Fiction · 05/15/2013

'Nazimova'

Statutory Declaration
Gender Recognition Act 2004

“I ______________________ do solemnly and sincerely declare that:
1. I am over 18 years of age.
2. I have lived as a male / female (delete word that does not apply) throughout the period of _____ years since I transitioned in __________ (month and year of transition).
3. I intend to live as a male / female (delete word that does not apply) until death.

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I held my pen over my Gender Recognition Certificate application, contemplating my final step in moving from ‘male’ to ‘female’.

Looking at the space where my name was supposed to go, I thought about how I’d changed mine. Coming out as transsexual, overwhelmed by friends concerned that it would ruin my life and worrying about how my parents would respond to my renouncing the name they gave me, I’d chosen as conservatively as possible, changing a few letters in legally feminising it and insisting that people still call me what they always had.

How colourless, I thought, staring at the grey box. I glanced at my clothes. Almost automatically, I’d thrown on a white T-shirt, a black skirt and thick opaque tights, as I did most days. Ever since I began ‘living as a woman’, several years ago, my appearance, my voice and my persona had been dictated by external pressures: my expectation that the Gender Identity Clinic would decline hormone treatment if I didn’t do enough to meet feminine norms, and the experience of acquaintances or strangers criticising or abusing me if I did too much. The Gender Recognition Panel wanted me to declare exactly who I was, now and for the rest of my life. But I had to think harder — was I the person I wanted to be?

I decided to go out, in search of inspiration. Flicking through the local paper, something at the cinema caught my eye. ‘7pm: Salomé (1923). Bizarre silent version of Oscar Wilde’s Biblical play.’ I got my bag and left, taking my seat just as the opening credits screened.

Nazimova
in
‘SALOMÉ’
An Historical Phantasy
by
OSCAR WILDE

Intrigued by the nerve of this ‘Nazimova’ — who put her name above Wilde’s! — I was hooked by the assertion that ‘Salomé yet remains an uncontaminated blossom in a wilderness of evil’ where King Herod had murdered her father, usurped the throne and married her mother. What would such an ‘uncontaminated blossom’ look like?

Then came Nazimova’s answer. She bursts onto the screen in a glittering tunic and short skirt, crowned in a headpiece covered in pearls on springs, utterly imperious despite her miniscule frame. “You must not look at her!” commands an inter-title as she shifts her plimsolled feet in tiny steps, holding her head above the gazes of Herod’s courtiers, her dark lips pursed into an irresistible pout.

Like everyone else, I couldn’t stop looking at her. She was utterly captivating — just as well, as nothing much was happening. What little action there was centred around Salomé’s interminable attempt to seduce John the Baptist, imprisoned beneath the court (and called Jokanaan for some reason). After Jokanaan spurns Salomé’s chess-like moves to ‘kiss thy mouth’, Herod, who’s spent the whole film lusting over her with his tongue hanging out, tells Salomé that she can have whatever she desires if she dances for him. Salomé takes some persuading — she’s not the kind of girl who’ll jig whenever her stepfather claps — but sensing her chance for revenge, she acquiesces.

The inter-title promises ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’. But where are the veils? Surrounded by courtiers, yet completely unveiled, Nazimova tip-toes elegantly in a small, tight white dress; her hair is covered by a shocking bob wig, her frenzied eyes emboldened by heavy shadow and streaks of eyeliner. Finally, the courtiers find a veil, and when she throws her body to the ground, they throw it over her. She dances herself into a knot before untangling herself, rising and holding her single veil behind her head.

The dance complete, Salomé’s demand is unflinching: “Give me the head of Jokanaan!” Desperate not to kill his political prisoner, Herod offers anything else — a head-dress of peacock feathers, a frock fashioned from diamonds — but she stands firm. Finally, she gets her wish. She kisses Jokanaan’s mouth, on his severed head, and cries “Love hath a bitter taste! But what matter? What matter?” What matter indeed — Herod screams “KILL THAT WOMAN!” and the courtiers descend and spear the impetuous princess to death.

+

Immediately, I wanted to see more of Nazimova. Only one other film, Camille, survives: the style was similar to Salomé, but despite the presence of Rudolph Valentino (at least until she had him cut from her death scene), it was nowhere near as captivating. Contemplating the sad loss of her work to history, I knew exactly who I wanted to be.

In many ways, her life differed from mine. Alla Nazimova was born in Ukraine and trained under Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre, where she adopted her stage name. I’d been in Miss Lambert’s form at a secondary school in Reading, where I got A-Levels in Theatre Studies and Performing Arts. She lived in a mansion on Sunset Boulevard, building the Garden of Allah, where she threw decadent parties for Hollywood’s elite. I lived in a studio flat in Brighton, where I often ate tomato soup from a tin. She had lesbian affairs with Surrealist artists, film directors, Oscar Wilde’s niece and Valentino’s lover Natacha Rambova, who designed the costumes for Salomé, and possibly an affair with her Camille co-star himself. I’d not had so much as a message on OK Cupid for months.

Clearly, there would be certain limitations. For one, Madame, as she preferred to be called, was 5’3” and impossibly thin — but she hadn’t let being 43 years old stop her playing the teenaged Salomé, so I figured it wouldn’t dishonour her that I was a little bigger. (I’d try to be to scale, at least.) Another problem: not only were Rambova’s fashions wildly impractical, but they had cost $350,000 — in 1922. But I wanted to become Nazimova, not Salomé. This, at least, freed me of the need to find a dress made of diamonds, but looking at the images online, I knew that I’d still have to spend serious money on clothes.

I scoured Brighton’s vintage stores for relics of the Twenties. I found a surprisingly large number that would have suited Madame, but not so many to fit me. Travelling to London, I fought through the retro shops on Brick Lane, telling myself that unlike the hipsters of Shoreditch and Dalston, I was an artist. I explained my project to a student who looked like an original Blitz Kid, and she grudgingly let me buy the glittering tunic that she’d found in the sale rail. I jostled my way to a svelte brown dress that resembled one I’d seen Madame wearing, a white mini-dress and a few other things that looked plausible and bought them, trying not to consider the gulf between her budget and mine.

I took a picture into a salon in Brighton and got an appointment.

“Who’s that?” asked the hairdresser, “Lady Gaga?”

“Madame Nazimova,” I replied, handing the photograph to her. “She was an actress.”

“Oh right. What was she in?”

“Salomé.”

“Never heard of it,” she said as she tried to force my hair into Madame’s vivacious bouffant. “Do you want me to colour it?” she asked, looking at the black and white photograph.

“Do what you can.”

“Okay hon, pop your head forward,” she told me, and started cutting.

An hour and £70 later, I realised I’d have to buy some wigs. That was okay — Madame wore them a lot — and on the plus side, I could replicate her headpiece using beads instead of pearls. So after spending an afternoon traipsing around the North Lanes to find a brown bouffant and a white bob, and an evening trying to put beads on springs and then attach them to a headband, my first outfit was complete.

I stared at the mirror, eyeing myself in the wig, tiara, tunic, skirt and little white plimsolls, practising Madame’s almost inimitable pout. I copied her make-up from the film — pale foundation, two coats of black mascara, lashings of eyeliner and the darkest red lipstick I could find. But Madame wouldn’t get so dolled up for a quiet night in, would she? (At least, not alone). I checked the listings to see what was on. One thing leapt out:

Masquerade
Celebrity Night @ Marilyn’s
Featuring PENNY FARTHING, CANDY STYXX and MC MARIAMAXWELL
Entry £5 — or FREE if you’re FAMOUS!

Perfect! I called a few friends and asked if they fancied it. “You? Going to Marilyn’s?” they scoffed. I told them I had a new outfit (which was true) and wanted somewhere to show it off (also true). This swayed them, so we agreed to meet there. I packed my favourite handbag — the only one that I thought Madame might have been seen with — threw in my make-up, my phone, my purse and my favourite picture of Nazimova, and I was ready to go.

But how to get there? I had no change on me for a bus, and it was a forty-minute walk to St. James’s Street, through central Brighton and past the seafront on a busy Saturday night. I bet Madame never had to walk anywhere. She’d have been chauffeured in the finest automobiles, I imagined, or ushered around in a gold-plated carriage by some nubile young men. She wouldn’t have had to get the Number 7 full of day-tripping drunks.

I set off for the nearest cashpoint, concentrating on replicating Madame’s delicate footsteps. So I wasn’t ready for the people who drove past, shouted “Tranny!” and threw a beer can at my head (missing) as they sped off. Undeterred, I continued. I could see a big crowd outside the church, perhaps leaving a wedding, the men in starched suits and the women in flowing dresses. They must not look at me, I thought, knowing that they would. I stood tall, pursing my lips to show that I was above their stares. Someone with a pram eyeballed me as she moved her child out of the way, even though I took measured steps around her, and a group of elderly ladies talked about me, glancing conspiratorially like the courtiers at Salomé.

Ignoring wolf whistles from the bus stop, I could see the cashpoint across Seven Dials. There were three lads stood next to it, outside the off license. There was nowhere else to get money, so I watched from across the road, hoping they’d leave. It started to rain. I had no umbrella (can you imagine Madame with such a thing?) and it would ruin my make-up.

I rushed over the roundabout and darted towards the cashpoint, bank card in hand as an angry motorist swerved and swore at me. Withdrawing my money, I heard a voice: “That’s a man!” Knowing where this may lead, I gestured at the machine, urging haste. “Fucking bender!” Laughter. The notes came. I stuffed them into my bag. I turned. They blocked my path.

What would Madame do?

I stood on tiptoes and kissed the biggest man on the lips. I walked on, head high, then started running as they chased after me. I skipped past some startled shoppers, shoved a sandwich board for a Thai restaurant in front of my attackers and, as they stumbled, hailed a passing taxi. “To Marilyn’s!” I commanded as I threw myself onto the seat, locking the door as it raced through the changing light, laughing as I saw my man wipe my lipstick off his face.

+

I stepped out of the cab, dreaming of being mobbed by adoring fans. As it turned out, Steph, Orla and Madeleine were huddled outside smoking, trying not to get wet.

“You didn’t come as celebrities!”

“Nor did you,” said Orla.

“This isn’t how I usually dress, is it?” I replied, hands on hips.

“We wouldn’t come near you if it was, sweetheart. Come on, we’re getting soaked,” said Orla, beckoning us all inside.

I realised that I’d spoken without ever hearing a word from Madame. Apparently she had a fine voice, theatrically trained, but her strong Ukrainian accent had destroyed her career on the arrival of the ‘talkies’. I’d had some speech therapy on the NHS but I suspect I didn’t sound like a leading light of the Moscow Art Theatre. And how would she have competed with the Scissor Sisters at maximum volume? She may have preferred to remain silent, and that the pictures had too, I thought as the drag queen on the door stopped me.

“Five pounds please, darling.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Don’t you recognise her?” said Steph. “From Sunset Boulevard?”

“You’re Gloria Swanson?”

“No, I am not.”

“Who are you then? Eartha Kitt?”

“I am Madame Nazimova,” I insisted, showing her the picture. She demanded five pounds. Angrily, I handed over the money and stormed upstairs, my friends giggling behind me.

We stood at the bar, celeb-spotting and gender-guessing. Amy Winehouse was a man, we were sure; Ryan Gosling definitely wasn’t. Male and female David Bowies jostled for drinks whilst someone brave enough to attempt Gaga’s meat dress fumbled anxiously at a steak, stinking out the sweaty room until the barman told her to get changed or get out.

I got a gin and tonic (I didn’t know Madame’s favourite tipple) and we watched the cabaret. They were inviting people to perform: after a Madonna in a pink dress and faux diamonds butchered Material Girl, we laughed as the Vogue, Erotic and Music -era Madonnas booed her off and the drag queen compere took the microphone.

“Right, which Britain’s Got Talent reject is next?”

Steph shoved me towards the front. “Pick her! She’d die to be on stage!”

“Oh my Lord! Who on earth are you?”

“She’s Madame Nazimova!” laughed Madeleine. “Get her on!”

“Madam Nazi-what? What’s your act, love? Goose-stepping?”

“I perform the Dance of the Seven Veils… but not here,” I said, trying in vain to back away from the stage.

“I think we want to see the Dance of the Seven Veils, don’t we, boys and girls?”

A cheer went up. Steph, Madeleine and Orla clapped and chanted “Dance! Dance! Dance!” and before I knew it, the clubbers were as transfixed as Herod’s courtiers. A wave of hands forced me on stage to applause and whistles. Then, just as a grave realisation hit me, the compere piped up-

“Where are the bloody veils, Madam?”

If only to shut her up, I danced without them. I stood, arms above my head, then leant back, tiptoeing in a circle to absolute silence. I could see the crowd starting to talk about me, perhaps discussing my lack of classical ballet training as I quickened my pace, whirling frantically as they clapped ever faster.

“She is goose-stepping!” yelled the compere. “Can we get her at least one fucking veil? Preferably over her face?”

I saw movement at the bar, then a white sheet being passed towards the stage. The compere grabbed it and threw it over my head, saying “Got any more?” I twirled maniacally, ensnared in the heavy fabric, until I fell to my knees, exhausted. Hearing bemused murmurs from the crowd, I threw it off as I leapt to my feet.

“What the fuck was that, sweetheart? Go on, Madam — piss off!”

I took a bow and stepped down, my reception as muted as that given to Salomé all those years ago. As Man, I Feel Like a Woman kicked in, and I reflected that perhaps the world still wasn’t ready for Nazimova, a handsome stranger with slicked-back hair took my hand.

“Please tell me you’re Valentino.”

“Oh, I’m John,” he said. “I didn’t dress up. I liked your dance.”

“I’m glad someone did.”

“May I buy you a drink, Madame?”

Madame may have preferred a woman, I thought, and in truth so would I, but I felt sure she’d have gone with someone this suave. He took me to the bar and I told him everything I knew about Nazimova, and explained why I wanted to call him Jokanaan. I assured him that I wouldn’t demand his head on a plate — as long as he let me kiss his mouth. He did: we talked the night away, and when closing time came, I took a taxi back to his flat. It wasn’t Sunset Boulevard, but I didn’t care.

+

I woke in Jokanaan’s bed, the white bob and head-dress thrown atop my tunic and plimsolls. I could hear driving rain against his window, and I sensed that the temperature had dropped sharply. I went to the bathroom and removed my smudged make-up, wincing at the sight of my sweaty fringe strewn across my forehead. I asked my man if he had anything I could wear home. He rummaged through his wardrobe, throwing a white T-shirt over my head before digging out an old jumper, denim jeans and some trainers that he thought might fit me.

Promising to return them soon, I trudged home, resolving never again to feel as grey as I did in his faded clothes. Picking up the Gender Recognition Certificate, I thought that with a bit more planning, I might be able to sustain this persona. After all, if the money ran out, that would only make me more authentic. Finally, I completed the form:

Statutory Declaration
Gender Recognition Act 2004

“I Alla Nazimova do solemnly and sincerely declare that:
1. I am over 18 years of age.
2. I have lived as a male / female (delete word that does not apply) throughout the period of _____ years since I transitioned in __________ (month and year of transition).
3. I intend to live as a Nazimova (delete word that does not apply) until death.

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Juliet Jacques is a freelance writer who lives in London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The New Statesman, TimeOut, The London Magazine, Context, Cineaste and elsewhere.