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Born in 1893 in New York City to wealthy Spanish immigrants, Mercedes de Acosta was a poet, playwright, screenwriter, novelist and socialite. She traveled in circles that included the Vanderbilts, Rodin, Debussy, Sarah Bernhardt and a host of cultural icons who charmed the world in a gracious age. But Mercedes is most remembered as lover to some of the most intriguing female artistes of her day – glamorous pioneers of stage and screen, such as Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and more.
To tour her life is to traverse the Gilded Age, through the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond. GO’s guide: celebrity biographer Darwin Porter, 83, who accompanied many divas of yesteryear to soirées and personally knew Mercedes. They first met at a dinner in 1961 at the home of Maria Voigt, jewelry designer for Tiffany’s. He had been talking about his recent trip to Spain, when Mercedes walked in and declared, “The last time I went to Spain, I drove down there with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas!” “From that moment, I don’t know why she liked me, but I adored her!” Darwin told GO. He and partner in crimes of the pen and heart, Danforth Prince, 67, recently published “The Seductive Sapphic Exploits of Mercedes de Acosta: Hollywood’s Greatest Lover.” It is a delicious account of Mercedes’ bold pursuits.
So put on your corsets and embroidered lace – or trousers if you prefer – for a look back to the unabashedly authentic life of Mercedes de Acosta (herself, partial to the tricorn hat, highwayman cape and pointed buckled shoes).
Romancing the Soul
On dancers, Mercedes wrote, “I am attracted to them by some peculiar thing they emanate – a shadow of some winged essence which clings to their spirit.”
Mercedes met Isadora Duncan, “Mother of Modern Dance,” in 1917 at Amagansett in New York. “I caught my first sight of Isadora standing in the sun, and at once I felt the dunes, the reeds, the beach, the sea – all of these – in some strange way mingled with her and she was part of them.” In her memoir, “Here Lies the Heart,” Mercedes described a long involvement with the free-spirited revolutionary, writing that it was that first impression that allowed her to be always tolerant – “tolerant of her violence, her recklessness, of all her wild and uncontrolled love affairs. I understood all these passions in her as I could say I understood thunder, or a hurricane…”
Mercedes’ deep connection to her lovers transcended physical space; it was at times spiritual, even psychic, by her account. The allure: “She could look a little bit into your soul,” Darwin told GO.
“I never talk like this. I don’t know what made me open my heart to you.” Mercedes’ memoir documents how Isadora told her about the tragic death of her children in a car crash. Tears poured down Isadora’s face and Mercedes was compelled to ask her to dance for her. “Without a word she led me across the sand, back through a cornfield and into an empty old barn.” The dancer appeared entirely carried out of herself. Mercedes wrote, “I moved toward her, and it seemed as if I walked on a beam of light.”
They spent time together mostly in France. After a long separation, during which Mercedes embarked on her writing career – and other romances – the two reconnected in 1925. Mercedes found Isadora broke, in a seedy hotel in Paris. She urged the dancer to write her autobiography. But before Isadora could see its success, fate turned grave, when her long red scarf, blowing in the wind, got tangled in the wheel of an open Bugatti car, snapping her neck.
In those years, Mercedes also enjoyed a five-year affair with Eva La Gallienne, a British-born actress, director, and producer. They had theater in common (as well as intimacies with Russian-born Art Nouveau actress, Nazimova).
Once, while visiting Darwin’s historic Staten Island home/B&B, Magnolia House, Mercedes told him: “If you write my life story one day – and I suspect you might – you’ll need a chapter devoted to my love affair with Eva La Gallienne. We were madly in love, our affair lasting for five tumultuous, argumentative, jealous years. Yes, we ‘strayed’ and fell into the arms of other lovers, but we always returned to each other for comfort, solace, understanding, and a grand and fiery passion.”
A mutual friend had introduced the women at the Ritz Hotel in 1921. Eva wanted to meet Mercedes, aware of their mutual admiration for Italian actress Eleanora Duse (reportedly also a paramour of Mercedes’). They “feverishly” compared notes over lunch. Meanwhile, Mercedes was engaged to painter Abram Poole in what would be a marriage of lavender convenience (and little coital action). Mercedes returned from her honeymoon in Europe, and watched Eva act for the first time in “Liliom” on Broadway. Her memoir illuminates what happened next: “When all the visitors had gone and she had taken off her make-up, I went home with her to her flat… .”
Sidebar: While Mercedes was on her honeymoon with Poole, Eva attended a party, and danced with a drunken John Barrymore. When she refused his advances, he took her hand to his pants, Darwin dishes. “He told me to feel it, and he said he despised the rumors going around Broadway that he stuffed his crotch with a sock whenever he came on stage in green tights.”
They dated, attended avant-garde parties on East 19th Street, and in Paris watched Mata Hari “dance in the nude at a private party for a coven of American lesbian expatriates,” Darwin/Danforth write. Mercedes wrote of time in France with Eva, finding a fisherman’s house. Knocking on the door. Hoping to be boarders. A widow answered. “She installed us in a loft at the top of the house and got out her linen wedding sheets… .”
But it was not Eva who would prove to be the love of Mercedes’ life. “I got the feeling that [Eva] was of mixed emotions about Mercedes,” Darwin told GO. “It was almost like the love affair that could have been, but never became – because Eva had moved on to women that she found more compatible. And I think also, she didn’t want to hear about Garbo all the time… .”
Mercedes fell in love with Greta Garbo alone in a dark cinema, watching “The Torrent” (MGM 1926). “I did not know then…that there is a secret area of the soul which, when kept pure, can act as a magnet and draw to itself a desire.” Her wish was realized, when they met at the home of Austrian actress/screenwriter Salka Viertel. The doorbell rang. Greta Garbo walked in. “Her feet were bare and, like her hands, slender and sensitive.” When Garbo left, Salka told Mercedes “Greta liked you very much.”
Two days later they had breakfast with Salka who was expecting a producer to swing by after on business. So Salka offered the women the run of a place she was house-sitting. From the window they saw the blue Pacific, and played records on the phonograph, doing the tango to “Schöne Gigolo.” Greta invited her back to her place for lunch, but Mercedes had afternoon plans – plans interrupted when a butler announced, “Mia de Costa you are wanted on the telephone.” It was Greta. “Now make for your car, and come to my house,” Greta laughed. Mercedes rushed to find the star waiting in her driveway in a Chinese dressing robe. They spent the evening, but not the night; Garbo was in a production of “Susan Lenox” and as Darwin, tells it, had to face “[Clark] Gable’s bad breath tomorrow morning.”
When the film wrapped, Greta invited her again. They entered the living room, but Greta caught her thought. “I never use this room. I live in my bedroom,” she said, and they went upstairs.
Greta soon announced she would rejuvenate “utterly alone” in a cabin in the Sierra Nevadas. Sad. But two nights later, Greta phoned. She was 300 miles away with her chauffeur, on her way back through the hot Mojave Desert to fetch Mercedes for a six-week stay, during which they sunbathed nude. As Mercedes recalled, “In the Sierra Nevadas she used to climb ahead of me, and with her hair blown back, her face turned to the wind and sun, she would leap from rock to rock on her bare Hellenic feet. 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.”
Modern lovers pining for the one who got away, take heart: Even Hollywood’s greatest lesbian romantic was dealt an unrequited hand. Greta did things her way. “Mercedes desperately wanted that to be a great love affair, and it was open door, closed door, open door, closed door,” Darwin told GO.
They remained friends for 30 years, until 1960, when financially destitute and ill with a brain tumor, Mercedes published her tell-all autobiography. The book alienated many friends and former lovers who felt “outed” and betrayed. Greta Garbo never forgave her; she had written Mercedes 181 letters, cards, and telegrams. Mercedes sold her papers to the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia.
Marlene Dietrich – who swamped Mercedes’ house beyond capacity with roses – was an outlier. She liked the book. Her lipstick-stained scarf, a gift to Mercedes, is housed in the Rosenbach collection.
During her life, Mercedes produced three volumes of poetry, two novels, and plays. Still, commercial success eluded her. MGM hired her, but shelved her screenplays. Sadly, we will never see the scene she wrote with Greta Garbo escaping from a window dressed as a man. (We do, however, have Mercedes to thank for introducing her to pants).
How to honor such a lifetime? Pursue passion without restraint. Know that some things “hold forever tightly, and some things are never to be more than dreamed.” And should you find yourself in a theater with someone who makes your palms sweat – maybe she has short dark hair, deep-set eyes and scarlet lips – for the love of all things fiery and fine, take her hand in yours.