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.
But 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:
In 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.
Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novels by Martin Turnbull