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
Esther Murphy (1897 1962) was a talker, but a brilliant one; Mercedes de Acosta (1893 1968), was a "seductress" who saved every scrap of memorabilia; witty aesthete, style icon, and feminist Madge Garland (1898 1990) was an editor at British Vogue. They knew each other well from social circles, and none of them had simple lives. Cohen, a professor at Wesleyan University, fully delineates the conventional biographical matters of ancestry, parents, schooling, marriages, affairs, friendships, breakups, work, and death. Lovers of both sexes, the three mingled at varying depths with the Bloomsbury coterie, the Paris cohort, and the Hollywood crowd, but this well-researched, gossipy, informative, and entertaining biographical triptych is also a thoughtful, three-part inquiry into the meaning of failure, style, and sexual identity. Murphy, whose major claim to our attention is ephemeral reading voraciously and never completing her biography of Madame de Maintenon gets nearly half of the book. De Acosta gets the brief middle, a "fantasia on a theme" that focuses on her collection of personal mementos, while Garland shapes the way British fashion lovers think about couture. All are engaged in making and remaking themselves as the "emergence of women of generation into public life one of the major shifts of the twentieth century." Cohen secures a definitive place for them in the socio-cultural history of the period.