Today it’s 55 years ago that the American poet, playwright, and novelist Mercedes de Acosta has died.
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.
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 attended elementary school at the Covenant of the Blessed Sacrement on West 79th Street in Manhattan where Dorothy Parker was a classmate.
Although De Acosta was involved in numerous lesbian relationships with Broadway’s and Hollywood’s elite, she married painter Abram Poole (1883–1961) in 1920. They divorced in 1935. Yet, it has been said that she did not attempt to hide her sexuality. In fact, 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 Marlene Dietrich, Pola Negri and Alice B.Toklas, but 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. 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.
An ardent liberal, de Acosta was committed to several political causes especially for women’s rights. She also became a vegetarian and, out of respect for animals, refused to wear furs. 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.
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. Eva Le Gallienne in particular was furious, denouncing de Acosta as a liar and stating that she invented the stories for fame. Garbo also ended their friendship at this time. An exception to this was Marlene Dietrich, who continued to correspond with her and loved the book. And as 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”.
De Acosta died at age 75 in poverty. She is buried at Trinity Cemetery in Washington Heights, New York City. Composer Joseph Hallman memorialized de Acosta in the song cycle, Raving Beauty, for flute, harp, cello, and soprano. The song cycle deals with her relationships and correspondences with Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Isadora Duncan, Igor Stravinsky, and others. [Wikipedia]