She was born in New York City in 1893. Her father, Ricardo de Acosta, was Cuban and of Spanish descent while her mother, Micaela Hernandez de Alba y de Alba, was Spanish and reportedly a descendant of the Spanish Dukes of Alba. De Acosta had several 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 would become 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. She also wrote one novel, Tragic Mansions (Boni & Liveright, 1927), under the name Mrs Philip Lydig, 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.
Greta Garbo and Mercedes de Acosta
De Acosta married painter Abram Poole (January 1883 Chicago, Illinois – May 24, 1961) in 1920. They divorced in 1935.
De Acosta was involved in numerous lesbian relationships with Broadway’s and Hollywood's elite and did not attempt to hide her sexuality, which was rare 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. The two women vacationed and traveled together often. De Acosta wrote two plays for Le Gallienne, Sandro Botticelli and Jehanne de Arc. After the financial failures of both plays, they mutually ended their relationship. (Picture: Alla Nazimova)
Over the next decade she had romances with several famous actresses and dancers including Pola Negri, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Ona Munson, and Russian ballerina Tamara Platonovna Karsavina. Additional unsubstantiated rumors include Eleonora Duse, Katherine Cornell, and Alice B. Toklas. (Picture: Isadora Duncan)
De Acosta's best-known relationship was with Greta Garbo. In 1931, they were introduced by Garbo's friend, author Salka Viertel, and quickly became involved. Their relationship was sporadic and volatile with Garbo always in control. The two were very close for lengthy periods and then apart for periods when Garbo, annoyed by Mercedes' obsession, coupled with her own neuroses, ignored her. It is thought that de Acosta remained in love with Garbo for the rest of her life but it is doubtful that Garbo shared these feelings. In any case, they remained friends for thirty years during which time Garbo wrote de Acosta 181 letters, cards, and telegrams. (Picture: Eva Le Gallienne)
Although it has been argued that no proof of a romance between them exists, it is assumed by Garbo's and de Acosta's recent biographers. Because she was destitute in 1959, de Acosta sold her papers to the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia and claims to have reluctantly included the love letters she received. "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, Greta’s and Marlene’s who were lovers.... I only hope...they will be respected and protected from the eyes of vulgar people. Garbo's letters to de Acosta were made available to the public in 2000, ten years after Garbo's death as de Acosta requested, and included no love letters. It should be noted that Garbo’s family, who control her estate, have allowed only 87 of the letters, cards, and telegrams to be released. (Picture: Pola Negri)
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. (Picture: Greta Garbo)
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. (Picture: 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 reviews were positive and many close friends praised the book. But its allusions to 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 but there some evidence that the memoir was not necessarily the cause. Eva Le Gallienne in particular was furious, denouncing de Acosta as a liar and stating that she invented the stories for fame. This assessment is inaccurate, however, since many of her affairs, including that with Le Gallienne, are confirmed in personal correspondence. In any case, she gained a reputation that was not appreciated by everyone. But as Alice B. Toklas, lover of Gertrude Stein and de Acosta's long-term friend, wrote to a disapproving critic, "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.
De Acosta has usually been described disparagingly, dismissed as a dishonest nuisance to her lovers. Garbo’s biographers, for example, assess their relationship from Garbo's perspective in which Garbo is fundamentally blameless in their difficult relationship, a perpetual victim of de Acosta's irksome behavior. Robert A. Schanke, de Acosta's recent biographer, attempts, on the basis of extensive research, to provide an accurate picture of her. She was, Schanke acknowledges, flawed and imperfect, a complex woman who impaired several of her relationships and failed to achieve her professional and romantic aspirations. But he reveals her to have been an exceptional person who was lively, intelligent, and dynamic and who had many devoted friends. She was, he argues, a brave lesbian of her times (which caused her heartache and misery) and a person of integrity who remained kind and loyal to everyone with whom she crossed paths. He suggests that the many denigrating portrayals of her may derive from the deep homophobia of her generation. (Picture: Ona Munson)
She has also been accused of fabricating incidents in her memoir and lacing it with half-truths and fantasies, an indictment that is not entirely fair since it is not unusual in autobiographies. She herself confessed, “I may have made mistakes in some dates or minor incidents but…I feel I have held to the spirit of my statement if not to the letter". Nevertheless, Karen Swenson identified important errors in de Acosta's account which she corrected in her 1997 biography, Greta Garbo: A Life Apart. While the memoir was initially unsuccessful, it was rediscovered in the late 1960s and widely read in the underground gay community. In spite of its inaccuracies, it is now recognized as an important contribution to gay and lesbian history. (Picture: Tamara Platonovna Karsavina)
Burial: Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum, Manhattan, New York County, New York, USA
Here Lies the Heart by Mercedes De Acosta
Hardcover: 372 pages
Publisher: Ayer Co Pub (June 1975)
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That Furious Lesbian: The Story of Mercedes de Acosta (Theater in the Americas) by Robert A Schanke
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press; 1st edition (May 10, 2004)
Amazon: That Furious Lesbian: The Story of Mercedes de Acosta
In this first book-length biography of Mercedes de Acosta, theatre historian Robert A. Schanke adroitly mines lost archival materials and mixes in his own interviews with de Acosta’s intimates to correct established myths and at last construct an accurate, detailed, and vibrant portrait of the flamboyantly uninhibited early-twentieth-century author, poet, and playwright.
Born to wealthy Spanish immigrants, Mercedes de Acosta (1893–1968) lived in opulence and traveled in the same social circles as the Astors and Vanderbilts. Introduced to the New York theater scene at an early age, her dual loves of performance and of women informed every aspect of her life thereafter. Alice B. Toklas’s observation, “Say what you will about Mercedes, she’s had the most important women in the twentieth century,” was well justified, as her romantic conquests included such internationally renowned beauties as Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Isadora Duncan, and Eva Le Gallienne as well as Alla Nazimova, Tamara Karsavina, Pola Negri, and Ona Munson.
More than a record of her personal life and infamous romances, this account offers the first analysis of the complete oeuvre of de Acosta’s literary works, including three volumes of poetry, two novels, two film scripts, and a dozen plays. Although only two of her plays were ever published during her lifetime, four of them were produced, featuring such stage luminaries as John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Eva Le Gallienne. Critics praised her first volume of poetry, Moods, in 1919 and predicted her rise to literary fame, but the love of other women that fueled her writing also limited her opportunities to fulfill this destiny. Failing to achieve any lasting fame, she died in relative poverty at the age of seventy-five.
De Acosta lived her desires publicly with verve and vigor at a time when few others would dare, and for that, she paid the price of marginalized obscurity. Until now. With “That Furious Lesbian” Schanke at last establishes Mercedes de Acosta’s rightful place as a pioneer—and indeed a champion—in the early struggle for lesbian rights in this country.
Greta Garbo: A Life Apart by Karen Swenson
Hardcover: 640 pages
Publisher: Scribner; First Edition edition (September 16, 1997)
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Drawing on key new sources, here is the first biography of Garbo written from a woman's perspective. Karen Swenson gives exclusive insights into the star's struggles with movie executives at MGM and with her mentor, Mauritz Stiller, as well as her bisexuality--aspects of her life often overlooked or treated as unimportant details. Here is the woman behind the myth, accompanied by rare, candid photos, some never before published. 32 pages of photos.
Loving Garbo: The Story of Greta Garbo, Cecil Beaton, and Mercedes de Acosta by Hugo Vickers
Hardcover: 333 pages
Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (July 5, 1994)
Amazon: Loving Garbo: The Story of Greta Garbo, Cecil Beaton, and Mercedes de Acosta
Drawing on previously unpublished letters and manuscripts, an intimate portrait of the chic bisexual world of Hollywood, Europe, and New York captures the complex relationship that existed among Greta Garbo, playwright Mercedes de Acosta, and photographer Cecil Beaton. 15,000 first printing.
Women in Turmoil: Six Plays by Mercedes de Acosta (Theater in the Americas) by Robert A Schanke
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press; 1st edition (August 18, 2008)
Amazon: Women in Turmoil: Six Plays by Mercedes de Acosta
In this first publication of six plays by the flamboyantly uninhibited author, poet, and playwright Mercedes de Acosta (1893–1968), theater historian Robert A. Schanke rescues these lost theatrical writings from the dusty margins of obscurity. Often autobiographical, always rife with gender struggle, and still decidedly stageworthy, Women in Turmoil: Six Plays by Mercedes de Acosta constitutes a significant find for the canon of gay and lesbian drama.
In her 1960 autobiography Here Lies the Heart, de Acosta notes that as she was contemplating marriage to a man in 1920, she was "in a strange turmoil about world affairs, my own writing, suffrage, sex, and my inner spiritual development." The voice in these plays is that of a lesbian in turmoil, marginalized and ignored. Her same-sex desires and struggles for acceptance fueled her writings, and nowhere is that more evident than in the plays contained herein. The women characters struggle with unfulfilling marriages, divorce, unrequited sexual desire, suppressed identity, and a longing for recognition.
Of the six plays, only the first two were ever produced. Jehanne d’Arc (1922) premiered in Paris with de Acosta’s lover at the time, Eva Le Gallienne, starring and Norman Bel Geddes designing the set and lights. In 1934, de Acosta adapted it into a screenplay for Greta Garbo, then her lover, but it was never filmed. Portraying rampant anti-Semitism in a small New England town, Jacob Slovak (1923) was performed both on Broadway and in London, with the London production starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.
The Mother of Christ (1924) is a long one-act play written for the internationally known actress Eleonora Duse. After Duse’s death, several other actresses including Eva Bartok, Jeanne Eagels, and Lillian Gish explored productions of the play. Igor Stravinsky wrote a score, Norman Bel Geddes designed a set, and Gladys Calthrop designed costumes. However, the play was never produced.
Her most autobiographical play, World Without End (1925), and her most sensational play, The Dark Light (1926), both unfold through plots of sibling rivalry, incest, and suicide. With overtones of Ibsen, Illusion (1928) continues the themes of de Acosta’s previous plays with her rough and seedy cast of characters, but here the playwright’s drama grows to incorporate a yearning for belonging as well as strong elements of class conflict.
What notoriety remains associated with de Acosta has less to do with her writing than with her infamous romances with the likes of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Isadora Duncan, Alla Nazimova, Eva Le Gallienne, Tamara Karsavina, Pola Negri, and Ona Munson. Through this collection of six powerfully poignant dramas, editor Robert A. Schanke strives to correct myths about Mercedes de Acosta and to restore both her name and her literary achievements to their proper place in history.