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All We Know: Three Lives Hardcover – July 17, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


“Splendid . . . [A] sophisticated, droll and astute triple biography. [Cohen] had me underlining ideas and facts on the majority of its quick-moving pages . . . The photographs are strikingly integrated with the text, the times and topics are riveting, and Cohen is exceedingly well-matched to her subjects—sly, comfortable with contradiction, confident that these flawed figures were important, not mere accents to the company they kept . . . Part of the joy of All We Know is the sharpness of the subjects; they write wittily of themselves, each other and innumerable compatriots in the cultural centers of Europe and the United States, often in dazzling style.”—Karen R. Long, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“Enchanting . . . Eloquent . . . Marvelous . . . Grand and thrilling . . . [A] strikingly elegant and assured biographical study of three now almost forgotten lesbian women . . . [All We Know]’s strength lies in the extraordinary, exfoliating, anatomy-like mass of detail [Cohen] has uncovered about her subjects: her tender, erudite, weirdly jubilant, often microscopic work of historical and biographical recovery . . . You are stunned by its depths; and you hope its excellence and pertinence and originality will not lead, doomfully, to its sinking without a trace, as fine things connected with the subject of lesbianism have had a way of doing for so long. It’s a major work of scholarship and interpretation.” —Terry Castle, London Review of Books

“[A] tour de force examination of the intersecting roles of gender, sexuality, class, literature, art, fashion, and modernism . . . Throughout this brilliant and gorgeously written book runs an undercurrent of deep sympathy and an acute eye for revealing details.”—Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe

“Provocative and beautifully paced . . . [A] superbly satisfying book . . . By bringing these three footnotes into the spotlight, Ms. Cohen allows us to look deeper into our definitions of failure, identity and modernity, while also reappraising the stature of artfulness as opposed to art.”—Laura Jacobs, The Wall Street Journal

“[A] magisterial book . . . 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 . . . There’s no hint of mess in this almost perfect book.”—Craig Seligman, Bloomberg News

“[A] seductive, brilliant new book . . . Meticulously researched and compulsively readable . . . [Cohen’s] treatment of these larger-than-life and, often, destructive figures is coolly appreciative; though unflinching in her analysis of their failings, she is never judgmental . . . Cohen’s account of the paradoxes of history and temporality is as notable for its light touch as it is for its subtlety and depth. A monument to great achievement as well as to incompleteness, All We Know does justice to both the distortions and the truths of these three lives . . . To say that All We Know is a biography does not really capture its complexity, surprise, or sheer interest . . . In her attention to the multiple connections between her major figures and to the shaping influence of informal social worlds, Cohen has written something larger and more ambitious [than a biography]: All We Know is the story of a milieu as much as it is an account of individual lives, and a remarkably subtle and thoughtful treatment of sexual desire, identity, and the cruelty of history.”—Heather Love, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Fascinating . . . Vivid . . . A gossipy yet deeply intellectual account of the first generation of women who considered themselves ‘modern’ . . . All We Know is a revolutionary take on the genre of biography, aiming not so much at each of its three subjects but at their generation and how it struggled to invent female personhood for the 20th century.”—Bethany Schneider, Newsday

“Fascinating . . . a boldface name—stuffed triptych of undeservedly little-known modernists: the intellectual and would-be biographer Esther Murphy, the arts enthusiast Mercedes de Acosta, and the feminist and British Vogue fashion editor Madge Garland, whose observations—‘fashion is both personal and ephemeral, it cannot be preserved’—hint at a fleeting beauty that defined all three.”—Megan O’Grady, Vogue

“Reading All We Know is like taking to a well-sprung dance floor in the arms of someone who can’t put a foot wrong.”—Hilary Spurling, author of Matisse the Master

All We Know is a remarkable book about three extraordinary women. These serious and eccentric women have been rescued from oblivion by Lisa Cohen’s absorbing book. She turns conventional biography upside down and inside out. This is a deeply researched, skillful, and entertaining trilogy of overlapping stories.”—Michael Holroyd, author of A Book of Secrets

“[A] remarkable, sui generis study . . . [Cohen is] a brilliant biographer, one who marries scholarship to literature in a totally unprecedented way.”—Hilton Als, The New Yorker

“In her deeply researched, incisive, and scintillating first book, Cohen presents a triptych of brief lives portraying now forgotten but nonetheless singular women whose intelligence, passion, creativity, daring, and charisma were shaping forces in modern culture . . . Cohen’s astute, graceful, and far-reaching profiles not only acquaint us with three extraordinary, innovative, and influential women who rejected gender expectations but also illuminate the essential visions and voices twentieth-century lesbians and gays brought to evolving modernity.”—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“Woven through the history of modernism are glittering strands of lives that seem certain to fade from the historical record, but without whom the fabric of that great cultural upheaval would lose color and design. In an unfathomable feat of research and storytelling, Lisa Cohen recovers three of those lives and suggests that the ephemeral nature of their legacies is central to their importance in their own time—and in ours.”—Honor Moore, author of The Bishop’s Daughter

“An astonishingly original, scholarly, sensitive, and above all beautifully written work.”—Selina Hastings, author of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham

“Staggering . . . Astounding . . . Lush . . . Cohen writes with an outstanding amount of research and knowledge . . . Cohen has such a masterful command of information that the story never stops fascinating the reader.”—Courtney Gillette, Lambda Literary

“Lisa Cohen has written a stunning, sophisticated account of three unconventional lives. Following in the noble tradition of Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, David Plante’s Difficult Women, and Hilton Als’s The Women, Cohen’s triumvirate narrative illuminates mysteries of taste, innuendo, fashion, fandom, conversation, and sexuality. Heroically researched and deliciously readable, All We Know is a tender homage to archives, to ephemera, to fruitless quests, and to a spent life’s haunting nuances.”—Wayne Koestenbaum, author of Jackie Under My Skin

“Ambitious . . . Erudite . . . [A] meticulously researched biography.”—Kirkus Reviews

“This well-researched, gossipy, informative, and entertaining biographical triptych is also a thoughtful, three-part inquiry into the meaning of failure, style, and sexual identity . . . Cohen secures a definitive place for [Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland] in the socio-cultural history of the period.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Lisa Cohen’s All We Know is a remarkable achievement. Cohen’s sensitivity to the nuances of personality is matched by a keen analytic intelligence. She has a strong narrative gift, a superb way with words, and an appreciation for oddity that expands the horizon. All We Know is an utterly fascinating, brilliantly executed book—a splendid act of historical reclamation.”—Martin Duberman, author of Stonewall

“In All We Know, Lisa Cohen sets out to resurrect three almost-forgotten women who, especially in the 1920s and ’30s, were boldface names in the literary, art, and fashion whirl of London, Paris, and New York. And she succeeds beautifully.”—Annalyn Swan, author of de Kooning

“Lisa Cohen is a biographer’s biographer. In her riveting and highly original All We Know, she tells a vivid tale of the interlocking lives of three women of the past century—a brilliant talker, an intimate of both Garbo and Dietrich, a fashion editor—and of the soigné bisexual world they inhabited.”—Brad Gooch, author of Flannery

“With an accessible prose style free of academic jargon, Cohen brings deserved attention to these women who lived often in conflict with themselves and their age. Strongly recommended.”—Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal

About the Author

Lisa Cohen’s writing has appeared in Fashion Theory, Bookforum, GLQ, Ploughshares, and other journals and anthologies. She teaches at Wesleyan University.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (July 17, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374176493
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374176495
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #551,646 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Jill Meyer TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 21, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Wesleyan University professor Lisa Cohen has written a group biography about three women - now mostly forgotten - who were born late in the 19th-century but influenced the arts in the first half of the 20th century. Two were Americans and the other was born in Australia but lived in England from the age of two. All were lesbians; while not partners, they moved in the same "circles" in New York, London, and Paris.

I finished the book - which is very well-written - asking myself why these three women were chosen as subjects for a book. Esther Murphy, the daughter of Mark Cross owner Patrick Murphy, was in some respects pitiable. Raised in luxury, she was a "searcher" for knowledge, life experience and social acceptance. (She was the younger sister of artist Gerald Murphy and the sister-in-law of Sara Murphy. There have been a couple of excellent biographies of the Murphys which talk about their leaving provincial America after WW1 to find a life of art in Paris and the Riviera in the 20's and 30's. In my opinion, they were far more interesting subjects than sister Esther.) Esther, who was denied the advanced education she badly wanted - as were the other two subjects - was a sort of dilettante. She researched and began a couple of books on French aristocrats that remained unfinished at her death. She had affairs with other women but for social reasons, married a man briefly. Did Esther Murphy accomplish anything in her life? Or was she on the periphery of the artistic circles she longed to belong to; a wanna-be writer who was known more for her "talk" than her "action"?

The second subject - Mercedes de Acosta - was also from a wealthy, stylish family in New York. Also gay, she was known for the affairs she had - or wanted to have - with actresses and other creative women.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By David Valentino on November 14, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Fame, somewhat broadly defined as being known for your accomplishments outside your circle, bypassed Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland. It's easy to understand why, after reading Cohen's brief biographies. Of the three, Garland, who worked in and helped define modern concepts of fashion, seems to deserve more recognition than she has received.

These women lived during the early part of the 20th Century. Though in different fields, their paths crossed as they moved in a still sub rosa substrate world of homosexuality, each a lesbian, each with a husband or two to their credit, usually as subterfuge. They also shared the desire for an education denied them, though each was an autodidact.

Esther Murphy, a Mark Cross heir and sister of Gerald Murphy, was an intellectual who had the tendency of framing her observations and arguments in historical terms. She could expound endlessly at parties and get-togethers, pour forth buckets of thoughtful ink, but could not discipline her intellect to produce the tomes that might have won her wider or lasting notice. This from Cohen's book pretty much sums her up in a sentence: Esther Murphy "talked more than anyone, drank more than anyone, was bigger, more brilliant, kinder-- and yet her life seemed to her friends to hang in midair, unfulfilled."

Mercedes de Acosta receives the least attention from Cohen. She, however, is the only one of the three you'll find in the chronicle of the times, Wikipedia. While a writer, though middling, she's best known for her collection of memorabilia, for she hobnobbed, worshipped, and loved some of the most famous of her day, among them Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and others.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Maureen on January 29, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A wonderful account of three Lesbians which places them in the context of their time and also makes us aware of the complex ways in which sexual being may be simultaneously concealed and revealed--and can be a source of achievement and of pain.

Above all, a book that does not permit us to be smug about our own attitudes towards Lesbians in this new century.
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Each of these three women have receded in popular memory, and it is exactly this loss of fame which has attracted Lisa Cohen. Esther Murphy lived and conversed with many of the transcendent minds of her time in the first half of the 20th century. She started many a monologue with "all we know" and proceeded to share the extensive research and thought on a particular subject. Her passion was Madame de Maintenant whose biography she never finished. Mercedes de Acosta was the perhaps the prototype fan. She was obsessed with Garbo with whom she had a short affair. But her gift was in the appreciation and promotion of talent as she found it. Finally Madge Garland, a pivotal founder of British Vogue. She was linked with the Bloomsbury group and enmeshed the magazine with their creation as people of fashion and their contributions to the magazine. Huxley once asked her, "Are you dressed like that because you're on Vogue, or are you on Vogue, or are you on Vogue because you're dressed like that?"

This book is one Publisher's Weekly's top 10 books of 2012. In "All We Know", we see a history of modernism as seen by three women who lived at a time that the contributions of women were often considered to be correctly in the unsung category. All three were gay and had their lives judged in that light often to their detriment. All three were touched by alcohol in an era of the great social experiment. Temperance failed to the point that alcohol became key in the lives of public figures. Lisa Cohen has strived to make their lives visible again. This book then, in part, is a philosophical exercise in the examination of the person who left accomplishment rather than fame.

The writing is rich and draws a detailed view of a world of women in the twenties.
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