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Beauty will take you only so far, and it matters not that one artist referred to you as the most nearly perfectly beautiful woman in the world. So said Paul Helleu about Rita Hernandez y de Alba de Acosta (shown above not in the Helleu portrait, but one by Giovanni Boldini).

Legend says it was a photograph of her that landed her first husband, eccentric millionaire William Earl Dodge (W. E. D.) Stokes. Like the detective played by Dana Andrews in the movie, "Laura," Stokes supposedly fell in love with the girl in the photograph (though an 1894 newspaper story said they met at the wedding of a mutual friend and made no mention of a photo).

In any event, Stokes and Rita de Acosta were married shortly thereafter. Several stories list her age as 16 at the time of their wedding – Stokes, a bachelor until then, was 43 – but she more likely was 19. From all accounts she was up front about her feelings – she loved his money and figured marriage to Stokes was a good investment.

Theirs was a brief marriage that started teetering within two years and officially ended in 1900. Divorce was her idea, not his. The divorce earned her an estimated $2 million, though that figure may be high.

A year after the wedding, they had a son, William Earl Dodge ("Weddie") Stokes Jr. She was given custody, but the boy – with her permission – lived with his father for several years before he temporarily returned to his mother when he was in his late teens. It was widely believed that she never cared for her son.

Another story that refused to go away was that most of the money she received from Stokes was not alimony, but a separate deal for the boy, so that she, in effect, sold him to his father. She vehemently denied that interpretation of their settlement. More likely she felt the boy was better off with his father, especially when she married Philip Lydig in 1902.

New York Times, February 6, 1902
What proved to be one of the greatest social surprises of the present season occurred yesterday afternoon when Mrs. Rita H. de Alba Acosta Stokes, formerly the wife of W. E. D. Stokes, was married in Grace Church chantry by the Rev. Dr. William R. Houghton to Capt. Philip Mesier Lydig. Almost immediately after the ceremony the bride and her husband went to the White Star Line pier and sailed for Europe on the Oceanic. The couple intend spending their honeymoon in Spain.

No announcement whatever was made that Mrs. Stokes and Capt. Lydig were engaged. Arrangements for the marriage were made very quietly, and only a few of the friends of the bride and bridegroom were invited to attend the ceremony.

The bride was given away by her brother, Ricardo Acosta Jr. Miss Aida Acosta was maid of honor and William Astor Chanler was the best man. The other witnesses to the ceremony were the bride’s mother, Mrs. Ricardo Acosta; the bridegroom’s aunt, Mrs. Lydig, and Charles D. Wetmore.

Mrs. Lydig is twenty-five years old and is considered a beautiful woman. She was still in her teens when, as Miss Rita Acosta, the debutante daughter of Ricardo Acosta, she was married to W. E. D. Stokes. The marriage took place at the home of the bride’s parents on Jan. 3, 1895. The bride being a Roman Catholic, Archbishop Corrigan officiated.

Rumors of trouble came within two years after the marriage, and within another year Mrs. Stokes left her husband and instituted a suit for absolute divorce. On May 2, 1900, the decree of divorce was granted to Mrs. Stokes by Justice Bischoff.

The decree was made upon the findings of the referee, ex-Judge William N. Cohen, who, moreover, recommended the payment of $12,000 annually as alimony. The plaintiff was allowed to resume her maiden name and received the custody of her child, W. E. D. Stokes Jr.

Mr. Stokes was forbidden to marry again until after the death of the plaintiff. He was allowed, however, to visit and write to his son. In the decree it was provided that if Mrs. Stokes should marry again Mr. Stokes might ask the court for the custody of his child. The marriage of Mrs. Stokes forfeits to her the right to the alimony granted.

After the granting of the divorce Mrs. Stokes went to live at the Waldorf-Astoria where she first met Capt. Lydig. They soon became fast friends, but both declared that they had no intention of marrying.

Mrs. Lydig’s father is the descendant of an old Spanish family which emigrated to Cuba. Mr. Acosta had extensive Cuban interests, but these were confiscated by the Spaniards because of his sympathy with the Cuban cause.

Capt. Lydig is one of the best-known clubmen and society men in the city. He is thirty-five years old, and during the Spanish-American War won for himself a commission in the United States Army. He was stationed during the war at Honolulu.

He is the son of the late Col. Philip Lydig, who served on the staff of Gen. Sheridan. He is a member of the Harvard, the Racquet, the Strollers and the Knickerbocker Athletic Clubs.

For the new Mrs. Lydig, her second marriage wasn't much more successful than their first, though it staggered on for 17 years. The couple lived apart much of that time, with Col. Lydig spending most of his time in Europe after 1913. He was a staff officer during World War I and his marriage ended in a Paris court when divorce was granted in 1919. The grounds? Incompatibility

It would turn out that Mrs. Lydig's future might have been much happier if the grounds had been adultery.

Mrs. Rita Lydig's biggest personal weakness was her wardrobe. She loved to shop and, like "Sex and the City's" Carrie Bradshaw, had a special fondness for shoes, which earned her the nickname, "The Shoe Queen." Unfortunately, she would reach a point where she couldn't support her shopping habit and would be forced to auction off most of her possessions.

But that's getting us ahead of our story, which starts in 1921. Her first husband, W. E. D. Stokes is in the middle of a messy divorce from his second wife, but Mrs. Lydig, who has been free for three years, makes a happy – but premature – announcement that she is about to be married again.

Ah, if her life were only that simple.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 6, 1921
Announcement was made yesterday by Mrs. Rita Lydig of New York City and Katonah, N.Y., former wife of Maj. Philip Lydig, of her engagement to the Rev. Dr. Percy Stickney Grant, rector of the Church of the Ascension, Manhattan. Dr. Grant is 61 years old and Mrs. Lydig is 42.

The formal announcement follows a series of repeated rumors that the two were engaged. Mrs. Lydig is socially prominent and popular in New York, is active in philanthrophy and formerly did a great deal of entertaining. Until recently she lived in the brick house at 14 Washington Square North, only three block from Dr. Grant’s church. For a long time she has been a communiant at the Church of the Ascension, and this summer she took Dr. Grant’s country place at Katonah, where she is still staying.

Dr. Grant is a bachelor. His only venture into the domestic field took place recently when a baby girl, ten days old, was left at his door and the bachelor rector took her into his home where she has stayed ever since. Whether she will remain there after Dr. Grant’s marriage has not been determined.

Dr. Grant is a native of Boston and a graduate of Harvard, class of 1883. His first church was at Fall River, Mass., from which he came to his present church only on the then revolutionary condition that the pews should be free and the church be open every day. He has caused a great deal of comment by allowing the church to be used as an open forum for the discussion of public questions. He has insisted that this forum is not for purposes of propaganda but to furnish a free education platform.

Immediately questions were raised. Dr. Grant, already considered a bit of a loose cannon liberal, had proposed to a woman who had been divorced not once, but twice. And she was best known for her beauty and her extravagant lifestyle. She also had a fragile constitution and was frequently ill.

Some of the questions were addressed by Dr. Grant the next day:

New York Evening Telegram, August 7, 1921
Mrs. Rita Lydig and the Rev. Dr. Percy Stickney Grant will be married as soon as Mrs. Lydig has sufficiently recuperated from her recent illness. Dr. Grant, seated in the front room of his Beaver Lodge, Beverly Hills* home, declared he was not at all interested in the Episcopal Church’s attitude toward marrying a woman twice divorced.

With the engagement of Dr. Grant to Mrs. Lydig arises the question of the fate of little Faith Willard, the foundling child whom Dr. Grant discovered on his doorstep three months ago.

“I have not made up my mind yet what I shall do with the baby,” he explained. “I am thinking seriously of placing it in the hands of the Spence Alumnae, which performs a charitable work of obtaining good homes for homeless youngsters.

“The child will remain with me during the summer months, at any rate. It is getting the best of care, and I would not want it to leave my household until it has gone through its first summer in New York.”

“Mrs. Lydig and I have long felt a strong sense of companionship,” he continued. “I have known her for a dozen years. Met her socially at a dinner. She is of remarkable intelligence and has a knowledge and interest in the things which are vital to me. She is the best companion I know. We decided to marry some time ago.

“When you sit next to a person who is fascinating, entertaining and intelligent, with many of your own views on problems and much the same interest in them, you naturally decide you would like to sit opposite that person and hear and watch her all the time. That’s all there is to it.

“Of course, there was romance in it. But I hate the word. It sounds soft and sentimental. And there is nothing I like less. I am partially Scotch, you know, and come from New England; that makes me perhaps a little frigid.”

[*The reference to a Beverly Hills home may have been an error. Dr. Grant spent his summers in Bedford Hills, which is in the same area as Katonah, mentioned in the previous article. As for Faith Willard, the foundling, she must have been turned over to an agency for adopotion or placement in a foster home.]

The engaged couple was out in the open – and about to encounter a huge obstacle:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 17, 1921
Bishop William T. Manning has ruled that no clergyman of the Protestant Episcopal Church may perform the marriage ceremony for the Rev. Dr. Percy Stickney Grant and Mrs. Rita de Acosta Lydig, who divorced both her first and second husbands, W. E. D. Stokes and Maj. Philip M. Lydig. The divorce from the latter was obtained in Paris in 1918 on grounds of incompatibility.

Bishop Manning’s decision is based on Canon 42 of the Constitution and Canons of the Protestant Episcopal Church and he reached his decision at the time the engagement of Dr. Grant and Mrs. Lydig was announced.

“No minister, knowingly, after due inquiry, shall solemnize the marriage of any person who has been or is the husband and wife of any other person then living, from whom he or she has been divorced for any cause arising after marriage,” the Canon states. “But this Canon shall not be held to apply to the innocent party in a divorce for adultery; provided that before the application for such remarriage a period of not less than one year shall have elapsed after the granting of such divorce.”

Dr. Grant has left town for the day, and left no word as to his plans regarding his forthcoming marriage.

The prospect of marriage, already dim in 1921, would flicker for many months before it went dark.

Mrs. Rita Lydig and the Rev. Dr. Percy Stickney Grant never married, though they remained engaged until May 1924 when they publicly announced their break-up. They put the blame on Bishop William T. Manning for refusing to give his consent to the marriage, but events over the next several months would indicate there were other reasons the relationship was doomed. Mrs. Lydig may have been, in Dr. Grant's words, "fascinating, entertaining and intelligent," but her lifestyle was leading her into financial trouble.

While her engagement to Dr. Grant was disintegrating, Mrs. Lydig received a letter from W. E. D. Stokes, who said, in effect, he bore her no ill will for having divorced him many years ago, and that he was available should she need to talk. But that was unlikely given what he wrote next — that her husband, Philip Lydig, had cheated on her with Stokes' wife, Helen. This wasn't true, of course, but Stokes believed that repeating a lie made it true. And while he never stopped carrying the torch for his first wife, he also wanted a bit of revenge.

Meanwhile, Dr. Grant was having problems with Bishop Manning that had nothing to do with any wedding.

A month after announcing the end of his engagement, Dr. Grant resigned as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension. In November, questions were raised about Dr. Grant's health —and his personal life.

New York Evening Post, November 24, 1924
The Rev. Dr. Percy Stickney Grant ... is in the New York Hospital today awaiting the verdict of specialists regarding the seriousness of his condition and a method of treatment.

Dr. Grant is suffering from anemia and indications of hardening of the arteries have appeared since the clergyman retired to his country home at Bedford Hills, N.Y.

Dr. Frederick Peterson, an eminent neurologist, has been called into consultation by Dr. Lewis A. Conner, Dr. Grant’s personal physician, but intimate friends insist the patient is only “tired.”

The only statement from an authoritative source regarding Dr. Grant’s condition came from Mrs. James A. Wright, who accompanied the clergyman to the hospital last night and who for eighteen years was chairman of the Committee on Altar and Vestments at the church.

“Dr. Grant has anemia,” said Mrs. Wright, “due to sewer gas poisoning, and is very tired in the way that a man recovering from the grippe is tired. His mental condition is excellent and he is in good spirits. He rested comfortably in the hospital last night. He seems perfectly normal except for the effects of anemia.”

Mrs. Wright was emphatic in denying sensational news reports in connection with the clergyman’s illness. She spoke highly of Nellie Findleton, a maid in Dr. Grant’s household for several years, who was mentioned in these reports as having been befriended by the minister and who was known by the family as “Little Nellie Kelly.”

At Dr. Grant’s Bedford Hills home today, Mrs. Stone, his sister, could not be seen, nor could Nellie Findleton. Mrs. John Graham, who has been Dr. Grant’s housekeeper for eleven years answered the door and refused to comment other than to discredit completely sensational stories concerning the rector’s illness.

Mrs. Rita de Acosta Lydig, whose engagement to Dr. Grant was one of the causes of controversy between him and Bishop William T. Manning, who forbad the match as a violation of church canons because Mrs. Lydig had divorced her second husband on grounds not recognized by the church, would not comment today on her former fiance’s illness.

Mrs. Lydig expressed regret at “this sad condition” and said she had known for some time that Dr. Grant was “desperately ill.” She added she had not seen Dr. Grant since their engagement was broken off about six months ago.

Ah, yes, Nellie Findleton, aka "Little Nellie Kelly" (so called because of the popular George M. Cohan musical) ...

The Buffalo Express (and likely many other newspapers) ran an article on November 24, 1924 that its author, George Fry, must have written with a purple crayon. The Buffalo newspaper dressed up the story with a photo of Dr. Grant. Above the photo was one word (all caps): UNBALANCED!

The main headline on the story said: "Rev. Dr Grant Ill; Recovery is Improbable."

The subhead said the man was "pronounced mentally unbalanced after [a] strange liaison."

Fry's second paragraph was typically over the top:

"And Mrs. Rita DeAcosta Lydig, beautiful society woman, has come to the crowning grief of a life in which the most brilliant surroundings of her time held but sadness. The great love of her life is a hopeless wreck, mentally and physically. Her own proud place as his love and inspiration has been taken by the chambermaid."

The chambermaid? That would be Nellie Findleton, who Fry insisted on calling Nellie Kelly, saying she "floated into a scene of pastoral love and peace on a sea of wine."

He went on to contrast the two women in Dr Grant's life:

"Mrs. Lydig was graceful and lithe. She was born to the manor and showed it in every line and act. Her face was fair and gentle. Her demeanor as softly pleasing as the gentle notes of a cello.

"Nellie brought five feet, five inches of agile frame to New York. Thin, without attraction and plain, she had passed the last fifteen years of her life making beds, dusting the furniture or dealing ‘em from the arm, as a waitress of restaurants."

So much for the plucky working girl. The writer certainly preferred the graceful and gentle gold-digger.

Dr. Grant's salary as rector of his church was $10,000 a year. He likely had made up his mind to resign his position before his engagement to the "graceful and lithe" Mrs. Lydig was officially ended. Starting in January 1925 he'd be living off a church pension.

Mrs. Lydig, on the other hand, typically spent more than $10,000 a month. And that would be her undoing.

Dr. Grant died in 1927 and left an estate estimated at $100,000. His sister, Mrs. Margaret Grant Stone of Abington, Mass., his only close relative, received a six-tenths share of the income from the estate; Mrs. Nellie Findleton received a four-tenths share. Deducted from the estate was an estimated $14,000 for cash bequests to Dr. Grant's housekeeper, secretary and two former employees. There was no mention in the will of Mrs. Rita de Acosta Lydig. So it was reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (March 1, 1927), though her Wikipedia biography claims Mrs. Lydig was the sole beneficiary. In this case, I think the Brooklyn newspaper was correct. Too bad, because by this time Mrs. Rita Lydig could have used an inhertance:

Niagara Falls Gazette, April 7, 1927
NEW YORK, April 7 (AP) – Mrs. Rita De Acosta Lydig, one time millionaire art collector and former fiancee of the late Rev. Dr. Percy Stickney Grant, today is bankrupt for $94,352, unable to pay among other things a $237 milk bill and $1,000 in servant's wages.

The millions she held previous to her divorces from W. E. D. Stokes and Major Philip Lydig. USA, have vanished. Only assets of clothing, furniture and similar personal property of unestimated value are available for bills of Paris gown shops, jewelers, a motor company and servants. The city of New York is listed as a creditor for $236 personal taxes.

Mrs. Lydig filed a voluntary petition in bankruptcy yesterday with the United States district court. French & Company, builders, with a bill of $28,643 and Elsio De Wolfe & Company, interior decorators, with an unpaid account of $12,732 were the principal creditors.

Mrs. Lydig's financial difficulties became known in 1923 after she had established a fund of "more than $5,000," from which she was to draw the income. A book collection had been sold in 1920 for $19,330. Sale of collection brought $363,655 in 1913.

Reportedly she settled her debts at 40 cents on the dollar. Never a robust woman, she lived only two more years, dying on October 18, 1929 at the Gotham Hotel. Cause, according to her Wikipedia biography, was pernicious anemia. (So far I haven't found a newspaper obituary for her.)

Rita Hernandez y de Alba De Acosta may have been the most beautiful member of her family, but at least two of her eight siblings proved more interesting.

Mercedes de Acosta (1893 –1968) was an American poet, playwright, costume designer, and socialite, best known for her lesbian affairs with Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and other actresses. She is the subject of the biography, "That Furious Lesbian" by Robert A. Schanke.

Aida de Acosta Root Breckinridge (1884 – 1962) was a socialite and the first female to fly a powered aircraft solo. She did this before the Wright brothers, but her craft was considered a dirigible, not an airplane. Later in life, after losing sight in one eye to glaucoma, she founded America's first eye bank.

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