|Who was Mercedes de Acosta?
Having never gained widespread acclaim for her own writing, Mercedes de Acosta is best remembered for her high-profile affairs with some of the world's most glamorous women.
De Acosta was born in New York City in March 1893, the youngest of seven children of a wealthy Cuban father and a mother descended from Spanish nobility. As a young girl, she wore boy's clothes and was called by a masculine name. She would later write that she actually believed she was a boy until age 7. When she was 14, soon after her father committed suicide, she was sent to a convent school in France.
At age 20, after considerable hesitation, de Acosta married wealthy painter and socialite Abram Poole. But this did not stop her from having numerous affairs with women. She began associating with lesbians in the New York theater world, attending a salon hosted by lesbian literary agent Bessie Marbury and her partner, designer Elsie de Wolfe. Among de Acosta's lovers were several renowned stage and screen actressesincluding Eva Le Gallienne, Ona Munson, and Alla Nazimovaas well as modern-dance pioneer Isadora Duncan. De Acosta and Poole (himself purportedly homosexual) eventually divorced in 1935 after having been separated for several years.
Widely viewed as eccentric, de Acosta was often seen with slicked-back hair and dressed in mannish attireusually blackwith a cape and tricorner hat, leading Tallulah Bankhead to dub her "Countess Dracula." She was open about her love affairs with women and unafraid to speak her mind, which included boasting about her sexual conquests. De Acosta was interested in astrology, yoga, the occult, and Eastern mysticism long before they became popular, and in 1938 she made an extended pilgrimage to India to visit the sage Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi.
De Acosta wrote three volumes of poetry, two novels, and several plays, most of which were never produced. Although her works did not include explicit lesbian relationships, they did often feature women protagonists struggling with loneliness, prejudice, unhappy marriages, and forbidden love. While her writing earned praise from some critics, it failed to gain popular acclaim, and she refused to limit her subject matter for the sake of commercial appeal.
When de Acosta was in her mid-30s, Bessie Marbury helped her secure a job as a screenwriter with RKO Studios in Hollywood. As with her plays, most of her scripts were never produced. In 1931, not long after she arrived in California, she met the love of her life, actress Greta Garbo, at a lesbian tea party. The two women began a passionate affair and briefly lived together. Describing hiking together during a trip to the Sierras, de Acosta wrote, "I would see her above me, her face and body outlined against the sky, looking like some radiant, elemental, glorious god and goddess melted into one." But as de Acosta's ardor deepened, Garbo's cooled. They both had relationships with other people, including affairs at different times with another celebrated actress, Marlene Dietrich.
During World War II and the McCarthy era that followed, radical politics and homosexuality within the film industry came under fire. Many queer Hollywood personalities went into hiding, sometimes entering "lavender marriages" with opposite-sex partners who were also homosexual. De Acosta's openness became an increasing liability to her career and those of her lovers. After maintaining an on-and-off relationship for more than a decade, Garbo sought to end things with de Acosta. "I told you before you came [to visit] where we stand," Garbo wrote in a letter. "I wish to be left alone...Be a good boy and don't bother me now."
De Acosta spent the 1950s in Paris, where she met Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. In 1960, after returning to New York City in ill health and with little money, she published her autobiography, Here Lies the Heart. Although she omitted any explicit sexual details, some of her former lovers were outraged that de Acosta discussed their relationships. The notoriously private Garbo never spoke to her again, and Le Gallienne suggested the book should have been titled Here the Heart Lies and Lies and Lies.
Having alienated her former friends and lovers, de Acosta spent her final years virtually secluded in her small Manhattan apartment. She died poor and largely unknown in May 1968 at the age of 75.
Some 30 years after de Acosta's death and 10 years after that of Garbo, 80 or so letters, cards, and telegrams Garbo sent to de Acosta were unveiled by the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia in April 2000. (De Acosta had sold them to the museum for $5,000.) While the letters hint at a passionate involvement complete with jealousy and recriminationsat least on the part of de Acostathey reveal no explicit details about whether the women had a sexual relationship.
While she never gained fame for her own work, de Acosta nevertheless made her mark on history. "Say what you will about Mercedes de Acosta," Toklas once wrote, "she's had the three greatest women of the 20th century."
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of Letters from CAMP Rehoboth or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 4 May 6, 2005