Born Mariam Edez Adelaida Leventon in Yalta, Crimea, Ukraine, she was the third child in an abusive, contentious household. Most of her sad childhood were spent in foster homes or in the care of other relatives and she showed a strong penchant for outrageous behavior to cope. Nazimova also showed a great aptitude for music at a young age and began violin lessons at age 7.
She changed her name to Alla Nazimova when she began appearing on stage at the insistence of her father to protect the family name as "performing" was not considered respectable at the time. She began acting lessons at age 17 and joined Konstatin Stanislavsky's company of actors as a pupil of his 'method style' at the Moscow Art Theatre.
During that time she supported herself by being kept by rich, older men. A failed love affair led to her only marriage to an acting student named Sergei Golovin, but they separated quickly. She grew discontent with Stanislavsky and later performed in repertory. She met the legendary Pavel Orlenev, a close friend of Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky, and entered both a personal and professional relationship with him.
They toured internationally throughout Europe with great success and eventually came to New York in 1905 where Nazimova was saluted on Broadway for her definitive interpretations of Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and A Doll's House. Orlenev returned to Russia but Nazimova stayed.
She made her screen debut with War Brides (1916), which was initially a 35-minute play. By 1918, she was a box-office Metro star and completed 11 films for them over a three-year period.
A torrid, stylish and rather outre tragedienne who played exotic, liberal women confronted by great personal anguish, she earned personal successes as a reformed prostitute in Revelation (1918), a suicide in Toys of Fate (1918) and dual roles as half-sisters during the Boxer Rebellion in The Red Lantern (1919), not to mention the title role of Camille (1921) with Rudolph Valentino.
Her home, which she nicknamed "The Garden of Alla", became the hottest gathering place for the Hollywood set in the early 1920s. She was Nancy Reagan's Godmother.
At the same time she maintained a strong Broadway theatrical career. In accordance with her rise in the film industry, she began producing her own efforts which were bold and experimental...and monumental failures, although they are hailed as great artistic efforts today. Her Salome (1923) was quite scandalous and deemed a failure at the time. The monetary losses she suffered as producer were astronomical.
The Hays Code which led to severe censorship in pictures, also led to her downfall, as well as her outmoded acting style. She was forced to abandon films for the theatre, scoring exceptionally well in Chekhov's A Cherry Orchard. She did return briefly in 40s film supports solely for the money.
Nazimova's private life has long been the talk of a town. As a Hollywood cover to her well-known bisexual lifestyle, she coexisted in a "marriage" with gay actor Charles Bryant for well over a decade. Her Garden of Allah home was the centerpiece for many glamorous private parties. She died in Los Angeles, California, of coronary thrombosis.