glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture
social sciences
special features
about glbtq


   member name
   Forgot Your Password?  
Not a Member Yet?  

  Advertising Opportunities
  Permissions & Licensing
  Terms of Service
  Privacy Policy






Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-B  C-E  F-L  M-Z

Acosta, Mercedes de (1893-1968)  

Mercedes de Acosta was a poet, playwright, screenwriter, and costume designer, and she was a devotee of Eastern mysticism, the occult, and vegetarianism long before any of these pursuits became fashionable. But if she is remembered at all today, she is remembered for her love affairs with some of the most glamorous and visible women of her time.

Acosta was born in New York City on 1 March 1893, to a wealthy Spanish-Cuban émigré family. Her mother, a descendant of the Duke of Alba, raised her as a boy, calling her "Rafael" and dressing her in boy's attire. After the death of her father in 1907, however, Acosta's mother became concerned about her lack of femininity and dispatched her to a convent school in France, from which she was removed after an incident involving two nuns who were apparently lovers.

While in her early twenties, Acosta became involved in the lesbian theatrical circles of Broadway, particularly the salon of Bessie Marbury, a powerful producer and literary agent, and Marbury's lover Elsie de Wolfe, the prominent interior decorator. Among Acosta's early lovers were actresses Maude Adams, Alla Nazimova, and Katherine Cornell, as well as dancer Isadora Duncan.

In 1920, Acosta married the wealthy socialite and dilettante painter Abram Poole, whose proposal her mother, concerned with appearances, accepted before she could reject it. Acosta, ironically, spent her wedding night with her mother. Moreover, even as she married Poole, she was deeply involved in an affair with actress Eva Le Gallienne, for whom she wrote two plays, Sandro Botticelli (1923) and Jehanne d'Arc (1925). Neither play was a critical or commercial success, and the expensive failure of the latter play, combined with Acosta's controlling personality, led to a split between the two women.

Marbury recommended Acosta to the RKO film company as a writer, and in 1929, she moved to California, where, soon thereafter, she met Greta Garbo and almost immediately became her lover. The affair with Garbo was an intense and stormy one, and Acosta frequently found herself in rivalry for the aloof Garbo's affections, with men as well as women. Indeed, one of the more curious of these triangulations, one that lasted for over two decades, involved Acosta, Garbo, and photographer Cecil Beaton, who, though for the most part homosexual, was nonetheless obsessed with the enigmatic screen idol.

After a highly emotional split with Garbo in 1932, Acosta began an affair with Marlene Dietrich, which lasted, on and off, for the rest of the decade, although she continued to be Garbo's lover intermittently through those same years. Poole, from whom she had been separated for many years, sued for divorce in 1935.

World War II and the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s effectively brought this particular circle of Hollywood to an end. Lesbian actresses either hid in ostensibly heterosexual marriages or faced blacklisting and the loss of their careers. Others, like Garbo, simply faded from the scene. Acosta immigrated to Paris, where she lived during the 1950s.

By 1960, Acosta had returned to New York, destitute and in poor health. To relieve her situation, she published her autobiography, Here Lies the Heart. While the book is often considered the great lesbian "kiss-and-tell" memoir, Acosta was careful to avoid directly specifying the sexual nature of her relationships with some of the most famous women of her day. Garbo nonetheless terminated all communication with Acosta as a result of its publication.

Although Acosta published three volumes of poetry in the early 1920s, had several plays staged, and wrote various film treatments, none of these brought her the success she sought, and it is through her memoirs--and her affairs--that she has achieved a level of lesbian immortality. She died, alone and virtually forgotten at seventy-five, in New York City.

Patricia Juliana Smith


zoom in
Mercedes de Acosta.
Contact Us
Join the Discussion
Related Entries
More Entries by this contributor
A Bibliography on this Topic

Citation Information
More Entries about The Arts
Popular Topics:

The Arts

Drag Shows: Drag Queens and Female Impersonators
Drag Shows: Drag Queens and Female Impersonators

Photography: Gay Male, Pre-Stonewall
Photography: Gay Male, Pre-Stonewall

Erotic and Pornographic Art: Gay Male
Erotic and Pornographic Art: Gay Male

New Queer Cinema

White, Minor

Halston (Roy Halston Frowick)


Winfield, Paul

McDowall, Roddy
McDowall, Roddy

Cadinot, Jean-Daniel
Cadinot, Jean-Daniel


   Related Entries
arts >> Overview:  Film Actors: Lesbian

Lesbian actresses have played a significant role in Hollywood, but their contributions have rarely been recognized or spoken of openly; the "lavender marriage" is by no means a relic of the past.

social sciences >> Overview:  Los Angeles

The glbtq history of Los Angeles, the U.S.'s second largest metropolis, is replete with cultural, social, and political firsts.

arts >> Beaton, Sir Cecil

The celebrated British photographer Cecil Beaton described himself as a "terrible, terrible homosexualist," but may be best known for his relationship with Greta Garbo.

arts >> Cornell, Katharine, (1893-1974) and Guthrie McClintic (1893-1961)

Actress Katharine Cornell and director Guthrie McClintic sustained one of the most celebrated partnerships in the American theater for forty years; although married and devoted to each other, both partners pursued same-sex relationships.

arts >> Dietrich, Marlene

Actress and cabaret performer Marlene Dietrich scandalized society almost as much by wearing trousers in public as by her numerous love affairs with both men and women.

arts >> Duncan, Isadora

The mother of modern dance, Isadora Duncan brought her feminist consciousness to the stage; and in her bohemian private life, she constantly challenged society's rules.

arts >> Garbo, Greta

Mysterious, aloof, occasionally androgynous, actress Greta Garbo ignited the passions of men and women alike.

arts >> Le Gallienne, Eva

Actress, director, producer, teacher, and memoirist, as well as translator, Eva Le Gallienne was one of the most successful figures in the American theater for several decades; she had many lovers, but was never comfortable with her lesbianism.

arts >> Wolfe, Elsie de

American lesbian Elsie de Wolfe helped create the profession of interior decorating; she was also one of the central figures of an elite New York "Amazon enclave" during the early years of the twentieth century.


Acosta, Mercedes de. Here Lies the Heart. New York: Reynal, 1960.

Collis, Rose. Portraits to the Wall: Historic Lesbian Lives Unveiled. London: Cassell, 1994.

Madsen, Axel. The Sewing Circle: Hollywood's Greatest Secret: Female Stars Who Loved Other Women. Secaucus, N. J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1995.

McLellan, Diana. The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood. New York: L. A. Weekly Books, 2000.

Schanke, Robert A. "That Furious Lesbian": The Story of Mercedes de Acosta. Carobondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003.

Vickers, Hugo. Loving Garbo: The Story of Greta Garbo, Cecil Beaton, and Mercedes de Acosta. New York: Random House, 1994.


    Citation Information
    Author: Smith, Patricia Juliana  
    Entry Title: Acosta, Mercedes de  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated June 3, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


This Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc. is produced by glbtq, Inc., 1130 West Adams Street, Chicago, IL   60607 glbtq™ and its logo are trademarks of glbtq, Inc.
This site and its contents Copyright © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Your use of this site indicates that you accept its Terms of Service.