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All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen
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All We Know: Three Lives

by Lisa Cohen

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Joy's review: How Cohen took the lives of these three VERY interesting women and made such a boring, hard-to-follow book is beyond me. There are sentences in this thing that I read three times and still had no idea what she was trying to say. This is the kind of book that people picture when they think non-fiction is difficult to read. The only reason I finished it was that I really felt these women deserved better than Cohen gave them. AWFUL! ( )
  konastories | Jan 20, 2014 |
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. ( )
  lisapeet | Mar 23, 2013 |
In Lisa Cohen’s unusual biography, three relatively unknown women circumnavigate the expanding sphere of female cultural experience in the early 20th century. They were not forgotten because of some miscarriage of justice, but because their legacies are so slight that the extent of their cultural influence in their own lifetimes comes as something of a shock.

Esther Murphy was a brilliant autodidact and gifted talker whose glamorous and talented friends were bewildered by her inability to commit her ideas to paper. Mercedes de Acosta’s genius was not for thinking, but for seducing and worshipping countless luminaries of stage and screen, among them Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Josephine Baker. Madge Garland was a pioneering figure in the ephemeral world of English fashion, merging what was once considered a frivolous industry with modern art.

All three of these forgotten tastemakers were part of each other’s wide social circles. They were all married to men (twice, in the cases of Murphy and Garland), but their primary sexual and romantic attachments were with women. While they were insiders in their own artistic circles, they walked (and sometimes crossed) the fine line between nervous discretion and iconoclasm. Cohen’s tremendously readable book is gossipy and smart, making meaning (and a legacy) out of forgotten lives. ( )
  circumspice | Nov 2, 2012 |
I'm listing this book as one of the five best biographies of 2012. Quite aside from the fascinating narrative about three women I was barely aware of, I found the treatment of biography, and Esther Murphy's penetrating study of the genre, fascinating. Of course I am a practicing biographer, so the book holds a special interest. One of the women, Madge Garland, I encountered when researching my biography of Rebecca West, but to see Garland become a major character was thrilling. This book first caught my idea with the mention of Mercedes de Acosta. I had just read a letter of hers to Amy Lowell (my current biographical subject), and wondered who de Acosta was. Now I know! I'm grateful to Amana Vaill, a Goodreads members, for recommending this book. ( )
  carl.rollyson | Oct 31, 2012 |
Lisa Cohen's All We Know presents a triple biography covering Esther Murphy (conversationalist and "perfect failure"), Mercedes de Acosta (seductress and collector of fan-based fantasy), and Madge Garland (fashion editor and "discreet" rebel). All of the women share a healthy dose of lesbianism and a curious obscurity owing to the fact that their legacies are ephemeral at best. All of the women could easily be lost as footnoted friendships to the more famous--Aldous Huxley, Greta Garbo, and Virginia Woolf, just to name a few, all dance across the pages of this book as well. In a sense, all of the women were performance artists whose art can only be approximated, just as a statue of a dancer can only suggest the dance itself. But there is a legacy there to be sure. Cohen strikes a perfect balance between the facts of her subjects' biographical developments and her own interpretations of their often paradoxical and fascinating ways of being. Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote mambo_taxi | Aug 11, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374176493, Hardcover)

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 lies in the thousands of objects she collected to preserve the memory of those performers and to honor the feelings they inspired.

An icon of haute couture and a fashion editor of British Vogue, Madge Garland held bracing 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 cultural life, 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.

All We Know is one of Publishers Weekly's Top 10 Best Books of 2012

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:19:21 -0400)

Chronicles the lives of New York intellectual Esther Murphy, celebrity ephemera collector Mercedes de Acosta, and British Vogue editor Madge Garland and their lifestyles, influence on fashion, and celebrity friendships.

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