Seductress Extraordinaire

Terry Castle

  • ‘That Furious Lesbian’: The Story of Mercedes de Acosta by Robert Schanke
    Southern Illinois, 210 pp, £16.95, June 2004, ISBN 0 8093 2579 9
  • Women in Turmoil: Six Plays by Mercedes de Acosta, edited by Robert Schanke
    Southern Illinois, 252 pp, £26.95, June 2003, ISBN 0 8093 2509 8

You know you’re getting old when sleeping with a vampire no longer gives you a sickly thrill. At the age of ten or eleven, having absorbed the requisite number of creaky old Bela Lugosi films, I evolved such a baleful Dracula-fear that I began sleeping every night with one arm slung backwards over my neck. This neurotic and slightly awkward posture – still habitual, I’m embarrassed to say – was meant to be prophylactic: even while snoozing, I figured, I’d be ready to fend off any emissaries from the undead who tried to bite me.

Now I wonder, though, if it wasn’t also a bit of perverse provocation, part of the prepubescent come-hither act. The great thing about vampires, after all, was that they really cared about you. They were interested in you personally! So much so in fact that they would rise up out of their coffins, wamble over long distances (all the way from Transylvania) and sneak into your very own bedroom just to suck the blood out of you. It was weird but peculiarly gratifying.

Reading about Mercedes de Acosta, poet, playwright, memoirist, Hollywood screenwriter and lesbian seductress extraordinaire, brings it all back. By all accounts, de Acosta (1893-1968) was a serious lady ghoul. So lamia-like her sartorial mode – she favoured black silk cloaks and trousers, tricorn hats, blood-red lipstick and cadaverish white face-powder – Tallulah Bankhead was not the only acquaintance to nickname her ‘Countess Dracula’.

Yet such was de Acosta’s sinister allure she managed to bed just about everybody who was anybody in the sapphic world of her time: from Isadora Duncan, Alla Nazimova, Pola Negri, Tamara Karsavina, Katharine Cornell, Marie Laurencin, Michael Strange and Eva Le Gallienne in the 1920s and 1930s to Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Hope Williams, Libby Holman, Ona Munson (Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind), Poppy Kirk (a Schiaparelli model and prominent diplomat’s wife) and many others in Hollywood, Paris and New York in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. She had ‘a small white body, like a small marble park’, an infatuated Janet Flanner wrote, ‘in which her eyes lived as brown nightingales’. Her hair was a ‘lignous’ coiled black, like a ‘combed bush’. De Acosta boasted that she could steal any woman from any man.

Garbo, who allowed herself to be briefly seduced then struggled for twenty years to extricate herself from de Acosta’s succubus clutches, called her ‘Miss Black and White’; a cynical yet mesmerised Alice B. Toklas admired her ‘dear Mercedes’s’ indestructible chic. According to Truman Capote, de Acosta was by far the best card to hold in the café society game known as International Daisy Chain, the goal of which was to ‘link people sexually, using as few beds as possible’. (With one lucky stroke you could ‘get to anyone from Cardinal Spellman to the Duchess of Windsor’.) And even in her troubled later years – she took to wearing a Wotan-like eyepatch in the 1950s, after pouring cleaning fluid into her eye instead of eyewash – she retained her dark charms. Living a hand-to-mouth existence in New York after the failure of various literary projects in the early 1960s, she nonetheless continued picking up nubile girls with aplomb, including (says Robert Schanke) a ‘tubercular young British actress who was a waitress in a coffee shop’.

Once one might have welcomed such a seduction, fang marks, TB and all. I remember much relishing de Acosta’s gossipy 1960 autobiography, Here Lies the Heart, when it was reissued by an American gay press in the 1970s. (The deeply closeted Eva Le Gallienne, appalled by de Acosta’s lack of discretion, said it should have been called ‘Here the Heart Lies and Lies and Lies’.) The book was for some years an underground lesbian classic, not least on account of de Acosta’s breathless description, complete with deliciously amateur Brownie snapshots, of a clandestine love-tryst she had with Garbo in 1931 at a summer cabin in the Sierras owned by the film actor Wallace Beery. In one brazen snap, the epicene GG poses topless in sneakers and tennis shorts, a sweater around her neck and an adorable little white beret perched stylishly on her head. She’s brown, louche and Amazonian, and more distressingly beautiful than in any official studio publicity shot I have ever seen. O, for such beings to play ping-pong with! When the book came out, Garbo never forgave de Acosta for what she considered the extraordinary, sottish violation of her privacy.

But after reading the new biography and a few of de Acosta’s quite staggeringly awful plays one is tempted to demur. Seductive she may have been – Pola Negri? Isadora? Garbo and Dietrich? – but also dumb, spoiled, a headcase, and in the end oddly tedious. Once she got past one’s defences, Cuban heels a-clicking, she seems rapidly to have palled. I guess that’s the problem with erotomaniacs (and Schanke is convinced she was one): they wear out their welcome in a hurry. (If you’re middle-aged and female, by the way, you definitely need to worry about this disorder: like that of adult diabetes, the ‘average age of onset’, Schanke grimly warns the reader, ‘has been found to be between 40 and 55’.) ‘She’s done me such harm,’ Garbo complained to Cecil Beaton, ‘has gossiped so and been so vulgar. She is always trying to scheme and find out things and you can’t shut her up.’

Despite the Lugosian looks, Garbo concluded, de Acosta was ‘hopelessly feminine’, someone who needed ‘to possess and envelop one – with marriage or the equivalent’. A vampire, in other words, with a girlish hankering to settle down. She revealed as much in 1935, when, desperate to please her increasingly skittish inamorata (the ‘Swedish servant girl with a face touched by God’), she purchased an estate for herself and Garbo in Beverly Hills – it had a croquet lawn, a ten-foot-high privacy fence and separate entrances. In this fantasy retreat, which Garbo rejected peremptorily as soon as the work was done, saying she vanted a tennis court instead of a stoopid old cwoquet lawn, one sees de Acosta’s pathology writ large. What she really longed for was a sweet little vault somewhere, an apron to tie on over her Dracula cape, and a hellish little oven in which to bake blood-soaked pies for her lady love.

Schanke’s biography does little to dispel the banality of it all. Indeed, in a peculiar kind of coup, he manages to make de Acosta sound even more tiresome and foolish than she was. Even now, like a rhetorical Wonderbra, Here Lies the Heart has its moments of uncanny uplift – as, for example, when de Acosta describes her disquieting ‘moaning sickness’, an odd lifelong tendency to jolt awake every morning at 5 a.m. in a state of ‘painful bewilderment’, like someone just returning ‘from a long and fatiguing journey’:

Everyone has fallen asleep and awoken with a jerk. Eastern teaching tells us that this indicates a too sudden parting of the astral from the physical body. In my own experience, I believe I have gone out so far on the astral plane that it has been hard for me to find my way back, so that when I woke up I was dazed and felt lost. I believe this is an explanation of much of my moaning sickness and morning depressions, which in turn have caused my migraine headaches.

Schanke makes little of such charming lunacy. Despite dedicated sifting in a newly opened hoard of de Acosta manuscripts and theatrical memorabilia in the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, all he really succeeds in evoking – in painfully gravity-bound prose – is the strange nullity of her existence. De Acosta was someone who lived her entire life through other people: you don’t get to be ‘the dyke at the top of the stairs’ (as Garbo’s friends called her) otherwise. But her relentless, obtuse, often clammy devotion to the famous women she pursued, the elusive Greta above all, makes for dispiriting reading. Surely vampires can’t be this dull and inane? What’s the point then of trying to get to know one?

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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