On this day March 1: Mercedes de Acosta

mercedes de Acosta
Image from Here Lies the Heart

Mercedes de Acosta was born on March 1, 1892. Although a poet and playwright, she is mainly remembered for her relationships with other women.

In the words of her friend and probable lover Alice B. Toklas: “Say what you will about Mercedes, she’s had the most important women of the twentieth century.”

If not the most important, certainly the most famous. Her lovers included Greta Garbo, Marlene Deitrich and Isadora Duncan.

Mercedes de Acosta was the youngest child of Spanish parents whose wealth granted them entree to New York society.

At 22, the Lincoln Journal Star described her as ‘one of New York’s prettiest girls’. Yet, she waited until the age of 28 to marry. Her husband, the artist son of a wealthy Chicago family, bought a New York mansion on his marriage to the woman the New York Herald described as the ‘poetess of society’.

“Miss Mercedes de Acosta, one of the most versatile young women of society, will marry Mr Abram Poole… As a debutante, Miss de Acosta took a leading part in the social and charitable activities of the young set… Her originality first showed itself in a volume of poems. Then she appeared as an amateur playwright.”

But even before her marriage, Mercedes enjoyed affairs with other women. One of her early lovers, the bisexual actress Alla Nazimova, coined the phrase ‘sewing circle’ as code for lesbian and bisexual actresses.

Soon after her marriage, Mercedes launched into a relationship with actress Eva Le Gallienne. Like Mercedes, Eve made no secret of her lesbian relationships. However, following the failure of the two plays Mercedes wrote for Eve, the pair went their separate ways.

In her 1960 memoir, Here Lies the Heart, Mercedes documented her life, her loves, her travels and her travails. Critics accused the author of name-dropping. Certainly, a lot of famous people show up on the book’s pages.

Some famous names

One day, for example, Mercedes met Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet, when she tagged along with movie star John Barrymore. The actor was to sit for the Lebanese author for a drawing. When Kahlil Gibran finished the sketch, he gifted Mercedes one of his books, inspiring a lifelong interest in eastern spirituality. She also watched The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald hurl himself down a flight of stairs at a party because he needed excitement. On another occasion, Mercedes motored through Paris with Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s charming, witty and heroin-addicted lesbian niece.

But there’s no snobbish desperation in the name-dropping, unlike the Chips Channon Diaries, for example. Many of the people Mercedes de Acosta knew were famous and most play an important part in the narrative.

Some saw their inclusion in the book as Mercedes ‘outing’ them. Certainly, it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to work out who are the gays and lesbians among the people mentioned. But there is no overt outing, no spilling of sexual secrets, and Mercedes is noticeably kind about damn near everyone. She was either genuinely good-hearted or extremely talented to maintain such generosity of spirit through an entire book.

In the following years, Mercedes de Acosta went on to have affairs with women like Greta Garbo and Marlene Deitrich.

The Tennessean commented on Mercedes’ wish that she’d been born either a great poet or a saint.

“Realising that great poets and saints are born and not something to aim at becoming, she has spent her life recognising great art and saintliness in others, enjoying their gifts and contributing warmth, admiration, honour and sympathetic understanding in return.”

Sadly though, the book seems to have contributed to a largely negative legacy, probably inspired in part by homophobia. Mercedes de Acosta was a flagrant lesbian in an era that did not tolerate lesbianism.

But anyway, Marlene Deitrich loved the book. The pair remained friends. Who could ask for more?

Read more: February 28 <— On this day —> March 2

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