Inventors of Gay: Mercedes de Acosta

By: Christopher Harrity
8.30.2011

Mercedes de Acosta
March 1, 1893 – May 9, 1968

Lady-killer, vampire, and (much later) starfucker — these were all words used to describe one of the most notorious lady-lovers of all times. Mercedes de Acosta was well born to Cuban and Spanish parents in New York City. Besides being a socialite, she was also at various times a writer, a costume designer, and one of the more prolific lovers of celebrated women—especially women from Hollywood.

Longer-term relationships included silent star Nazimova, actress Eva Le Gallienne, ballerina Karsavina, and the greatest love of her life, Greta Garbo. She went as far as to paste photos of Garbo in her own bible (below).

She wrote stories and poems for her lovers, so many that Garbo insisted she stop. She wrote plays that were produced for Le Gallienne. And in 1960 she wrote an autobiography, Here Lies the Heart, that brought her wild life and love affairs to public view. It was frank and revealing and the many ladies, mostly very famous, mentioned there were furious.

Ironically, the autobiography she wrote to save her from financial ruin — she was seriously ill with a brain tumor —cut her off from many of her friends and she found herself increasingly in financial straits. Many denounced her, calling the book a fantasy and full of lies. Most enraged was Le Gallienne, who called the book Here, the Heart Lies.

De Acosta died at age 75 in relative poverty and obscurity.

Friends—wait, scratch that—LOVERS:
Marlene Dietrich — actress
Isadora Duncan — dancer
Katharine Cornell — actress
Ona Munson — actress
Adele Astaire — dancer
Tallulah Bankhead — actress
Pola Negri — actress
Dorothy ("Dickie") Fellowes-Gordon — socialite

Why we care:
In a period of time that many people even doubted the reality of female orgasm, De Acosta was making women-on-women pleasure the smart, chic, and glamorous thing to do. Her biography, with back-up documentation, proves that same-sex love was alive and well in a period of time when it could have been buried under the usual denial and subterfuge.

 

"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.

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