A lost trove of early 20th century costumes and fashionable street wear from the estate of Broadway and silent-film star Alla Nazimova was discovered last fall far the location of Garden of Allah, her famous hotel that once sat on Sunset Boulevard between Crescent Heights and Havenhurst. Its unlikely location? A storage building behind a home in Columbus, Ga.
College student Jack Raines found the garments fastidiously packed in a steamer trunk stored on the grounds of his grandmother’s house. Four other trunks also once belonging to Nazimova were empty.
Among the items Raines found was a costume headpiece festooned with pearl-like beads. A note packed with it read, “Salome Wig.” It was immediately recognizable as the wig Nazimova wore in “Salome,” an independent film that she starred in, wrote and directed in 1923. The film’s sets and costumes, including the wig, were designed by Natacha Rambova, who was married to film star Rudolph Valentino. Nazimova based her script on Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play, “Salome,” and Rambova’s costumes and sets were inspired by Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for an 1894 published version of Wilde’s play.
Of the 18 silent films Nazimova made, just three have survived. Only one of the three – “The Red Lantern,” made in 1919 for Metro Pictures, a precursor to MGM – was a hit. The other two, “Camille,” co-starring Valentino and released in 1921, and “Salome,” were produced independently by Nazimova, and both were box-office bombs.
Copyrights on “Camille” and “Salome” have lapsed and both are available in their entirety online. “Salome” has been streamed thousands of times on YouTube, introducing a new generation of fans to Nazimova, first seen in the film wearing the wig, its beads shimmering in a spotlight.
Though largely forgotten today, Nazimova was an international sensation in the early 20th century. Born in Yalta in 1879 and educated in a Swiss boarding school, she studied acting at Constantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Arts Theatre in the 1890s. In 1907, she found acclaim on Broadway, where her groundbreaking performances in European Modernist plays by Anton Chekov, August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen generated millions of dollars for the Shubert Organization, which in 1910 named its new theatre on West 39th Street in her honor.
Six years later, Metro put Nazimova under contract at $13,000 per week, making her the highest-salaried actress in the industry. A foray into independent production a few years later left her nearly bankrupt, however, prompting her to convert her 2.5 acre estate on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood into a residential hotel. In 1928, she sold the hotel, later named the Garden of Allah, and returned to Broadway.
The hotel became a storied stopping place for the rich and famous. Actors Humphrey Bogart, the Marx Brothers, Ginger Rogers and Frank Sinatra, writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley and mobsters Mickey Cohen and Virginia Hill were among the Garden’s famous guests. Even a future president, Ronald Reagan, lived at the hotel briefly, in 1938.
Coincidentally, Nazimova – who was the godmother to Nancy Davis, Reagan’s second wife – returned to Hollywood that same year and later, with her partner actress Glesca Marshall, moved into a rented villa on the grounds of her former estate. It was there, in July 1945, that she suffered coronary thrombosis and later died.
Glesca Marshall, Nazimova’s sole heir, took the trunks the Georgia when she moved there several years later with her partner, Emily Woodruff, a Columbus native and relative of Coca-Cola Company President Robert W. Woodruff. Glesca died in 1987; Emily died seven years later. The trunks remained on the property when the house was purchased by Jack Raines’ grandmother.
Other items in the recently found trunk include a four-piece outfit labeled “Salome costume” that was cut from the film. Other costumes were from Broadway productions, including a jacket from the Civic Repertory Theatre’s 1928 production of Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard”; a headdress from the original production of “The Good Earth” in 1932; a shawl from the 1935 revival of Strindberg’s “Ghosts” that Nazimova directed and starred in at the Empire Theatre on Broadway; and a headpiece designed by Nazimova for a 1905 production of “Tsar Fyodor.” There was also street wear, including a white blouse with the label “Stephane” of Paris and London, worn by Nazimova in a sitting for photographer Alvin Langdon Coborn, and a three-piece ensemble labeled “Brommer New York.”
Initial research into items Jack Raines found in the trunk was coordinated by members of the Alla Nazimova Society. Based in West Hollywood, the society was found in 2013 to promote and preserve the memory of Nazmova and her legacy, including the Garden of Allah Hotel.For a catalog of the costumes and street wear found in Nazimova’s trunk, contact Bob Raines at 706-888-8772 or firstname.lastname@example.org.