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All We Know: Three Lives
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
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. Her section of the book was the shortest. The longest and most interesting part of the book was devoted to Madge Garland, an early editor of British Vogue and a leading light in the world of fashion in London and Paris from the 1920's through the 1960's. Lisa Cohen really shines when writing about Madge Garland. In fact, the entire book could have easily been devoted to Garland and her life and times and influences. What "influenced" her and what she turned around and "influenced".

All three women were lesbians at a time when being gay was both a curse socially and a hindrance in the job market. All three married for the social cover a married name provided. But all lived their lives fairly openly within their own social group, while being much more circumspect in larger society. Cohen does a pretty good job at choosing the three women's sexual orientation as binding them together as subjects of a joint biography. But, I'd have rather read a book where the first two - Murphy and de Acosta - were less the subject and that most of the biography was devoted to Garland.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on November 14, 2012
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. In cross-referencing her subjects, Cohen quotes Esther Murphy on Acosta, who wrote "that even when she was in her most absurd incarnations ... she was fundamentally an intelligent and subtle woman. But her mind seemed to go in layers like Neapolitan ice, and some of the layers were pretty trashy." Acosta's collections reside in the Rosenbach Museum & Library. She sold them to the Rosenbachs, dedicated collectors themselves, to support herself in her later years. At the conclusion, Cohen observes what Virginia Woolf devoted an entire novelistic spoof to, Orlando: a Biography (Worlds Classics): "Confronting a collection and life like Mercedes de Acosta's ... means being forced to reflect on what we understand to be a biographical fact."

Madge Garland proves to be the most fascinating of the three women and by most people's standards the most accomplished. Yet, like the others, Garland fails to ring a bell with hardly anybody these days. Madge Garland, through her writing, her editing of fashion publications, among them British Vogue, her appearances on radio and early television, by establishing and running London's Royal College of Art fashion program, and by living a life of style, transformed herself into human proselytizer and exemplar of fashion. Perhaps Cohen's most interesting chapter on Garland and in the book is "Notes on Discretion," itself a highly necessary art form given the sexual tenor of the times. As Cohen writes, after delineating Garland's commanding characteristics, "... along with a flamboyant wit she had a profound commitment to discretion, which made her life a complicated dance of concealment and display, honesty and dissimulation. Her professional and personal being was made of her intimacy with and enjoyment of women, and she spoke fearlessly about her appreciation of female beauty ... Yet Madge said little directly about what it meant to work in fashion and to love her own sex." And for many good reasons, as Cohen explains.

All in all, an entertaining and informative trifecta of biography. If these lives intrigue you, explore the life of their British contemporary, author, gardener, wife, mother, and lesbian, Vita Sackville-West. You might begin with Portrait of a Marriage.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 2013
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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
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. We can well visualize these women and the people around them. While Cohen has a view to impart, she avoids preaching. We already know much about the world of the famous in which these women moved. It is a gift to learn about the "fifteen minutes" of women who contributed and then were largely forgotten.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on September 27, 2012
Illuminating the lives of her three subjects, Cohen illuminates the often-problematic human condition--something that a biographer is supposed to do. ALL WE KNOW is not just about the lives of three obscure 20th c. lesbians. It is about questions that we all grapple with, such as, why am I doing what I'm doing--or not doing what I'm not doing?

At the same time, Cohen suggests alternate ways of defining and valuing a life. For instance, Esther Murphy, although she never published as expected of her, never comes across merely as a disappointment in Cohen's book. With Cohen at the helm, Murphy remains a fascinating figure.

Like Mercedes de Acosta, I have become a fan, in my case, a fan of Lisa Cohen.
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on April 21, 2014
All We Know offers a revealing snapshot into the lives of gay women of some financial means in the 20th Century. First section on Esther Murphy and third section on Madge Garland capture the triumphs and challenges of bucking the mainstream and trying to carve a life for oneself that is off the beaten path. Middle section on Mercedes de Acosta suffers from overly intellectual interpretations of her motives and actions. Together the three sections provide a perspective on a previously understudied sub-culture.
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on February 10, 2015
Lisa Cohen has expanded my vocabulary while also writing in a style that is fresh and unique. I have never read any autobiography that effectively places one in the mind and skin of the subjects. The portrait of Mercedes De Acosta was especially personal, and even as haunting as De Acosta's own personality.
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on September 16, 2014
This is a wonderful book. It is very readable and engaged my attention so much I hated to have it end. The 3 women the author profiled are people history should not be allowed to forget.
Buy it, read it and enjoy it!
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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.
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on March 7, 2015
Different
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