All We Know: Three Lives
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
As the title would indicate, All We Know: Three Lives is a triple biography—dense and cerebral, often reading like a lot of topics in search of a Master’s thesis—which turns out, in fact, to be a good quality. Lisa Cohen has a wide-ranging fascination with the lives of creative women in the 20th century and the way they were thwarted and diverted, and also camp, fandom, the act of formal archiving, Greta Garbo, Ivy Compton-Burnett… there’s a lot here, but it all manages to add up.
The first two of her subjects, Esther Murphy and Mercedes de Acosta, had an air of glamorous failure to them—Murphy was a brilliant critic and wordsmith who never quite managed to congeal her ideas into finished works, and de Acosta was a charismatic collector of lovers, mementos, and half-realized careers. The third, Madge Garland, was a mover and shaker in the fashion world in the early part of the century, helping define British Vogue and becoming the first professor of fashion at England’s Royal College of Art. And while she ran up against her share of obstacles in the form of sexism, homophobia, and the trivialization of fashion as a frivolous pursuit, she maintained in a number of ways the other two didn’t. Garland saw acclaim, a certain amount of vindication, and lived to 94—not coincidentally, she wasn’t much of a drinker, and for a woman coming of age in the 1920s that seemed to have been a great inoculation against a host of evils. But Cohen makes her point anyway; that in the first half of the 20th century there held a certain insidious belief that “women’s successes … [were] either phony or fatal.”
She also looks at the ways in which women of the time—especially those who identified as lesbian, as do all three of her subjects here—were subtly set up to fail, including the self-sabotage of alcoholism, surface worship, overdeveloped expectations, toxic relationships, and misguided romanticism. And that this failure could become as much of a taint as their sexuality; in an age sparkling with bright young things, it was easy to slip from the firmament:
Once the sense of promise is gone, what is left? No more potential, only your certainty—and the troubled conviction of those nearby that this foreclosure is transmissible, their terror of duplicating your failure.
It’s a neat thesis that Cohen does end up producing, though a reader needs to be open throughout to the holistic sense of how three very different women may fit into it. Her interest in the mores and morals of the day is wide-ranging and makes for a tightly-packed but extremely interesting account; not a quick read but eminently worth your while.