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Sometimes a writer does not choose their subject–their subject chooses them. Such could be said about Lisa Cohen’s stunning biography All We Know (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a triptych portrait of three women, all part of a lively sapphic social circle in the early 20th century.
While researching Virginia Woolf’s involvement in fashion, Cohen stumbled upon the fascinating lesbian couple Madge Garland and Dody Todd, two women who remade British Vogue and helped to redefine fashion as art. The eccentric and otherwise largely undocumented couple sparked an obsession for Cohen, and she set to work to discover more about Garland’s intriguing and elusive life.
Cohen’s extensive research lead her to uncover many other exciting characters. Garland was friends with the amorous Mercedes de Acosta, a writer, collector, and staple of Hollywood society in the 20s and 30s. Mercedes de Acosta was unabashed about her sexuality and counted Eva Le Galliene, Isadora Duncan, and other famous female celebrities of the era as her lovers.
The late writer Sybille Bedford introduced Cohen to her memories of Esther Murphy, an intimate of Bedford’s and an intellectual powerhouse in her own right. While brilliant and undeniably talented, Murphy failed to complete any of the books she was contracted to write during her lifetime. With lives and choices that echo from one woman to another, these three largely forgotten women became the pillars of Cohen’s astonishing biography.
Cohen took time to talk to with Lambda about the path of her research, the negotiation between fact and fantasy, and the great Sybille Bedford, who provided both invaluable stories and friendship.
I thought we could start by talking about how you first learned about each of these three women.
Sure. I was writing an essay about Virginia Woolf and fashion, which was eventually published in the journal called Fashion Theory. I had read [some parts] of Woolf’s diaries, and I had read a lot of her other writing, so I had a feeling I was on to something about her relationship with clothes. But I had never read her diaries from beginning to end.
When I got to the mid 1920s [in Woolf’s diaries] I came across these women, Madge Garland and Dody Todd, who were part of Woolf’s world at that point. They had recruited Woolf to write for British Vogue. They were reconceiving the magazine to be a kind of venue for modernism, for art, visual creation of all kinds, and literature. They were bringing all kinds of people, like Gertrude Stein, like Jean Cocteau, like Man Ray–all of this in the space of a magazine.
They were looking at Woolf and she was looking at them, and I thought, well, wow, I had never heard of these women before, no one had ever written about them. And I just wanted to know more.
I went to London. I just thought, this is a fascinating couple, this is a fascinating moment in the history of modernism. Madge Garland just became a sort of obsession of mine. I tried to learn more, and was a little bit stymied. [laughs] I had the kind of naive idea that I could go and look in the Dictionary of National Biography.
Eventually I got in touch with Madge’s literary executive, the biographer Hilary Spurling, who basically took a chance on me, and gave me access to Madge’s papers. I began interviewing people, and it became very clear that Madge was really, really adept at obscuring the facts of her life. That challenge grabbed me.
I knew a lot of the things Madge said didn’t add up, and I tried to fact check it and so on, and it became a kind of obsession for me, wanting to figure out what had actually really happened in her life. I proposed the idea of a book, and my agent was interested, I was starting to interview people who knew her. There were plenty of people who said, “Y’know, I don’t see how you can actually do this. She might’ve been interesting, but how are you going to find the material? She didn’t keep diaries, she didn’t write letters. What is that actually all about?”
Occasionally I got discouraged, but I got more interested in the challenge of how to write about somebody like that. Along the way I published this little bit about Madge and Dody Todd in Out Magazine, and they were interested in a longer profile about Madge, and at the time, I wasn’t ready. I didn’t want something about Madge to come out to the world until I had really done all of the research that I wanted to do. I said, “Well, that’s not good, but could I propose somebody else to you?”
At that time I had been spending time at the Rosenbach in Philadelphia, looking at Mercedes de Acosta’s archives. Madge Garland was a friend of hers, so I thought, I have to look at these archives. I pitched an article about Mercedes to Out and they ran that, it was in the late 90s, I think? At the same time I was also getting to know the amazing and wonderful writer Sybille Bedford in London.
I believe in fact it was Hilary Spurling who suggested to me that I speak to Sybille because she had known Madge. I said, “Oh, wonderful!” Privately, I thought to myself, well, I want to know everything she knows about Madge, but I can’t believe it’s an excuse for me to go and talk to Sybille Bedford, because I was, and still am, a huge admirer of her work.
I called her on the phone, and she told me I could come over the next day. So I did, and we hit it off, and she told me a lot about Madge. I was incredibly moved to be meeting her and to have become her friend, which is what happened, and the result of spending time with her, I started hearing stories about Esther Murphy, because Sybille and Esther Murphy were very, very close. As you probably know, Esther was the main other figure in Sybille’s first book A Visit to Don Otavio.
I’m actually reading it right now, and it’s been great to read with the context of Esther Murphy from All We Know.
That’s great. Well, if this interview gets folks to read Sybille Bedford’s books I will be very, very happy. She deserves to be read, she really deserves to be read more here [in the US.] She’s a writer who meant a lot to me, really for the last several decades. It was an extraordinary thing in my life to become her friend.
I would visit her as often as I could. Her stories are extraordinary. I think Sybille was partly talking to me about Esther because I was coming to see her from New York, where Sybille had lived in the 40s and I was reminding her of New York, and she and Esther had met in NY, and that’s where they both were before they went to Mexico.
In any case, I had these three women in my head, and there were others, too. Allanah Harper, who I think was a lover of Sybille’s–I know she was a friend of many, many decades. She was another one of these fascinating women who really made the texture of life in a sort of sapphic circle in life in London in the 20s.
I realized I had enough material to write a book about Madge Garland. She had a life that was really kind of diminished by a lot of people who looked at her, but it was a really, really rich life. And it became clearer and clearer to me, that if I wanted to do justice to her life, ironically, sort of paradoxically, I would have to write not just about her.
In order to write about covering oneself, and revealing oneself, about different kinds of accomplishments and failures, about sexuality, about forms of production, and cultural making–they don’t fit into the categories we usually think of. In order to really get at those questions, a different kind of biographical approach was really needed.
Also in order to get across the kind of networks and support these women were in, and were sustained by…they all married, with different degrees of intimacy, but their relationships with women were the things that seriously sustained them. I felt that I could actually convey the texture of those networks better by writing a triptych than a single biography.
Were there examples of biographies that you looked towards as you wrote this? It’s such an interesting and new way of doing biography.
It’s not new. I could reel off a bunch of names…Hilton Als, his book The Women–very meaningful to me. We can go backwards and talk about Stein’s Three Lives. We can come into the 1990s– Julia Blackburn’s really interesting books about Daisy Bates, called Daisy Bates in the Desert: A Woman’s Life Among the Aborigines, or her book about Napoleon and Elba called The Emperor’s Last Island. There’s a dual biography of Gertrude Stein and Leo Stein by Brenda Wineapple called Sister Brother. I really appreciate what you’re saying, I’d like to say that I invented something, but I haven’t.
I think that it’s a form that can be really clear, but that also can have a lot of joy. Just think about Orlando, a novel that’s subtitled a biography.
It was interesting reading All We Know because each of these women’s lives could be so ripe for what could be fiction. How did you come to balance writing with your imagination and writing with the stunning amount of research you had. Was there a play between these two things?
There was a moment when I thought I might be writing about five people [laughs], because there were these other interesting lives, but thank God I realized that a triptych was a smarter decision.
In order for me to write about them with some sort of authority, I had to really know that what I was saying was true. That’s one of the reasons why I tried to check and check and check that what I was saying about Madge Garland was correct. I got her birth certificate from Melbourne which made it clear that she was not how old she said she was, which meant that the timeline she was describing of her life was not the correct timeline.
I had to do this research in order to then write in a way that I felt free to write. For me, writing is also really rewriting. It’s a long process of compression, I suppose.
The other part of your question is interesting, the pull of fiction. There’s nothing here that’s fictional. I had to imagine myself into their lives, as rigorously factually as I could. It’s an interesting tension that you’ve identified. The one place you may be thinking about is the opening part of Mercedes’ chapter. It’s maybe more from her point of view. In that part I was trying to really get inside her head, rather than just try to communicate what it felt like to be her. To see if there was a way for a reader to experience the fantasy that she was living through at that point.
In Mercedes’ case, there was a lot of fantasizing that she did, so the tension between fact and fiction that you’re identifying there is really interesting. I think it was a big part of their lives; probably of all of our lives. We all lie, we all have fantasizes we wish were true, and things we believe are truth.
I’m curious if this was circumstance or editorial, but the section about Mercedes is so much shorter about what is written about Esther and what is written about Madge. Was that a conscious choice, or just a result of what there was to write about?
The irony of it is that the archive of Mercedes is huge. There were, early on, problems of material for Madge, which turned out not to be the case, but the problem with Mercedes is one of super abundance. She’s a super collector, which is part of what I’m writing about. It’s not a reflection of what there was, it’s more a reflection on what I wanted the rhythm of the book to be.
Other people had written about Mercedes. I had written about her before. Her story didn’t need to be excavated in the same way that Esther Murphy and Madge Garland’s did, from my point of view.
I had wanted to write about her in a different way, to try and write about this figure who some people see of as kind of lesbian role model, some people see as a kind of horror show, a freak show [laughs]. I wanted to do something that talked about the kind of impulses of biographers and other writers, particularly in the lives of queer and other minority figures, to kind of recuperate a person and turn them into a role model. That’s not interesting to me, what’s interesting to me is that impulse, that desire for such a role model, and the way Mercedes just really resists that role.
I also saw her acute experience of fandom and collecting, the way that her story brought into relief certain questions about archives, and collecting, and the way that her story sort of brought into relief certain questions about fact and fantasy, seem to me to be almost a kind of meta commentary on some of the other issues that were coming up in the lives of the other two. She seemed to condense all kinds of issues, and I thought of her as kind of a hinge to the two parts of the book.
It’s fascinating because the book would be much different without her.
I’m glad you think so. There were moments where questions were raised because that part of the book was so different, my approach to her was so different. It was always clear to me that she was an important part of the book, partly because she’s an irritant [laughs] of sorts. I had to make sure that what I wrote was compelling enough to justify her staying there.
If you had to imagine what each of these women would think of this biography, and would think of being written about now, what do you imagine their reactions might be?
I’m not sure I know how to answer that question [laughs]. I think the facts are a really complicated thing, a complicated category, but I also believe in them.
I can tell you what Sybille Bedford said. Unfortunately, she’s not alive anymore to read what I wrote about Esther, but as I said, she was haunted by Esther to the very end of her life, and by the thought of what she thought to be Esther’s failure.
When I asked Sybille’s permission to write about Esther because she was a very, very important source, she was conflicted about it. And she said yes, but, well, she was still sad. She was still sad that Esther had suffered and had not fulfilled her promise, and I suppose you could say she was still mourning Esther.
She called me one night after expressing a lot of reservations about writing about Esther, and she said…the phrase, which might not translate into American English that well, but she said, I think that it will please the shades. Which means, it would please Esther, it would perhaps please her ghost. That’s what comes to mind.