Unknown photographer, photograph of Mercedes de Acosta. 1934 Acosta 22:02. The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Mercedes de Acosta was born in New York in 1893, one of eight children in a rich Spanish-Cuban family. Her older sister Rita (profiled in an earlier post) became a prominent socialite, art patron, and fashion icon whose circle of friends included Degas, Rodin, Tolstoy, Bernhardt, Debussy, and Sargent. Rita’s wardrobe became the start of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Acosta discovered a love for the theater early, along with a love for other women. Among her early relationships were actresses Alla Nazimova and Tallulah Bankhead. In 1917 Acosta began a long-term relationship with dancer Isadora Duncan, who wrote her very explicit love notes. During this period Acosta also began her public career as a writer; over her lifetime she would produce three volumes of poetry, two novels, four produced plays (and many other that were not performed) as well as screenwriting.
Arnold Genthe, portrait of Isadora Duncan.
Acosta 19:11. The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
|Poster for Sandro Botticelli. 1923. Acosta 22:04. The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.|
In 1931 Acosta met Greta Garbo and, as a friend explained, “Once Mercedes met Garbo, all she did was dream of Garbo.” Their friendship was mercurial, however, with Garbo alternating between spending time with Acosta and deciding that she needed space. Although Acosta’s feelings for Garbo were vividly romantic, it is unclear if Garbo felt the same way towards her and Garbo publicly maintained that the relationship was platonic. In the interstices of her obsession with Garbo, Acosta also had relationships with other women, including Marlene Dietrich, who gave her this lipstick-stained scarf, among other gifts.
|Scarf from Marlene Dietrich. 2006.0009 . The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.|
Although many discussions of Acosta focus on her lesbian relationships, Acosta's star-studded circle of platonic friends also included many famous men, ranging from Cecil Beaton to Ram Gopal to Igor Stravinsky; you can check out a previous Rosen-blog post to see her copy of All Quiet on the Western Front inscribed by Erich Maria Remarque.
Late in her life, in dire financial straits due to illness, Acosta published a memoir, Here Lies the Heart, in 1960. Although she was circumspect regarding the details of her relationships, many of her friends were outraged to have their stories linked with hers in print and several, including Garbo, severed all contact. Her financial difficulties also led Acosta to sell her papers to the Rosenbach. The collection includes working material for Here Lies the Heart which reveals the fluidity of Acosta’s approach to her own story. It also includes her personal correspondence, a handful of objects (like Dietrich's scarf) and hundreds of photos, including some oddities like this souvenir picture of Mercedes with Gertrude Stein in a donkey cart in Mexico.
|Photograph of Gertrude Stein and Mercedes de Acosta. Acosta 19:47. The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.|
Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog..