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Mercedes de Acosta (March 1, 1893 – May 9, 1968) was an American poet, playwright, and novelist. In her 1960 autobiography, Here Lies the Heart, she claimed to have been intimate with Isadora Duncan, Marlene Dietrich, Alice B. Toklas, Marie Laurencin, Eva Le Gallienne, Malvina Hoffman, Adele Astaire and Greta Garbo. She has been also romantically linked to Alla Nazimova, Katharine Cornell, Ona Munson, Eleonora Duse, Barbara Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead, Salka Viertel, Eva Hermann. Maude Adams is listed as De Acosta's lover: while in her early twenties, De Acosta became involved in the lesbian theatrical circles of Broadway, particularly the salon of Bessie Marbury, a powerful producer and literary agent, and Marbury’s lover Elsie de Wolfe, the prominent interior decorator. Apparently this is where they had met.
Persons represented in her papers at the Rosenbach Museum & Library include Maude Adams; Eva Bartok; Cecil Beaton; Nadia Boulanger; Marie Doro; Isadora Duncan; Eleonora Duse; Claire, Marquise de Forbin; Greta Garbo; Mary Garden; Malvina Hoffman; Isabel Jeans; Tamara Platonovna Karsavina; Maria Annunziata "Poppy" Kirk; Marie Laurencin; Eva Le Gallienne; Mercedes's sister Rita de Acosta Lydig; Loren MacIver; Sorella Maria; Ona Munson; Irene Rice Pereira; Acosta's husband Abram Poole; Ram Gopal; Natacha Rambova; Igor Stravinsky; Alice B. Toklas; Hope Williams; Stark Young; and Ignacio Zuloaga.
De Acosta wrote almost a dozen plays, only four of which were produced, and she published a novel and three volumes of poetry. She was professionally unsuccessful but is known for her many lesbian affairs with famous Broadway and Hollywood personalities and numerous friendships with prominent artists of the period. Her pale white face, thin red lips, and jet black hair slicked back with brilliantine prompted Tallulah Bankhead to call her Countess Dracula.
She was born in New York City in 1893. Her father, Ricardo de Acosta, was of Cuban and Spanish descent and her mother, Micaela Hernández de Alba y de Alba, was Spanish and reportedly a descendant of the Spanish Dukes of Alba. De Acosta had five siblings: Aida, Ricardo Jr., Angela, Maria, and Rita. Maria married socially prominent A. Robeson Sargent, the Harvard-educated landscape architect and son of Charles Sprague Sargent. Rita became a famous beauty best known as Rita Lydig. She was photographed by Adolf de Meyer, Edward Steichen, and Gertrude Käsebier, sculpted in alabaster by Malvina Hoffman, and painted by Giovanni Boldini and John Singer Sargent among others. Under the name Mrs Philip Lydig, Rita wrote a novel, Tragic Mansions (Boni & Liveright, 1927), a society melodrama described as "emotionally moving and appealing" by The New York Times. De Acosta attended elementary school at the Covenant of the Blessed Sacrement on West 79th Street in Manhattan where Dorothy Parker was a classmate.
by Arnold Genthe
Photographed on March 8, 1935, by Carl Van Vechten
Mercedes de Acosta by Abram Poole
315 E 68th St
She was described in 1955 by Garbo biographer, John Bainbridge, as "a woman of courtly manners, impeccable decorative taste and great personal elegance... a woman with a passionate and intense devotion to the art of living... and endowed with a high spirit, energy, eclectic curiosity and a varied interest in the arts."
In 1915 in Long Island Mercedes de Acosta became lover of Isadora Duncan.
De Acosta was involved in numerous lesbian relationships with Broadway's and Hollywood's elite and she did not attempt to hide her sexuality; her uncloseted existence was very rare and daring in her generation. In 1916 she began an affair with actress Alla Nazimova and later with dancer Isadora Duncan. Shortly after marrying Abram Poole in 1920, de Acosta became involved in a five-year relationship with actress Eva Le Gallienne. De Acosta wrote two plays for Le Gallienne, Sandro Botticelli and Jehanne de Arc. After the financial failures of both plays they ended their relationship.
Over the next decade she was involved with several famous actresses and dancers including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Ona Munson, and Russian ballerina Tamara Karsavina. Additional unsubstantiated rumors include affairs with Pola Negri, Eleonora Duse, Katherine Cornell, Edith Wharton, Dorothy Fellowes-Gordon, Amy Lowell, Alice DeLamar and Alice B. Toklas. It has often been said that she once stated, "I can get any woman away from any man" but there is no evidence to substantiate this claim.
In 1918, de Acosta met Hope Williams, an aspiring actress, at a party and began a relationship that would involve her further in the theatre. In 1919 de Acosta also struck up a fruitful working relationship with Harriet Monroe, editor of the Chicago-based Poetry magazine, who published her poems until 1931.
De Acosta married painter Abram Poole (January 1883 Chicago, Illinois – May 24, 1961) in 1920. They lived mostly apart, and divorced when Poole wanted to marry again. When de Acosta's mother died in 1921, Mercedes was distraught and poured her grief in a dark play, Jehanne D'Arc. While writing this, she met Natacha Rambova, former lover of Alla Nazimova.
John Colton, author of "Rain," had been in Hollywood since the early 1920s, where he became a close friend of Irving Thalberg. A vital part of the Hollywood gay scene, Colton share a home with Mercedes de Acosta and often turned up in the gossip columns "out on the town" with George Cukor or Orry-Kelly.
In 1923, De Acosta's writing career received a boost when the celebrated stage actress, Eva Le Gallienne, starred in her play, Botticelli. They also started a relationship. Le Gallienne also starred in the Paris production of Jehanne d'Arc. In 1926 de Acosta befriended Jeanne Eagels. In 1928 her play Jacob Slovak, about the persecution of an elderly Jewish man in small-town America, was given a one-off performance in London under the title Prejudice, starring John Gielgud and Gwen Ffrangcon Davies.
In the early 1930s de Acosta developed an interest in Hinduism and was encouraged to seek out Indian mystic Meher Baba when he arrived in Hollywood. For several years she was captivated by his philosophy and methods and he often gave her advice about ways to address her problems. Later, she studied the philosophy of Hindu sage Ramana Maharishi who introduced her to yoga, meditation, and other spiritual practices she hoped would help ease her suffering. In 1938, she met Hindu dancer Ram Gopal in Hollywood. They immediately established a rapport and became close lifelong friends. Later that year they traveled to India to meet Maharishi. When asked about religion, de Acosta once said that although she had grown up Catholic, she would be, if she had to be anything, a Buddhist.
De Acosta's best-known relationship was with Greta Garbo. When Garbo's close friend, author Salka Viertel, introduced them in 1931, they quickly became involved. As their relationship developed, it became erratic and volatile with Garbo always in control. The two were very close sporadically and then apart for lengthy periods when Garbo, annoyed by Mercedes' obsessive behavior, coupled with her own neuroses, ignored her. In any case, they remained friends for thirty years during which time Garbo wrote de Acosta 181 letters, cards, and telegrams. About their friendship, Cecil Beaton, who was close to both women, recorded in his 1958 memoir, "Mercedes is [Garbo's] very best friend and for 30 years has stood by her, willing to devote her life to her". Although it has been argued that an intimate relationship between them cannot be proved, de Acosta states they were lovers. Contrary to legend, she did not do so in her memoir. In 1959, when she was destitute, de Acosta sold her papers to the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia and claims to have reluctantly included romantic letters from Garbo. "I would not have had the heart or courage to have burned these letters", she wrote William McCarthy, curator of the museum. "I mean, of course, Eva [sic], Greta's and Marlene's who were lovers.... I only hope...they will be respected and protected from the eyes of vulgar people". All of Garbo's and de Acosta's recent biographers, moreover, discuss their involvement. Per de Acosta's request, Garbo's letters were made available to the public in 2000, ten years after her death, and none were explicitly romantic. It should be noted that Garbo's family, which controls her estate, has permitted only 87 letters to be made public.
In 1932 Garbo left for Europe and de Acosta had an affair with Marlene Dietrich. The affair ended when Dietrich started an affair with her co-star, Brian Aherne. But they remained friend, and when in 1934, de Acosta needed plastic surgery after a car accident, Dietrich footed the bills. De Acosta divorced in 1935. Around this time she fell in love with Ona Munson, the actress who played Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind, but their affair lasted only a year.
"I shall die a bachelor!" Garbo proclaims in Queen Christina (1933), dressed as a man, moments after kissing Elizabeth Allan in a passionate, aggressive embrace. It's not surprising that the film was partially scripted by Mercedes De Acosta, who was told by MGM's brilliant and enlightened Irving Thalberg to see Leontine Sagan's Madchen in Uniform as inspiration. De Acosta, although frequently not credited, was often a creative consultant on Garbo's films.
An ardent liberal, de Acosta was committed to several political causes. Concerned about the Spanish Civil War, which began in 1936, for example, she supported the loyalist Republican government that opposed the fascist Franco regime. A tireless advocate for women's rights, she wrote in her memoir, "I believed...in every form of independence for women and I was...an enrolled worker for women's suffrage." She also became a vegetarian and, out of respect for animals, refused to wear furs.
Considering the work of classic Hollywood's gay directors and gay producers, a small but vital subset of the studio system, suggests "queer cinema" might not be such a modern postulate. Occasionally, a convergence of director, producer, writer, and star came together, such as happened with Camille (1937). The gay writer DeWitt Bodeen said that Camille "represents a meeting of talents that were perfect for its interpretation." In fact, wags like to call the picture a rare "all-gay" studio production, and in some ways it comes close: producer David Lewis, director George Cukor, screenwriter Zoe Akins. Greta Garbo, too, and Mercedes de Acosta had a hand in the early draft of the script before Akins took over. Robert Taylor, who played a stunningly beautiful Armand, was rumored to be having an affair with the film's set decorator, Jack Moore. There was also Adrian on costumes and Sydney Guilaroff doing hair. Rex O'Malley infused his Gaston with a natural feyness, a quality perhaps intended by Cukor and Akins, and another gay actor, Rex Evans, played several bit parts. ("Who is that big man and what part is he playing?" Garbo asked Cukor. "That man is Rex Evans," the director replied, "and he's playing the part of a friend who needs a job.") Cukor also manuevered the hiring of another friend, and another gay man, as the picture's true art director, supplanting the ubiquitous Cedric Gibbons, whose contract nonetheless decreed screen credit. This was Oliver Messel, esteemed scenic and costume designer from the London stage, whose outsider status evoked suspicion in the competitive world of the Hollywood studios. It wasn't Messel's first encounter with the studio bureaucracy; in 1935, during the filming of Romeo and Juliet, Cukor had caused a near war by insisting Messel design the costumes instead of Adrian, whom Cukor, according to several friends, viewed as pompous and pretentious. Cukor, as discreet as he was, never tried to obfuscate either his Jewishness or his gayness in the way Adrian did. "I get annoyed with statements that call George "closeted",", said his longtime friend and Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thomas. "George was never closeted. He never pretended to be anything he wasn't. He lived according to the rules of his time, that's all."
In 1939, de Acosta, a fanatic of natural medicine and health foods, introduce Greta Garbo to Gayelord Hauser.
In the autumn of 1948 she started a six-year relationship with Poppy Kirk, the daughter of a Philadelphia diplomat. Mercedes took an apartment at 5 Quai Voltaire, Paris, and Poppy went back to work at Schiaparelli’s. During this time Poppy was friends with Allanah Harper. Later Poppy and Mercedes moved into the Hotel Bisson, also on the Quai Voltaire. At this time Mercedes’ friend, Eleonora von Mendelssohn committed suicide while her former lover, Ona Munson, living in Paris in a depressed state with her third husband, the Russina painter Eugene Berman, succeeded in depressing Mercedes too, so much she decided to go back to New York. In 1950 Poppy joined Mercedes in New York and they returned in Paris together during the summer, sharing a duplex apartment on the Quai Saint Michel, opposite Notre Dame. Poppy also bought a farmhouse in Normandy, at Aincourt. In 1953 Poppy worked for Schiaparelli in New York. Her son Victor returned from Bucharest where he had been employed with the State Department, and he and Poppy decided to share a flat, eventually settling for part of the year in East 35th Street. In early 1954 Poppy moved to Krech Martin at Lanmodez, near Pleubian, on the north coast of France. Poppy had remained on good terms with Geoffrey, who served as Counsellor in the British Embassy in the Hague from 1953 until 1960. Poppy returned to him and in 1960 Geoffrey Kirk became ambassador to El Salvador.
In the mid-1950s, de Acosta introduced a still unknown, and starstruck Andy Warhol to Greta Garbo.
In a letter to Anita Loos in 1960, Alice B. Toklas, lover of Gertrude Stein and de Acosta's long-term friend, wrote, "Say what you will about Mercedes, she's had the most important women of the twentieth century. You cant's dispose of Mercedes lightly - she has had tow most important women in the US - Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich".
In 1960, when de Acosta was seriously ill with a brain tumor and in need of money, she published her memoir, Here Lies the Heart. The book was well-received by the critics and many close friends praised the book. But its implied homosexuality resulted in the severance of several friendships with women who felt she had betrayed their sexuality. Garbo also ended their friendship at this time. Eva Le Gallienne in particular was furious, denouncing de Acosta as a liar and stating that she invented the stories for fame. This characterization is inaccurate since many of her affairs and relationships with women, including that with Le Gallienne, are confirmed in personal correspondence. An exception to this was Marlene Dietrich, who continued to correspond with her and loved the book. According to critic Patricia White, "If she craved being seen, MdA was more careful about what she said than she is given credit for. She wrote a name-dropping memoir, but for something attacked for exaggeration, it barely alludes to homosexuality". In any case, she gained a reputation that was not appreciated by everyone.
De Acosta died at age 75 in poverty. She is buried at Trinity Cemetery in Washington Heights, New York City.
When he learned of her death, Cecil Beaton wrote in his diary: "I am... sorry that she should have been so unfulfilled as a character. In her youth she showed zest and originality. She was one of the most rebellious and brazen of Lesbians."
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