Though she was the author of books of prose, collections of poems, and scripts, Mercedes de Acosta is rarely remembered for her writing. She is, instead, celebrated as a passionate lover who had affairs with some of the most intriguing and beautiful women of her time. De Acosta is rumored to have boasted often of her prowess as a lover, even going so far as to declare “I can get any woman from any man.”1 Her list of lovers is long, including Eva Le Gallienne, Isadora Duncan, Marlene Dietrich, and, most famously, Greta Garbo.
De Acosta, the daughter of affluent Cuban immigrants, grew up in New York where, in the 1920s, she was a figure in both the city’s “high society” and its drag clubs and speakeasies. “These were years guided by the spirit of the New,” she wrote of this period; “We were on fire with fire, with a passion to create and a daring to achieve.”2 Equal to the times, de Acosta was a forward-thinking student of eastern religions and a strict vegetarian. An early feminist, de Acosta advocated, along with her friend and lover the dancer Isadora Duncan, the elimination of uncomfortable and restricting fashions for women; while other women were lacing themselves into corsets, de Acosta was often seen wearing trousers. When she convinced Garbo to visit her tailor and get a pair also, the two caused a great commotion on Hollywood Boulevard. “GARBO IN PANTS!” the headlines exclaimed. “Considering what walks down Hollywood Boulevard now,” de Acosta wrote in 1960, “it seems strange that Greta and I should have caused such a sensation.”3
After a life surrounded by fame, glamour, and wealth, Mercedes de Acosta spent her last years in loneliness and poverty. She suffered a variety of illnesses later in life, requiring several painful surgeries, and was forced to sell her diamonds to pay her medical bills. Her 1960 tell-all autobiography, Here Lies the Heart, alienated many of de Acosta’s friends. Some claimed the book to be wildly exaggerated and even blatantly untrue.
An April 2000 exhibition entitled “Garbo Unsealed” at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia generated new interest in de Acosta. The controversial and eagerly anticipated exhibition displayed a group of the actress’s letters to de Acosta, letters that had never before been available for public view. Finally, fans and scholars hoped, light would be shed on Garbo’s long-rumored love affair with the writer and socialite. The letters, however, defy easy interpretation. Some say they carry no hint of a romantic relationship between the two women; others claim that the letters prove beyond a doubt that Garbo and de Acosta were lovers.