Acosta was born in the Elberon section of Long Branch, New Jersey in 1884 to Ricardo de Acosta, a steamship executive of Cuban descent, and Micaela Hernández de Alba y de Alba, reputedly a descendant of the Alba family, famous in the history of Spain as the Dukes of Alba. Among her seven siblings were the writers and socialites Mercedes de Acosta and Rita de Acosta Lydig.
On June 27, 1903 in Paris, when Acosta was nineteen, Brazilian pioneer aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont showed her how to operate his personal dirigible, “No. 9”.
Santos-Dumont was the toast of Paris at the time, flying his dirigible downtown to his favorite restaurant and parking it on the street while he had dinner. Acosta flew Santos-Dumont’s aircraft solo from Paris to Château de Bagatelle while Santos-Dumont rode his bicycle along below, waving his arms and shouting advice.
Acosta later recalled that upon her first landing, Santos-Dumont asked her how she had fared. “It is very nice, M. Santos-Dumont,” she replied. “Mademoiselle,” he cried, “vous êtes la première aero-chauffeuse du monde!” (“Miss, you are the first woman aero-driver in the world!”). She was in fact the first woman to pilot any kind of motorized aircraft, nearly six months before the Wright brothers first flew in a heavier-than-air powered aircraft.
The first flight ended in the polo field at Bagatelle at the northern end of the Bois de Boulogne, during a match between the American team and the British team. Spectators assisted her from the basket. After watching some polo with Santos-Dumont, Acosta climbed back into the basket and flew the machine back to Neuilly St. James, the entire trip lasting one and a half hours.
Hearing about the flight, her parents were appalled. They were certain that no man would marry a woman who had done such a thing, so they managed to hush it all up until many years later when in the 1930s she recounted the story to her husband and a young naval officer named Lieutenant George Calnan over dinner.
Acosta is the only person that Santos-Dumont ever permitted to fly any of his many aircraft.
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