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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Was it the times or their sexual preferences?, July 21, 2012
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This review is from: All We Know: Three Lives (Hardcover)
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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