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Lisa Cohen’s lush biography, All We Know (Farrar Straus and Giroux), is a staggering labor of love that offers a triptych of three women of a queer persuasion. Cohen sets this story in the early 20th century, giving her audience a catalogue of the largely forgotten life during that time. Her subjects–the great intellectual Esther Murphy, the celebrity connoisseur Mercedes de Acosta, and the fashion maverick Madge Garland–are far from household names. Each woman was her own example of innovation, popularity, intellectual, and feminist, with lives that weave in and out of the parties and politics of the 1920s and beyond. Cohen writes with an outstanding amount of research and knowledge–the book’s notes take up 45 pages–and her synthesis of the three womens’ lives is palpable on every page.
Of Esther Murphy and Madge Garland, a whole book could’ve been written per lifetime. For both of these subjects, Cohen works chronologically, outlining their childhoods, families, and coming of age before launching into the triumphs, failures, and affairs. While readers may not be familiar with Murphy, Garland, or de Acosta, they will certainly be familiar with the many names that graced these women’s social circles (and bedrooms). Esther Murphy, who was beloved as a fantastic conversationalist, had a long affair with the writer Sybille Bedford (Esther is the E. in Bedford’s “A Visit to Don Otavio,” a narration of the pair’s trip to Mexico). De Acosta won the love and affection, if ever so briefly in some cases, of ladies including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Eva Le Galliene. And Garland was friend and colleague to Virgina Woolf, although her love affairs were mostly with Dorothy (Dody) Todd, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and others. And the most famous lesbian of their time, Gertrude Stein, knew, hosted, spoke of, and sometimes wrote about, all three.
These ties between the three women are not as intimate as one may hope, but instead their friendship echoes throughout the others’ stories. There are, indeed, many names (friends, colleagues, peers, lovers, family) packed into each portrait, one may eventually wonder what an L-Word inspired chart of sapphic tendencies would look like. If anyone is looking for the next Downton Abbey era drama, a recreating of either of these women’s lives would provide characters and enticing plot for seasons on end. The chapter regarding Mercedes de Acosta is noticeably shorter than the other two subjects–it’s actually one-third in length–but is also the chapter where Cohen seems most comfortable relying on the narrative of de Acosta’s adventures, instead of just acts, making it the funniest section of the book. While each portrait is sometimes daunting in its thoroughness, Cohen has such a masterful command of information that the story never stops fascinating the reader.
What simmers throughout the book is the underlying importance of what it means to excavate and recreate the lives of three lesbian culture makers from this particular time in history. Cohen’s biography of Madge Garland points out the apparent cultural climate for homosexuals at that time, citing that Garland’s affairs were happening at the same time that Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness was being challenged for obscenity. (In an example of one woman’s life intersecting with the next, there’s record of Mercedes de Acosta making a joke of Garland’s alcoholic lover Dody Todd, calling her “the bucket in the well of loneliness.”) Cohen directly addresses what it meant for Garland to walk this line of discretion: “…Madge said little directly about what it meant to work in fashion and to love her own sex. Her silence is no surprise: ‘She lived very much in society,’ said Francis King, and had to be accepted in that milieu.” There’s large validation in seeing these queer women’s choices in love, careers, culture, and life be resurrected in such astounding detail on the page.
All We Know
by Lisa Cohen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374176495, 448 pp