"a lover to the stars," "a social
butterfly," "the dyke at the top of the stairs," "the greatest
These are typical descriptions of
Mercedes de Acosta. She was notorious for walking the streets of New
York in mannish pants, pointed shoes trimmed with buckles,
tricorn hat, and cape. Her chalk white face, deep-set eyes,
thin red lips, and jet
black hair slicked back with brilliantine prompted
Bankhead to call her Countess
After Cecil Beaton accompanied her
to the theater one night in 1930, he wrote in his diary that
he sensed people looking at him and questioning why he
associated with "that furious lesbian." She often boasted of
her sexual prowess, saying "I can get any woman from any man."
There was perhaps justification for Alice B. Toklas's
observation, "Say what you will about Mercedes de Acosta, she's had the
most important women of the twentieth century." Even though
these women included Isadora Duncan, Eva Le Gallienne, Greta
Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich, she is usually
portrayed as something of a perverse psychopath.
In 1916, Mercedes met the Russian
actress Alla Nazimova
who had wowed all the critics with
her sensational performan
ces of Ibsen's heroines. A romantic
relationship quickly developed between them.
A year later, Mercedes established a
long-time liaison with the internationally famous
dancer Isadora Duncan. One afternoon while I was doing
my research at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, I
stumbled upon a poem written in pencil that Isadora Duncan
wrote for Mercedes. It overflowed with sexual images.
In spite of her desire for other women, in 1920 she contemplated
marriage to Abram Poole,
a wealthy portrait painter, whose family was in the Social
Register. But when he proposed, she balked. "I couldn't
make up my mind," she wrote. "As a matter of fact I was in a
strange turmoil about world affairs, my own writing, suffrage,
sex, and my inner spiritual development."
contributing to her turmoil was meeting the young, attractive,
and ambitious actress Eva Le Gallienne just three days before Mercedes's marriage.
Soon after her honeymoon, she began a five-year romantic
relationship with the actress. While Le Gallienne toured
around the country in 1922 in the play Liliom,
she mailed to Mercedes 3 or 4 letters daily. The Le Gallienne
literary estate, which is owned by Eloise
Armen, does not allow those letters to be quoted directly. They
can be read, however, at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia.
In 1931, soon after she moved to
Hollywood, she met Greta Garbo.
For the next 12
years, they had a unpredictable relationship. At
times Garbo would shower Mercedes with
flowers and gifts. Mercedes became so enamored
that she pasted photos
of Garbo into her Bible. They
vacationed together, sunbathed in the nude, and even lived
together for a time in 1932. Garbo occasionally asked Mercedes
to do some shopping for her and even enlisted her aid in
finding places to live, both in Hollywood and in New York.
In 1946 she penned in her message to
Mercedes almost verbatim her famous 'I vant to be alone.' Garbo
pleaded with Mercedes not to bother her. She was simply not up
for it. In 1954, in a particularly cantankerous mood, Garbo
demanded that Mercedes stop assaulting her with letters. She
refused any future meeting until she was more prepared to deal
with Mercedes. The Garbo literary estate which is owned by
her niece, Gray Horan, will not grant permission to have the
letters quoted directly even though they can be read at the
Ram Gopal, her good
friend of 30 years, told me that "Once
Mercedes met Garbo, all she did was dream of Garbo." But Garbo
was afraid of having her life exposed. "Garbo needed to
dominate," Ram observed. "When she felt someone else
dominating, she'd pull back. Poor Mercedes," he sighed, "She
had to love. Loving was like breathing. She gave all of
herself in a relationship and wanted back all that she
The last poem Mercedes de Acosta wrote for Garbo
was in 1944, after Garbo had pretty much rejected her.
You belong to me. Some things
just belong to other things; There is no other way.
Why not let us then say,
for example . . .
the salt to the sea,
A bird to the sky . . .
and you to me!
At one point,
when Garbo was being particularly aloof, Mercedes engaged in a
love affair with another screen goddess Marlene
Though Dietrich was married, it did not prevent her from
showering Mercedes daily with bouquets of roses and
carnations. When Dietrich was setting off for Europe, she
wrote, "It will be hard to leave Hollywood now that I know
you." She mailed Mercedes dozens of letters and telegrams,
always signing off with love and kisses and saying, "I kiss
your beautiful hands and your heart." On one occasion when
Dietrich knew she would be late arriving to a dinner party
hosted by Mercedes, she sent the following message:
"My Love. . . . please do eat and go to
bed and wait for me there."
I discovered a poem Mercedes wrote for Marlene
that she had scribbled in an address book.
For Marlene, Your face is lit
by moonlight breaking through your skin soft, pale,
radiant. No suntan for you glow For you are the
essence of the stars and the moon and the mystery of the