One of the most famous actresses of the silent film era in the US was Alla Nazimova, originally from Russia. She had romantic affairs with a number of other actresses and coined the use of the phrase “sewing circle” to refer to closeted lesbian or bisexual actresses of her day.
Alla Nazimova ( 4 June 1879 – July 13, 1945) was an American film and theater actress, a screenwriter, and film producer. She is perhaps best known as simply Nazimova, but also went under the name Alia Nasimoff. She emigrated to the United States from the Russian Empire. In 1927, Nazimova became anaturalized citizen of the United States.
She was influential in the film industry in the silent era and continued to play character roles until the end of her life.
Relationships with women
Between the years of 1917 and 1922 Nazimova wielded considerable influence and power in Hollywood. By all accounts she was extremely generous to young actresses in whom she saw talent and became involved with at least some of them romantically. For instance, after meeting a young Patsy Ruth Miller at a Hollywood party, Nazimova assisted in getting Miller’s career launched. (Miller got her first break with a small role in Camille.) Another noteworthy example was Anna May Wong, whose first film role at age 14 was as an extra in The Red Lantern.
Nazimova helped start the careers of both of Rudolph Valentino’s wives, Jean Acker and Natacha Rambova. Although she was involved in an affair with Acker, it is debated as to whether her connection with Rambova ever developed into a sexual affair. Nevertheless, there were rumors that Nazimova and Rambova were involved in a lesbian affair (they are discussed at length in Dark Lover, Emily Leider’s biography of Rudolph Valentino) but those rumors have never been definitely confirmed. She was very impressed by Rambova’s skills as an art director, and Rambova designed the innovative sets for Nazimova’s film productions of Camille and Salomé.
Of those Nazimova is confirmed to have been involved with romantically, the list includes actress Eva Le Gallienne, director Dorothy Arzner, writer Mercedes de Acosta, and Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly Wilde. Bridget Bate Tichenor, a Magic Realist artist and Surrealist painter, was also rumored to be one of Nazimova’s favored lovers in Hollywood during the World War II years of 1940 to 1942. The two had been introduced by the poet and art collector Edward James, and according to Tichenor, their intimate relationship angered Nazimova’s longtime companion, Glesca Marshall. It is Nazimova who coined the phrase “sewing circle” as code to refer to lesbian or bisexual actresses of her day who concealed their true sexuality.