on Sunset Blvd from 1927 to 1959. Check him out at www.martinturnbull.com and Facebook: "gardenofallahnovels"
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42 Responses to Announcing an exciting discovery of costumes and trunks once owned by Alla Nazimova

  1. How exciting! I would have expected Georgia heat and humidity to have made a fine mess of anything in those trunks!

  2. mandymarie20 says:

    Amazing! I wonder who else has fabulous items from celebrities in their attics. Who would think to look in Georgia for Madame’s belongings?

  3. Lea S. says:

    Un-freaking-believable!! I let out a huge gasp when I saw the photo of that iconic Salome wig–so I can only imagine how wildly elated you guys must’ve felt! So many, many congratulations on this INCREDIBLE find!!

  4. Inger says:

    Congratulations – what a fantastic discovery. One would hardly dare dream that such pieces could still be extant – I’ve just had the pleasure of spending half an hour or more with someone unfamiliar with her work explaining why any pieces associated with “Salome” represent such an important find. After showing them some excerpts of the film they could understand the excitement generated by the contents of the trunk. The best part of it is that they have fallen into the hands of those who can most appreciate and interpret the finding.

    • You’re absolutely right, Inger. After sitting there for the best part of probably 60 or 70 years, they could’ve been discovered by someone who mindlessly dismissed them as box of old junk and tossed the lot. But they were very cooperative and understood how precious this treasure trove was.

  5. John Bickler says:

    Does the link not work on mobile? In an attempt to view the inventory I touched ehere it showed “click here” – – nada.

  6. Hi, I’m the resident costume designer at the Springer Opera House, also in Columbus, GA. We are in possession of many of Nazimova’s belongings including her makeup case and silver tea set. Emily Woodruff was a supporter of the opera house and donated quite a few of Nazimova’s possessions to us as well as a stunning life size portrait of the actress. Please let me know if you would like pictures or a more in depth inventory. I’m so glad you are helping to preserve her name.

  7. Talia says:

    The unusual sets and costumes in Salome were meant to resemble Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings for the text.

  8. Steven F. Graver says:

    Thank you, Lindsay Schmeling, for reaching out to this group. I was about to mention some of what you said when I read this article. I remember Glesca Marshall very clearly from my college days in Columbus, GA. Both she and Emily Woodruff were very involved in the rehabilitation of the Springer Opera House, and I remember hearing stories of when Glesca was Alla Nazimova’s stage manager. Glesca herself was quite the character, so I’m sure they made a very theatrical pair!

    • Thanks for stopping by Steven. I love that you knew and remember Glesca so well. She does sound like a real character and easily able to hold her own against such a luminous personality like “Madame” Nazimova!

  9. Janet Grey says:

    Martin, how thrilling! There’s nothing I love more than a discovery in an old trunk! I’m so glad for you and really want to know… how did they give this headdress that lit up effect? Are you actually in possession of it yet and, if so, can you tell? It looks like it’s actually plugged in! So beautiful…!

    • Janet, m’dear – I knew that you’d appreciate an exciting trunk find! I really don’t know how they lit those scenes to make those beads glow. I wondered if they were actually little light bulbs but it looks not. I guess some very clever lighting guy teamed up with an equally clever cinematographer and costumer and figured it out.

  10. OMG – what a treasure trove. So exciting!

  11. Ellen Asleson says:

    This is AMAZING! I would know that “Salome” headdress anywhere. I can’t imagine making such a find. It’s a good thing the family contacted you. Were they surprised to learn what the items were, and who Nazimova was?

    • Thanks Ellen. Yes, it’s all been breathtakingly amazing. Honestly, my jaw just about dropped off when I saw the photo of the Salome wig. It just goes to show that we never do know what’s around the corner, do we? I love that about life!

      We don’t know what’ll happen next. Everything belongs to the Raines family so it’s really up to them. We were lucky they were so cooperative – they could’ve taken on one look and tossed the whole pile of junk into the trash.

  12. Jacqui Turnbull says:

    Dear Martin

    What an amazing find!! The photos send tingles running up my spine! Wow, that headress!!

    Are you going to write a biography of her? It would be special!!

    • Thanks Jacqui, it’s all been a rather amazing! Especially finding that headdress! Jaw dropping stuff. There is already an authoritative biography on her – in fact, it’s where I started my research so many moons ago!

  13. Linda says:

    Last Sunday in Venice, Italy i attended a screening of The Red Lantern at the Pallazo Franchetti. They had a live pianist. I was struck by the progressiveness pf the film’s politics & of course…. Her costumes!

    • You did!?!?!?! Oh Linda, I’m dying of jealousy right now!!! That movie is only one of three Nazimova pictures which have survived. It’s available on DVD but only European format.

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  15. Lena Tabori says:

    Now if only I had known last week when I was in Athens Georgia (a state I, too, had never been), for a symposium on George Tabori and the Theater of the Halocaust, I would have rented a car and driven to see that trunk!

    You are a delicious and unending surprise. Bravo!

  16. Be careful with those beads! The thought occurs to me that they might have been coated with radium paint to make them glow in the dark.

  17. Mark Hodgson says:

    Amazing find! Pity about the empty trunks (check the linings though!)

  18. Benton Quin says:

    Nazimova also appeared in several sound films: as Tyrone Power’s mother in the sound remake of “Blood and Sand” as Robert Taylor’s mother in “Escape,” as the Marquesa in “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” and as a refugee in “Since You Went Away.”

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  20. Amran Vance says:

    What an exciting find! I have a friend who is a fashion curator at a museum and will pass on your PDF to see if she can shed any further light on the items.

    • Thank you Amran. Yes, a very exciting discovery. And if your friend has anything to share – including the possibility of finding a home for these items – I would love to hear from you.

      • Amran Vance says:

        I’ll come back to you soon Martin. Well done for helping to keep Nazimova’s legacy alive.

  21. arthur schwartz says:

    you were certainly guided by Madame Nazimovas hand to ‘discover’ these stored items

  22. Pingback: Vintage Miscellany – March 29, 2015 | The Vintage Traveler

  23. Melisandmarie says:

    Item 1.11.2 are also fingerless gloves. I would say they are all fingerless opera length gloves, that style of glove was very popular in Victorian and turn of the century times.

  24. Rory Castillo says:

    Now Nancy Reagan is with her godmother MADAME ALLA NAZIMOVA!

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