Nazimova’s secret garden


In 1891, before Oscar Wilde seduced late Victorian audiences with such comedies of manners as Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest, he produced a piece notably lacking in languid quips or social critique, a work of savage eroticism which is still seldom performed: Salomé.

Wilde wrote his first play in French and even more than The Picture of Dorian Gray, with its extensive borrowings from À Rebours, it bears the imprint of the French Decadents. And not just writers like Laforgue or Mallarmé who had tackled the biblical theme; the painter Gustave Moreau’s numerous jewelled, Byzantine depictions of Salome’s fatal passion for John the Baptist hovered in Wilde’s mind’s eye as he wrote his play.

The piece was banned in Britain due to an archaic, rarely-enforced prohibition on depicting biblical figures on stage (though whether this renders Nativity plays illegal isn’t clear). While the ban on Salomé wouldn’t be lifted until 1931, an English translation (ineptly begun by Lord Alfred Douglas and cleaned up by Wilde) was published in book form. It was above all Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for this edition that confirmed Salome as the Decadent theme non pareil. Beardsley, the image-maker who visually dominated the 1890s like no other, captured the rapt dread of Wilde’s text with lascivious, orchidaceous illustrations which also, predictably, attracted the ire of the censor.

The deaths of Beardsley and Wilde (in 1898 and 1900 respectively) lowered the headstone on the 1890s for which they had, arguably, created the ultimate artefact. But by that time it had assumed a life of its own.

Richard Strauss’s operatic adaptation of the play appeared in 1905. It made the most of the chromatic possibilities opened up in the new century, brilliantly exploiting their capacity to evoke unease. Humid, lurid and corrupt, Strauss’s opera, teeming with Wagnerian leitmotifs, is a gripping musical depiction of a world thrown off-kilter as the plot slides toward vaticide. A succès de scandale in Europe, it was shut down in New York after one night (though the ballerina engaged to perform the Dance of the Seven Veils took her routine to the burlesque houses, to considerable success).

Just as contentious as Strauss’s opera were the dances performed by Canadian-born Maud Allan which were loosely based on Wilde’s play. As World War One drew to a close, priggish British MP Noel Pemberton Billing denounced her performances as a threat to the moral fabric of the country, if not indeed evidence of collaboration with the enemy.

Allan sued, but unfortunately for her the court case which ensued was swept up in the prevailing mood of triumphalist jingoism. Lord Alfred Douglas, battling his younger self as doggedly as he had once battled his father, sided with Billing and Maud Allan lost the case (for more on this episode see Philip Hoare’s Wilde’s Last Stand).

But the long, twisting vines that were planted in the hothouse of the 1890s were nothing if not tenacious, and they would continue to bear strange flowers long into the 20th century. Alastair, the most inventive of Beardsley’s followers, produced his own set of illustrations for Wilde’s play in 1922. And of course 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood’s greatest nod to Decadence, has one-time silent film star Norma Desmond planning to return to the screen in the role of Salome.

This was a knowing, ironic wink at another Salome variation which, rather than reviving a silent star’s career, stopped it stone dead.

Miriam Edez Adelaida Leventon, said star, was born in Russia in 1879. After studying with Stanislavski, she moved to the US in 1905 and became a celebrated Broadway tragedienne under the name of Alla Nazimova (she later dropped the first name). It was around this time that she first became obsessed with the idea of playing Salomé.

After her first film in 1916 Nazimova soon became one of the biggest of the early Hollywood stars (as well as godmother to Nancy Reagan), and like Musidora she was not just a performer but often a producer as well.

By 1923 she was in a position to fulfil her dream of bringing Salomé to the screen, investing a considerable part of her fortune in the production. While Charles Bryant was credited as the director, he had as little involvement with the look of the film as he did in his marriage to Nazimova. Both were gay, and Nazimova is said to have coined the term “sewing circle” to describe the numerous gay and bisexual women then operating in Hollywood in various degrees of openness.

Nazimova enlisted designer Natacha Rambova, wife of Rudolph Valentino, with whom she shared a taste for 1890s Decadence in general and Aubrey Beardsley in particular. Sets and costumes borrowed liberally from Beardsley’s illustrations, with a riot of dwarves, drag queens, half-naked slaves and camp courtiers in extravagant headpieces.

[Aside: one of those courtiers, Arthur Jasmine, apparently became Samson de Brier and performed in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. The stories are contradictory and I might return to try and pick them apart one day, but in the meantime this might shed some light.]

Describing Salomé as “the one pure creature in a court where sin was abundant”, Nazimova – still lithe at 42 – played the Judean princess as a teenager. Even for a soundstage-bound silent movie, Salomé is slow, arch and stylised. There is little which couldn’t have come from a stage production, though we are treated to some mesmerising close-ups of our heroine, irritably spurning Herod’s advances or swooning with lust as the gaunt form of John the Baptist rises from his cistern cell.

All this overripe fruitiness would later give rise to the rumour that the cast and crew were exclusively gay. Though false, it certainly didn’t help Salomé play in Peoria and the tale of prophet-killing didn’t make a profit, let alone a killing. It became one of Nazimova’s last films.

With the advent of talkies the actress turned instead to property development. Nazimova’s house, Garden of Alla (later Garden of Allah, and located on Sunset Boulevard, as it happens) was the site of outlandish parties – some said orgies – which transgressed even the generous bounds of the day. It also sat on an extensive plot, which Nazimova cannily turned into an ensemble of Spanish Mission villas, through which much of between-the-wars Hollywood passed, or passed out in, at one point or other.

Unlike Norma Desmond, Nazimova did dabble in sound and her career experienced a mini-revival in the early 1940s. Her last film appearance, little more than a cameo, was in Since You Went Away. Nazimova died on this day in 1945.

Watch Nazimova’s Salomé online here.

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12 comments

  1. dfordoom

    It’s difficult to think of a more authentically decadent movie. Great stuff.

  2. Another amazing post! Fabulous!

    By the way, I’ve shuttered Chateau Thombeau for good, but have started a smaller, more intimate weblog. Feel free to stop by!

    http://thombeau.blogspot.com

  3. A subject close to my heart. One detail about the Nazimova link with Wilde which I only recently noticed is the name of her home, The Garden of Allah. I haven’t confirmed this but it’s very likely that the name was a play on the title of a bestselling novel by Robert Hichens. The book appeared in 1904 and was filmed four times, the third version being a Rex Ingram film of 1927. Another Hichens novel, Bella Donna, was filmed in 1913 starring Nazimova herself.

    This is significant because Hichens’ second novel was The Green Carnation published in 1894, a roman à clef about the Wilde/Douglas affair which helped accelerate disapproval of Wilde’s behaviour by openly stating what was mostly rumour at that point. A friend tells me that some of Hichens’ other early novels feature homoerotic business, not least Flames (yes, I know…) wherein “two young men-about-town try to access a higher spiritual realm through private sessions a bit like, but not seances, in which they have to hold hands or stare into each other’s eyes”. After the success of The Garden of Allah Hichens seemed to devote himself to knocking out romantic melodramas which sound a lot less interesting.

    • Ah, a “higher spiritual realm”, that’s what we’ve been aiming for all this time!

      Many thanks for the additional background information. Continuing the “green carnation” theme, there’s a point in Salomé where she promises to drop “a little green flower” as a sign of favour to the young Syrian if he will release John the Baptist, a heavy-handed hint about the unnatural flower being the key to something forbidden.

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