Poster of Alla Nazimova as Hedda Gabler, 1907

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Poster of Alla Nazimova as Hedda Gabler, 1907

The bisexuality of Nazimova, a Russian stage actress who moved to New York City shortly after the turn of the twentieth century to pursue a career in acting, was fairly well-known in the film community, despite her long-term involvement with (gay) actor Charles Bryant. In 1918, she moved to Hollywood, where she bought a large Spanish-style house that would later become the Garden of Allah, a hotel and apartment house where a number of Hollywood luminaries would live.

In the 1920s, Nazimova became one of the most popular movie stars in America. Her film career began with the silent film War Brides (1916) and continued through such movies as Camille (1921) and culminated in The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944). For a while she was Metro's highest paid actress and later formed her own motion picture company, which produced a famous (but financially disastrous) all-gay film version of Oscar Wilde's Salomé (1922), the failure of which effectively eroded her status as a Hollywood power broker.

Nazimova's lesbian relationships with writer and lover of female celebrities Mercedes de Acosta, stage actress Eva Le Gallienne, butch film director Dorothy Arzner, and Oscar Wilde's lesbian niece Dolly, earned her a reputation as something of a ladykiller.

But her film career finally dried up, not only because of the spectacular failure of Salomé, but also because of the formation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in 1922, which was to institute the infamous Motion Picture Production Code in 1929, and the rise of the studio system.

The Code--also known as the Hays Code after the man who drafted it, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and Postmaster General Will H. Hays--was a major boon to advocates of censorship. It decreed that there would be no "immorality" or "impropriety" on screen--only chaste kisses and heterosexual characters.

Worse, the Code was applied to actors' private lives; and drug use, adultery, sexual promiscuity, and especially homosexuality were grounds for blacklisting. The consolidation of the movie industry into a few powerful studios rendered gay and lesbian actors particularly vulnerable.

The name Alla Nazimova, with its lesbian connotations, became known as "unsafe" in Hollywood. In an increasingly repressive climate, many lesbian actresses retreated ever more deeply into the closet, dating or even marrying men in order to appear heterosexual.

Yet several actresses in the decades to follow--such as the openly bisexual seductress Marlene Dietrich and the irrepressible Tallulah Bankhead--appeared unconcerned about the gossip surrounding their sexuality. They seemed even to encourage it.

Caption from

Image from the New York Public Library.

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