Beyond the Sea

Rita de Acosta: Portrait of an Icon

Throughout the first three decades of the 20th century, Rita de Acosta embodied an ideal of elegance, sophistication, and extravagance. From New York City to Paris, her charm inspired the greatest painters and photographers of the time. In 1954, the great Cecil Beaton was still moved when remembering this “woman of unusual intensity” who had achieved the feat of “making oneself a work of art.”
Rita de Acosta, 1905. © Edward Steichen

Rita Hernandez de Alba de Acosta was a unique character, even when she was a teenager. Her father, Ricardo Acosta, was a Cuban exile who had made a fortune in the cane sugar industry in New York City. In 1871, he married Micaela Hernandez, a woman 16 years his junior who was also born in Cuba. However, as Mr. and Mrs. de Acosta lived in the ultra-chic Diamond District, they thought it better to pretend that Micaela was from Madrid and a descendent of the Dukes of Alba – only the most honorable family in all of Spain. This vane mindset and enormous material wealth formed the backdrop to Rita’s childhood as the oldest of seven children born between 1875 and 1892. Each one of the siblings married into high society, but almost every union ended in failure.

The moment that William Earl Dodge Stokes laid eyes on Rita de Acosta, “a decided brunette of great beauty,” according to a description published by The New York Times in 1894, the year they met, he pursued her hopelessly before declaring his undying love. Rita was 19 and had just entered polite society, and he was 42. She was slim, sophisticated, and a sensitive dreamer. Meanwhile, Stokes was a mustachioed giant with a dark stare and a clenched jaw. Mrs. de Acosta was adamant: This was not the man for her daughter! He was Protestant, too old, and “way too rich!” But her oldest daughter was stubborn, and she was wed to William – who had suddenly converted to Catholicism – at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on January 3, 1895.

Descending from a line of bankers, Stokes inherited his first million from his late father. He immediately invested in plots of land across Manhattan, and began building. Within ten years he had gone from being quite well-off to being a multimillionaire. Rita’s lifestyle was turned upside down. She had expensive outfits sent from Paris, shopped in the finest stores in New York City and Newport, and purchased English thoroughbred horses as if she was collecting buttons – much to the dismay of her husband.

The day Rita discovered that he had been unable to leave his habits as a bachelor completely behind, she filed for a divorce. In May 1900, she was freed from her marriage, was granted custody of their son, William Jr., and was given a princely allowance of 12,000 dollars per year (424,000 dollars today). What was a girl to do? Perhaps go back to dreaming…

Cupid’s Second Arrow

Rita had been so affected by the failure of her first marriage that it came as quite a surprise when she announced her upcoming wedding with Philip Mesier Lydig in February 1902. Her new husband was tall, sported a mustache, and was eight years Rita’s senior. The resemblance to Stokes made this new partnership look like a pitiful rerun. However, morally speaking, Lydig could not have been more different from his ill-natured predecessor. Born into an old New York family, Lydig was a cosmopolitan gentleman of exquisite manners, whose delicate tastes had been encouraged by sizeable wealth. Two hours after they had tied the knot, the couple set off for Paris, where Rita felt quite at home. Since 1895, she had ordered all her outfits from Callot Sœurs, including a scandalous black evening gown that revealed her entire back. It was also unthinkable for her to buy shoes anywhere other than Place Vendôme. Having made more than 150 purchases over 15 years, Rita contributed substantially to the success of Pierre Yantorny, the self-proclaimed “most expensive shoemaker in the world.”

Rita de Acosta, 1917. © Adolf de Meyer/Alamy Stock Photo
Giovanni Boldini, Portrait of Rita de Acosta Lydig, 1911.

However, the French capital offered many other advantages to art lovers such as the Lydigs. What’s more, the simplicity and sophistication with which Rita conducted herself soon won over the biggest names of the day. Sarah Bernhardt, Réjane, Edgar Degas, and Auguste Rodin were all friends, Bergson and Clemenceau couldn’t resist her keen mind, and poets would fall at her feet. As for the painters, such as Paul César Helleu and John Singer Sargent, who both benefited from her fabulous generosity, they only wanted one thing: to portray the full extent of her radiance on canvas. Giovanni Boldini was particularly fascinated, and completed a total of 14 portraits.

In the wake of contemporary progress, photographers also adopted Rita as a subject. Adolf de Meyer, Edward Steichen, Arnold Genthe, and Gertrude Käsebier were all determined to capture the young woman’s alabaster complexion, her triumphantly turned-up nose, her thin, pursed lips, and her ebony hair. Yet poor health forced Rita to step back from her busy social life. By the age of 40, she may even have wanted to pursue a new, more spiritual existence, one free from Philip and his reproaches about her lavish spending. In 1919, the smart-set was resigned upon receiving news of the couple’s divorce, decided on grounds of incompatibility.

Third Time’s the Charm?

Shaken by her divorces and physically weakened after falling off a horse in 1919, Rita sought comfort in religion. And there was no one better to guide her than Anglican priest Percy Stickney Grant, with whom she slowly fell in love. In August 1921, the newspapers announced their imminent marriage. However, William T. Manning, the bishop at the head of the New York City diocese, asked Dr. Grant to choose between his duties and his feelings for a divorcée. To Rita’s chagrin, her beau called off their wedding. From that moment onwards, she descended into a compulsive shopping spree to the point of losing all control. Eventually, Rita decided to start saving money. Upon closer observation of her spending habits, it came to light that she purchased around 1,000 dollars of flowers every month (almost 17,000 dollars today). It was said that she declared: “I can go without food […] but I will not be without my white flowers.”

Rita de Acosta’s final scandal broke in 1927 when she declared bankruptcy. Holed up at the Gotham Hotel on Fifth Avenue, her final years were not happy ones. During an operation to address a spinal problem, an electrical short circuit left her with serious burns on her back. Having subsequently become addicted to morphine, Rita continued to act as though her life was nothing but grace and fulfillment, but deep down she was ruined and in constant pain. Just before she died, she asked her sister to cool her with a fan. In a final burst of elegance, she opened her eyes to utter her final, worried words: “Is it a Spanish fan?”

Article published in the June 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.