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The Wrong Women
on February 6, 2013
If this were a treatise on why certain women resonate through the ages while others with similar opportunity, talent and connections do not, I would have ultimately been intrigued. Unfortunately this isn't how the book bills itself.
Author Lisa Cohen writes a triptych biography of three Jazz Age "modern" women, and makes a case that each one deserves our attention. Yet in spite of a worthy attempt filled with interesting research and stunning photographs, most of the book fell flat for me. The connection between the women and why she chose them over others seemed tenuous, based mainly on their post-Victorian lesbianism rather than because they were interesting or worthy characters. She has written about the wrong women.
The first, Esther Murhpy, heiress to the Mark Cross fortune, is supposedly "erudite" and "dazzling." Yet page after page proves otherwise. Her friends hate her boring tirades. She collects obscure historical facts others can't refute. We are promised an unfulfilled talent of epic, Fitgeraldian proportion, but Murphy's writing (thankfully parceled out in snippets) is full of tiresome counter-narratives. Had the author used the space taken up entirely by Esther as a comparison between Esther and her more fascinating sister-in-law, Sara Murphy--grandniece to General Sherman and central figure in Tender is the Night, a Roaring 20's figure, who expatriates to France as a way to escape social stricture--I would have been riveted.
Mercedes de Acosta, we are promised, is of import because she was the "quintessential fan" and embodiment of the ultimate "American" collector, who had affairs with beautiful twentieth century actresses and paid homage to them by hoarding useless ephemera. Yet once again the character who jumps off the page is instead Mercedes older sister Rita--the true collector, patroness and celebrated beauty painted by John Singer Sargent, thus securing her position in history for reasons Mercedes could not. Yet she is documented as a mere footnote to Mercedes life instead of being a central figure who would serve as an interesting juxtaposition to Mercedes failed attempts to be noticed.
Even Madge Garland, the most fascinating of the three due to her early childhood ailments and the financial independence she painstakingly eked out against all odds is outshone by her more formidable lover and patroness, Dorothy Todd, the forgotten editor of British Vogue who devoted herself to empowering artists of the day. Madge Garland becomes the author's best hope to make her case as a true pioneer and heroine in her own right, but is ultimately overshadowed by the women around her whose stories evoke more empathy or interest.
I'd buy the book because several historical female figures are illuminated in new ways: Natalie Barney, Garbo, Virginia Woolf, among them, and it's commentary on fashion across centuries and the way women view themselves because of and inspite of it is spot on.