In “All We Know,” Lisa Cohen does rescue work on the reputations of three scintillating lesbians whose accomplishments were once written off as dubious or, worse, trivial.
Esther Murphy (1897-1962) was a world-class talker. Someone who knew her well described her, unkindly, as “a huge & rather clumsy tank” -- she was six feet tall -- mounted with “a loudspeaker which blares forth brilliant ideas no one can refute and which everyone wants to listen to for just so long.”
About the brilliance there was no dispute. But she never finished the biographies of French noblewomen she had planned. “Esther’s need for an audience was so great,” Cohen concludes, “that she could not isolate herself to write, and so it was a lifelong performance rather than a document that she produced.”
Going deeper, she wonders why words that haven’t been set down on the page amount to a mark of failure anyway. “It is unlikely that a book on Madame de Maintenon,” she observes, “would have been remembered and discussed as much as its absence was.”
Mercedes de Acosta (1893-1968) was the lover (though proof isn’t absolute in all cases) of Alla Nazimova, Eva Le Gallienne, Marlene Dietrich, Isadora Duncan, Ona Munson and -- for her, above all -- Greta Garbo.
She has sometimes been dismissed as shallow and star-struck. Cohen defends her, almost angrily, from those who think she can be “thoroughly known, in an epithet or two,” using her life as a springboard for reflections on fandom, celebrity culture and “what we understand to be a biographical fact.”
Madge Garland (1896-1990) was the most successful and accomplished of the three. Born (to her lifelong chagrin) in Melbourne, she grew up a well-to-do English snob. But when she quietly insisted on going to work, her father cut her off.
The shy, sickly girl matured into a dragon in pearls, becoming the fashion editor of British Vogue in the 1920s and again in the ’30s and, later, the creator of the School of Fashion at the Royal College of Art.
“There was a woman actually walking around in couture clothes,” one of her students recalled, still aflutter. “She was what fashion was about.”
Yet the need to work for a living made her more vulnerable than the book’s other two subjects. Conde Nast fired her in 1926 largely for being gay.
And so Cohen’s discussion of Garland -- the longest and finest section in this magisterial book -- builds to her intricate “Notes on Discretion,” in which she considers the reigning paradox of Garland’s career.
The “organization of her life around self-display was bound up with a need to actively, continually conceal herself,” Cohen explains -- the necessary concomitant of a longing for achievement in the England of that era.
“All We Know” is really much more about reflecting on lives (especially in the case of de Acosta) than about chronicling them. Experimental biography, if such a genre can be said to exist, is a high-wire act. Cohen never loses her balance.
But an observation she makes in the section on Esther Murphy (its title is “A Perfect Failure”) suggests that she must have felt the danger. “To fail: to make the mess one almost always has to make before a book achieves the form in which it appears to be inevitable.”
There’s no hint of mess in this almost perfect book.
“All We Know: Three Lives” is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (429 pages, $30). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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