Famous Sapphic Socialite Inspires New Music

Philly composer Joseph Hallman penned Raving Beauty - a new musical work about Mercedes de Acosta - for PIFA

Joseph Hallman (photos courtesy of the Rosenbach)

Raving Beauty, a new work inspired by the life of controversial writer and socialite Mercedes de Acosta (1893-1968) – a prominent member of gay society in New York and Hollywood – explores her romantic relationships with some of Hollywood’s elite leading ladies. The Rosenbach Museum & Library commissioned Philadelphia-based composer Joseph Hallman (he’s the Rosenbach’s composer in residence) to create the new musical composition inspired by the legend’s fascinating life.

And on April 9 (2 p.m.) the Dolce Suono Ensemble and Abigail Haynes Lennox will perform the world-premiere composition at the museum as part of the inaugural Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts which pays homage to the Paris cultural scene.

Mercedes de Acosta

Hallman – who can be spotted at his favorite gay bar the Westbury when he’s not writing music – says he was inspired to create this sweeping musical composition by an exhibition about de Acosta, which includes an erotic poem written to her by Isadora Duncan and Pietro Yantorny designer shoes, as well as correspondence with Greta Garbo. The lesbian-charged exhibition will be on display at the museum from April 3 through July 31.

“Mercedes was a habitual presence in Paris,” says Hallman in a recent interview with Gay Cities, “and we find her cavorting with the great artists of the time – Stravinsky, Diaghilev, etc. What drew me in personally was this somewhat tragic tale of a woman – at once fierce, manipulative, timid and fey.” He says her lesbian relationships were infamously passionate, and at times, quite tempestuous.

This 20th century legend – who was rumored to have wooed many famous women – was born into an aristocratic Spanish-Cuban New York family, and grew up in the world of New York high society – two elements Hallman’s work explores. She married the painter Abram Poole in 1920, but divorced in 1935 after the two lived separate lives for more than a decade. At various points during her life de Acosta worked as a novelist, a playwright, a poet and a Hollywood scriptwriter (surely all those affairs inspired her poison pen). She also spent much time in Paris during the early 20th century with many famous friends and fellow ex-pats.

Much like de Acosta, Hallman’s also been inspired by plenty of famous faces. He’s currently transcribing Bjork songs for a special project and is working with local pop and rap artists on new tracks. He recently helped Voyeur’s in-house DJ Carl Michaels on pop remixes.

Raving Beauty, April 9, 2 p.m., Rosenbach Museum & Library, 2008-2010 Delancey Place, 215-732-1600.