Silent Film Star’s Legacy Turned L.A. Strip Mall


Standing at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights today, you see a strip mall and all it entails: the too-bright colors and garish graphics on businesses such as Liquor Locker and McDonald’s, towering billboards advertising everything from to Emporio Armani, the relentless whoosh of cars and the bleating of their horns. But in 1927, a mansion and 30 villas stood here, nestled within three acres of tropical gardens, and they were home to some of the most famous—and notorious—stars and writers of the day.

It started with Alla Nazimova, a Yalta-born stage and silent-film actress. In 1919, she was at the height of her career; her dramatic, scene-chewing style had made her a star in films such as Out of the Fog, The Red Lantern and The Brat. Earning $13,000 a week at a time when income tax was almost nonexistent, Nazimova had ample resources for the construction of her dream house, the Garden of Alla (the “h” was added later). It was a white stucco Mediterranean mansion with a pool shaped like the Black Sea, in what was then the countryside. The out-of-the-way location suited her just fine: Prohibition was on the horizon, and Nazimova liked to host alcohol-powered parties that inspired hookups and hangovers. Her sleepy stretch of Sunset Boulevard fell outside the jurisdiction of the city police, and the county sheriff just didn’t care that much. Over time, the income from her movies began to decline, so Nazimova built 30 Spanish-style villas (which were charming, but constructed on the cheap with paper-thin walls) around the main house with plans to live off the rental income. In 1928, due to bad advice and bad investments, she had to sell the property, and she ended up occupying a unit herself (it’s unclear whether she had to pay rent). But while Nazimova’s star was waning, the reputation of the Garden of Allah continued to rise.

Alla Nazimova

Alla Nazimova strikes a dramatic pose in a publicity shot for one of her silent films. Courtesy of Marc Wanamaker.

“It became a magnet for a certain type of person,” says Martin Turnbull, a novelist who has extensively researched the property for his book series The Garden of Allah. “It tended to draw the New York intelligentsia, who had come out here to earn money writing for the movies.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Harpo Marx and Robert Benchley were just some of the tenants who fell into that category. Regular visitors included actors such as Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn and Tallulah Bankhead (who reportedly enjoyed skinny-dipping in the Black Sea–inspired pool).

After Prohibition, the building became a hotel, like the nearby Chateau Marmont. Still a hedonistic hot spot, the Garden of Allah fell into slow decline, eventually becoming shabby and seedy. In 1959, after a decade of robberies, including one where a desk clerk was killed, the owners sold the building to mall developers. But before the wrecking ball started swinging, they threw open the doors for one last party. “Word got around and it got out of hand,” says Turnbull. “Revelers, some of whom had partied there during Nazimova’s time, were supposed to stay for just the evening. But the event lasted 30 hours, until everyone was exhausted and the booze ran out.” Photographer Allan Grant captured the happening in a series of black-and-white shots that show partygoers, many dressed in 1920s costumes, completely letting go: jumping into the pool wearing evening gowns or far less, lighting up in the backyard, and even sleeping it off on sofas in the lobby. As the party raged, a projector cast images of a costumed Nazimova (who died from coronary thrombosis in 1945) on a wall by the pool. She presided over the mayhem with a silent smile.

This article was published in California Home + Design’s Spring 2013 issue. Click here to subscribe.

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