The Shoe Queen of Washington Square and the Divine One

By Margaret A. Brucia

Sarah Bernhardt, photographed by Felix Nadar (1865)

Sarah Bernhardt, photographed by Felix Nadar (1865)

This is the first in a series of posts based on the letters of the New York socialite, Julia Gardiner Gayley (1864-1937), to her eldest daughter, Mary Gayley Senni (1884-1971), a countess who lived on the outskirts of Rome. In 2010, the author purchased a trove of the letters in a Roman flea market. This mother-daughter correspondence spanned the years 1902-1936 and provides an intimate and unfiltered view of life in New York during the early twentieth century.

Julie lived at Washington Square North and interacted with many luminaries and celebrated New Yorkers of her era. Her frequent and casual references to people places and events invited further research, often producing surprising results. In this piece, Julie visits her friend and neighbor Rita de Acosta Lydig (1875-1929), a renowned beauty with an exuberant sense of style, acclaimed for her intellect and her contribution to social causes, including women’s suffrage, the war effort and campaigns against narcotics.[1] Rita is hosting a party in honor of her friend, the legendary French actress, Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), who is on tour in America.


Before there was Imelda Marcos, there was Rita de Acosta Lydig, and before there was Bette Midler, there was Sarah Bernhardt. Rita and Sarah: the shoe queen and the divine one. I knew little about these two flamboyant icons of style and stage, just that Rita’s fabulous shoes are gems of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute and that the Divine Sarah was a French international superstar. That was all—until I discovered the 34-year correspondence of Julie to her daughter Mary. A cryptic remark in one of Julie’s letters revealed that Rita, Sarah and she were together at Rita’s house at Washington Square North on December 19, 1916.

"I have just come in (having got out of my bed) from a walk to the corner to Mrs. Lydig’s to meet Sarah Bernhardt. Wonderful woman, Sarah. She sat in a chair and Mrs. L. who is very fine in feeling & quick to see things, stood guard over her, protected and managed the people."[2]

Why, I wondered, in such an offhanded and cursory reference, did Julie bother to mention that Sarah Bernhardt “sat in a chair”?

A few clicks revealed that Sarah Bernhardt, on tour in South America in 1905, sustained a serious knee injury. Her convincing suicidal leap from the Castello Sant’Angelo as Tosca, the eponymous heroine of Victorien Sardou’s play, may have been the end of Floria Tosca, but it marked the beginning of a ten-year struggle with persistent and agonizing knee pain for Sarah Bernhardt. Her condition steadily deteriorated until her infection turned gangrenous. In 1915, Sarah, then living in Bordeaux and desperately seeking relief, opted for the amputation of her right leg, nearly to the hip. She was 70 years old. Not one for wallowing in self-pity, especially with the Great War raging around her, barely eight months after her surgery, Sarah, seated or propped up on an uncomfortable wooden leg, returned to the stage in Paris. Two years later, she embarked on her ninth and final American tour. One can only imagine the sensation Sarah caused in New York almost exactly one hundred years ago, on September 1, 1917, when she starred on Broadway at the Knickerbocker Theater as a one-legged pilou (the French version of a doughboy) in the one-act play Du Theatre au Champ d’Honneur.

But what was Sarah’s connection to the protective “Mrs. L,” who hosted her during the early weeks of her American tour?

Rita Hernandez de Acosta, the eldest daughter of a steamship magnate of Cuban heritage and his Spanish wife, was born into the privileged and rarefied world of New York’s high society in 1875. When her short-lived marriage to the multimillionaire W.E.D. Stokes ended in divorce in 1900, Rita received a whopping settlement of nearly two million dollars, enabling her to live independently and to indulge her every whim.

And indulge she did. Stunningly beautiful in face and figure, Rita, not surprisingly, was drawn to Paris. For several months each year she lived a sybaritic life in the city synonymous with glamour and sophistication, amassing a wondrous wardrobe of haute couture gowns and an unparalleled collection of bespoke and bedazzling footwear, handcrafted by the master shoe designer Pierre (or Pietro) Yantorny.

In Paris, Rita became the darling of eminent artists and sculptors and posed for Auguste Rodin, John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, among others. In Boldini’s sumptuous 1911 portrait, Rita is perched sideways in a chair, her body turned to face the viewer, her skirt twisted and raised to reveal both of her pale, cream-colored pumps in profile, accented by the contrast of her stark black stockings. One wonders whether Rita insisted that her shoes be in the picture.

But Rita’s circle of Paris luminaries was not limited to visual artists; she befriended a host of famous writers, philosophers, musicians and performing artists, including, of course, the Divine Sarah, twenty-nine years Rita’s senior. Mercedes de Acosta, Rita’s younger sister, herself famously or infamously a lover of the film star Greta Garbo, wrote of Rita’s friendship with Sarah in her autobiography. If Mercedes is to be believed, Sarah so admired Rita’s bearing and carriage that she asked her for lessons in how to walk.[3]

In 1916, when Sarah arrived in New York to begin her grueling, eighteen-month tour, she settled into the comfort of her friend Rita’s gracious Georgian home at 14 Washington Square North, a few houses away from Julie’s residence at number 20. Rita was fourteen years into her second marriage—to Philip M. Lydig, a wealthy, retired American army officer. But their marriage was foundering, and for the past two years she and Philip had lived apart and would divorce in Paris three years later.

Ever the gracious host, Rita planned a reception in honor of her esteemed guest. Mercedes recalled that what was conceived as an intimate gathering of a few select friends soon mushroomed as prominent New Yorkers clamored for invitations. Rita, Mercedes recalled, “didn’t have the heart to refuse them.”[4] At first Sarah greeted her admirers while standing, balancing on her sole leg as she clutched the back of an armchair, but soon she tired and sat down. According to Mercedes, her well-wishers thronged around her throne, hanging over the back of the chair and kneeling at her foot to kiss her hand.

Her American tour a triumph, Sarah returned to France where she continued to act, lecture and give public poetry recitations until her death in 1923, at the age of seventy-eight. Did Sarah and Rita maintain a correspondence? One wonders what their letters might have contained.

After Philip Lydig, Rita pursued one last love interest, this time not a millionaire but an Episcopal priest. In 1921 she announced her engagement to the Rev. Percy Stickney Grant, the notoriously liberal and outspoken rector of the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue and 10th Street. Rev. Grant, who believed that Jesus Christ did not have the power of God, that the consecration of churches was a throwback to witchcraft and that marriage need not be sanctioned by priests,[5] regularly crossed doctrinal swords with the Bishop of New York, Dr. William T. Manning. The announcement of Percy’s engagement to Rita gave Bishop Manning the opening he craved to topple his adversary. Citing a clear breech of canon law (Rita had two living ex-husbands), the bishop unequivocally denied permission for Percy and Rita to marry. Percy refused to back down. Manning threatened to charge him with heresy. Each cleric published his views in newspaper articles, and New Yorkers took sides as the controversy raged.[6] On January 27, 1923, Julie, who attended Grace Church at Broadway and 10th Street, wrote to her daughter:

"You read the N.Y. Times, therefore you have seen about Percy Grant & his scandalous talk. Nevertheless I think Bishop Manning has made a tremendous mistake in bringing on a heresy trial."[7]

Though Bishop Manning, in the end, did not press charges, Rita and Percy, weary, ill and under stress, broke off their engagement in 1924. Percy resigned his position and returned to his native Boston, where he died two years later from complications following appendicitis.

Grief-stricken and in a mental and physical downward spiral, Rita spent money recklessly and uncontrollably. Overwhelmed by debt,[8] she was forced to sell her house at Washington Square. She moved to the Gotham Hotel at Fifth Avenue and 55th Street and died in 1929, at the age of fifty-four, from pernicious anemia. Rita de Acosta Lydig lies buried with her mother and her sister in the Trinity Church Graveyard in Washington Heights.

And what about Rita’s clothes? And her shoes? Fortunately, Mercedes had the foresight to preserve what she could of Rita’s personal effects. In 1954 she donated her sister’s clothing and shoes to the Brooklyn Museum, from where they were transferred in 2009 to The Met. They now form the core of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Before there was email, there were letters—words in cursive script, entrusted to durable rag paper, written with indelible ink from fountain pens. They were not virtual, but tangible. And they were saved and stored in physical files and in boxes, not on desktops, but in desk drawers. Look around. They may still be there, stashed in basements and attics, or for sale from dealers in ephemera. Find them. Read them. Before it’s too late. They can bring the past to life and enlighten our lives.

Margaret A. Brucia has taught Latin in New York and Rome for many years and is a Fulbright scholar, the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome.

[1] “Mrs. Rita Lydig Dies Unexpectedly at 50,” New York Times, October 20, 1929.

[2] Julia Gardiner Gayley to Mary Gayley Senni, December 19, 1916 (author's collection).

[3] Mercedes de Acosta, Here Lies the Heart (New York: Reynal, 1960), 49.

[4] Ibid, p. 87.

[5] “Dr. Grant Doubts Power of Christ,” New York Times, January 15, 1923.

[6] “Grant’s Betrothal Stirs Church,” New York Times, August 21, 1921.

[7] Julia Gardiner Gayley to Mary Gayley Senni, January 27, 1923 (author's collection).

[8] “Portrait of Rita Lydig,” The Shepherd Gallery website.