At the start of the Roaring ’20s a century ago, two women with ties to Salt Lake City became famous in the early Hollywood gay and lesbian community. This closet society was centered around a pleasure palace known as the Garden of Allah owned by the “Divine” Alla Nazimova.
Nazimova was an avant-garde bohemian of Jewish Russian heritage who was the darling of New York Theaters during the first two decades of the 20th century. She introduced on the stage, to American audiences, the geniuses of Europe — Stanislavsky, Chekhov and Ibsen. By 1910 she even had a theater named in her honor on 39th Street in New York City.
As an actress Nazimova was also acquainted with Broadway stage agent Bessie Marbury. Marbury introduced the notorious seducer of women, Mercedes de Acosta, to Nazimova, a poet and playwright, who afterward became lifelong friends. During these early years, Nazimova met a gay Englishman named Charles Bryant, who would become her alleged “husband.” They were never legally married but all the same, the two claimed to be married and would continue the pretense for 20 years.
Nazimova also befriended a handsome Italian gigolo who was arrested by the police in New York on suspicion of petty theft and blackmailing. Nazimova bailed him out and landed him a job as a chorus boy in a touring musical headed for the West Coast to get him out of town. The young man would change his name in California to the screen name of Rudolph Valentino. Dancer and costume designer Natacha Rambova and script writer June Mathis were also intimately acquainted with Nazimova after the Broadway star relocated to Hollywood.
In an interview for Motion Picture magazine, Nazimova acknowledged, “most of my friends are young girls.” Her detractors added to the insinuations. One reviewer wrote that “her vogue is based not so much on the perfection of her productions as on her own bizarre personality and artistry, and seemingly an overwhelming appeal for the feminine sex.”
Natacha Rambova was a pseudonym for Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy, who was born in 1897 in Salt Lake City. She was the great-granddaughter of Mormon Apostle Heber C. Kimball. After her parents’ divorce, Winifred, known as “Wink,” left Utah and traveled to Europe with her father, Colonel Micahel Shaughnessy. Her mother, Winnie Kimball, married her second husband Edgar de Wolfe, brother of the famous interior designer Elsie de Wolf.
Winnie Kimball de Wolfe’s sister-in-law lived with Bessie Marbury, the Broadway agent. Since 1892 the couple lived in what observers accepted as a lesbian relationship. Kimball de Wolfe, in 1926, married diplomat Sir Charles Mendl which became page one news in the New York Times. The marriage was only platonic and one of convenience. The pair kept separate residences. As the paper put it: “When in New York she makes her home with Miss Elizabeth Marbury at 13 Sutton Place.”
Evidently Sir Mendl’s knighthood was bestowed due to his retrieval of letters from a gigolo who had been blackmailing George, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of the reigning monarch, King George V. The Duke of Kent, who was bisexual, had an affair with Noel Coward in 1923. The Duke’s racy image was said only to have added to his charm and someone commented at the time: “He is not safe in taxis with either sex.”
After her marriage, Elsie de Wolfe was known as Lady Mendl who would often entertain her guests doing cartwheels. Gay songwriter Cole Porter wrote a lyric about Elsie De Wolfe in the song “Anything Goes.” He observed, “When you hear that Lady Mendl, standing up/Now turns a handspring landing up-/On her toes/Anything goes!”
After Winnie Kimball divorced her second husband, Edgar, she left him in New York to manage the business affairs of Elsie. Winnie then remarried for the last time to self-made millionaire Richard Hudnut who, having no children of his own, adopted Natasha Rambova as his daughter. Hudnut made his millions by premiering the first American-made cosmetic lines which he called DuBarry. In its heyday DuBarry was bigger and more popular than Revlon is today.
Shedding her Utah heritage, Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy changed her name to Natacha Rambova and joined the Imperial Russian Ballet. She was mentored by her lover, Theodore Kosloff.
June Mathis was born June Hughes in 1887 in Leadville, Colo. After her father died her mother married William Mathis and moved to Utah. Mathis grew up in Salt Lake City, which she would proudly consider her hometown for the rest of her life.
In 1900, Mathis began a career in Vaudeville and her stage career grew over the next few years, bringing her good reviews and much acclaim. In 1908 she played with Julian Eltinge, the renowned female impersonator. After a brief one-time foray in front of the camera, Mathis then began writing scripts and signed with Metro Pictures, where she quickly rose in the ranks. By 1918 she was writing for the studio’s biggest stars, such as Alla Nazimova. Mathis became head of the scenario department, making her the first female film executive ever.
With her film career flourishing, Nazimova bought an imposing California Spanish home at 8080 Sunset Boulevard, in what is now West Hollywood, building a pool and landscaping the property’s three and a half acres. The residence was named “The Garden of Allah,” and became a popular place for the Hollywood elite, gay and straight.
Nazimova was not merely interested in her own career but also of those she thought of as her protégés. The “mistress of the Garden of Allah” attracted talent and it was through her efforts that rising star Rudolph Valentino was elevated to the strata of living legend while also nurturing the careers of writer June Mathis and art designer Natacha Rambova.
By 1920 Rambova had fallen in love with the charismatic Nazimova, who was her protégé after Metro Pictures engaged her for the film Aphrodite. Although the film was never made, it was the vehicle by which Rambova met Nazimova. It was during production of Aphrodite that Theodore Kosloff, having heard of Rambova’s affair with Nazimova, shot her in the leg, destroying her dancing career. Not long after, Rambova met her future husband Rudolph Valentino, also a protégé of June Mathis. They were married to enhance Valentino’s image as a Latin lover. Rambova, however, tried to manage Valentino’s image in a different direction than the one Mathis had created for him. Rambova and Valentino later divorced, but not until a riff had developed between Valentino, Rambova and Mathis.
When Valentino died in 1926 he was virtually penniless and Mathis, having made up with him, gave up her crypt as a temporary resting place. When she died suddenly in 1927, Valentino was moved to the empty crypt of Mathis’ Italian husband. Mathis and Valentino are resting side by side.
Nazimova never regained her popularity after the 1920s and died in 1945 penniless. Rambova married a Spanish count and fled Spain during the Spanish Civil War, barely escaping with her life. She later became an Egyptologist where she gained some notoriety. She died in 1966. In her later life she disdained the “glamour” of Hollywood and said glamour was a counterfeit substitute for beauty. A painting of Natacha was donated to the University of Utah, as well as Egyptian artifacts, some of which later were discovered to be fakes.