BFF Love Story: Mary Desti Dempsey + Isadora Duncan
Mary Dempsey was a hustler. She lied, cheated, took advantage, abandoned, inflated, blew off and blew smoke. But she was charming, and people loved her for it. She was also a mother, wife (a few times over) and best friend, in addition to being a cosmetics entrepreneur, playwright and author.
More than anything, though, it was the time spent fostering her relationship with BFF Isadora Duncan that shaped her adult existence.
. . .
Mary met Isadora at the end of one traumatic journey, and their friendship marked the beginning of the rest of her life. At 29, with 2-year-old son Preston in tow, Mary ditched her husband, the boy’s lousy, good-for-nothing father, and rather than looking for a job in Chicago, she hopped a boat to France. Because why not?
When she reached a wet, dreary Paris, Mary encountered a Mrs. Duncan, who rushed her off to meet her daughter, Isadora. This, despite Preston showing the early signs of pneumonia. So began a lifetime of picking Isadora over her son -- whom, the fanciful Mary claimed, was saved from death’s clutches by spoonfuls of Mrs. Duncan’s champagne. (Pro-tip for getting over pneumonia: Don’t rely on booze.)
Immediately, Mary and Isadora were inseparable. Never one for understatement, Mary’s take on meeting Isadora was extravagant: “Had I been ushered into Paradise and given over to my guardian angel, I could not have been more uplifted.” In fact, for the women, it was better than meeting an angel: They’d each met a best friend. Mary shipped young Preston off with Mrs. Duncan to live in a neighboring village, while she went gallivanting around town with the avant-garde dancer.
In Isadora, Mary found a kind of soulmate, one who was equally willing to eschew traditional femininity in order to live in the moment and create new art. But their bond was also relatable: The two women enjoyed shopping sprees and gossip; they admired each other’s wit and style; and they were each other’s longest relationship outside of the reckless romances they each pursued. Isadora welcomed Mary into her circle immediately, and through her, Mary met a captivating array of actors, painters, designers, and dancers whose innovative work and Bohemian lifestyles only added to Paris’s allure.
No matter how broad and colorful the circle became, the women were each other’s biggest fans. Together, they’d trek off to the inn near Mrs. Duncan’s home for the weekend and indulge in huge breakfasts complete with all sorts of carbs, from loaves of bread to bowls of chocolate. And when Mary received a fat allowance on the first of each month (likely from her hardworking mother, but no one knows for sure), the pair would head to a fancy hotel, living off room service cuisine until the money ran out.
Saving money was for unimaginative peasants, and Mary was anything but unimaginative.
. . .
Born in Quebec in 1871 to the Irish Catholic Dempseys, Mary early on decided her heritage and her name were too dull for her taste. Surely “Dempsey” was really a lost-in-translation version of the noble Italian family name of “d’Este,” which is the surname she was using when she first encountered the Duncans. But after just a year palling around with Isadora, Mary’s allowance ran out, and she and Preston had to make the trip home to Chicago in 1901. She made the most of it.
After a brief courtship, she married solid stockbroker Solomon Sturges, seven years her senior, and he adopted and loved Preston as his own son (if the name Preston Sturges sounds familiar, it’s because wee Preston would grow up to become a Hollywood screenwriter and director). While Mary complained about stuffy Chicago society -- where were the freewheeling artists? -- she loved the elite status and shopping sprees her husband’s position afforded her. But she missed Isadora.
In 1904, Mary hopped back over to Europe, this time to Berlin where the now-famous Isadora was performing -- and smarting after a breakup. She’d just been commissioned to dance at a summer festival, and she wanted Mary to accompany her under one condition: Mary must ditch the bougie Chicago duds and adopt Isadora’s Grecian goddess attire of tunics and sandals. Mary, who really only ever did the things she wanted to do, happily obliged.
Eventually, solid Solomon met the ladies in Venice, and once Isadora headed back on the train, Solomon urged his wife to ditch the flowing tunics and Italy and head back to Paris. Mary, obstinate as ever, told her husband not only that she’d rather stay, but that she planned to wear nothing but tunics and sandals from here on out. Her mind was set right up until Solomon told her she could buy whatever fashions she wanted back in the City of Light. The tunics were shoved in a closet, and the pair returned to Paris before heading back to Chicago. It would be another few crazy years before the besties would reunite.
In the meantime, fed up with each other’s desired lifestyles -- hers for endless travel, his for steadier Chicago society life -- Mary and Solomon split in 1907, and the next year, she again dragged Preston across the ocean to Paris. Over the next few years, Mary changed her life as often as she changed the sheets: New apartments, new schools for Preston, new travels, new lovers and two new husbands.
. . .
In 1910, Mary showed up to Preston’s soccer game with one of them, a bummer of a Turkish businessman named Vely Bey. He and Preston disliked each other right off the bat; the dude had a temper, and he brought nothing Mary could use (i.e., cash money) to the marriage. His father, Elias Pasha, more than made up for that. When Mary complained of a rash on her face, Elias whipped up some sort of miracle lotion that cured it. The elixir would also erase wrinkles, he promised.
Ever the hustler, as soon as she learned the ingredients, Mary immediately set to work building a cosmetics empire to make up for her less-than-advantageous marriage. Once Mary expanded the insta-popular line to face powders and rouge, BFF Isadora sent over her designer pal to help decorate the shop. (That designer? Cutting-edge couturier Paul Poiret, whose tunics and harem pants freed women from their corsets. NBD.) Mary named her cosmetics company Maison d’Este, which was fine, until the actual d’Este family threatened to sue in 1912. Mary shrugged off the hiccup and replaced both her name and the company’s d’Este with Desti.
Maison Desti suffered when war broke out in Europe; its namesake hurried back to the States to set up shop, and Isadora soon followed with some of her best dance students. But as Mary and Preston got busy rebuilding the company on one side of the Atlantic, Isadora was already itching to go back to the other.
Back on board a ship bound for Europe, Isadora said her goodbyes to scores of well-wishers, but one in particular didn’t disembark when the whistles blew. Mary, carrying only the clothes on her back, decided a trip back to Europe with her best friend sounded much more fun than trying to resurrect her business in New York. Caught in a giggle fit and dreaming of new adventures, the women asked a friend for money and were off.
. . .
Nearly a decade later, after independent adventures and each with another husband under her belt, Mary and Isadora united in Europe, falling into long familiar patterns of leaning on each other. Mary had been busy selling her cosmetics and her latest venture, batik scarves, in New York. In the ensuing time together, Mary let her always-short-on-cash friend spend the money she’d received from Solomon and Preston, and she presented Isadora with a fabulous red batik scarf, perfect for the consummate artist.
When Isadora’s wealthy ex showed up to give her a bit of cash and take her for a spin in his fabulous new racecar, she didn’t hesitate: She hopped in, threw the scarf around her neck and, with Mary seeing her off, was ready to speed down the open road. As the car started to move, however, the dramatically long scarf caught in the wheel. Isadora’s neck was fatally snapped like a plot twist straight out of a Preston Sturges blockbuster.
When Mary died of leukemia three and a half years later at just 60 years old, her son wasn’t quite sure what brought on the disease. But, he thought, it might’ve been the shock of losing her soulmate that killed her.
Sources + further reading
- Anderson, Hope. "Mary Desti Dempsey: Preston Sturges's Mother of Invention." Under the Hollywood Sign. Oct. 6, 2009.
- Jacobs, Diane. Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
- Lane, Anthony. "Ants in His Pants." The New Yorker. Sept. 14, 1998.
- Sutin, Lawrence. Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2014.