Thursday, September 12, 2013

All We Know: Three Lives, Lisa Cohen

All We Know: Three LivesFor five decades, Esther Murphy built a wall of words around herself. A profusely erudite New York intellectual of the first half of the twentieth century, she talked and talked, dazzling her listeners with her vast memory, her extravagant verbal style, and her inventive renderings of the past - and driving them to despair with her inability to finish the books she was contracted to write, biographies of remarkable women in history.

"A revelatory biography of three glamorous, complex, modern women. Esther Murphy was a brilliant New York intellectual who dazzled friends and strangers with an unstoppable flow of conversation. But she never finished the books she was contracted to write—a painful failure and yet a kind of achievement. The quintessential fan, Mercedes de Acosta had intimate friendships with the legendary actresses and dancers of the twentieth century. Her ephemeral legacy is the thousands of objects she collected to preserve the memory of those performers and to document her own feelings. An icon of haute couture and a fashion editor of British Vogue, Madge Garland held influential views on dress that drew on her feminism, her ideas about modernity, and her love of women. Existing both vividly and invisibly at the center of culture, she—like Murphy and de Acosta—is now almost completely forgotten. In All We Know, Lisa Cohen describes these women’s glamorous choices, complicated failures, and controversial personal lives with lyricism and empathy. At once a series of intimate portraits and a startling investigation into style, celebrity, sexuality, and the genre of biography itself, All We Know explores a hidden history of modernism and pays tribute to three compelling lives."

Although kind of interesting, All We Know wasn't ultimately the best biography/historical expose that I've read in a while, and I didn't read the whole thing. All We Know, The Girl Who Loved Camellias, and Eighty Days all deal with influential but almost forgotten women of different historical periods. And I think I liked them in reverse order of the way they're listed. Nevertheless, the part of All We Know that I read was okay, and the way that Cohen chose to format the biography was well done. 

Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland were very different women, but they were connected in so many ways; for one, they all knew one another, even though they traveled in varied circles. Each woman has a unique story, and each is wholly forgotten in the 21st century. They aren't really, really important, but each of them hobnobbed with some pretty famous people, and Esther herself was well known at the time for her knowledge and fondness of talking. 

An annoying thing is that the plot summary provided by the publisher doesn't actually mention one of the key points of the book: that all three women were lesbian. And that is really, really important to the world that the book portrays, and to the lives that it attempts to illuminate. This was a time when homosexuality was feared, reviled, shunned, and sometimes illegal, and all three of these compelling women were struggling with that in their different ways. Yes, there's Madge Garland's "love of women", but that could mean anything, really; it's not clear at all. Still, I suppose it can be inferred, but it should have been made a bit clearer. 

Esther was incredibly intelligent, full of knowledge and constantly testing authority. She was first enrolled at a Catholic school, but left after she challenged the nuns with the paradox of the stone, about God's omnipotence. See what I mean? 

The writing, however, was really dense, and I didn't end up finishing the book. I'll come back to it later, and perhaps enjoy it more. Still, it was one of the New York Times's 100 Best Books of 2012, so I'm definitely going to hang onto it for another time, trusting that it's somewhat worthwhile. I also have a signed copy, so...

358 pages. 


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