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Sir Harold Mario Mitchell Acton
(July 5, 1904 - February 27, 1994) U.K.

Harold Acton

Historian, art critic and connoisseur


Acton, a raconteur and aesthete, was born at the Villa La Pietra in Florence, Italy, the son of American heiress Hortense Mitchell, and Englishman Arthur Mario Acton. A younger brother, William, a gay artist of modest achievement, died an apparent suicide in 1944.

Harold ActonRaised in a household of connoisseurs, young Acton met Diagilev, Cocteau and others. He entered Eton (1918-22) where with his classmate Brian Howard he promoted modern dandysm and founded the Eton Society of the Arts.

Unabashedly gay, Acton entered Christ Church, Oxford, in 1922, succeeding as planned in dictating fashion and taste, and to "rule" as he and Howard had at Eton. While at Oxford, he had an affair with Evelyn Waugh. At Oxford he founded the literary magazine the Oxford Broom; immortalised by author Evelyn Waugh as the flamboyant and decadent dandy 'Anthony Blanche' in Brideshead Revisited (1944).

In 1932 Aton traveled to Peking to lecture, write and translate Chinese poetry. In Peking he lived like a mandarin, finding Buddhist serenity as wel as opium and fulfilment with numerous Chinese youths. It is during this period, however, that he met Desmond Parson, a young Englishman who was one true love of his life.

During WWII Acton was forced to return to Britain, where he served in the Royal Air Force. At his death he bequeated his Villa La Pietra with the library, art collection, 57 acre estate, and and $500 millions to the New York University.


His books include:

  • Aquarium (1922)
  • An Indian Ass (1925)
  • The Last Medici (1932)
  • The Bourbons of Naples (1942)
  • Peonies and Ponies (1942)
  • Memoirs of an Aesthete (1948-71)
Source: Aldrich R. & Wotherspoon G., Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History, Routledge, London, 2001
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