Late last year, college freshman Jack Raines was helping his grandmother move into a house she’d just purchased in Columbus, Georgia, when he came across some old trunks that caught his eye. They had the mysterious name Nazimova written on them.
“I actually had no idea who Nazimova was,” Raines says. “I researched it all and saw all Nazimova has accomplished and done. I actually was shocked and thought it was something huge and learned something.”
Raines did some Googling and was led to Martin Turnbull, a novelist living in Los Angeles.
“Out of the blue came an email from a family in Columbus, Georgia,” Turnbull says.
Turnbull co-founded the Alla Nazimova Society in order to preserve the memory of the silent era actress, who died in 1945. Turnbull was anxious to learn what was inside the trunks.
In the 1920s, Alla Nazimovah was a household name in the U.S. A Russian immigrant, she was one of the first actresses to bring the plays of Chekhov and Ibsen to American audiences. In the early days of cinema, she was one of the highest paid actresses, earning $13,000 a week at one point.
“A lot of women like Nazimova who weren’t satisfied with just being a wife and mother, the typing pool, or maybe standing behind the makeup counter at Bullocks department store. If your ambitions went further than that, Hollywood offered you a career path,” Turnbull says.
But Nazimova was more than just a high paid actress, she was a businesswoman. In 1926, she converted her property on Sunset Blvd. into a hotel consisting of 25 villas. Known as The Garden of Allah, the hotel was a hub for early Hollywood-era creatives. Harpo Marx, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall were all guests at the Garden of Allah.
Unfortunately, you can’t check in to the Garden of Allah today. Turnbull says it was torn down and replaced by a mini mall. But the hotel wasn’t Nazimova’s only entrepreneurial venture. She was also one of Hollywood’s first female filmmakers.
“Her initial movie career was very successful and she was a very big household name,” says Turnbull. “And she took a look around and she thought, ‘I’m earning a lot of money, but the real money is in producing.’ I suspect she thought, ‘Well if these bozos can make movies, I can make movies.”
Nazimova backed a film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “Salomé” for the screen in 1922, which she also starred in.
In the film, Nazimova wears a headdress decorated with pearl-like beads that shimmer under the lights of the elaborate set.
“Nazimova wearing her Salomé headdress is kind of one of the iconic images of silent cinema because it was so striking,” Turnbull says.
Which brings us back to those old trunks Jack Raines found at his grandma’s house in Georgia. The Raines family were nice enough to carefully remove what was inside and send Turnbull pictures.
Turnbull was amazed at what he saw.
Photo © 2015 Jack Raines
“Lo and behold, the first photo that we opened was of Nazimova’s wig from 'Salomé,'” he says. “And this is something we thought had been lost to the sands of time for decades only to find it had been sitting in a trunk in Columbus, Georgia for the last 60 years.”
It’s not clear yet what the Raines family will do with Nazimova’s Salomé headdress and the 20 or so other pieces found in the trunks. But Turnbull is hopeful that the discovery of these Nazimova artifacts will revive interest in a long forgotten talent.
“Nazimova’s legacy in my opinion should recognize her intelligence and her bravery but especially her feminism," Turnbull says. "She was working in a very, very male-dominated industry but didn’t think twice about creating her own production company and steering her own future towards the films she wanted to make."
If you'd like to check out "Salomé" on a big screen (accompanied by a Mighty Wurlitzer organ) The Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo will screen the film July 10 & 11.