Laura Reviews All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen

Much as I despise cold weather, there’s something really wonderful about the rituals of early autumn. You pack up your shorts and sundresses. You begin wearing scarves and boots. You convince yourself that flannel is fashionable outside the lesbian bar. You slurp Oktoberfest ales every evening, and pumpkin spiced lattes every morning. You reach for increasingly heavier blankets at night. You stack books high beside your bed, snuggle in, and read, and read, and read. This fall, make sure All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen ends up in your stack.

All We Know is a triple biography exploring ideas of ephemerality and what it meant to be a woman in the anxious modernist moment of the 1920s and ‘30s. It tells the stories of three lesbians:

  • Ester Murphy – A verbose intellectual who played an integral part in the literary scene of New York.
  • Mercedes de Acosta – A muse, collector, seductress, and devoted fan who connected with some of the most celebrated actress and dancers of the twentieth century.
  • Madge Garland – A powerful woman who was a key figure in building the fashion world in London and Paris as we know it today.

Despite their impressive influence and notoriety at the time, Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland are now largely forgotten. A brilliant biographer, Cohen deftly captures them in all their complexity, and writes a compelling analysis of how the era these women came of age in impacted the course of their lives.

Writes Cohen, “It was at this fraught moment that an American woman could first be said to have failed at something other than femininity and motherhood.” An important time for all women, this era holds special significance for lesbians and bisexuals. Particularly with the publishing of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (discussed on the Lesbrary here, here, and here), lesbians were a newly visible group in society. Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland all struggled with questions of exposure and discretion at various points in their lives — and this on top of being part of the first generation of independent women who had left home without marrying, setting out in a still largely misogynistic world to pursue other interests. Simply living through these times was an accomplishment, never mind all the actual successes they had.

So why have these women been forgotten, and why did the author choose to bring them to light now? In part, the answer lies in how society views the fields that these women excelled in. Over and over, Cohen questions the boundary between the inconsequential and the important. Why are fashion and interior decoration characterized as trivial, while painting is elevated as fine art? Why is talking seen as commensurate with failure, while writing and publication is seen as a mark of success? Why, when fans and stars both need and desire each other, is one dismissed while the other is lauded with accolades? From a certain perspective, the accomplishments of Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland can be seen as case studies in “beautiful uselessness.” Lisa Cohen asks readers to consider: why?

Early in the book, Cohen describes Murphy’s belief that history links the elusive past to the equally elusive present, and that some biographies can be written and read only at certain times, “not because of censorship or some progress toward openness, but because of what is was possible to understand when.” This fall — against the gorgeous backdrop of the changing leaves and continued (completely awful and depressing) political debate over women’s bodies and behavior — is the perfect setting to take in the lives of these women, and to try and understand.

All We Know is available in hardcover and for the Kindle. An excerpt is available on the publisher’s website. Lisa Cohen is giving a reading on the 16th at KGB bar in New York.

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