cover image Nazimova: A Biography

Nazimova: A Biography

Gavin Lambert. Alfred A. Knopf, $32.5 (432pp) ISBN 978-0-679-40721-8

While playing the neurotic 29-year-old Hedda Gabler in 1936, Alla Nazimova, then 57, complained that age was getting to her: ""I feel 50 years old!"" Yet she had lovers (of both genders) in their 20s. After seeing Nazimova perform in Ibsen's play in Boston, Noel Coward wrote effusively, ""You can come to London and play the telephone book!"" Petite and taut, she was vivid onstage; and, said Lillian Gish, ""You never caught her `acting.' "" As early as 1906, with her stardom still to come, Nazimova--born in Yalta as Mariam Adelaida Leventon--recognized that though offstage she lived by her impulses, she required another self when the curtain rose: ""If I haven't lived beautifully, I must act beautifully."" Restoring the real Nazimova cannot have been easy for Lambert, a veteran Hollywood writer (Norma Shearer; On Cukor). The actress's last lesbian companion, a talentless sponger, tampered with Nazimova's already unreliable memoirs and diaries; it was the last of many victimizations. When she was a child, her father beat her; in later years, always disorganized in her finances, she was often exploited by parasites, male and female. Yet once the house lights dimmed, she substantiated her legend, making Ibsen and Chekhov credible in America, stirring the teenage Eugene O'Neill to be a playwright (and at 52 starring in his Mourning Becomes Electra) and having the same electrifying impact upon the young Tennessee Williams. Although her thrilling voice may have enabled her transition to talkies from trashy if lucrative silent films, shifts in acting styles left her with few roles of any kind in her last decades, while dwindling funds forced her to sell off her last assets. This gossipy but reliable life of Nazimova, emphasizing her defiance of social norms, may transform her from a forgotten theatrical heroine into a feminist icon. Photos. (Apr.)