March 1, 1883– Mercedes de Acosta:
“I can get any woman from any man.”
Alice B. Toklas wrote:
“Say what you will about Mercedes de Acosta, she’s had the most important women of the twentieth century.”
Her many conquests included: Isadora Duncan, Greta Garbo, Pola Negri, Eleonora Duse, Katherine Cornell, Eva Le Gallienne, Marlene Dietrich and Alla Nazimova.
She was known to travel around NYC wearing men’s suits, with powdered white face, raccoon eyes, deep red lips, and short black brilliantined hair. Tallulah Bankhead dubbed her “Countess Dracula”.
De Acosta’s orphaned mother had traveled from Spain to the USA when she was just 14-years old. She successfully sued her uncle for the family fortune in a case that went all the way to the New York Supreme Court. Her father, Ricardo de Acosta had left Spain for Cuba, where he was the leader of a band of revolutionaries who attempted to free Cuba from Spanish rule. He was arrested, but escaped to NYC where he met her mother. He convinced his wife to remain in America and marry him instead of returning to Spain with the inheritance.
De Acosta grew up with her seven siblings in a fashionable part of NYC with Roosevelts, and Vanderbilts as neighbors. Her beautiful older sister, Rita de Acosta, was frequently mentioned in the society columns in the city’s newspapers. She had her portrait painted by Giovanni Boldini and she posed for Auguste Rodin. Her personal wardrobe became the beginning of the famed Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art.
In 1916, de Acosta met Russian actor Alla Nazimova who was famous for her work on Broadway in plays by Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov and Ivan Turgenev, before departing for Hollywood to work in the new film industry. They quickly began a romantic relationship. But, a year later she began long-time liaison with the internationally famous modern dancer Isadora Duncan.
Even though she was really in to women, in 1920, de Acosta began dating Abram Poole, a successful portrait painter, whose family was in the Social Register. But when he proposed, she hesitated before relenting. De Acosta wrote in her memoir:
“I couldn’t make up my mind. As a matter of fact, I was in a strange turmoil about world affairs, my own writing, suffrage, sex, and my inner spiritual development.”
Part of that turmoil was probably the young, pretty, and ambitious actor Eva Le Gallienne. They began an affair just three days before the Poole and de Acosta wedding. As soon as de Acosta returned from her honeymoon, the two women began a five-year love affair. In 1922, while Le Gallienne toured the USA in Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom, she wrote de Acosta several letters every day.
In 1931, de Acosta followed Nazimova to Hollywood, where she met Greta Garbo. For the next decade and a half, they had an unpredictable, tumultuous affair. They traveled together, sunbathed in the nude, and even set up housekeeping together in 1932. Garbo had de Acosta do the shopping for her and had her find places for her to live in Hollywood and NYC. Their breakup in 1946 was messy, with Garbo demanding that she vanted to be left alone. Garbo was afraid of having their relationship revealed and de Acosta had become more demonstrative in public.
When Garbo behaving particularly Garboesque, de Acosta began an affair with Marlene Dietrich, even though Dietrich was married. Dietrich was smitten and sent daily bouquets of roses to de Acosta. When Dietrich was leaving Europe, she wrote to de Acosta: “It will be hard to leave Hollywood now that I know you“. Dietrich mailed de Acosta dozens of letters and sent daily telegrams, always signing off with: “I kiss your beautiful hands and your heart“. Once, when Dietrich knew she would be late for a dinner party planned by de Acosta, she sent a cable that read: “My Love! Please do eat! Go to bed and wait for me there!”
Because of her affairs with actors Nazimova and Le Gallienne, de Acosta decided she should try her hand at being a playwright. She had already published three slim volumes of poetry and a novel, and so she wrote ten plays. Four of the plays were actually produced. Her Joan Of Arc premiered in Paris in 1925 with Le Gallienne in the title role. When the play closed in Paris they broke up. Le Gallienne returned to NYC and founded her own theatre company.
Her next play, Jacob Slovak, was a look at anti-Semitism that played on Broadway in 1927. It received good reviews and ran for a season. John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson starred in the London production the next year.
But, her plays were mostly ignored and are now forgotten. She did write strong women’s roles, with characters who struggled with prejudice, unhappy marriages, sexual desire and identity, and forbidden love affairs. She avoided direct depictions of gayness in her writing, yet there were coded references to same-sex love.
De Acosta published a memoir, Here Lies The Heart (1960), that received good reviews. The book mentions all her famous female friends by name, but only hints that they had been her lovers. Still, many readers got the hint, and some of the women felt they had been outed. After it was published, Garbo snubbed her and refused to see de Acosta even when she was dying. Le Gallienne called her a liar and never forgave her. Dietrich, on the other hand, praised the book.
When de Acosta left this world in 1968, she was broke and living in a two-room flat in NYC. She is buried at Trinity Cemetery in the Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC.
By the way, Greta Garbo, Eva Le Gallienne, Marlene Dietrich and Alla Nazimova have all received the Born This Day treatment; if you are interested you can check The Wow Report’s archive.