In honor of Women’s History Month, NewNowNext is spotlighting five LGBTQ women whose contributions to society and culture changed the course of history. By the end of this week, you’ll be able to name a woman—and an LGBTQ pioneer, no less—without breaking a sweat.
Among the many nicknames that writer and lesbian powerhouse Mercedes de Acosta was known by were “that furious lesbian,” “a lover to the stars,” “the dyke at the top of the stairs,” and, perhaps the most iconic, “the greatest starfucker ever.” But where did those monikers come from, and who was this mysterious, powerful dyke?
De Acosta was born in New York City in 1893 to a Spanish-Cuban family that had emigrated from Cuba. While growing up, her mother actually raised her as a boy, called her Rafael, and dressed her in boy’s clothing. When her father died in 1907, though, her mother was concerned about how she might turn out and regretted her lack of femininity. De Acosta was sent to a convent school in France, from which she ended up running away. Not even the sisters could pray the gay away, and de Acosta wasn’t the type to hide who she was.
Back in NYC, hitting the scene as a socialite, de Acosta frequented drag clubs and speakeasies around Manhattan. In her 20s, she also became involved in some of the most famous lesbian theatrical circles of Broadway. She was known for parading around in slacks, pointed shoes, a large hat, and a cape, essentially looking like the dyke of our dreams. She also often went out with bright red lips and her raven-black hair slicked back with product, scoring her the moniker “Countess Dracula” from actress Tallulah Bankhead.
Deemed a controversial, pants-wearing rabble-rouser, de Acosta had many accomplishments other than being an absolute daddy, and was not coy about her success, her looks, or her prowess. She knew what she was working with and once boasted, “I can get any woman from any man.” Most famous for wooing talented women like actress Greta Garbo, and even getting the glamorous actress to shock the world by wearing pants, de Acosta was also a talented poet, novelist, and playwright. However, her creative achievements have historically been erased or reduced in significance in literature about her life, and de Acosta is still most well-known for her love affairs.
This oversimplified legacy is also reflected in de Acosta’s 1960 autobiography, Here Lies the Heart, which contains ample underpinnings mostly focusing on those trysts. It’s been said that many were outraged by the lesbian undertones of the autobiography, although there was nothing explicitly categorizing the relationships mentioned as sexual. Women who were named as playing large roles in de Acosta’s life allegedly felt outed—including Garbo, who ended her relationship with the writer and refused to acknowledge her even on her deathbed.
Among de Acosta’s other works is Women in Turmoil: Six Plays. Her most productive years were between 1916 and 1928, according to the foreword of this book, when she published three books of poetry, two novels, and four Broadway plays. She was also an enrolled worker in the women’s suffrage movement, was concerned about animal rights, and was thus a vegetarian who refused to wear furs.
De Acosta was a lesbian who truly wore the pants in life, literally and figuratively. Her energy was so strong that men working in theaters wanted nothing to do with her. She said to hell with conventional playwriting, refusing to commercialize her scripts. The men who tried to work with her found her “overpowering,” according to her close friend, Hindu dancer Ram Gopal.
Many of her plays were never produced, and her writing and work remain the aspects of her life de Acosta is least known for. Gertrude Stein’s lover, Alice B. Toklas, once observed that de Acosta “had the two most important women in the U.S.” alluding to Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. What a label to live up to. Who can we say the same of today?
Among de Acosta’s other paramours were Russian-American Broadway star Alla Nazimova; French and American dancer Isadora Duncan; and producer, director, translator, author, and stage actress Eva Le Gallienne. Throughout the years, she supposedly tangoed with married women, single women, and straight women alike. Garbo remained one of her most, if not the most, noteable of her relationships.
De Acosta described her life as a young lesbian socialite in NYC with fondness and unbridled spirit. “These were years guided by the spirit of the New. We were on fire with fire, with a passion to create and a daring to achieve,” she wrote in her book.
However, after spending most of her life enveloped in glamour and riches, de Acosta’s last years on earth were lived alone and in poverty. After her tell-all autobiography came out, many wanted nothing to do with her, and she was left alienated from those she’d once loved. After experiencing multiple illnesses, including brain tumors, she was forced to sell her diamonds and use her wealth to pay her medical bills.
Despite the understated legacy of de Acosta’s literary works, to this day, the mark she left is one of sureness of self, and an unwillingness to compromise for the world. To many of her contemporaries, she was simply known as “that furious lesbian”—a moniker that has endured, even becoming the title of That Furious Lesbian: The Story of Mercedes de Acosta by Robert A. Schanke, the first book-length biography on her, published in 2003. And de Acosta surely was furious, if nothing else, about authenticity: furiously determined to be herself.