Mercedes, Eva, Alice
June 25, 1925
Setting: Paris Odeon theater, premiere of Jehanne d’Arc, written by Mercedes De Acosta, starring her lover, Eva Le Gallienne, with spectacular over-the-top set designs by Norman Bel Geddes
Attendees include: American ambassador, French cultural minister, Mrs. Vincent Astor, Elsie de Wolfe, actress Constance Collier, composer Ivor Novello, writer Dorothy Parker, pianist Arthur Rubinstein, composer Cole Porter
Eva looks smashing in her role, wearing pants and armor. Bel Geddes’s wild staging, with banners and bells and a jam-packed stage, overpowers the actors and dialogue. Complete chaos ensues. The electrical system goes haywire.
The opening night is considered a social triumph, but the play is not favorably reviewed.
Four weeks later
Setting: Paris Odeon Theater
Play is closing after final performance. Mercedes is depressed, denied the raves she craved. Plus, her affair with Eva is on the rocks, putting her into a foul mood.
Norman-Bel Geddes is the unchallenged genius of scenic design in this country. He has, strangely enough, an urge to direct rather than design exclusively. He directed Eva Le Gallienne in a play by Mercedes d’Acosta about “Jehanne” d’Arc in Paris and set back by a couple of decades the never too robust artistic reputation of America in the eyes of the French. TIME MAGAZINE review
Eva decides to go off for a few weeks to Alice De Lamar’s Italian villa. Mercedes is not invited.
Alice, a rich, reclusive, lesbian American heiress, funded the Paris production at Mercedes’ request, initially giving $12,000. But when the Bel Geddes sets were too large for the original Paris theater, at the zero hour, the pair asked Alice for another $28,000 so they could move to the larger Odeon. She agreed, even though she barely knew Mercedes. She had an apartment in Paris and attended many performances of the play.
Her motivation for supporting the play was complex: undoubtedly, her attraction to the beautiful Eva was a factor.
Mercedes and Eva had a stormy relationship that was already in trouble before 1925. Both had strayed. They decided to have an open marriage. (Mercedes was in fact married.)
Nevertheless, Mercedes is furious when Eva leaves with Alice. She feels that Eva is being opportunistic, starting an affair with Alice for her money, to help realize her own dream of a civic repertory theater in the U.S.
Alice was painfully shy, and the time Eva spent with her in Italy gave her a chance to recuperate, away from the mercurial Mercedes. Alice made no demands on Eva, who later wrote, “Alice allows other individuals their entire freedom, making no personal demands… she is a creature of great strength & gentleness & a kind of serenity of wisdom, naïve & childlike.”
Alice’s Italian villa was near that of Bernard and Mary Berenson, who “got to like her very much,” according to Mary, describing Alice as “a queer girl with lots of character.”
While Eva is with Alice in Italy, Mercedes hangs around Natalie Barney’s Paris literary salon at 20 Rue Jacob.
Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks
20 Rue Jacob
For over 60 years, Barney hosted a weekly gathering where people met to socialize and discuss literature, art, and music. She featured women’s writing, but also hosted prominent male writers. She brought together expatriate Modernists with members of theFrench Academy. Joan Schenkar described Barney’s salon as “a place where lesbian assignations and appointments with academics could coexist in a kind of cheerful, cross-pollinating, cognitive dissonance.” http://www.joanschenkar.com/
Bored, Mercedes plays matchmaker between Dolly Wilde (niece of Oscar) and actress Alla Nazimova (once Eva’s lover).
When Eva returns to Paris, she and Mercedes go to lesbian clubs, where they admire young women dressed as men in black dinner jackets.
But it is already clear to both women that their five-year-long affair is over.
Setting: The luxurious White Star liner Majestic
Mercedes and Eva are going back to NYC, after the embarrassing failure of their play. Other passengers include English actor Leslie Howard and Noel Coward.
Mercedes and Eva are in terrible moods, frazzled and worn out, as observed by Noel Coward. He had met the two women on his last visit to NYC. He was going back to stage his play, The Vortex.
He later described the trip as “a gay, nervous voyage and far from peaceful.”
Part of this was due to the behavior of Eva and Mercedes, which Coward described in this way: “They alternated between intellectual gloom and feverish gaiety and wore black, indiscriminately, for both moods.” He suspected they were taking drugs obtained in Paris.
Another passenger was Coward’s favorite set designer, Gladys Calthrop, who, according to another passenger, Dorothy “Dickie” Fellowes-Gordon (lover of gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell), was openly wooed by Eva, right in front of Mercedes. Noel Coward shook his head and said, “There’ll be trouble now!”
Eva danced with Coward and said to him, “I think I’m taking away your Gladys.” Coward was not amused.
Eva felt her performance in Paris was ruined by the overpowering sets of Bel Geddes, and she and Gladys spoke of that. They also talked about Mercedes, who was fuming. By the time they approached the Statue of Liberty, Eva and Mercedes were through. (No matter, for Mercedes had her sights set on her next lover, Greta Garbo.)
August 26, 1926
Setting: Cold Spring Harbor, NY, mansion of Otto Kahn (OHEKA) http://www.oheka.com/
Philanthropist Otto Kahn was, in the words of Will Rogers, “The King of New York.” He was an old friend of Eva’s father, English poet and novelist Richard Le Gallienne. http://uncpress.unc.edu/books/T-5076.html
Kahn dreamed of making NYC a cultural capital of the world, and Eva’s dream of presenting European classics in an American repertory theater fit in with Kahn’s plans.
Kahn had built the second largest home in America in Cold Spring Harbor. (Orson Welles used it as the setting for Citizen Kane.)
At Kahn’s urging, Eva had been on the road, promoting her dream: “America represents the world hope of the attainment of lofty ideals in dramatic arts,” Eva Le Gallienne enthused to students at Yale in 1925. “The myth of European supremacy in the arts is fast fading…. Let us make the theatre of America stand free and high up, with no world peers.”
Eva told Kahn, “Everyone is very anxious” to be invited to the benefit he planned for her theater. Alice De Lamar was on the guest list.
The guests traveled to Cold Spring Harbor aboard Kahn’s private yacht docked in the city.
The evening was a huge success. Headlines the next day announced that Eva Le Gallienne had won pledges of support close to $70,000 – much of it from Kahn and Alice De Lamar.
Eva was ecstatic. At last, her dream would be realized.
Setting: Civic Repertory Theater, 14th Street, NYC
Opening night performance, Benavete’s Saturday Night
The opening is triumphant for Eva.
At just 27 years old, she founded the nation’s first professional repertory company. It lasted for 10 years, and it created a new model for ensemble performance and programming. The guiding principle was: “The theater should be an instrument for giving, not a machinery for getting.”
Eva Le Gallienne produced 37 plays at Civic Rep, acting in most of them, including the first English-language staging of Chekhov in America (The Three Sisters, in the company’s first season). A free school for select young actors influenced a generation of American artists.
In 1926, Eva purchased a rambling farmhouse in Weston, CT, and four years later, Alice followed. While their love affair was likely brief, if it happened at all, their friendship was long.
The relationship that began in 1925 lasted almost 60 years, until Alice’s death in 1983. Not only did Alice fund Eva’s Civic Repertory Theater, she also supported Eva’s other ventures.
When Alice died in 1983, Eva was stunned to learn that Alice had left her a quarter of her estate. This enabled Eva to continue her work in the theater and live a long life, dying in Weston at age 92 in 1991.